Richard Dawkins: Militant atheism (2)
Is there any correlation, positive or negative, between intelligence and tendency to be religious?
[Them folks misunderestimated me]
The survey that I quoted, which is the ARIS survey, didn't break down its data by socio-economic class or education, IQ or anything else. But a recent article by Paul G. Bell in the Mensa magazine provides some straws in the wind. Mensa, as you know, is an international organization for people with very high IQ. And from a meta-analysis of the literature, Bell concludes that, I quote -- "Of 43 studies carried out since 1927 on the relationship between religious belief, and one's intelligence or educational level, all but four found an inverse connection. That is, the higher one's intelligence or educational level, the less one is likely to be religious." Well, I haven't seen the original 42 studies, and I can't comment on that meta-analysis, but I would like to see more studies done along those lines. And I know that there are -- if I could put a little plug here -- there are people in this audience easily capable of financing a massive research survey to settle the question, and I put the suggestion up, for what it's worth.
But let me know show you some data that have been properly published and analyzed, on one special group -- namely, top scientists. In 1998, Larson and Witham polled the cream of American scientists, those who'd been honored by election to the National Academy of Sciences, and among this select group, belief in a personal God dropped to a shattering seven percent. About 20 percent are agnostic; the rest could fairly be called atheists. Similar figures obtained for belief in personal immortality. Among biological scientists, the figure is even lower: 5.5 percent, only, believe in God. Physical scientists, it's 7.5 percent. I've not seen corresponding figures for elite scholars in other fields, such as history or philosophy, but I'd be surprised if they were different.
So, we've reached a truly remarkable situation, a grotesque mismatch between the American intelligentsia and the American electorate. A philosophical opinion about the nature of the universe, which is held by the vast majority of top American scientists and probably the majority of the intelligentsia generally, is so abhorrent to the American electorate that no candidate for popular election dare affirm it in public. If I'm right, this means that high office in the greatest country in the world is barred to the very people best qualified to hold it -- the intelligentsia -- unless they are prepared to lie about their beliefs. To put it bluntly: American political opportunities are heavily loaded against those who are simultaneously intelligent and honest.
I'm not a citizen of this country, so I hope it won't be thought unbecoming if I suggest that something needs to be done.
And I've already hinted what that something is. From what I've seen of TED, I think this may be the ideal place to launch it. Again, I fear it will cost money. We need a consciousness-raising, coming-out campaign for American atheists.
This could be similar to the campaign organized by homosexuals a few years ago, although heaven forbid that we should stoop to public outing of people against their will. In most cases, people who out themselves will help to destroy the myth that there is something wrong with atheists.
On the contrary, they'll demonstrate that atheists are often the kinds of people who could serve as decent role models for your children, the kinds of people an advertising agent could use to recommend a product, the kinds of people who are sitting in this room. There should be a snowball effect, a positive feedback, such that the more names we have, the more we get. There could be non-linearities, threshold effects. When a critical mass has been obtained, there's an abrupt acceleration in recruitment. And again, it will need money.
I suspect that the word "atheist" itself contains or remains a stumbling block far out of proportion to what it actually means, and a stumbling block to people who otherwise might be happy to out themselves. So, what other words might be used to smooth the path, oil the wheels, sugar the pill? Darwin himself preferred "agnostic" -- and not only out of loyalty to his friend Huxley, who coined the term. Darwin said, "I have never been an atheist in the same sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally an 'agnostic' would be the most correct description of my state of mind." He even became uncharacteristically tetchy with Edward Aveling. Aveling was a militant atheist who failed to persuade Darwin to accept the dedication of his book on atheism -- incidentally, giving rise to a fascinating myth that Karl Marx tried to dedicate "Das Kapital" to Darwin, which he didn't, it was actually Edward Aveling. What happened was that Aveling's mistress was Marx's daughter, and when both Darwin and Marx were dead, Marx's papers became muddled up with Aveling's papers, and a letter from Darwin saying, "My dear sir, thank you very much but I don't want you to dedicate your book to me," was mistakenly supposed to be addressed to Marx, and that gave rise to this whole myth, which you've probably heard. It's a sort of urban myth, that Marx tried to dedicate "Kapital" to Darwin. Anyway, it was Aveling, and when they met, Darwin challenged Aveling. "Why do you call yourselves atheists?" "'Agnostic, '" retorted Aveling, "was simply 'atheist' writ respectable, and 'atheist' was simply 'agnostic' writ aggressive." Darwin complained, "But why should you be so aggressive?" Darwin thought that atheism might be well and good for the intelligentsia, but that ordinary people were not, quote, "ripe for it." Which is, of course, our old friend, the "don't rock the boat" argument. It's not recorded whether Aveling told Darwin to come down off his high horse.
But in any case, that was more than 100 years ago. You'd think we might have grown up since then. Now, a friend, an intelligent lapsed Jew, who, incidentally, observes the Sabbath for reasons of cultural solidarity, describes himself as a "tooth-fairy agnostic." He won't call himself an atheist because it's, in principle, impossible to prove a negative, but "agnostic" on its own might suggest that God's existence was therefore on equal terms of likelihood as his non-existence. So, my friend is strictly agnostic about the tooth fairy, but it isn't very likely, is it? Like God. Hence the phrase, "tooth-fairy agnostic." Bertrand Russell made the same point using a hypothetical teapot in orbit about Mars. You would strictly have to be agnostic about whether there is a teapot in orbit about Mars, but that doesn't mean you treat the likelihood of its existence as on all fours with its non-existence.
The list of things which we strictly have to be agnostic about doesn't stop at tooth fairies and teapots; it's infinite. If you want to believe one particular one of them -- unicorns or tooth fairies or teapots or Yahweh -- the onus is on you to say why. The onus is not on the rest of us to say why not. We, who are atheists, are also a-fairyists and a-teapotists.
But we don't bother to say so. And this is why my friend uses "tooth-fairy agnostic" as a label for what most people would call atheist. Nonetheless, if we want to attract deep-down atheists to come out publicly, we're going to have find something better to stick on our banner than "tooth-fairy" or "teapot agnostic." So, how about "humanist"? This has the advantage of a worldwide network of well-organized associations and journals and things already in place. My problem with it is only its apparent anthropocentrism. One of the things we've learned from Darwin is that the human species is only one among millions of cousins, some close, some distant.
And there are other possibilities, like "naturalist," but that also has problems of confusion, because Darwin would have thought naturalist -- "Naturalist" means, of course, as opposed to "supernaturalist" -- and it is used sometimes -- Darwin would have been confused by the other sense of "naturalist," which he was, of course, and I suppose there might be others who would confuse it with "nudism". Such people might be those belonging to the British lynch mob, which last year attacked a pediatrician in mistake for a pedophile.
I think the best of the available alternatives for "atheist" is simply "non-theist." It lacks the strong connotation that there's definitely no God, and it could therefore easily be embraced by teapot or tooth-fairy agnostics. It's completely compatible with the God of the physicists. When atheists like Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein use the word "God," they use it of course as a metaphorical shorthand for that deep, mysterious part of physics which we don't yet understand. "Non-theist" will do for all that, yet unlike "atheist," it doesn't have the same phobic, hysterical responses. But I think, actually, the alternative is to grasp the nettle of the word "atheism" itself, precisely because it is a taboo word, carrying frissons of hysterical phobia. Critical mass may be harder to achieve with the word "atheist" than with the word "non-theist," or some other non-confrontational word. But if we did achieve it with that dread word "atheist" itself, the political impact would be even greater. Now, I said that if I were religious, I'd be very afraid of evolution -- I'd go further: I would fear science in general, if properly understood. And this is because the scientific worldview is so much more exciting, more poetic, more filled with sheer wonder than anything in the poverty-stricken arsenals of the religious imagination. As Carl Sagan, another recently dead hero, put it, "How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The universe is much bigger than our prophet said, grander, more subtle, more elegant'? Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.' A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths." Now, this is an elite audience, and I would therefore expect about 10 percent of you to be religious. Many of you probably subscribe to our polite cultural belief that we should respect religion. But I also suspect that a fair number of those secretly despise religion as much as I do.
If you're one of them, and of course many of you may not be, but if you are one of them, I'm asking you to stop being polite, come out, and say so. And if you happen to be rich, give some thought to ways in which you might make a difference. The religious lobby in this country is massively financed by foundations -- to say nothing of all the tax benefits -- by foundations, such as the Templeton Foundation and the Discovery Institute. We need an anti-Templeton to step forward. If my books sold as well as Stephen Hawking's books, instead of only as well as Richard Dawkins' books, I'd do it myself. People are always going on about, "How did September the 11th change you?" Well, here's how it changed me.
Let's all stop being so damned respectful.
Thank you very much.