There are so many reasons why people don’t believe in God. In some cases, it is related to pain and suffering. Some have been greviously wounded by Christians and therefore cannot accept any religion. Others have gone through so much sickness or death among their loved ones that they find an insurmountable obstacle in the age-old question of “how can a loving God allow so much suffering?”
However, others have a more intellectual objection to deity. These are frequently very educated and intelligent people, who have been trained in critical thinking and have too often become serial cynics about anything that isn’t empirically verifiable. A recent article by R.R. Reno, a senior editor of First Things, sheds some great light on the driving force behind these intellectually-based objections.
Reno starts with a sincere experience from his personal work as a teacher:
For a long time as a young teacher, I believed the danger of prostituting their minds by believing falsehoods was the preeminent, or even singular, intellectual danger my students faced. So I challenged them and tried to teach them always to be self-critical, questioning, skeptical. What are your assumptions? How can you defend your position? Where’s your evidence? Why do you believe that?
I thought I was helping my students by training them to think critically. And no doubt I was. However, reading John Henry Newman has helped me see another danger, perhaps a graver one: to be so afraid of being wrong that we fail to believe as true that which is true. He worried about the modern tendency to make a god of critical reason, as if avoiding error, rather than finding truth, were the great goal of life. (Source)
Many educated people are formed to think critically and not accept everything they’re told. This is a good thing. After all, God gave us an intellect and he wants us to use it. Having been trained as an economist, critical thinking was an essential part of my formation. Like other social sciences, Economics has many schools of thought that are often contradictory so that none can be ruled out definitively as completely false. Learning about these schools of thought, along with the strengths and weaknesses of each, was part of the curriculum at my university. This fostered an attitude of critical thinking that has affected my whole life.
Moreover, my buddy in university was always questioning everything. He was a serial cynic. Virtually nothing, except maybe the law of gravity, was beyond scrutiny and questioning. It made for interesting discussions, although sometimes it was tiresome. I think he was a great example of what Reno is talking about. No surprise, my university friend was an atheist.
As Reno cleverly points out, the problem with critical thinking is that it can only be used to eliminate proposals that seem erroneous or false. But critical thinking by itself doesn’t propose anything constructive:
Critical reason, which Newman sometimes calls “strict reason,” and which he certainly did not reject, parses arguments, examines premises, and tests hypotheses. It filters belief. Strict reason is critical, not creative. The methods of critique “will pull down, and will not be able to build up.” Clear-minded and scrupulous analysis clears the underbrush of error, but it cannot plant the seeds of truth.
Thus, behind this appearance of rationalism can sometimes be hidden a fear of committing oneself to any truth.
Therein lies the danger. If we fear error too much, and thus overvalue critical reason, we will develop a mind active and able in doubt but untrained to move toward belief, a mentality too quick to find reasons not to nurture convictions.
Ideally, we would like critical reason to minister to the more fundamental project of affirming truth. We picture ourselves scrupulously examining various truth-claims, weeding out the irrational ones, and then judiciously assenting to those that seem to have solid grounds.
This has led to what I would call the “religion of cynicism” that is pervasive among so many intellectuals and university types. Reno says it much better than me:
In my experience, although the modern university is full of trite, politically correct pieties, for the most part its educational culture is cautious to a fault. Students are trained—I was trained—to believe as little as possible so that the mind can be spared the ignominy of error. The consequences: an impoverished intellectual life. The contemporary mind very often lives on a starvation diet of small, inconsequential truths, because those are the only points on which we can be sure we’re avoiding error.
Very eloquently put. Reno reinforces this point with a simple but very compelling example of a person at a train station in a foreign country who worries excessively about getting on the wrong train:
We can worry about getting on the wrong train in the foreign train station whose signs we can’t read. But we should also worry about dithering in the station too long and thus failing to get on the right train. We could starve to death in that station if we never leave. This, it seems to me, is the essence of Newman and Pascal’s insight. Sometimes, the dangers of failing to affirm the truth are far greater than the dangers of wrongly affirming falsehood.
This helps explain how the West has so many intelligent and educated people who spend their lives being critical about any religion or philosophy, to the point that they never embrace anything except immediate pleasures. They reach their grave without ever taking a chance at finding the true meaning of their life.
This reminds me of a quote from George Edward Woodberry: “Defeat is not the worst of failures. Not to have tried is the true failure.”
I highly recommend that you read Reno’s entire article here.