About all those smart atheists

September 28, 2010

Based on a Pew Forum telephone survey of more than 3,400 people, a popular article in today’s New York Times tells us that self-identified atheists and agnostics are less ignorant of religion than Christians of all persuasions (Catholic and Protestant, evangelical and mainline, white, black, and hispanic). Out of 32 general questions about different religions, the atheist/agnostic group averaged about 21 correct answers. The nearest Christian group (“white evangelical Protestants”) only about 18. (Jews and Mormons, however, were very close behind the nonbelievers.)

Let me fight back my strong initial response to this survey (“Who cares?”) long enough to take it seriously. No religious authority of any stripe was quoted in the article, only a representative for an atheist advocacy group called American Atheists, Dave Silverman.

“I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people,” Mr. Silverman said. “Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”

This is nonsense on so many levels. First, I’ll bet that a large number of Christians, Jews, and Mormons own Bibles, and have read at least some scripture (more than your typical nonbeliever). Given that believers greatly outnumber nonbelievers in our population, the burden of proof is on Mr. Silverman to show how owning or reading a Bible “makes” atheists. In terms of sheer correlation, one might reach the exact opposite conclusion. I received a Bible at ages 6 and 14, and I became a Methodist minister. In fact, all the clergy I know were given Bibles at some point in their lives. Hmmm…

Second, I’m sure that self-identified nonbelievers are relatively well-educated compared to the general population (the vast majority of whom, remember, are believers). This is hardly an indictment against believers (although it may be an indictment against our educational system)—because there are still many more well-educated believers than non-believers. It’s meaningless to compare the relative knowledge of any small, well-educated group to something like 90 percent of the population. Why not, for example, compare “white mainline Protestants” with a graduate degree to “atheist/agnostics” with a graduate degree?

What Mr. Silverman wants to say, of course, is, “See, we really smart people know better than to believe in God.” Please!

Third, atheism often stems from a lack of knowledge—the knowledge that comes from actually practicing a religion. In other words, many people who practice a religion know something about that religion that an outsider like Mr. Silverman cannot know, certainly not from reading a textbook, reading a newspaper, taking a freshman philosophy course—or even reading the Bible as a disinterested outsider. When it comes to religion, oftentimes believing is seeing.

Finally, since atheists and agnostics make unprovable metaphysical claims about reality, they are every bit as “religious” as those of us who believe in a reality that transcends time and space. Mr. Silverman doesn’t get off the hook for being religious. He’s a person of great faith, just like the rest of us.

13 Responses to “About all those smart atheists”


  1. […] Irish Presbyterian friend Kevin Hargaden analyzes the same survey that I discussed last week, this time applying it to Christianity in Ireland. Far from the fearful hand-wringing that […]


  2. “there are still many more well-educated believers than non-believers”

    instead of vague blame on the public education system’s failings

    perhaps you should consider that once people develop critical thinking skills they stop being believers

    • brentwhite Says:

      I actually did consider that when I wrote the following: “What Mr. Silverman wants to say, of course, is, “See, we really smart people know better than to believe in God.” Please!”

      Do you really believe that because the atheist/agnostic group scored less than one point higher, on average, than Mormons on a general religious knowledge survey this proves that the atheists are the only people in the population who have critical thinking skills?

      How could any critically thinking person not reject that argument out of hand? It’s laughable.

      I took the sample test and got 100 percent. It’s likely I would have scored very high on this survey—well above the average atheist/agnostic score. Does that therefore prove that I’m a “critical thinker”? It shouldn’t, but based on your statement above (and Mr. Silverman’s in the article) it should.

      What a burden it must be for you to live in a world surrounded by so many benighted people! It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.


      • What I wrote is very different from what you wrote.

        You putting words – and rude one at that – in Silverman’s mouth, isn’t really you considering the likelihood that most people who develop critical thinking skills are more likely to reject claims for which there is no evidence and the stories that religions tell do not align with what we know about the earth and it’s processes.

        the survey results were also an average estimate, which means that some believers will score higher and lower, as will non-believers

        these scores do not change the averaged big picture that believers generally know less about religions than non-believers.

        this is also possibly owning to that most believers do not learn anything about faiths other than their own – and even so, may believers rely on others to tell them what’s in the sacred texts so aren’t even that knowledgeable about their own faith.

        How sad for you to be forced to live in a world where your intelligence is at war with your faith

  3. brentwhite Says:

    You imply that anyone who “has developed critical thinking skills” rejects belief in God, and somehow I’m the one being rude? That’s rich! As for Mr. Silverman, he’s a big boy; I’m sure he can defend himself. The only context for his words were the results of a survey in which theistic Mormons and Jews scored within less than a point of atheists/agnostics. As I argue in my post, it doesn’t prove anything. You may disagree, but you haven’t argued against the substance of what I wrote.

    As for “evidence” for God’s existence, if you mean by that evidence that can be placed under a microscope or worked out by physics equations, then by all means you’re right! But please note that the Bible and the Christian tradition don’t disagree with you: God is transcendent. A god who could be “proven” in a scientific way is less than God.

    There’s other evidence besides scientific evidence. I happen to find great meaning, for example, in love, justice, and beauty. What atheists these days can’t get in their heads (unlike their atheist predecessors like Sartre or Neitzsche) is that if there is no transcendent reality beyond the physical universe of multiverse or whatever, then those things have no meaning whatsoever. The moral high ground on which they believe they’re standing is made of air.

    I’ve argued elsewhere on this blog that much of reality has multiple, non-competing explanations. That we can say that we’re here because of Darwinian processes doesn’t begin to tell the whole story of reality. The materialistic viewpoint is way too simplistic for me.

    Besides, why are we here? Why do we exist? The answer to that question is, by definition, metaphysical. In other words, it’s something beyond the realm of science to answer. You’re saying that there is nothing beyond that realm. But you’re not making that argument on the basis of science itself, because science can say nothing whatsoever on the subject of existence.

    By saying that there’s nothing beyond time, space, and matter, you are making a metaphysical claim. It’s an unproven belief, a statement of faith. So… welcome to the club! As I say in my post, you and others like you are people of great faith.


  4. that I do not beleive in any deities, is not a claim, it’s a statement of fact.

    there is no claim for the positive – which is where the burden of proof belongs

    otherwise, you would have to accept that ghosts, vampires, Big Foot, Nessie and many other things that are claimed are real as well.

    to recognize that this is no evidence and that you go so far as to admit that no evidence is possible

    means you are actually an agnostic, since you have admitting that the nature of knowledge prevents knowing.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I’m not even sure what your first sentence above means. I’m not disputing the “fact” that you don’t believe in deities, just as much as you shouldn’t dispute the “fact” that I believe in God. What _is_ a statement of faith (or a “claim”) is that there is _nothing_ beyond this causal plane—beyond the physical realm.

      It is a statement of faith because if we limit ourselves to the scientific method we are not permitted to say one way or another whether God exists. Science doesn’t rule out God; it doesn’t make God’s existence less likely; it doesn’t pass judgment on the question at all. It’s not equipped to pass judgment on the question. This is not a controversial statement.

      If you are saying that God’s lack of existence (of which science has nothing to say) is a fact, by what means are you arriving at that conclusion if not a kind of faith (a faith hopelessly trapped in the 18th century, I would add)?

      If you are saying that the only thing that passes for “evidence” of something being real is that which we can arrive at through the scientific method, then agnosticism would be the best you could assert. To go beyond that is faith. Don’t accuse me of being an agnostic, however. I freely and happily admit that I have faith. You’re the one who acts like you don’t have faith.

      As for your Dawkinsian assertion about believing in Big Foot and vampires, etc., I’m not aware that billions of people have professed faith in these things over the centuries. Certainly no resulting organized movement has reshaped history as dramatically as Christianity. Perhaps what accounts for this is that there is indeed a God something like the God professed by the Church who has actually revealed God’s self to the world. Nevertheless, theology matters. This is in part why Christians don’t feel compelled to believe in just anything. In fact, they’re quite specific about what they do and don’t believe in. In other words, if you make the first leap of faith and believe in the God of Christianity, what you are constrained to believe is not at all arbitrary.

      If there is a God who is transcendent, who is wholly other than what we and the rest of Creation are (see how I snuck that religious word in), then it’s no grudging concession to Enlightenment thinking that we finite human beings can’t apprehend such a being through science or reason alone; it’s a requirement.

      • brentwhite Says:

        And you didn’t respond to my words about love, justice, and beauty. Are you prepared to say that these things are completely arbitrary? If you “believe” something about morality or love, you don’t believe in those things on the basis of science, either. There is no “ought” in Darwinism.


  5. […] a lengthy series of comments way back over here about faith versus science, I wrote the following, which I kind of like: If there is a God who is […]


  6. morality is completely based in evolution.

    individuals who are cooperative, work and play well with others, get to remain in the group to breed.

    individuals who are anti-social – stealing, raping, murdering, generally causing harm would be killed or expelled from the group.

    of course, with the complex civilizations and population numbers we now have, much of that is out the window for humans

    but yes, if you look at any 5 civilizations who reached a high level of complexity, you will see that each one has distinct morals which are often culturally reinforced with religious belief.

    the Aztecs had no concerns about human sacrifice – they did this to please their gods for example – it’s not something we’d consider moral now.

    beauty is so arbitrary that it is in the eye of the beholder

    justice is not only arbitrary, it’s so fickle as to be meaningless

    love is grounded in biochemistry, which doesn’t make it feel any less meaningful

    there is no ought in evolution because it’s random – not directed at all. things are what they are

    there is only an “ought” with the belief that there’s someone minding the store and the world is an intentionally directed place – but if there really was an all powerful god overseeing everything, there wouldn’t be any possible way to be anything other than the “ought”

    so “ought” is about your personal preference and is not at all reality based

    as for the usual “free will” cop out

    a god who demands worship on punishment of eternal worship, is hardly offering free will

    • brentwhite Says:

      Well, Random (Randy?), I’m afraid this will be my last post. You may have the last word, if you wish.

      You say, “morality is completely based in evolution.” I say, “Prove it scientifically.” And you can’t. The evidence you offer—disregarding the fact that your glib explanations are probably highly contested in their respective fields of biology and are still speculative at best—isn’t scientific evidence of the claim, “morality is completely based in evolution.”

      Do you see what I mean? Probably not.

      You’re making a category mistake: using physical phenomenon to make a metaphysical claim. It’s impossible to prove the proposition that “morality is completely based in evolution.”

      And that would be true even if scientific knowledge weren’t hopelessly provisional, and what we think we know today wouldn’t be overturned by some new knowledge decades or centuries hence. I’m happy to concede that EVERYTHING that happens in this realm of physics, on this plane of cause-and-effect, in this physical universe or multiverse (or whatever we call it) is completely explainable by science. At no point—even with perfect knowledge of physics—will I ever be able to say, “See! There’s that miracle I was looking for… right there in that particular gap!” It’s not going to happen. I’m well aware that many well-meaning creationists or ID believers are looking for that. But I’m conceding in advance that that will never happen—not within the realm of science.

      As I said earlier, God is not one agent among others on the plane of cause-and-effect, such that the more science can explain, the less God “does.” (Dawkins makes this argument because he knows almost nothing about theology—and probably not a lot about philosophy or logic, but whatever…) It is not either science or God. Science = NOT God. As I tried to say, this gets at the meaning of God’s transcendence. Like it or not, this has been a feature of Christian theology from the beginning of church history. It’s not some innovation that the church made in the 17th century in response to the Enlightenment.

      I remember listening to an interview on the radio with some Nobel-contending physicist who is Indian and a practicing Hindu. He was challenged by the interviewer to justify how a man of science can also be a person of great faith. He used an analogy of a Shakespearean sonnet. We can fully understand the structure of a such a poem in an objective sort of way. We can say, “This is iambic pentameter and Shakespeare chose these words precisely because they fit this pattern. And see how nicely everything fits together with that structure?” And even if we understand all of this, we still have barely touched the poem’s meaning. This is, he said, how science works. Science has an important contribution to make, but it can’t begin to get at the full meaning of reality.

      You’re saying that science can, but you are unable to argue that from science. You are making a metaphysical proposition (i.e., a statement of faith) with no supporting evidence. That’s fine. Just be clear that you’re accepting on faith that “morality is completely based in evolution.” You could use a little epistemic humility.

      At least we completely agree that in your religion, there is no “ought.”

      Your final words about free will and god are beyond silly. But you don’t know theology beyond caricature from Christopher Hitchens, so I’m not holding that against you.

      It’s been fun going back and forth. Your words remind me of this funny video from Prof. John Cleese. “And this ‘God gene’ is just here—between the gene which we scientists now know makes us eat coconut ice cream after fish dinner—and this gene here—which causes people with weak egos to grasp around desperately for simple explanations.”

      Enjoy!

      • brentwhite Says:

        For some reason the video link didn’t show up. You can find it on youtube.com in a John Cleese podcast called “The Scientists.” Also, where it says “Science NOT God” above, it was supposed to read “Science /= NOT God.”


  7. […] I wrote the following in response to an atheist commenter way back over here. This is my last comment on that particular thread. The commenter kept making a mistake […]


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