On the general intelligence of folks

24 Aug

Once upon a time, on some discussion website, I saw a commenter’s signature that included this gem:

Consider how dumb the average person is. And now consider that half of the people are dumber than that.

Now, in all honesty, I find this quite funny; I also recognize that it’s supposed to be funny, and that it’s not intended to be subjected to analysis. But analysis is what I do, so let’s consider why it’s funny.

It seems to me that this quip works only because of the Lake Wobegon effect: many people tend to think that “most folks” (a category from which we exclude ourselves, naturally) ain’t too bright.

Making a quick application, it seems to me that this (mis)perception diminishes expectations for our congregations. I have heard, on many occasions, that some hymn or teaching or book or whatnot ought not be thrust upon a congregation, because, after all, “Most people just wouldn’t get it.” Our helpful advisor nearly always exempts himself from great unlearned hoard; he would understand, of course, but they wouldn’t.

I’m certainly not prepared to base an entire philosophy of ministry on this observation: I’m merely contending that too many ministries have built their philosophies of ministry on the assumption that average people are below average.


Posted by on August 24, 2010 in Society


4 responses to “On the general intelligence of folks

  1. T. J. Klapperich

    August 24, 2010 at 10:33 pm

    Interestingly the view that the average Christian is not smart enough for theology is exactly the problem with Medieval Roman Catholicism. It was that mindset that withheld the Scriptures from people and that viewed Luther and the Reformers as dangerous.

  2. Frank Sansone

    August 25, 2010 at 12:33 pm


    A couple of thoughts came to mind on this.

    1. Knowing the pride that is in man’s heart, it may not be an “assumption that average people are below average” as much as it is an assumption that “I” am above average. In other words, there is a tendency to think “I can understand this and you can understand this, but the average person can’t – because we are above average.”

    2. Depending on the context, the assumption of #1 may be legitimate – in this sense. If you and the one you are dealing with have studied in an area and the typical person has not, there may be legitimate reasons to believe that you and your friend would be more likely to understand it than the “average” person. For instance, one of my college age friends recently finished his college degree in chemistry. Even though I was in the 99th percentile in both my ACTs and GREs, he recently showed me some pages in a grad level chemistry book that he and his classmates could understand that looked much worse to me than Greek (after all, Greek is not that hard).

    Just my thoughts, I hope you understand what I am saying :)


  3. DBailey

    September 1, 2010 at 7:26 pm

    That is a very interesting post.

    This is one of the most important topics when teaching/preaching to a congregation.

    This is a typical reflection: “Will these people understand this concept?”

    How about words like propitiation, imputation (of Adam’s guilt and Christ righteousness), expiation, regeneration (illumination, et al.), justification, sanctification, glorification?

    The congregation I serve is primarily “blue collar” economically and most have not even a Bachelor degree. They can get concepts if they are explained well (even abstract concepts).

    I think using cryptic words without denotation leads to confusion. This happens all the time in argumentation. In epistemology we have words like justification (both doxastic and propositional). Some wouldn’t know what doxastic justification is simply because they don’t understand the way I am using it. In metaphysics these is the mereological sum, etc.

    I would agree with you Mike.
    If we explain ourselves there is greater hope for people to understand :)

  4. Bobby Oswald

    October 18, 2010 at 7:49 pm

    I love the irony in your last statement. There is my shallow observation for the day.

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