Why Sunday Assembly? – Matthew Kovich

Posted by on Mar 2, 2015 in Uncategorized | No Comments

Since it’s founding, Sunday Assembly Chicago has replaced the traditional “… is doing their best” segment of the Sunday Assembly program with a segment called “Why Sunday Assembly?”. It’s an opportunity for someone in the congregation to tell their story, make a case for Sunday Assembly, or even get on their soap box for a few minutes. Many people do all three. At our last assembly, (February 22) Matthew Kovich gave his “Why Sunday Assembly?”. We received a request for the full text of what he said, and we thought that you might like an opportunity to read what he had to say…

Matthew Kovich, giving his "Why Sunday Assembly?"

Matthew Kovich, giving his “Why Sunday Assembly?”

Since I’m new to Sunday Assembly, I feel like I should introduce myself before getting started. Hello everyone.  My name is Matt Kovich, and I was a Catholic.  I have a beautiful wife who I met because she beat me at a poetry contest, I have a beautiful cat who is the love of my life – sorry honey – I studied philosophy, education, and music at college – where I sang in the choirs with Ben. (Sunday Assembly producer) I’m licensed by the state as an specialist in the education of Gifted and Talented children, and I teach primary school music in a district with above average class sizes, a majority of English Language Learners, 96% people of color, and with 93% of our kiddos in families receiving public aid, living in substitute care, or eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches.  I’ve been a labor Union leader.  When I’m thirsty, I prefer Belgian Tripels, and I’m a Gemini.

That last one was a joke.  But enough about me, let’s talk about us.

A recent meta-analysis of 63 studies – including the oldest and longest running longitudinal study in the world – showed a significant negative association between intelligence and religiosity.  This was true even controlling for college education – though the association was stronger for college students and college graduates.

The study by Zuckerman, Silberman, and Hall was published in Personality and Social Psychology Review on August 6th, 2013.  I’ll send the link to Jen Zalisko, in case anyone wants to read the whole thing.

Now, to be clear, there are many different types of gifts and talents.  This moist computer up here [points to brain] is probably the fanciest thing on this planet, and it doesn’t come with only one setting.  The researchers defined intelligence with its most common usage in psychological research: the “ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience” (p. 13). This definition of intelligence, one’s “general intelligence”, is often referred to as analytic intelligence or the “g factor” —the first factor that emerges in factor analyses of IQ subtests.

Point is, study after study demonstrates: religious believers tend to be less intelligent than nonbelievers.

Now I know what you’re thinking:  “Tell me something I don’t know!  I’m also devastatingly attractive!  And I have great taste in music!”

But it’s not as simple as the Slate’s and HuffPo’s of the world reported it to be.  Most popular explanations of this share one central theme—the premise that religious beliefs are irrational, not anchored in science, not testable and, therefore, unappealing to intelligent people who “know better.”

Though that might contribute, it’s demeaning to intelligent religious folk. And there seems to be more to it.

The research *does* show that intelligent people *do* tend against conformity – They’re less likely to readily conform to cultural norms and traditions, and are therefore more likely to resist religious dogma. Likewise, data shows that intelligent people tend to adopt an analytic (as opposed to intuitive) thinking style, which has been shown to undermine religious beliefs.

But my focus is on the third factor the researchers identified: several functions of religious belief and association, including compensatory control, self-regulation, self-enhancement, and secure attachment, are also conferred by high intelligence. Intelligent people may therefore have less need for religious beliefs and practices – they already have much of what religion has to offer.

– People who feel like their lives are outside of their personal control can take comfort in religion. They can compensate to gain a sense of personal control by empowering themselves directly through their personal relationships with gods.

– Higher intelligence is strongly correlated with a higher sense of personal control.  Relatedly, it is also positively correlated with greater self-efficacy – the belief in one’s own ability to achieve valued goals.

So, people with higher intelligence most likely already *have* healthy personal control beliefs and self-efficacy, then they may have less need for the sense of control offered by religion.

– Religiosity also promotes self-regulation, which is to say self-control and ability to delay gratification.  Intelligence has been shown to do the same thing.

– Sincere religious belief is also positively correlated with feelings of self-worth.  This seems to be because it allows for the very act of sincerely believing to be a measure of one’s self worth, as well as the elevated status that believers can derive from personal relationship with God.

You know, the sort of feeling which inspired William Fuller to write:

Lord, what is man, lost man,

That Thou should’st be so mindful of him?

That the Son of God forsook his glory, His abode,

To become a poor, tormented man!


The Deity was shrunk into a span,

And that for me, O wound’rous love, for me.

The way the Son of God took to renew lost man,

Your vacant places to supply;


Blest spirits tell,

Which did excel,

Which was more prevalent,


Your joy or your astonishment,

That man should be assum’d into the Deity,

That for a worm a God should die.


Yeah, right?  Feelin’ pretty good about yourself after you think those thoughts.  It increases your sense of self-worth.  Like when the cool kids picked you for dodgeball that one time even though you’re chubby and bad at sports.  Ok, maybe that was just me.

Now, you guessed it, the researchers found that intelligence is *also* strongly correlated with sense of self-worth.

– Furthermore, and most important here, religiosity correlates with attachment.  This seems to be for many reasons – increased marriage rates among the religious, a community to associate with on a regular basis, and even the ability to turn to the unconditional personal love of a god in lieu of a human to be attached to (this is known as the compensation model, or as I like to call it, the cat lady model).

As has been the theme, intelligence seems to also do the job here – resulting in higher marriage rates and lower divorce rates (though intelligent folk tend to get married later in life than the average).  Therefore intelligent folk may have less of a need to seek religion as a refuge from loneliness.

         So it seems that much or most of why the nonreligious are, on average, more intelligent than the religious isn’t just because they’re simply (floating quotes) “too smart” for it, or some similar nonsense.  It’s because religious belief provides *so many great benefits*– and life is hard, so people need these benefits.

This can extend to the more external fringe benefits of religious belief as well.  Intelligence is also positively correlated with annual income.  Statistically, a person of high intelligence is more likely to have the financial resources to support themselves and their families.

I was inspired by our last speaker, Mrs. Kimberly Veal.  As she pointed out – in many communities, participation in religious organizations provides vital social services and economic support.  Whether it be food assistance, help in signing up for government programs, or countless other things – churches are a lifeline.  Particularly in low-income neighborhoods as – Kimberly pointed out, neighborhoods predominantly populated by people of color – places where your “g-score” rarely matters all that much because, no matter how bright you are, your chances of economic success are devastatingly low because of the cycle of poverty and the accident of birth.  Research shows that giftedness knows no race, gender, or socioeconomic status.  Giftedness is found all around – but so many people do not get the chance to develop their gifts.

As Dr. James J. Gallagher reported to Congress decades ago: “Failure to help the gifted child is a societal tragedy, the extent of which is difficult to measure but which is surely great. How can we measure the sonata unwritten, the curative drug undiscovered, the absence of political insight? They are the difference between what we *are* and what we *could be* as a society.”

But I digress. Countless brilliant people will never have a chance at realizing their potential and flourishing – let alone developing an honest and open nonbelief – simply because they cannot afford it.  We would do well to remember that.  And we need to do something about it.

Now, the fact that you’re here suggests to me that you think that nonbelief is at least a somewhat preferable stance to religiosity.  Or else you’d probably be somewhere dunking a baby in water on a Sunday morning.  Whether you’re an ardent anti-theist or an incidental agnostic, it’s safe to assume you believe in the benefits of nonbelief for self and society going forward.

So, the way I see it, there is one major takeaway from that huge metastudy: We should not be smug about the nonreligious being more intelligent, on average, than the religious.  We should be concerned.

Religion will continue to dominate our public life and our demographics – and irreligion stands no chance at equality – if 50 years down the line, intelligence is still so strongly correlated with nonbelief.  Or if nonbelief is still so strongly correlated with race, or any other demographic division.  We need to make non-belief equal-opportunity. We can’t just be happy with coincidental atheism.  We can’t just pick up the folk who were lucky enough, usually through the accident of birth, to not need the many fantastic benefits of religious belief and religious association.  We cannot continue to be both ivory towered and ivory skinned.  We need to make nonbelief accessible to everyone.

And – that – is “Why Sunday Assembly?”

This idea, this group of people – you!  And me! – are the seeds of religion’s replacement.  Or – at the very least – of its equal partner.  To provide services and emotional support traditionally provided by religious organizations.  Frankly, I think – given the resources – we can do an even better job.  But, brothers and sisters, It will not be an easy build.  Houses of Worship and congregations have had a 395 year head start on this continent – and they’ve already taken up property on every street corner.  They’ve even arranged to not pay taxes on that land.  It’ll be an uphill trudge.  To borrow some imagery from two great works of fictional literature: our movement is like Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill… but with Goliath pushing down against him.

But I can smell the tide turning, and the responsibility falls on us.  It falls on us to provide social services to all people in need.  To provide safe spaces. To work to close opportunity gaps.  To come out and speak out.  To fight the legal battles. To educate.  To sing drinking songs and eat chili with increasingly larger groups.

To build our communities person by person, act by act, brick by brick, Assembly by Assembly until there are enough of us that the American people know we are there for them, regardless of race, creed, sexual orientation, gender identity, or any other social constructed barrier to our unified humanity.  To let the international community know we are there for them to offer a helping hand without wasting money to put a tract or Bible in the other.

To build a nation-wide – an international! – community to nourish the emotional health of nonbelievers, and to support the health and security of all people.

“Why Sunday Assembly?”  So we can make a difference.  For ourselves, and for our communities.  This is our start; this is our beginning.  Let’s keep moving forward.

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