The eternal conflict between atheists and religious believers is riddled with ad hominem attacks from each side. Most popularly, believers call atheists immoral and unguided, while atheists call believers blind and stupid. In my next post I’ll tackle the idea that atheists can indeed be just as moral and find just as much meaning in life as believers, but today I want to talk about believers. Atheists, especially militant atheists, often criticize the religious as weak-willed fools believing in blatantly false fairy tales. However, believing is nowhere near as foolish as this explanation would have us believe.
Regardless of how smart anyone is, and regardless of how much humankind itself knows about the world, we are still, and always will be, confronted with mysteries. For all our knowledge and learning, we have absolutely no idea what comes after life, how consciousness arises, or even where the universe itself came from. It’s also very likely that we will never be able to answer these questions, no matter how much we learn. It’s these mysteries that allow for religious belief in an all-powerful spiritual force that can explain the unknowable. Some might argue that accepting such a supernatural explanation for the unknown instead of striving to actually understand it is simply an act of intellectual laziness, but that’s not necessarily true either.
Let’s take the second law of thermodynamics as an example. This law states that the total entropy, or randomness, in the universe is constantly increasing; in other words, that the universe is constantly getting hotter and messier. If we run this law in reverse, though, things get a bit odd. If moving forward means that things get hotter and messier, moving backward means that things get colder and more orderly. Go back far enough and you eventually reach an infinitely small, cold, and ordered point, beyond which you cannot progress. Where does this point come from? Here science gives out. We have, currently, no theory that reasonably explains what came before that point or how it sprung into existence. Moments like this, in which science leads us to a question it itself cannot answer, support religious explanations, and are the reason that even brilliant scientists, the exact people we expect to reject religion entirely, can believe.
At the end of the day, though, believing religiously says nothing about one’s intelligence because of the nature of belief itself. The things we have to believe in are the things we cannot know, no matter how smart we are. People don’t believe because they don’t know enough or because they simply don’t want to try to come up with a better explanation for the world. They believe because sometimes, no matter how hard we try or what we do or how brilliant we are, we simply cannot explain the world in a secular way.