Science and faith, as important tools in the knowledge process, are often perceived to be in a tense relationship with each other, because of the fundamentally different worldviews that characterize them. The implications for life’s big questions are obvious—and sufficient to rob someone of the comfort of indifference towards such high-stakes conclusions.
Existentialist philosophers cannot avoid the questions regarding divinity in their search for meaning. Every human being—whether a scholar, an artist, or a craftsman—faces, in one way or another, the need for something or someone great enough to deserve worship and, at the same time, to make human existence meaningful.
Intelligence, faith, and atheism
Miron Zukerman, lead researcher in a meta-analysis that researched 63 studies, stated in the conclusion that intelligent people are unlikely to believe in (any) divinity, even when they are old. Several studies highlight this constant: the negative correlation between intelligence and religiosity. Moreover, it seems that hypotheses have been formulated since 1958 in this regard: “Although intelligent children grasp religious concepts earlier, they are also the first to doubt the truth of religion.”
A study conducted in 1916 concluded that even in the United States, which is one of the most religiously developed nations in the world, 58% of scientists expressed doubt and distrust in God’s existence.
In Zukerman’s study, religiosity is defined as “the degree of involvement in some or all facets of religion,” such as rituals, offerings, total obedience to the supernatural, participation in religious services, etc., which leads us to ask whether the relationship between intelligence and faith is not different than the one between intelligence and religiosity.
Religiosity, as evidenced by other studies mentioned earlier, is often accompanied by a spirit of rigidity, intolerance, and fundamentalism. Faith, as an intimate, personal component of the human being, determines religious behaviours and rituals, while the latter, in turn, are supposed to maintain faith and determine its evolution. However, one can have faith in divinity without necessarily being religious, but merely a spiritual person.
Unlike religiosity, which indicates an adherence to the practices of a religious institution, spirituality is the quest for the sacred and for meaning through an empirical and personal approach.
According to Roger D. Fallot, spirituality implies a search for the ultimate meaning, purpose, values, relationships with a transcendent being, with supreme power, a sense of the sacred or connection with the divinity. In this context, faith appears as a main component in this quest, an expression of the thrill of knowledge that opens up new research horizons.
Methodological impediments that raise questions
Andrew Greeley found in a 2003 survey that while 48% of French people, 41% of Norwegians, and 54% of Czechs claimed there was no God, only 10 to 19% said they were atheists when faced with a question of self-identification as an atheist. When we talk about sociological studies that seek to determine people’s level of religiosity, we cannot help but notice the reverse pattern. Despite the fact that, for example, in Romania 92% of people believe in God, few of them display behaviours that are deeply influenced by their faith.
The motives of those who, through parental inheritance, declare themselves religious, without acknowledging religious values, is similar to those who do not believe that God exists, but cannot identify with atheism. Perhaps we can venture to say that these reasons also have a dose of superficiality. On the other hand, if sociological studies were to follow only deeply self-acknowledged Christians compared to self-acknowledged atheists, wouldn’t the conclusions about the relationship between intelligence and religiosity be different?
Studies conducted on population samples in Africa paradoxically show the opposite of the hypothesis of a negative correlation between education and religiosity. The more educated an African is, the more likely he is to believe in the existence of God. But even these studies have their limitations. If studies would also ascribe the belief in supernatural forces to religious people, the conclusions might be different.
A study published by Eurostat in 2010 differentiates between religiosity based on belief in a supernatural force and religiosity based on a belief in God. Such differentiations, contexts, and patterns show the need for a more careful analysis of indicators that look for correlations between intelligence, atheism, or religiosity.
In an attempt to outline the profile of a terrorist, sociologists noticed that it is not the poor and uneducated Islamist who fits the profile, but, on the contrary, one that is young and educated. We cannot observe the same thing in the case of European Islamists, nor does the same paradigm apply in the case of Christian fundamentalists. When it comes to Europeans, there is a consensus in academia about the negative relationship between fundamentalism and intelligence: the less a man knows, the more radical his behaviour is.
All these considerations lead us to be cautious in determining the relationship between such complex categories as ‘religious’ and ‘intelligent’. There are so many factors that can influence the conclusions that the task to identify objective indicators is a very delicate one.
Michael Argyle, one of the best-known English psychologists, blames the positive correlation between atheism and intelligence on the nonconformist nature of atheism in a predominantly religious environment. It is generally accepted that intelligent people are less likely to conform, which may indicate an intelligence-religion/belief relationship influenced by cultural factors. Methodological impediments have made it so that even today there is no consensus on this much-discussed correlation between intelligence and atheism.
Freud (1953) considered that the religious person has obsessive-compulsive traits. Ellis (1980) considered religion intolerant—the expression of the institutionalization of the irrational. Watters (1992) saw an incompatibility between religion and physical or mental health.
Trivialization—as an attitude found in the atheist environment, having faith and religion as its objects—can be observed just as strongly in religious circles, but this time directed at atheism. The narrower and more exclusive the relational circles of a person, the stronger the radicalism. In this context, the only way to reconcile is to allow each side to present its arguments.
Faith understood as an instrument of knowledge, the interchangeable meaning of faith and religion, the widening of the research sample from all believers to all religious people, the narrowing of the study sample from all those who do not believe to self-acknowledged atheists, the cultural influences, the values of the postmodern society, prosperity, fundamentalism, nonconformism, studies that argue the opposite—all these variables legitimize the questioning of the hypothesis of intelligence that leads to atheism, but does not replace the need for strong arguments in favour of faith.
The assumption of science: faith?
Scoffing at faith and the stigma attached to those who acknowledge it are increasingly evident, both in scientific, academic environments and in secular ones. Is this reality caused by the tendency of the church of the last centuries and of theologians to professionalize the approach of the Bible, and thus to mystify it?
Aside from finding the main reasons why faith and religion are so criticized, some crucial questions remain: Is faith complementary to the intellectual endeavour of the pursuit of knowledge? Is there a system of thinking that excludes the faith component? How reasonable is it to believe that God exists?
If atheists are a category of people with a higher IQ than Christians, does this imply that more reliable conclusions are drawn in the atheist camp? Is it less necessary to be intelligent in religious beliefs?
With the separation of faith from science, approaching the issue of God’s existence has become taboo for the religious world and nonsense for the scientific world. From the point of view of scientific rigor, the very attempt to prove the existence of God is nonsense. One of the assumptions of the scientific process is the exclusion of the supernatural. It is only by starting from this premise that things can be proved, verified, and repeated under identical conditions.
The supernatural, by its very nature, does not comply with natural laws, but rather takes them by surprise. But this does not justify the fundamentalist indifference towards knowing the evidence in favour of God’s existence, or placing this subject under ritual and sacred prohibition.
If we accept the Bible’s statements that describe the nature of God as having no beginning, no end, being omnipotent, omniscient, and absolute, these plunge us into the infinite depths of divinity, and God becomes intangible without being known, described, or understood. If God’s nature can be understood by man’s initiative and ability, wouldn’t that reduce God to the nature of the subject that encompasses Him? God’s existence cannot be proved. Infinity and the absolute are conventionally accepted concepts, universally present within philosophy, theology and mathematics, but eternally transcendent.
As early as the fourth century BC, philosophers considered infinity to be very probable. Aristotle, using time as an analogue of eternity, believed that if it had no beginning and no end, “infinity must exist.” From the earliest forms of civilization, the concepts of the infinite and the absolute were approached by the human being and, most of the time, were associated with the idea of divinity.
If infinity is a convention of something that has no end and no beginning, of something which cannot be described or understood, doesn’t the idea of divinity have the same nature? If, however, this concept, despite its mystical character, is accepted as truth, why is God’s existence as supreme being contested? In both philosophy and theology, infinity is present in concepts such as the absolute and God. As we see in Kant’s first antinomy, philosophy approaches infinity with reference to space and time, while theology confers on it an existential-personal dimension.
The fact that God’s existence cannot meet the scientific criteria of verification and thus cannot be demonstrated and repeated could throw the plea of faith into ridicule. Although, at first glance, things seem to be heading in the right direction, science and its rigors are subject to the same challenges. Is an unprovable sentence implicitly untrue? Let’s look, for instance, at arithmetic. If only provable statements are true, how do we know that 1 + 1 = 2? Maybe the answer is 3… The answer is an axiomatic convention, a general truth accepted without proof.
Axioms are sentences or hypotheses that define the connections between primary notions. An axiom that can be proven becomes a theorem. To prove an axiom, mechanisms and concepts different from those offered by the axiom are needed. In order to prove the veracity of a sentence, certain initial, primary, previous, obvious, universally accepted data are needed.
The existence of axioms legitimizes at least the idea of a reasonable argument in favour of faith. If science operates with axioms, why can’t faith? The knowledge process always leads to the axiom that underlies the argument. There can be no system without any unprovable sentence, without any axiom. If it is not based on an axiom, any system will collapse. The Christian faith states: God is the primary axiom.
Moreover, the presence of postulates and axioms in the scientific process does not prove their veracity. The statement “God exists” cannot be proved, but it can be true. The presence of axioms in science does not validate, but only legitimizes the faith process. Not all unprovable sentences are untrue.
The question that remains is: Does God exist?
Faith must be subjected to verifiable criteria, based on the statements revealed by God in the Bible: we are created in the image of God; God is a rational, unchanging being. These attributes invite us to a thorough investigation of the postulates of the faith. It would be absurd to think that His revelation is of a different nature than His nature and ours, His creatures.
If there is any truth that should stand in the way of the rigors of reason, then it is the truth revealed in the Bible. Just as there can be no contradictory axioms in science, neither can the faith process be based on mutually exclusive axioms.
Not even the belief in the existence of God is “too holy” an axiom. The attempt to verify it is therefore not forbidden. One of the most poignant arguments in favour of God’s existence is the ontological argument of Anselm of Canterbury. If we can imagine something in comparison with which nothing greater can exist, that something must exist. Anselm said that if there is nothing superior to God, existence being possible and superior to non-existence, then God must exist.
If God did not exist—that is, the being against whom nothing greater can be imagined—then we could no longer speak of existence. It is illogical. It, the existence, the being, would be greater than God, that is, greater than the being against whom nothing greater can be imagined, by the fact that God would not exist. You cannot have anything greater than “something beyond which nothing superior can be conceived.”
So, if we exist and God is so great that nothing greater can exist, then God must exist. This argument was taken up and reformulated by Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz, but at the same time criticized by Hume, Thomas Aquinas, and Kant. Even if it was criticized by famous thinkers, the ontological argument has remained irrefutable to this day, but of course considering it a logical argument based only on reason and logic, not observation. The criticism did nothing but highlight new facets of it and thus contributed to its development.
God’s existence: the stake of atheism
Whether the approach of knowledge by faith is reasonable or not depends on the nature of the arguments. “Believe and do not question” is the symbol of false religion. In theology, faith is the scientific hypothesis and axiom—that reference point outside the system by which the equation can be solved. Starting from revelation, by faith, you come to understand things that are impossible to define and understand without the revealed assumption which is accepted by faith.
If in geometry it is reasonable to accept geometric postulates, without being able to prove them, to only later understand their veracity, why would it not be reasonable to accept the existence of God without being able to prove it, only to later understand its truthfulness?
If there is any reasonable doubt as to the guilt of a defendant, the judicial system provides credit to the defendant. This is the presumption of innocence. Reasonable doubt is in favour of the defendant. In the tension between atheism and faith we can unmistakably place God in the role of defendant. The onus of proving something does not belong to the believer.
If there is reasonable doubt as to His non-existence, shouldn’t the court rule in favour of God’s existence, based on this argument? Deciding that God does not exist, based on doubts about the “innocence of the defendant”, could be a pretty big stake.
Blaise Pascal also places the onus of this process on the shoulders of atheism. In his bet, Pascal says that if you bet on the existence of God and you are not right, you lose nothing, but if you bet against the existence of God and you are not right, you have lost everything. Even if you were right in your bet on God’s non-existence, you would not win anything.
Not only is one unable to challenge the values of Christianity regarding ethics and morality, but humanity has not been able to come up with anything better. If there are reasonable doubts about God’s non-existence, these are sufficient reasons to seriously seek reasonable arguments or to resolve any reasonable doubts.