Friday, December 26, 2014

Does Religion Have a Smart-People Problem? A Response to

John Messerly at Salon thinks that religion has a smart-people problem.  I'd contest that, if there is a smart-people problem, it lies with today's group-thinking-elitist progressives; but that's for another time.

Messerly begins by noting that only 14 percent of philosophers are theists and a large majority are atheists (based on the Chalmers' study which everyone in the philosophical community is aware of. One thing Messerly doesn't note is that most people who actually study the arguments for/against theism/religion are theists--that is, most philosophers of religion--incline towards theism.  Does this prove anything of note?  Not that I can see).

I suspect the actual numbers of theistic philosophers are a bit higher, but there's no doubt that theists are in the minority...that is, today.  Of course the past was chock full of theistic/religious philosophers as well as scientists.  And what will the future hold?  Messerly promises us that in the future virtually no educated person will believe in the supernatural.  Moreover, science will even conquer death (!) which will be "the coup d'etat over religion." No doubt Messerly believes all of this on the basis of reason, not faith.  Or so one might be lead to believe.

Here are some excerpts with commentary:

Genes and environment explain human beliefs and behaviors—people do things because they are genomes in environments. The near universal appeal of religious belief suggests a biological component to religious beliefs and practices, and science increasingly confirms this view. There is a scientific consensus that our brains have been subject to natural selection. 
Do genes and environmental conditions sufficiently explain beliefs and behaviors?  I see no good evidence to think that.  Of course if they did, then they'd also explain naturalistic, scientific, etc. doxastic states as well.  Also, note the appeal to the scientific consensus regarding natural selection.  I'll allude to that later.
Today there are two basic explanations offered. One says that religion evolved by natural selection—religion is an adaptation that provides an evolutionary advantage. For example religion may have evolved to enhance social cohesion and cooperation—it may have helped groups survive. The other explanation claims that religious beliefs and practices arose as byproducts of other adaptive traits
Once again, if there is any argument implicit here against religion, it's equally applicable to atheism, quantum physics, etc.  Furthermore, the two explanations offered are perfectly compatible with religious beliefs being true and rational--not that Messerly gives any indication that this is so; rather, he seems to think that there's an argument here against religion that should be taken seriously.  But it's hard to see what that argument might be.
In addition to the biological basis for religious belief, there are environmental explanations. It is self-evident from the fact that religions are predominant in certain geographical areas but not others, that birthplace strongly influences religious belief.
It's hardly a self-evident truth that birthplace strongly influences religious belief given the existence of a mere correlation, but let's grant the causal connection ("influence") on the basis of the correlation anyhow.  What then follows?  Nothing that I can see of interest.  We also know that you're more likely to be an atheist/naturalist if you live in a man-made city, if you are from a 1st world country, if your parents are atheists, if you have faith in the Enlightenment, etc.  Nothing then follows about the truth-value or rationality of atheism/naturalism.
[I'm now skipping his statistics which correlate bad behavior/living conditions with religion since at least as much counter evidence can be produced depending on what one counts as good/bad behavior/living conditions].
More than three times as many Americans believe in the virgin birth of Jesus than in biological evolution, although few theologians take the former seriously, while no serious biologist rejects the latter!Consider too that scientists don’t take surveys of the public to determine whether relativity or evolutionary theory are true; their truth is assured by the evidence as well as by resulting technologies—global positioning and flu vaccines work.
Those silly Americans (so much more vulgar than their enlightened European equivalents).  How dare they not take Messerly's word for it!  How dare they not base their belief on the surveys which show what biologists believe!  (Aside: most of the evidence scientists rely on is testimony.  Most of what scientists believe comes from reading textbooks in school, journal articles in the profession, etc.  This isn't to say that the testimony is unreliable.  But it's not like most scientists have direct evidence for, say, the thesis that natural selection is the sole mechanism of evolution or that there's a sufficient causal explanation at the chemical level for life.)
 It is arrogant of those with no scientific credentials and no experience in the field or laboratory, to reject the hard-earned knowledge of the science. Still they do it.
Some questions: Why think it's arrogant rather than ignorant?  On the basis of what scientific credentials should one believe Messerly?  Is it arrogant to reject the hard-earned knowledge of theologians?  Are scientists always right?  Does science ever change?  Are scientists immune from bias when it comes to claims intersecting with religion?
I agree with W.K. Clifford. “It is wrong always, everywhere and for everyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” 
Well, I'm not with Clifford!  If I were to agree with him, I'd be doing something wrong in thinking that it's always wrong to believe anything with insufficient evidence since I don't have sufficient evidence to believe that proposition is true.  And I don't relish doing wrong things (probably because of some fortuitous evolutionary accident).

OK, that's enough.  If anyone wants to point out anything important or worrisome for religion in this article that I haven't mentioned, I'm all ears.  In other words, if anyone thinks there is an argument here worth considering, go ahead and spell it out.  I'm too dumb (or lazy) to do so.


  1. I'll be writing a blog entry on the salon article myself. Just a couple of passing thoughts (not on what you say, but on what he says):

    John G. Messerly
    "Although there are many educated religious believers, including some philosophers and scientists, religious belief declines with educational attainment, particularly with scientific education. Studies also show that religious belief declines among those with higher IQs. Hawking, Dennett and Dawkins are not outliers, and neither is Bill Gates or Warren Buffett".

    And presumably belief in an afterlife, free will, a persisting self, objective moral values also decline. Perhaps psi too?

    Of course this might be partially explained by the fact that those who rise to the top in the academic community are liable to express views consonant with the prevailing orthodoxy -- for if they do not then they will be less likely to have risen to such a position in the first place.

    But it was the birth of the mechanistic philosophy which is primarily to blame. Or as the article puts it:

    "In the European Middle Ages belief in a God was ubiquitous, while today it is rare among the intelligentsia. This change occurred primarily because of the rise of modern science . ."

    I suppose saying "modern science" rather than the implicit acceptance of the mechanistic world view serves to convey the impression that this shift in views was eminently sensible. But it was accepted not because of compelling philosophical reasons, but because of the ensuing ability to predict and control our environment with the subsequent ubiquitous technology thus created.

    "the problematic nature of beliefs in gods, souls, afterlives or supernatural phenomena".

    Unfortunately the author doesn't state what these problems are.

    "And we should remember that the burden of proof is not on the disbeliever to demonstrate there are no gods, but on believers to demonstrate that there are. Believers are not justified in affirming their belief on the basis of another’s inability to conclusively refute them, any more than a believer in invisible elephants can command my assent on the basis of my not being able to
    “disprove” the existence of the aforementioned elephants".

    Such an argument only works if one thinks of "god" as being a thing in the world. If the bots in a computer game were conscious they might argue whether their world has a creator. It is of no avail for the atheist bots to assume that a creator equates to some particularly coloured pixels in their world.

    In other words it is a ridiculously naive conception of "god".

    The author is a professor of philosophy . . .god help us all. OK I think I definitely will write a blog entry on this. Not because he presents any compelling arguments, on the contrary he avoids arguments and simply assumes his stance is correct. But this sort of stuff is influential and it's inanity needs to be exposed.

  2. Ian,

    Thanks for your thoughts. Here are a few more:

    "But it was the birth of the mechanistic philosophy which is primarily to blame."

    TB: I too suspect there might be something to this. I would add methodological naturalism in the sciences as a possible causal contributor as well. But it's hard to put forth a rigorous argument for historical claims like this of fairly sweeping magnitude.

    "And we should remember that the burden of proof is not on the disbeliever to demonstrate there are no gods, but on believers to demonstrate that there are."

    TB: I'm not sure--as you suggest--that this argument (if there is an argument here) works even if one thinks of "god" as a thing in this world. To what he says here I would say that there is no burden of proof on the believer or disbeliever of God or gods. What reason is there for thinking that the believer has a burden of proof? In a court of law there is a burden of proof, but that there is a burden of proof is entirely conventional. Our author seems to be assuming a universal court of law.

    "OK I think I definitely will write a blog entry on this. Not because he presents any compelling arguments, on the contrary he avoids arguments and simply assumes his stance is correct. But this sort of stuff is influential and it's inanity needs to be exposed."

    By all means, expose the inanity!

  3. I just got done reading another thread where this article was being discussed. One philosopher posted the following:

    "Argh, again that figure of 14% theists philosophers the Bourget and Chalmers paper and 7% theists the National Academy of Sciences. That's very selective reporting. In more controlled surveys among faculty members, the % of theists is 50% or even higher. I write in a forthcoming paper "the higher percentage of theists in the present study (24%) might reflect a more diverse demographic of faculty members and students. Several sociological studies have found that atheism is more prevalent in elite universities than among regular faculty members (see e.g., Gross and Simmons 2009). Bourget and Chalmers (in press) selected faculty members in leading PhD granting departments as their target participants, thereby excluding departments that are less prestigious, e.g., that only provide undergraduate or master degrees. Thus, they may have underestimated the percentage of theists in the general population of professional philosophers due to their focus on elite institutions." In other words, I think the % of theists in philosophy is significantly higher than the PhilPapers survey indicates, due to selective sampling at elite institutions."

    Regarding whether there is an argument in this article that could provide worries for religion, I think there is an argument, but I don't think it's one that should worry religious people. This is a common argument though, and I see the sort of thinking in some of my students. Actually, there might be multiple arguments, or multiple arguments that could be developed from what is said, but I'm not going to worry about developing them all.

    Here's one argument. Atheist: "You religious people think the best explanation for the origin of your faith is that it is true, or approximately true. But, we can give completely naturalistic explanations for why religious belief is so widespread without assuming that religious beliefs are true. Given that we can do this, we shouldn't believe the religious claims. That would involve believing in preposterous things like virgin births and people raising from the dead, or a Trinity."

    That's one argument. Here's a second, directed at the Christian who accepts natural selection and the possibility that religion arise via natural selection, or as a by-product of adaptive traits. The Christian's explanation is less simple. The explanation that God+natural selection is the reason that religions were selected for involves the gratuitous use of God as an explanation. Natural selection does all the explaining and God doesn't add anything additional, so we ought not appeal to God.

    Quick responses: No one has come close to demonstrating that natural selection, or trait adaptivity, is sufficient for explaining the prominence of religious beliefs. Moreover, these evolutionary stories are speculative science AT BEST. They are just a bunch of "just so" stories cooked up by people who already have their minds made up. It is a common tendency in evolutionary biology to immediately try to give an adaptationist story for any given trait of any given organism. I don't think we have much reason to believe these stories, and (though I can't remember any cases), I believe they often turn out to be false and silly. I think this response works for both bad arguments I gave. The bottom line, as I think you already said, they haven't shown that there explanations are sufficient.

  4. JS,

    Interesting about Helen's survey which will be coming out. I agree with everything you say here.

    Regarding simplicity, I would just add that (a) simplicity is only one desirable feature in a theory and (b) the desirability seems only the result of pragmatics.

  5. OK I've written an essay. About the afterlife rather than God though. Am tacking the latter too.