Atheism as Intellectual Snobbery?

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, March 24, 2015. )

Just a few brief remarks about Emma Green’s recent piece in the Atlantic, “The False Equation of Atheism and Intellectual Sophistication.” Green says: “Theirs [atheists] is a subtle assertion: Believers aren’t educated or thoughtful enough to debunk God, and if they only knew more, rational evidence would surely offset faith.”

Reply: The fact is that religious belief declines with educational attainment, particularly with scientific education.1 Studies also show that religious belief declines among those with higher IQs.2 Stephen Hawking, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins are not outliers, and neither are Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. Surveys of scientists as a whole show religious belief among them to be small compared to the general populace, and surveys of the members of the national academy of sciences, comprised of some of the most prestigious scientists in the world, show that religious belief among them is practically non-existent.3 The most recent and comprehensive study of professional philosophers shows that less that 15% are theists.4

This does not show that theism is false, but the correlation between education, particularly scientific education, and the lack of religious belief is strong.

Green says: “And this is where the intellectual snobbery comes in … [they believe that] Because intellectual history trends toward non-belief, human history must, too.”

Reply: Human history is trending toward non-belief, at least in Western civilization in the last few hundred years. The decline of the influence of religion in Western culture since the 17th century is one of the most significant changes in history. And the trend will continue in the long run. Are we really to imagine that in 1,000 years or 10,000 years our technologically-modified descendants will believe in gods? That in Yahweh or Allah they will find their answers? This belief strains credulity. (For more see my recent post: “Transhumanism and the End of Religion.”)

And why is disbelief in ascendance? Adam Gopnik summarized it succinctly in his recent New Yorker piece:

What the noes, whatever their numbers, really have now … is a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world. They have this monopoly for the same reason that computer manufacturers have an edge over crystal-ball makers: The advantages of having an actual explanation of things and processes are self-evident.

The only caveat to offer is that the cosmos mysterious, so we all should be fallibilists. Thus I do agree with Green in one respect—since none of us can be completely certain of what’s true there is no need for snobbery.  ____________________________________________________________________





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