Browsing The Northern Cross

Father Robert Barron: Does religion really have a 'smart-people problem'?

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 ample evidence that the smartest people in our society do indeed subscribe to anti-theist views. By "smartest" they usually mean practitioners of the physical sciences, and thus they point to surveys that indicate only small percentages of scientists subscribe to religious belief.

Father Robert Barron

Father Robert Barron
Word on Fire

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, or as he puts it, "professional 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.

I have found that, in practically every instance, the scientists who declare their disbelief in God have no idea what serious religious people mean by the word "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. And about that reality, 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. And so when statistics concerning the lack of belief among scientists are trotted out, my response, honestly, is "who cares?"

But what about the philosophers, 86 percent of whom apparently don't believe in God?

Weak arguments

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, time and again, the breezy claim that the traditional arguments for God's existence have been "demolished" or "refuted," but when these supposed refutations are brought forward, they prove, I have found, remarkably weak.

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 even a small coterie of the professoriat are atheist. In rather short order, that critical mass will control hiring, firing and the granting of tenure within the department.

Once atheists have come to dominate the department, only atheist faculty will be hired, and students with theistic interests will be sharply discouraged from writing dissertations defending the religious point of view. In time, very few doctorates supporting theism will be produced, and a new generation, shaped by thoroughly atheist assumptions, will come of age.

Take a good look at the philosophy department at many of the leading Catholic universities: what were, in the 1950s, overwhelmingly theistic professoriats are today largely atheist. Does anyone really think that this happened because lots of clever new arguments were discovered?

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, more akin to poetry. Does anyone think that the philosophical views of, say, Michel Foucault, are necessarily better than those of Plato, Aristotle, Kant or Hegel, just because Foucault is more contemporary? It would be like saying the verse of Robert Frost is necessarily superior to that of Dante or Shakespeare, just because Frost wrote in the 20th century.

I despise the arrogance of Dennett and his atheist followers who would blithely 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 would much prefer that we return to argument.

Father Robert Barron is the founder "Word on Fire" and the rector and president of Mundelein Seminary.