It is the stars as not known to science that I would know, the stars which the lonely traveler knows. --Henry David Thoreau
Can a smart person believe in God? The only reason the question even needs asking is this: persons identifying themselves as atheists, agnostics, humanists, and secularists-a total of less than 1 percent of the population, according to the City University of Mew York's 2001 American Religious Identification Survey-tend to see themselves as Marines of the mind: they are the few, the proud, the rational materialists.
Boasted the nineteenth-century American politician and atheist Robert Green Ingersoll:
"For ages, a deadly conflict has been waged between a few crave men and women of thought and genius upon the one side, and the great ignorant religious mass on the other."
In Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, best-selling author Anne Lamott describes how she became a born-again Christian. It wasn't easy: it involved overcoming a sixties childhood dominated by sex, drugs, alcohol, and snooty secularism:
None of the adults in our circle believed [in God]. Believing meant that you were stupid. Ignorant people believed, uncouth people believed, and we were heavily couth. My dad was a writer, and my parents were intellectuals who went to the Newport Jazz festival every year for their vacation and listened to Monk and Mozart and the Modern Jazz Quartet. Everyone read all the time. . .We were raised to believe in books and music and nature.
Atheism and its attending superiority complex are especially rampant among certain leading scientists. In an article titled, "Scientists Are Still Keeping the Faith," published in the April 3, 1997 issue of Nature, Edward Larson and Larry Witham revealed that about 40 percent of all American physical scientists believe in a personal God (presumably, still more of them believe in a non-personal God). Considering science's widespread reputation for being godless, that's a pretty sizable fraction. But in a subsequent study, the authors discovered that among members of the National Academy of Sciences-science's high priests-a mere 7 percent believe in a personal God.
During my years at Harvard, I recall a physics professor teaching undergraduates about the seminal contributions of the early twentieth-century Cal-Tech physicist and Nobel Prize-winner Robert Millikan. Millikan is renowned for his brilliant and historic oil-drop experiment, in which he discovered that every electron carries an indivisible electric charge. It's too bad, lamented the Harvard professor, that Millikan, a devoutly religious man, was such a "low-brow" (his exact words) when it cane to his personal beliefs.
If you believe in God and the importance of intelligence and education and civility, how do you respond properly to such haughty atheism? For starters, by recognizing that for all their superior airs, atheists are really no different from you and me. Like us, atheists believe in something they can't prove scientifically.
The British actor and writer Quentin Crisp tells a funny story about the time he visited Northern Ireland and announced he was an atheist. Crisp recalls: "A woman in the audience stood up and said, `Yes, but is it the God of the Catholics or the God of the Protestants in whom you don't believe?'"
The point is, it's impossible for an atheist to disbelieve in God without believing in some alternative-either that, or he must confess he believes in nothing. Even agnostics, who are somehow able to make it through life withholding judgment on one of life's most defining issues, have to believe in something during the interim. For most of them, atheism seems to be that something.
In my experience, atheists tend to believe in the cosmic existence of highly fortuitous accidents created by Randomness, which I write with a capital R because, for all intents and purposes, Randomness is the atheist's god. As the nineteenth-century English poet Francis Thompson affirmed, "An atheist is a man who believes himself an accident." But within that broad definition of atheism, there are variations denominations, if you will.
First off, there are the agnostics, whom I call Uncertain Atheists because by allowing for the possibility that God does exist, they admit they're not quite sure. For them, the jury is still out.
Next are the Arrogant Atheists, whom you heard from at the very beginning of this chapter. These are the low-SQ persons who worship Intellectualism-a supernatural faith, I might add, considering that our IQ's historical track record is, to put it politely, decidedly mixed. Above all, Arrogant Atheists feel a need to believe they're smarter than everyone else.
Then there are what I call the Humble Atheists, persons who worship Intellectualism but are honest enough to admit theirs is not some superior belief. The prolific science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov once explained his Humble Atheism this way: "I've been an atheist for years and years, but somehow I felt it was intellectually unrespectable to say that one is an atheist, because it assumed knowledge that one didn't have. . . I don't have the evidence to prove that God doesn't exist, but I strongly suspect that he doesn't."
One denomination that particularly intrigues me consists of what I call Christian Atheists, persons who embrace my religion's values but not its God. They are those whom Saint Paul appeared to be speaking about when he predicted in 2 Timothy 3:1, 5: "But mark this: There will be. . .[people] having a form of godliness but denying its power."
One of the most prominent Christian Atheists I know is someone I respect highly. He is Edward O. Wilson, Harvard sociobiologist, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and quite honestly one of the nicest, most decent human beings whom I have the honor of calling friend.