Writing an article for Salon, atheist John G. Messerly has a Christmas message for those of us who still believe there may be something to the Greatest Story Ever Told: we only believe because we’re not educated enough. Helpfully buttressing Messerly’s argument is the fact that only 14 percent of “professional philosophers are theists” and “religious belief among [members of the National Academy of Sciences] is practically nonexistent, about 7 percent.”
While Messerly allows for the fact that this consensus doesn’t necessarily speak to truth, he goes on to make his argument as if it did. He attempts to explain the persistence of religious beliefs with theories like natural selection, claiming they may be a natural byproduct of human intelligence. What he avoids are the questions that science can’t answer – the questions it will never be able to answer – because those questions don’t play well among the non-believers.
The truth of the matter is that you can prove the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, you can prove that we most likely evolved from ape-like predecessors, and you can even prove that the universe was likely formed by an enormous explosion. But can science tell us what there was before the Big Bang? Can it tell us what lies outside the known universe? Can it explain why there is anything at all? Can it explain the natural selection process that brought us to wonder about the meaning of life?
These questions will not be answered by test tubes and predictive experiments anytime soon. That’s not a reason to believe in God, but it is a reason to leave the door open for the possibility. And that’s something today’s atheists seem increasingly unwilling to do. They throw around statistics and facts and science as if it were some collection of talismans against faith. “Human beings,” writes Messerly, “need their childhood to end; they need to face life with all its bleakness and beauty, its lust and its love.”
Indeed. And that is exactly what atheists refuse to do. By slamming their hand down in defiance with a declarative statement – “None of this means a thing!” – they resist the big questions that have captured man’s imagination since the beginning of time. And it may be true that these questions have no answer. It may be true that it’s all just a big cosmic accident and that humans simply grew too intelligent for our own good.
But it may not be true, and that’s the dividing line between an atheist and an agnostic. The agnostic at least has the humility to say, “Well, look, there are some things we simply can’t know.” And in that statement, they are closer to real science than anyone who claims to a certainty that there is no God.
I’m not going to recite the many philosophical arguments for God; they are abundantly recorded for anyone who is interested. But the truth is that they don’t matter much. Those who have chosen to believe in a higher power – whether they believe in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or some other religion – do so not because of what a philosopher said but because of an inner faith. That faith may not be trendy among scientists, but it was good enough for kings, presidents, explorers, pioneers, inventors, and many of the most celebrated human beings who ever walked the earth. And it is good enough for (roughly) 98% of the world’s population in 2014. So maybe the question shouldn’t be “why do so many people still believe in god?” Maybe the question should be, “why do we give so much press time to the 2%?”