Paul Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, an 18th-century advocate of atheism.
It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it. (from Albert Einstein, the Human Side: New Glimpses from His Archives, page 43.)
My article, “Religion’s Smart People Problem,” appeared in Salon yesterday. As of today, it is still the most read piece, generating more than 2000 comments and over 66,000 Facebook shares. Here are a few additional points about the topic.
I do think that religion has a smart-people problem, as the religious themselves sometimes sense. Often I have heard defensive believers say things like: “Well, Einstein believed in God,” or “Darwin converted on his deathbed.” One problem is that both of these claims are false. Einstein’s religious views have been studied in detail and he was a pantheist or agnostic. The Darwin deathbed conversion story is an urban Christian legend discredited even on creationist websites. Although Darwin had originally studied for the clergy, he was an agnostic or quiet atheist by the end of his life.
The other problem is that appeals by believers to the beliefs of scientific luminaries seem desperate. It’s as if they’re saying: “Maybe I can’t give reasons for my beliefs, but some smart people also believe them so my beliefs can’t be stupid.” But if your beliefs are true, what difference does it make whether Einstein or Darwin believes them? If you are confident of your beliefs, why invoke the name of some great scientists? You likely invoke them to give legitimacy to beliefs that you worry may be indefensible. But a proposition is true or false independent of what anyone believes. Apollo is either real or he is not.
As I said in my Salon piece, there are smart, educated people who have religious beliefs. Yet it is a fact that such belief decreases with education.1 This fact doesn’t make your religious beliefs false, but it should cause you to wonder what would happen to your beliefs if you had a better scientific or philosophical education. Your beliefs might remain unchanged, but the evidence suggests otherwise. That is why religious indoctrination tries to shield the faithful from contrary ideas.
The issue is similar if you consider your place of birth. If you were born in the United States you are probably not a Muslim, if you were born in Iran there is a good chance you are. If you were born in India you are probably not a Christian, if you were born in the United States there is a good chance you are. You might believe that your religious beliefs would be the same had you been born somewhere else, but the evidence suggests otherwise.
This indicates that you have been conditioned to hold religious beliefs by, among other things, your education and place of birth. Once conditioned you hold onto those beliefs with tenacity because, as the American philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce said:
Doubt is an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves and pass into the state of belief; while the latter is a calm and satisfactory state which we do not wish to avoid, or to change to a belief in anything else.
Why Do You Want To Take My Religion Away?
The best defense of religious beliefs and practices is that life is tough and people find religion soothing. I didn’t try to talk my now deceased 86 year-old mother out of her religious beliefs. For one thing, it would have been pointless—she believed that her lighting a candle caused me to get my first academic job! Another reason was that it helped her cope—it was her drug of choice. If religion soothes, if it makes people’s lives go better or helps them treat others better, fine.
But religious beliefs come at a cost. These includes: inquisitions, intolerance, religious wars, human sacrifice, collaboration with despotic regimes, persecution of homosexuals, pedophile priests and countless examples of religious cruelty throughout recorded history. As Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Moreover, religious institutions are often anti-democratic, anti-progressive, misogynistic, medieval and authoritarian. Religion also leads to guilt, shame, and fear.
This doesn’t mean that religion is the worst thing in the world—some good has come from religious beliefs. But evolutionary biology implanted religious, tribalistic, aggressive and other tendencies within our brains that need to be abandoned. Human beings need to take control of their destiny. They need to become the protagonists of cosmic evolution. We need to make a better world. No one has more eloquently expressed these hopes than one of our greatest living scientists, E. O. Wilson:
The true Promethean spirit of science means to liberate man by giving him knowledge and some measure of dominion over the physical environment. But at another level, and in a new age, it also constructs the mythology of scientific materialism, guided by the corrective devices of the scientific method, addressed with precise and deliberately affective appeal to the deepest needs of human nature, and kept strong by the blind hopes that the journey on which we are now embarked will be farther and better than the one just completed.
- In a 2008 study, researchers found intelligence to be negatively related to religious belief in Europe and the United States. In a sample of 137 countries, the correlation between national IQ and disbelief in God was found to be 0.60. In a 2017 study, it was shown that compared to religious individuals, atheists have higher reasoning capacities and this difference seemed to be unrelated to sociodemographic factors such as age, education, and country of origin.
2. Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979) 209.