A ‘smart people’ problem? Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015 -- 12:00 AM

Daniel Dennett, one of the "four horsemen" of contemporary atheism, proposed in 2003 that those who espouse a naturalist, atheist worldview should call themselves "the brights," thereby distinguishing themselves rather clearly from the dim benighted masses who hold on to supernaturalist convictions.

In the wake of Dennett's suggestion, many atheists have brought forward what they take to be evidence that the smartest people in society do subscribe to anti-theist views. By "smartest" they usually mean practitioners of the physical sciences, and they point to surveys that indicate only small percentages of scientists subscribe to religious belief.

Lack of belief

In a recent article published in the online journal Salon, titled "Religion's Smart-People Problem," University of Seattle philosophy professor John Messerly reiterates this case. However, he references, not simply the lack of belief among the scientists, but also the atheism among academic philosophers.

He cites a recent survey that shows only 14 percent of such professors admitting to theistic convictions, and he states that this unbelief among the learned elite, though not in itself a clinching argument for atheism, should at the very least give religious people pause.

Well, I'm sorry Professor Messerly, but please consider me unpaused.

Understanding of God

I have found that, in practically every instance, scientists who declare their disbelief in God have no idea what serious religious people mean by "God."

Almost without exception, they think of God as some supreme worldly nature, an item within the universe for which they have found no "evidence." I would deny such a reality as vigorously as they do. If that's what they mean by "God," then I'm as much an atheist as they -- and so was Thomas Aquinas.

What reflective religious people mean when they speak of God is not something within the universe, but rather the condition for the possibility of the universe as such, the non-contingent ground of contingency. The sciences, strictly speaking, have nothing to say one way or another, for the consideration of such a state of affairs is beyond the limits of the scientific method.

Philosophers and religion

What about the philosophers, 86 percent of whom apparently don’t believe in God? Wouldn’t they be conversant with the most serious accounts of God?

Well, you might be surprised. Many academic philosophers, trained in highly specialized corners of the field, actually have little acquaintance with the fine points of philosophy of religion.

We hear that the traditional arguments for God’s existence have been "demolished" or "refuted," but when these supposed refutations are brought forward, they prove remarkably weak.

An example is Bertrand Russell's uninformed dismissal of Aquinas' demonstration of the impossibility of an infinite regress of conditioned causes.

Academic politics

The percentage of atheists in the professional philosophical caste has at least as much to do with academic politics as it does with the formulation of convincing arguments.

If one wants to transform a department of philosophy from largely theist to largely atheist, all one has to do is to make sure that the chairman of the department and a small coterie of the professoriat are atheist. That critical mass will control hiring, firing, and granting of tenure within the department.

Students with theistic interests will be discouraged from writing dissertations. In time, a new generation, shaped by atheist assumptions, will come of age.

Newer is better?

Another serious problem with trumpeting the current statistics on the beliefs of philosophers is that such a move is based on the assumption that, in regard to philosophy, newer is better. One could make that argument in regard to the sciences, which do seem to progress in a steadily upward direction.

But philosophy is a horse of a different color. Does anyone think that the philosophical views of Michel Foucault are necessarily better than those of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, or Hegel, just because Foucault is more contemporary?

I despise the arrogance of Dennett and his atheist followers who wrap themselves in the mantle of "brightness." But I also despise the use of statistics to prove any point about philosophical or religious matters. I prefer that we return to argument.


Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. Learn more at www.WordOnFire.org