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Smarten Up?

“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.

28 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hmm I didn’t watch the video but I can understand, from a scientific perspective, why a belief in God is problematic.

    While science holds truth as normative value, it is limited by testing theories and proving those theories true or false. So in a sense, science attempts to advance towards truth my collecting empirical data on what is more true. The label of theory is indicative of this limitation – as nothing has been labeled fact in a very long time. God as a theory, which it must be treated accordingly in science is very difficult because the theory is more complex than that in which is attempts to explain. Furthermore, God begins and ends with God. It is easy to see why this is difficult to accept and develop scientifically.

    Science may make claims to truth as a pursuit but not definitive truth claims, or this is bad science.

    “And I think each of these things because I believe that human beings are, in a sense, hard-wired for truth by our Creator.”

    Why not replace ‘Creator’ with natural selection? The problems with beliefs is the run into a problem Sherlock Holmes always highlighted, they takes facts and make them bend to a theory, whereas a theory should come from the facts. This is the scientific critique of a belief in God. Natural selection on the other hand is an attempt from facts (it doesn’t start with itself) to explain a process (a theory).

    As you highlight and have previously highlighted, both viewpoints have a faith in perspective. However, science is an endeavor to reveal more truth, and it is our perspectives and beliefs and moralities and convictions that choose what to do with those ‘truths.’ Are these truths in some sense no undermining the narrative present in the Bible (which is not the only conception of God)?

    July 28, 2011
    • I’m not disputing that scientists who apply the methods and assumptions of the scientific method to the question of God would find belief problematic. I am simply looking for consistency. You can’t criticize believers for appealing to “non-physical realities” or relying upon beliefs for which there is no physical evidence when you do exactly the same thing—often without acknowledging it.

      Why not replace ‘Creator’ with natural selection?

      Well, I think the matter of teleology comes into play here. The claim that we are justified in pursuing truth (or even obligated to pursue it!) because a purposive agent intended for us to do so, is very different than that we have this affinity for truth for no discernible purpose. That’s leaving aside the whole issue of whether or not natural selection actually does predispose us to be truthful. If truth is adaptive, certainly, but if it is not? Then who cares? You can’t derive the dogged commitment to truth as a moral imperative exhibited by many of the men in this video (and others) from natural selection. You can, I think, get it from a God who claims to embody both goodness and truth.

      July 28, 2011
      • Tyler #

        ” I am simply looking for consistency. You can’t criticize believers for appealing to “non-physical realities” or relying upon beliefs for which there is no physical evidence when you do exactly the same thing—often without acknowledging it.”

        You are right, but as we all know identifying our own assumptions is hard. I’ve seen many religious videos that do the exactly the same thing except the other way around and do not see blog posts about those. Consistency?

        You can, I think, get it from a God who claims to embody both goodness and truth.

        If God is the truth then yes of course you can. But is God desirable or the truth?

        “Well, I think the matter of teleology comes into play here. ”

        You can have species level teleology in NS but that is different from a universal teleology. However, that is a discussion apart from the intent of the post.

        July 31, 2011
      • Sure. I’m not denying that religious people can be (and often are) blind to their own assumptions. My comments here were in response to the video sent to me—specifically, the thinly veiled claim that “academics” (at least the smartest ones) were atheists.

        I think that whenever I have posted about these kinds of issues, though, I have been quite clear about the assumptions that the Christian worldview is based upon. I have not, to my knowledge, ever suggested that religion commitment is based on proof. In that sense, I think I have tried to be consistent. If I saw a video with 50 “academics” claiming that the smartest, most honest and rational people were Christians, I would like to think I would have a similar response.

        If God is the truth then yes of course you can. But is God desirable or the truth?

        Does it have to be one or the other? Can God be both desirable and the truth?

        August 1, 2011
      • Tyler #

        Good point, nothing suggests that both cannot be embodied in one.

        To paraphrase Galileo rather crudely, at some point don’t the different paths to truth have to converge? Why have we not witnessed such a convergence (the opposite seems to be true)?

        To go back to the original content:

        “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.”

        Why can’t science and the material be used to inform the metaphysics we suscribe to? Science at times has challenged my assumptions and produced a new way of looking at something. In some sense we can come up with a reason why human beings ought to do something – such as environmental protection, limits on consumerist culture. Yes, we choose to do it based on some principles but science directly informs those principles. What wasn’t obvious at the time of the industrial revolution has been made obvious now.

        And, maybe there is only so many normative principles. The speed of light, matter and space, gravity… whatever. You know that I am one of the first to dispense with the idea that an ethical framework (atleast one that speaks to what it is to be human) can come from science alone. “I can supply no physical evidence to convince anyone that they ought to live according to what is true.” Could this be because it is impossible to know what is true? Maybe a more appropriate goal is love or wisdom or honesty. Maybe some combination of many goals. I think of what Derrida says about western thought being to logos centric and it seems to hold some weight. Is that s short falling of both the general scientific endeavor and theology?

        In regards to the video, I just finished Tim Keller’s ‘The Reason for God,’ and felt that it was more or less the exact same as the video posted. X philosopher, a really smart guy, said Y about why God has to exist.

        August 1, 2011
      • To paraphrase Galileo rather crudely, at some point don’t the different paths to truth have to converge? Why have we not witnessed such a convergence (the opposite seems to be true)?

        What would convergence look like, in your view? What do you see as providing evidence that “the opposite seems to be true?”

        Re: science challenging metaphysics, I absolutely agree. But challenging is different than constraining, which is what often seems to be the case with thinkers like the ones in the video. To use your example, science can describe what human activity (among other factors) is doing to the planet, but it cannot produce an imperative to act responsibly in order to “save” the world. The imperative must (and has always) come from somewhere else. Again, this is totally fine (unavoidable, really). But at least be honest enough to say that it is metaphysics at work and not science.

        Could this be because it is impossible to know what is true? Maybe a more appropriate goal is love or wisdom or honesty. Maybe some combination of many goals. I think of what Derrida says about western thought being to logos centric and it seems to hold some weight. Is that s short falling of both the general scientific endeavor and theology?

        Okay, but why love or wisdom or honesty? Why not their opposites? What is to prevent a descent into pure individualism and/or narcissism? If it is impossible to know what is true, do we each get to pick our own truth?

        I don’t think it is in any way a failure of science or theology that we cannot come to empirical knowledge of normative truths. Perhaps it is a failure only of narrow-sightedness on our part as westerners—we expect every aspect of human life to submit to one mode of inquiry. It is no failure of science that it cannot produce ethical imperatives and prove them empirically. It is also no failure of theology that it cannot demonstrate these imperatives via the methods of science. It’s simply not the tool for the job. From the beginning, the language of faith and conviction (not proof) has been used to talk about things like God, meaning, purpose, etc. I think it is important to use the right tool for the right job, but often we (Westerners) have only one tool in our toolbox.

        (Sorry to hear you weren’t impressed with Keller.)

        August 2, 2011
  2. Well said!

    July 28, 2011
  3. Did any of the scientists interviewed offer an alternative theory as to how existence began. What force created itself out of the void, from nothingness that initiated the processes we call life, space, time. If not “God” then what?

    Atheists can and do have a field day with the hypocracies that abound within religion. However the Roman Catholic catechetical position of, “that which was before all things came into being and that which is through which all things came into being, this we call God”, is a much more reasonable and difficult theoretical perspective to repudiate.

    Show us the consciousless something that came from the nothing and only then can you intelligently offer a superior theory (faith claim) to the one advanced by theists.

    July 28, 2011
    • No alternative theories were offered in this video. Not surprisingly, I happen to enthusiastically agree with the Roman Catholic teaching here :).

      July 28, 2011
    • Tyler #

      ““that which was before all things came into being and that which is through which all things came into being, this we call God”

      It is hard to argue against because as humans there is nothing in a tool set to contemplate this. All it does is replace a question of existence with a problem that creates more questions. There is no answer there.

      “Show us the consciousless something that came from the nothing and only then can you intelligently offer a superior theory (faith claim) to the one advanced by theists.”

      One offers a claim and the other is a methodology in search of an answer.

      July 31, 2011
      • Tyler, I’m wondering if you have any specific knowledge regarding m-theory. In his short presentation Stephen Hawking alludes to this process being self sufficient and answering the question of how life begins apart from an understanding of God.

        I think your critique of the RCC cathechetical position rightly identifies sciences dilemna. Either it must search and discover a material first principal, eternally present and self sustaining through which the entire cosmos was made manifest or it succumbs to the possible truth that the source of creation is wholly immatterial and beyond it’s scope.

        The point of the statement regarding God was to better outline the context that science, by it’s nature, ought to frame it’s arguement with theists rather than the rather puerile rebuttals regarding “flying spaghetti monsters”

        August 1, 2011
      • Tyler #

        In regards to m-theory I know of it but do not understand other than a surface level description. The mathematics involved are simply beyond me. From what I have been told by my friends who do have a grasp on the concept much more (they can begin to unravel the mathematics) there is some points of contention within it and the claims it does make about beginnings does make some sort of sense.

        “Either it must search and discover a material first principal, eternally present and self sustaining through which the entire cosmos was made manifest or it succumbs to the possible truth that the source of creation is wholly immatterial and beyond it’s scope.”

        I am weary of any binary thinking like this. The absence of one does not make the other true, or the other away around. Metaphysics can exist independently of a Cristian God – there is metaphysical implications in our very language. With a Christian God there is an infinite regression in seeking metaphysical principles to further explain other principles. This was embodied in your very statement and only produces a dilemma in your theology.

        August 1, 2011
  4. Larry S #

    lets see, fifty really smart people (who apparently are all athiests – sheesh i cant spel) decide that smart people don’t believe in God.

    Fancy that – there own little club.

    I remember NT Wright quoting another smart guy (can’t member who he is – a dead guy) that – doing theology is like looking down a well at your own reflection.

    Although, i probalby mixed my meterfers, I think someone anologous is goinn on.

    July 29, 2011
    • 🙂

      (I suspect something “anologous is goinn on,” too.)

      July 30, 2011
      • Tyler #

        The opposite at one times was true. At one time fifty smart people dismissed the world was flat, or the sun centered around the Earth.

        July 31, 2011
  5. These scientists have a kind of amnesia that forgets the religious roots of modern science, which grew out of religious thinkers in the Middle Ages who believed there is a Book of Nature worthy of study alongside the Book of Scripture.

    In his book Theology for a Troubled Believer, Diogenes Allen writes about the limits of science. Science studies the natural world, and God is not a part of nature, so science has no calling or competence to say anything about God one way or the other. And when scientists do speak of God, they are not speaking out of science but out of their own philosophy. Allen also says that although you cannot use nature to prove the existence of God, the fact that nature has one set of laws rather than another set (none of the laws being necessary) points beyond nature to something or someone else who designed it that way. Or to put it another way, that nature is ordered one way rather than another raises questions science cannot answer.

    Peace to you

    July 30, 2011
    • Yes, the cultural amnesia runs deep and wide, I’m afraid. It seems not to occur to so many to probe the worldview assumptions that provided the foundation for the scientific enterprise, nor to acknowledge that science is always pressed into the service of some end or another—ends that cannot be supplied by science itself.

      I noticed Allen’s book on your blog a few days back and immediately put in on my amazon wish list. It looks fascinating—I intend to read it soon.

      July 30, 2011
    • Tyler #

      “These scientists have a kind of amnesia that forgets the religious roots of modern science, which grew out of religious thinkers in the Middle Ages who believed there is a Book of Nature worthy of study alongside the Book of Scripture.”

      Most things have a beginning in something else. Lots of theology does. Does this discredit science in some way?

      “the fact that nature has one set of laws rather than another set (none of the laws being necessary) points beyond nature to something or someone else who designed it that way.”

      How does it point to anything at all? That is massive leap to make. A law does not suggest a designer.

      July 31, 2011
      • With regard to suggesting a designer, I have always been bewildered by the atheistic position. Apparently an entire cosmos and the staggering physical principals that dictate it’s operation don’t imply design? Are they mad??!!! A log cabin implies a designer, a cart with wheels implies a designer.

        Any theory that would suggest the vastness and complexity of creation is random and without design…..fuck we need new words…..retardedly insane imbecility barely scratches the surface of what these maroons expect me to believe.

        August 1, 2011
      • Tyler #

        Does not God then have to have a designer?

        August 1, 2011
  6. Does not God then have to have a designer? Among other things, yeah….is this a trick question? 🙂

    August 1, 2011
  7. Sorry, lol I misread your question and somehow thought it said that God has to be the designer.

    God IS the immaterial entity that always was, always will be. He is the first principal. Science and material understandings of creation suffer from the dilemna of explaining first principals, not theists. God neatly answers the “chicken or the egg” delemna, that science as we understand it, can’t. Something must always precede whatever you fix as the “in the beginning” moment through scientific method. Your weariness ought to be with metaphysical understandings that are ultimately paradoxical. Theists neatly explain the conundrum, you just don’t like the answer. 🙂

    August 1, 2011
    • Tyler #

      Please explain it then. You suggest something cannot come from nothing but then state that exact case.

      August 1, 2011
  8. No my brother, I suggest that the materialist can not explain how something comes from nothing. To the theist, God is that something. God always was, always will be and all things material and immaterial were created by and through him.

    Whle the hypotheses stands beyond testing is this a conclusive arguement against God, legitimizing atheism or does it reflect the limitations of material observations and conclusions (science) to observe and quantify the immaterial.

    Surely this much is fair, any alternative hypotheses to God can be materially disproved or remains wholly undiscovered. At the present, scientifically speaking, the notion of God remains the best hypotheses available in order to explain first principals. Something must simply transcend existance in order for existance, as we understand it, to exist. Something comes first and is not a process of any pre-creation.

    Theism, the belief in an eternally existant divinity, responsible for creation, strikes me as the “smartest” theory out there. 50 men who would catagorically reject the most reasonable claim available with no compelling evidence whatsoever, don’t strike me as either scientific or smart.

    Me and Bugs (Professor Bunny for those who prefer a “smarter” more formal address) stand by our origional comment, “What a bunch of maroons!”

    August 2, 2011
  9. “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.”
    Reminds me of this train of thought — http://kar0ling.blogspot.com/2009/05/white-man-magic.html

    August 4, 2011
    • Thanks for the link, Karla. I like what you say here:

      Perhaps there’s a connection between the Western mind’s obsession with logic and science and our struggle to understand the goodness of God in a world of pain, while our neighbours in the Global South — who have lived through more pain than I can imagine — are still able to believe in a God who is love.

      August 5, 2011
    • Thanks for the link.

      August 22, 2011

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