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If there is one thing that infuriates defenders of the faiths about atheists, it is that we keep pointing out the worldwide connection between the most literal forms of religion and lack of education.
But the correlation between low levels of education and religion — specifically, the most extreme anti-intellectual forms of monotheistic religion — is an undeniable fact. Since 1960, the number of Catholics in Africa has increased by an astounding 708 percent, even as the traditionally Catholic countries of Europe have grown more secular and 25 percent of American-born Catholics have left the church.
In other words, the Catholic Church is shrinking everywhere but on the earth’s poorest, worst educated continent. The majority of those who remain practicing Catholics in the United States and Europe are what the Catholic right contemptuously calls “cafeteria Catholics,” who retain attachment to certain church traditions and rituals but reject Vatican teachings such as the necessity of a male, unmarried priesthood; the immorality of birth control, and the infallibility of a man in Vatican City.
Islam too is growing, in Africa and the poorer countries of southeast Asia, as well as through the tendency, especially evident in Europe, of recent Muslim immigrants from Africa and southeast Asia to have large families.
A list of the top eleven countries reporting adherence to either Christianity or Islam of over 99.99 percent, compiled by National Geographic, offers an instructive picture of the landscape of extreme religious devoutness and, in some instances, religious coercion: Afghanistan, Botswana, Burundi, Bangladesh, Chad, Comoros, Maldives, Mali, Niger, Pakistan, Somalia. Are any of these places where a majority of the population has access to decent schools, physical security, enough food and jobs that meet basic economic needs?
Even people of liberal faith are reluctant to admit that there is a correlation between religious literalism and the ignorance that flourishes in the absence of education, economic security and political liberty. At a recent panel discussion sponsored by the Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Reza Aslan, the author of the bestselling No God But God, said it was “absurd” of me to make a connection between religious fundamentalism and lack of education.
Although Aslan is anything but a fundamentalist himself, he approvingly described the growth of religion around the world in recent decades as a refutation of secular prophecies in the 20th century that religion, certainly fundamentalism, was on its way out. Yes, the secular prophecies were wrong. But 20th-century secularists erred not in their perception of the linkage between declining religious faith and educational progress but in their anticipation poverty and illiteracy would soon be vanquished worldwide.
By making that connection, Aslan suggested, I was expressing a typical atheist belief that religious people are “stupid” and that atheists are more intelligent than believers. I readily acknowledge, as I told the audience, that there are stupid atheists and intelligent religious believers, if we are talking about intelligence as an inherent capacity to learn and understand the world. But education and natural intellectual capacity are hardly identical. Education is a system of instruction, and an assemblage of historical and scientific knowledge, that puts intelligence to use and makes it much more difficult for the recipient to believe in supernatural events.
A good secular education — not the sort of religious indoctrination that the children of fundamentalist Muslims receive in madrassas or fundamentalist Christians receive in schools where they are taught that dinosaurs roamed the earth with humans — is the enemy of fanatical and literal religion.
Aslan, a distinguished writer about religion and the son of parents who fled the new Iranian theocracy in 1979, is the sort of religious moderate or liberal who traffics in the delusion that the growth of the Muslim, evangelical Protestant, and conservative Catholic populations in Africa, Latin America, and South Asia is a victory for his kind of intellectual and liberal faith. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Even in the United States, the “religious exception” among predominantly secular developed countries, there is also a powerful correlation between religious fundamentalism and lack of education. About 45 percent of those who have no education beyond high school believe in the literal truth of the Bible, while only 29 percent with some college and just 19 percent of college graduates share that old-time religion. Two-thirds of college graduates but only a third of high school graduates believe that living beings have evolved over time, with or without the guiding hand of a creator.
Furthermore, the religious divide in American politics also correlates with the geography of poverty and poor education. Fundamentalism is strongest in the South, which still lags several percentage points behind the Northeast, Midwest and West in its proportion of both high school and college graduates. New England and the Northwest, with the highest percentage of college graduates, also are the most secular regions of the nation.
Fundamentalists understandably resent any discussion of the connection between their brand of blind faith and lack of education but it is not quite as clear why liberal intellectual Muslims like Aslan or their liberal Christian and Jewish counterparts (who long ago made the choice to adapt to secular knowledge rather than cling to Biblical literalism) are so indignant when an atheist discusses this subject.
One obvious reason is that the secular drift in the educated world has not boded well for liberal religion over the past century. The only forms of monotheistic religion that are growing today are those that reject secular knowledge if it conflicts with their faith. At some point, all monotheistic faiths — even the most liberal religions — require belief in something that flatly contradicts the known and verifiable laws of nature. The answer of liberal believers is to split their world into two “separate magisteria” — the spiritual domain of faith and the material domain of science.
In his new book “Civilization”, the historian Niall Ferguson offers a perfect example, from the 17th century, of the ways in which knowledge and education come into conflict with faith. In 1665, the English polymath Robert Hooke published his Micrographia, a revolutionary work that introduced the concept of cells as the basic units of living beings.
He wrote, “And as at first, mankind fell by tasting of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge, so we, their Posterity, may in part be restor’d by the same way, not only by beholding and contemplating, but by tasting too those fruits of Natural knowledge, that were never yet forbidden. From hence the World may be assisted with variety of Inventions, new matter for Sciences may be collected, the old improv’d, and their rust rubb’d away….”
Think about what Hooke was saying: That mankind could only improve itself by repeating what had been considered the original sin and tasting more of the fruits of the tree of knowledge. The limitless pursuit of knowledge is simply incompatible with religions that insist, “You can learn this much and no more or your immortal soul will be in danger.” When atheists make this point, religious liberals become uneasy because they fear being tarred with the same anti-intellectual brush.
At some point, the religious answer to any unanswerable secular intellectual challenge must always be, “It’s a mystery.” The difference between atheists and all religious believers is not that we are more intelligent but that we are unwilling to accept the “mystery” copout. We look upon mysteries as puzzles that have not yet been solved but may yield, upon further inquiry, to the complex (but not mysterious) efforts of human intellect.