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.
We must also not forget the Rebel Atheists, persons who reject God as part of an overall aversion to authority. Their god is Individualism. Take, for example, the American feminist Voltairine de Cleyre. After many failed attempts at suicide, de Cleyre died from illnesses brought on by a life of poverty-but not before she was able to boast: "I die, as I have lived-a free spirit, an Anarchist, owing no allegiance to rulers, heavenly or earthly."
Finally, I wish to recognize what I call the Atheist's Atheist, that rare person who worships neither God, Intellectualism, nor Individualism, but rather some other all-knowing, all-powerful abstraction. My favorite example of this is the nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. In A History of God, author Karen Armstrong explains that for Schopenhauer there was "no Absolute, no Reason, no God, no Spirit at work in the world: nothing but the brute instinctive will to live."
I could go on naming atheism's other denominations, but I trust I've made my point. It really does appear impossible for anyone to go through life believing only in things he can prove scientifically or argue conclusively academically. One way or another, we are all believers in something that lies beyond the grasp of pure smarts.
Contrary to the slanders voiced by Arrogant Atheists, we who believe in God are in very distinguished company indeed. The simplest evidence of this: according to a 2003 Harris Poll, among Americans with post-graduate degrees-in other words, our country's most well-educated men and women-a whopping 85 percent believe in God.
Surprised at the high percentage? You shouldn't be. At widely separate times and places, free-thinking, urbane, brilliant persons from Solomon and Leonardo da Vinci to William Shakespeare and Henry David Thoreau-with IQs exceeding those of most Arrogant Atheists-have all pondered the evidence nature and life have to offer and come to the same conclusion: there's more to reality than just space and time, matter and energy, logic and reason.
Even Albert Einstein, the quintessence of human intelligence, made that discovery. He didn't believe in God as any one particular religion defines Him and repeatedly declared he'd sold his body and soul to science. Yet he made it clear in a quote documented in Max Jammer's authoritative book, Einstein and Religion: "I'm not an atheist, and I don't think I can call myself a pantheist."
Einstein believed in one God and read the Bible often. Far from ridiculing our humble, religious inclination to stand in awe of the Designer of our universe, he defended it in this eloquent way: "In every true searcher of Nature, there is a kind of religious reverence, for he finds it impossible to imagine that he is the first to have thought out the exceedingly delicate threads that connect his perceptions."
Indeed, high-IQ/high-SQ people-individuals with stereoscopic faith-are the bona fide heroes and heroines of human history. In the fifth century, while barbarians ransacked the once-mighty Roman Empire, Catholic bishops, abbots, monks, and other clerics became Western civilization's chief protectors. They converted monasteries into schools, founded libraries, and manned copying chambers: places where they laboriously and lovingly duplicated by hand books both sacred and secular. Centuries later, their superhuman efforts, together with those of their Jewish and Islamic counterparts living in the Arab world, helped usher in the European Renaissance.
People with stereoscopic faith also founded the world's first modern colleges, among them the University of Paris, with its legendary Sorbonne, and the University of Oxford, the oldest institution of higher learning in the English-speaking world and home of the celebrated Rhodes scholarships.
As for the New World, one of the first things Puritans did when they arrived was set up Harvard College, the oldest university in North America. Afterwards, Christians of every denomination-from Roman Catholic, Baptist, and Congregationalist to Episcopalian, Methodist, and the Church of Christ-established what are today many of our most prestigious academic establishments.
High-IQ/high-SQ people and institutions striving to express their joyous belief in the supernatural have authored, developed, encouraged, cherished, perfected, and safeguarded countless innovations in art, music, literature, architecture, education, even science-all the finer things in life we call culture.
Christianity, for one, has been a chief patron of the most gifted musical geniuses of all time-from Bach and Beethoven to Mozart and Messiaen. Many popular musical forms, including the oratorio anthem, carol, hymn, ordinary mass, and requiem mass, have religious origins. Moreover, western choirs were invented in the sixth century in ecclesiastical song schools started by Pope Gregory I. Similarly, high-IQ/high-SQ architects are responsible for some of the most famous structures ever built, including five of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World-among them, the great pyramids of Egypt, Temple of Artemis, and Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. There are also the Taj Mahal, Cathedral of Notre Dame, Westminster Abbey, Alhambra, and on and on and on. Entire architectural styles-Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic-are a direct result of our irresistible urge to build beautiful, soaring, inspiring religious sanctuaries.
The dome, too, one of the most ubiquitous and beautiful of all architectural inventions, was created in response to our religious impulses. Representing the heavenly vault, a pure dome first appeared circa AD 120 atop the Pantheon of Rome, Emperor Hadrian's shrine to the gods of his people. And fourteen centuries later, at the behest of Pope Julius II, Michelangelo designed an exquisite, ribbed variation of it for Saint Peter's Basilica, a style of dome that today crowns capitol buildings the world over, including our very own in Washington, D.C., and states across the nation.
Finally, people with stereoscopic faith have played a seminal role even in the development of religion's supposed archrival, science. That's right. We hear a lot about the relatively few times religion and science have gone for each other's throats-for example, the infamous feuds over heliocentrism versus geocentrism and creationism versus evolutionism-but they are the exceptions. Fact is, without the long line of intellectual revolutions led over the centuries by men and women of high IQ and high SQ, science would not be what it is today.
Saint Albertus Magnus (patron saint of natural scientists and AKA Albert the Great), grandfather of modern geology; René Descartes, father of modern Western philosophy; Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz and Isaac Newton, co-discoverers of the calculus; Robert Boyle, cofounder of modern chemistry and the London-based Royal Society, one of the world's most elite body of professional scientists; Gregor Johann Mendel, father of modern genetics; Nicolaus Copernicus, father of modern astronomy, Georges Lemaître, father of modern cosmology; Galileo Galilei, co-father (with Newton) of the Scientific Revolution: these were high-IQ/high-SQ people (many of them out-and-out religious clerics) who saw science as a way of studying God's creation. Today, their names constitute the Who's Who of Western science.
Despite their superior airs, in other words, atheists can't honestly say they're any smarter than people who believe in God; nor can they themselves be accused of being any dumber. Frankly, both camps consist of people whose IQs range across the intellectual spectrum, from really smart to really dumb. The real difference between them is their SQs.
I claim atheists have relatively low SQs because they worship merely the obvious: the human mind, nature, or the laws of science. As the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright once crowed: "I believe in God, only I spell it Nature."
By contrast, I maintain that people who believe in God have: higher SQs because they're able to see deeper into reality, perceiving the Creator of that mind, that nature, and those laws. Mortimer Adler, one of America's foremost philosophers, put it beautifully: "Only members of the human species have the conceptual powers that enable them to deal with the unperceived, the imperceptible, and the unimaginable."
Still, by virtue of what SQ they do have-of their having gods, however superficial they might be-atheists are religious. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the English journalist and Uncertain Atheist John Money evidenced this fact by calling for science to step up to the plate: "The next great task of science is to create a religion for mankind."
Today, the famous science-fiction writer and atheist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. reveals a similar spiritual yearning: "I hope that many earthling children will respond to the first human footprint on the moon as a sacred thing. We need sacred things."
The first time I personally witnessed low-SQ religiosity in action was when, as a graduate student at Cornell, I heard the Uncertain Atheist astronomer Carl Sagan deliver a public lecture on the latest discoveries in astronomy. In typical fashion, Carl dazzled the standing-room-only crowd with his brilliant command of the subject and poetic eloquence. But afterwards, during the Q & A session, several attendees ridiculed him for using the words "majesty and awe" to describe the cosmos. How could he possibly have used such meaningless terms in a scientific lecture? they scolded.
Meaningless? Scientifically, maybe, but not religiously. I came to know (and respect) Carl well enough to discover that he had a deep, SQ-type reverence for the beautiful way in which our universe operates. True, he never looked far enough past that superficial beauty to catch a glimpse of its Author, but nevertheless he was, in his own way, a devoutly religious man.
The same kind of religiosity is even more evident in Carl's widow, Ann Druyan. Like him, she doesn't believe in God yet is spiritually passionate about the scientific process that elucidates the natural world. Listen to her in a speech describing an astronomy show she co-created for the Hayden Planetarium in New York. She sounds positively evangelistic:
This is what got me thinking about how we might offer something that would be at least as compelling as whatever anyone else in the religion business is offering. We get to take you through the universe. . .and teach you something about the nature of life. It's a very uncompromising message about evolution and I think very directly promotes the kind of values and ideas I think we share. Every kid who goes to a city public school gets taken to these shows (Skeptical Inquirer, November/ December 2003, 25-30.)
And that's just for starters. Elsewhere in the speech, Druyan sounds like an out-and-out religious crusader: "Why don't we take over the planetaria of the country, of which there are hundreds and turn them into places of worship?. . .Why don't we take over these places and have services in the planetaria?"
Far from being exceptions to the religious rule, far from being coolheaded Marines of the mind, deep down inside, even atheists can't help but respond spiritually to what they comprehend only academically. It's as if they have just enough SQ to get an inkling of what persons with a higher SQ are able to perceive with greater clarity. Atheists don't have the SQ necessary to see past the obvious, but they do have enough to feel the tug that brings us all to our knees whenever we contemplate the "awe and majesty" of our extraordinary universe.