“The more scientifically literate, intellectually honest, and objectively sceptical a person is, the more likely they are to disbelieve in anything supernatural, including god.”
So begins a video compilation sent by a friend yesterday, assembled by British medical doctor Jonathan Pararajasingham, and consisting of clips of 50 academics talking about their views on God, religion, and the afterlife. One suspects, from the quote at the outset, that there will be little diversity of opinion forthcoming and—34 minutes or so later—this suspicion is certainly validated. The smart people have unanimously spoken: Religion is for the weak and the uninformed. God is a myth. This world is all there is. Get used to it.
There are a number of things that could be said about this compilation of interviews, quotes, etc. One wonders, for example, why 49 out of the 50 scientists deemed most qualified to talk about the nonexistence of God are men and why most, if not all, are white. One also wonders how it is possible that not a single person could be summoned to provide a counter-example—surely the odd academic (possibly even a scientist!) who believes in God might be found somewhere. But perhaps these questions are beside the point and best left aside. The video was clearly made to advance a very specific view, namely, that smart people—or at least the smartest people—are atheists.
Many issues were touched on in this video, but there was one in particular that I was struck by. Throughout the video, the claim was repeatedly made that there was no evidence for the existence of God or gods and that we should, for this reason, reject this belief. We must restrict ourselves to what can be observed and demonstrated through rational proof, and an immaterial being or reality clearly does not meet these criteria. Martinus Veltman (a Nobel Laureate in Physics), for example, had this to say: “I am interested in things that you can observe or predict, and the rest… you can have it.” Makes sense, on one level. Scientists deal with the material world you can touch and see and manipulate and predict. Why bother with the rest?
Yet, as I watched each of these thinkers pronounce upon the preposterousness of religion and belief in God, and the importance of proof, evidence, and reason, I couldn’t help but notice the deep commitment to truth on display. Again and again, some version of the idea that it was immoral or impermissible to believe what wasn’t true came through. This wasn’t the case for all 50 of them in the same way, mind you, but in many of the quotes and fragments of interviews, this theme came through. The pursuit of truth and a willingness to follow where the facts lead, was seen to be normative by nearly everyone in the video compilation.
The problem is, truth as a normative principle, cannot be discovered through observation of the natural world. It’s not as though we can simply analyze and describe material reality and come up with the idea that human beings ought to believe and behave according to what is true about the world. One thinker in the film chastised religion for having “no contact with physical reality.” But what contact does truth as a normative principle have with physical reality? What experiments have been/could be conducted to prove that human beings should always and only believe true propositions? Indeed, from a strictly materialistic perspective, if it is advantageous to believe in propositions that are false, why not encourage such beliefs? Where is the physical evidence that human beings ought to arrange their lives according to what is true?
Of course, I am not advocating the embrace of falsehood nor am I downplaying the importance of truth. I happen to be deeply committed to truth as a normative value. I think we should believe what is true. I think we are obligated to learn as much as we can about the world and live according to the truths we believe it contains. I think the pursuit of truth is a noble and dignified one that ought to exercise our best minds. I share the conviction on display throughout this short piece: truth matters!
And I think each of these things because I believe that human beings are, in a sense, hard-wired for truth by our Creator. We were made to hunger for truth and to live according to it. Things work better—for us and for the world—when human beings care about what is true. I cannot prove that this conviction is true or that it ought to be embraced by others. I can supply no physical evidence to convince anyone that they ought to live according to what is true. This is simply a conviction I have about the way the world is. It is an assumption that I have decided to make—a metaphysical belief that affects how I interpret life in the physical world.
And the same thing is true for each of the men (and one woman) in this video. Despite their apparent abhorrence of appealing to non-physical realities, and despite their claims to go only where the evidence leads, everything that they say and think and advocate about the relationship between human beliefs and behaviours and the physical world, is predicated upon a non-empirical commitment to the normative value of truth.
Are atheists smarter than religious people? Possibly. I don’t doubt that a virtually identical video could be (or has been) created using 50 different smart people to advance the exact opposite position, but it’s certainly possible that the quote at the top of this post points to a genuine trend. But if folks like the maker of this video insist on proclaiming the obvious intellectual superiority of atheism from the rooftops, perhaps they could at least do so with a bit more honesty and humility, and a recognition of the common features that their worldview shares with those of their less-advanced religious brethren. Who knows—this may even have the happy consequence of building bridges of mutual courtesy and understanding across a divide so often (and unnecessarily) characterized by hostility, ridicule, and disrespect.