We Are Not All True Believers

08/09/2011 10:26 am ET | Updated Oct 09, 2011
  • Jeff Schweitzer Scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in neurophysiology

This week in the New York Times author Frank Bruni claims the following: "We all have our religions, all of which exert a special pull -- and draw special fervor -- when apprehension runs high and confusion runs deep, as they do now."

This is deeply wrong at many levels, and is nothing more than an elaboration of the silly myth that there are no atheists in foxholes. The offensive idea is that atheists are just joshing around, and when death nears, they see the light, rejecting a lifetime of rational thought. Hey god, just kidding; I knew you were here all along. I was just messing with you. C'mon, let me in.

That scenario is no more plausible than claiming a pious person will reject god on her deathbed because she finally has an epiphany of rational thinking.

The author digs a deeper hole when he adds that "...there is magical thinking in secular life."

The idea we all have religion reiterates a classic mistake made in theological arguments that secularism or humanism is a form of religion. Or that tenacious belief based on reproducible evidence is equivalent to faith. The absence of dogma is not itself dogma. Just because I do not accept as true my colleague's claim there is an invisible pink elephant in the room does not make me as equally dogmatic as the person making the claim. That idea creates a false equivalency. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof (from Carl Sagan); the burden of proof is not on me to disprove the existence of the pink elephant. Rejecting the claim in the absence of any corroborative evidence does not make me a zealot.

In spite of the author's claim, I have no religion. Science and rationalism do not fit the bill. My views can be modified when presented with contrary evidence; belief in a higher power cannot. That fundamental difference is an impassable abyss between religion and rationalism.

Magical thinking in secular life is an oxymoron. As soon as we slip into magical thinking we slip out of secularism. True secularists do not draw conclusions in the absence of convincing evidence, and magic plays no role in that equation. Secularists come to provisional conclusions open to modification in the presence of new information or data.

The author calls for a nimbleness of mind and open-mindedness to solve contemporary crises. I agree, but these can only be attained when our brains are free of religious clutter. Faith in the absence of evidence is the ultimate form of closed-mindedness, and remains an obstacle to finding good solutions to the problems we face today.

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist, former White House senior policy analyst and author of, A New Moral Code (Jacquie Jordan, Inc Follow Jeff Schweitzer on Facebook. To learn more, visit Jeff's website.