A recent article in Salon Magazine suggests that religious faith is the domain of the ignorant. “Religion may help us in the way that whisky helps a drunk, but we don’t want to go through life drunk,” writes professional atheist John G. Messerly.
Messerly’s arguments aren’t new, of course. Some of the best atheistic texts were produced in the 19th century, and Messerly draws freely from their ideas. It is, moreover, common practice to trot out arguments against faith around Christmas time, if nothing else to dampen the Yuletide pleasure of the benighted troglodytes who cling to their religious convictions.
Religious beliefs, Messerly suggests, “are just vulgar superstitions,” and to espouse them means “basing our lives on delusions.” It is time to grow up. “Human beings,” Messerly contends, “need their childhood to end; they need to face life with all its bleakness and beauty, its lust and its love.” Ah, yes, the noble atheist brave enough to denounce religion and embrace the absurdity of a universe without meaning. Quite compelling.
Belief and disbelief both involve choice. It is comprehensible that a person becomes an agnostic because he finds arguments for the existence of God to be unconvincing. Only the most dogmatic atheist, however, would reduce all religious faith to superstition.
Messerly cites the well-known data correlating a rejection of religious belief to education. There is no doubt that Messerly is correct when stating that “religious belief declines with educational attainment, particularly with scientific education.”
Scientists, however, even those who excel in their particular fields, are not known for their philosophical prowess, let alone for theological acumen. It is enough to read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion to recognize that however competent Dawkins may be as an evolutionary biologist, he knows absolutely nothing about the philosophy of science. The natural sciences do not equip their practitioners to answer questions of meaning, and nor do they ask—let alone answer—questions about ultimate realities. It is outside the scope and methodology of the sciences to do so.
Many young people lose their faith during college; some return to it in later life and others don’t. American colleges and universities are notoriously hostile to religious faith, and it is an exceptional young person who can hold to faith against the enormous pressures to abandon it.
Messerly claims that more educated individuals who profess religious belief may actually be lying. They say they believe “because it is socially unacceptable not to; they don’t want to be out of the mainstream or fear they will not be reelected or loved if they profess otherwise.” But in reality, Messerly has it backwards. Anyone who has spent any time in academic circles knows that the intellectual environment is incredibly antagonistic to religion and there is enormous peer pressure not to believe. If anything, more academics believe than actually say they believe.
It is true that the confidence that education provides can lead to a self-reliance that feels no need for God. It is true that when applied to religious belief, the methodology of electrical engineering, economics, or sociology runs aground, and one may be tempted to return to familiar territory where one feels more competent. But this doesn’t mean that the college-educated are necessarily better equipped to evaluate the truth claims of religion than those who never spent four years poring over chemistry textbooks.
Education, and native intelligence, do not guarantee wisdom or goodness. Ted Kaczynski (The Unabomber) skipped the 5th grade after testing 167 on an IQ test. Ted Bundy, who confessed to over 30 murders, possessing an IQ score of 136. Jeffrey Dahmer, one of the most infamous serial killers in history, was tested with an IQ of 145. This doesn’t mean that intelligence, or education, makes a person evil, but it does mean that intelligence and goodness don’t always go hand in hand.
As a true, red-blooded materialist, Messerly confidently claims that “genes and environment explain human beliefs and behaviors—people do things because they are genomes in environments.” Free will has no place in a materialist’s world. If people are religious, Messerly reasons, the cause must lie in some combination of genetic makeup and environmental influences. And so he asks: “What mechanisms caused the mind to evolve toward religious beliefs and practices?”
Yet if this is so, a thoughtful observer might enquire just where Messerly’s atheism came from. What evolutionary cocktail produced this unbelieving specimen? Was it irreligious genes or just an unfortunate childhood that led him to reject God? Or does he claim to be above the rest of humanity whose beliefs—he asserts—are mere byproducts of causes outside of them? And if his deepest convictions are the simple result of chance evolution, why is he any more to be trusted than believers in alien abductions, unicorns and the tooth fairy?
Messerly’s arguments aren’t likely to convince anyone that God doesn’t exist, though they may console his fellow atheists with the assurance that they are smarter than the rest of us.
If God does exist, it seems reasonable that He would want to be as accessible to the simple as to the brilliant. This is no surprise to Christians, since Jesus himself praised his Father for concealing from “the learned and the clever,” what He revealed to “mere children.”
If this is the case, maybe “growing up”—at least as Messerly intends it—isn’t such a great idea after all.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome