Does Religion Really Have a “Smart-People Problem”?

by Fr. Robert Barron

Daniel Dennett, one of the “four horsemen” of contemporary atheism, proposed in 2003 that those who espouse a naturalist, atheist worldview should call themselves “the brights,” thereby distinguishing themselves rather clearly from the dim benighted masses who hold on to supernaturalist convictions. In the wake of Dennett’s suggestion, many atheists have brought forward what they take to be ample evidence that the smartest people in our society do indeed subscribe to anti-theist views. By “smartest” they usually mean practitioners of the physical sciences, and thus they point to surveys that indicate only small percentages of scientists subscribe to religious belief.

In a recent article published in the online journal “Salon,” titled “Religion’s Smart-People Problem,” philosophy professor John Messerly reiterates this case. However, he references, not simply the lack of belief among the scientists, but also the atheism among academic philosophers, or as he puts it,

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“professional philosophers.” He cites a recent survey that shows only 14% of such professors admitting to theistic convictions, and he states that this unbelief among the learned elite, though not in itself a clinching argument for atheism, should at the very least give religious people pause.
Well, I’m sorry, Professor Messerly, but please consider me unpaused.

Since I have developed these arguments many times before in other forums, let me say just a few things in regard to the scientists. I have found that, in practically every instance, the scientists who declare their disbelief in God have no idea what serious religious people mean by the word “God.” Almost without exception, they think of God as some supreme worldly nature, an item within the universe for which they have found no “evidence,” a gap within the ordinary nexus of causal relations, etc.

I would deny such a reality as vigorously as they do. If that’s what they mean by “God,” then I’m as much an atheist as they—and so was Thomas Aquinas. What reflective religious people mean when they speak of God is not something within the universe, but rather the condition for the possibility of the universe as such, the non-contingent ground of contingency. And about that reality, the sciences, strictly speaking, have nothing to say one way or another, for the consideration of such a state of affairs is beyond the limits of the scientific method. And so when statistics concerning the lack of belief among scientists are trotted out, my response, honestly, is “who cares?”

But what about the philosophers, 86% of whom apparently don’t believe in God? Wouldn’t they be conversant with the most serious and sophisticated accounts of God? Well, you might be surprised…


Does Religion Really Have a “Smart-People Problem”?