January 15, 2015

Does religion really have a "smart-people problem"?

By Very Rev. Robert Barron

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.

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% 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.

Since I have developed these arguments many times before in other forums, let me say just a few things in regard to the scientists. 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,” a gap within the ordinary nexus of causal relations, etc. 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% of whom apparently don’t believe in God? Wouldn’t they be conversant with the most serious and sophisticated 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 and often prove ham-handed when dealing with the issue of God. 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, often little more than the batting down of a straw-man. A fine example of this is Bertrand Russell’s deeply uninformed dismissal of Thomas Aquinas’s demonstration of the impossibility of an infinite regress of conditioned causes.

But more to it, 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. To see how quickly this transformation can happen, take a good look at the philosophy department at many of the leading Catholic universities: what were, in the 1950’s 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: no one studies the scientific theories of Ptolemy or Descartes today, except out of historical interest. 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 twentieth century. I for one think that philosophy, so marked today by nihilism and postmodern relativism, is passing through a particularly corrupt period. Why should we think, therefore, that the denizens of philosophy department lounges today are necessarily more correct than Alfred North Whitehead, Edmund Husserl, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jacques Maritain, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jean-Luc Marion, all of whom were well-acquainted with modern science, rigorously trained in philosophy and affirmed the existence of God?

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 of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.


  1. Who says that atheists are brighter than the rest of us? Why, they do, of course. And they're the experts!

  2. Well said!

    Of course, any student of philosophy would recognize "Most experts think this so it must be true" and "I'm smarter than you, therefore I'm right" as examples of the rhetorical fallacy "appealing to authority."

  3. The sum total of geniuses who believe in God far exceeds the sum total of geniuses who are atheists. Atheists only look at percentages.

  4. Fr. Barron,

    While I agree with you that pointing to professional philosophers and philosophy is no evidence for atheism or should give us pause, I don't agree with your reasons. In particular, you characterization of the professional field is inaccurate and misleading.

    First, the claim that atheism is a litmus test, or even used as some sort of criterion for evaluating a candidate for academic job in philosophy is purely speculative. I might that there are good reasons to think it is false. Having attend several graduate U.S. programs in philosophy, I know for a fact that it is illegal for a search committee even to inquire about the religious beliefs of a job candidate. Moreover, most professional philosophers are theological relativists; they don't generally care about the religious beliefs of their colleagues unless their colleagues try to evangelize to them. Of course I speak for every philosophy in the country, but I think these two reasons cast considerable doubt on your claim.

    Second, no professional philosopher (include Dennett) would recognize your characterization of the field as believing that newer is better. I personally would say your characterization is extremely idiosyncratic and reveals no acquaintance whatsoever with the field as a whole. Some professional philosophers probably do believe that newer philosophers are better than older ones, but there are many problems with that. Every philosophy teaches the classic figure (they all have specialists in classic figure such as Plato, Aristotle and Kant). If your characterization of the field were correct, then no departments or few departments would even bother to teach classic figures. Instead I would suggest that the contrast between newer and older should be understand as one between newer problems and older problems. If a professional philosopher (or an entire department) emphasizes modern figures such as Descartes and Kant over older figures such as Plato and Aristotle, it isn't because they think Descartes and Kant are better than Plato and Aristotle; it is because they are more interested in the problems Descartes and Kant address than they are in the sorts of problems Plato and Aristotle focus on. In the cases where, for example, Plato and Aristotle address the same problems later philosophers address, you will find that no professional philosophers dismiss Plato's and Aristotle's contribution in deference to later thinkers simply because such thinkers are more recent. If a professional philosopher at a conference were to be so dismissive, he or she would hear no end of protest.

    Finally, let me say that your remark that philosophy subscribes to some form of nihilism and relativism describes one strand of the field which should not be used to judge the entire discipline. One result of same survey that Professor Messerly cited revealed that the vast majority of professional philosophers are moral realists, meaning that they believe that there is an absolute objective moral standard despite the overwhelming majority adhering to atheism. The same survey also showed that professional philosophers are generally divided about what that moral standard is, but my point is nevertheless the same: professional philosophers typically are NOT nihilists and do NOT accept any kind of postmodern relativism. Some do, but they do not represent the field as a whole.

    I am a devoted Catholic, but your complete mischaracterization of my field distresses me greatly.

  5. If we really want to convince smart people that they should/could be theists, we need to stop holding off on the intellectual arguments until after they accept the other arguments. It does no good to tell people that there are intellectual arguments if those arguments are treated as so unimportant that they aren't actually taught to catechumens.

  6. No, that's not what people mean when they speak of 'God'. Cut it out

  7. No need to despise those with whom we disagree or haven't heard the Good News. Our Lord and his Apostles were not Greeks, so it doesn't surprise me the modern Greeks tend toward skepticism or disbelief. For a Catholic, it may be disconcerting that many philosophers are atheists or skeptics. But it is hardly surprising that knowledge can develop outside of Faith and at times in apparent contradiction with the Good News. It is the Church's role, especially her leaders like Robert Barron, to unceasingly and patiently remind us and others how the apparent contradictions between the Gospel and reason are illusions or exaggerations.

  8. I reject the entire concept that they are smart people. Arrogant, oh yes, very much so. They simply RATIONALIZE that there is no God because they love their sins in most cases. It is perfectly obvious that there is a God. I think these people often have solid intelligence in the area of logic, but are often complete morons in every other way - socially, creatively, etc. and their arrogance and subconscious will to reject God causes them to get stuck in their ignorance. As philosopher Herbert Spencer says, "There is a principle which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance. That principle is contempt prior to investigation."

    I can go into hysteric laughter at times with their silly theories of a multiverse, which is just as untestable as God, and does nothing to remove the problem of how the universe(s) got here in the first place, except now they have to explain millions of universes instead of just one.

    I do give them credit for one thing. With their ability to accept atheism, they have more faith than I could ever have.

  9. As Chesterton says, "If there wasn't a God, there wouldn't be atheists."