Belief In God Should Be Impossible For A Tolerably Educated Person
Updated: Jan 30
“Religious belief – or at least belief in God – should be impossible for someone living in our century, who thinks carefully about these matters and who has a tolerable scientific education and good philosophical training.”
- Kai Nielsen
Kai Nielsen is a philosopher who doesn't believe in God. He also thinks it should be impossible for others, who possess a tolerable education in science and philosophy and who think carefully, to believe in God. Is it true that tolerably educated people who are careful thinkers won't believe in God? As careful thinkers, let's think carefully about this question.
Mr. Nielsen’s point is not that intelligent people can't believe in God. He acknowledges that people who are philosophically trained but lacking in scientific knowledge could believe in God without difficulty. And, he says those who are scientifically trained but lacking in philosophical expertise could also believe in God. However, he sees it as all but impossible for people who are educated in both to believe in God. Is this true?
Whether Mr. Nielsen’s claim is valid would first depend on what you deem to be “tolerable” knowledge of philosophy and science. Most college students are required to take courses in the natural sciences and social sciences. The latter would include philosophy, psychology, sociology and the like. Is this level of knowledge tolerable? Is it adequate to reach a reasoned conclusion about the existence of God? If so, Mr. Nielsen’s statement fails the test. A recent survey shows that only 11% of American college graduates are agnostics or atheists.
Perhaps the universe of people that Mr. Nielsen is referring to only includes people with degrees in both philosophy and a natural science. Now, that could be a small sample size indeed. Very few people are passionate enough about both subjects (or can afford the tuition) to pursue college degrees in both of them. In fact, that sample size would exclude Mr. Nielsen as well. Though highly accomplished academically, his BA was in English and his PhD was in Philosophy. Surely he wouldn’t deem someone with his own academic credentials to lack a tolerable knowledge of philosophy and science.
Even if we did take Mr. Nielsen’s challenge to an extreme and seek to find people with degrees and expertise in both science and philosophy who believe in God, it doesn’t take long to find them. Here are a few examples.
Holmes Roltson III is a distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Colorado State University and acknowledged as a pioneer in the area of environmental ethics. He earned a BS in Physics and Mathematics, a MA in the Philosophy of Science and a PhD in Theology. Yet, with his training in science and philosophy, he believes in God.
J.P. Moreland is another educator with degrees in both science and philosophy who believes in God. He earned four degrees, including a BA in Chemistry from the University of Missouri and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of California. Mr. Nielsen should recall that he debated Mr. Moreland in 1988 and even co-authored a book with him. During their debate, Mr. Moreland concluded: “Philosophically and scientifically, the belief that God created the universe a finite time ago is eminently reasonable.”
Max Planck, a Nobel Prize winner for his work in quantum physics, didn’t just think deeply about physics, he authored The Philosophy of Physics. He was well versed in the philosophy of Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, Kant and Comte. He also believed in God.
What are we to make of this? It’s clear that educated people who are well versed both in science and philosophy can and do believe in God. These people have thought deeply about the intersection of belief in God and science and have found belief in God to be a reasonable conclusion. So, it seems that Mr. Nielsen’s claim is diminished by reality.
It clearly is possible for people with “a tolerable scientific education and good philosophical training” to believe in God. To suggest otherwise just doesn’t make sense.
About Kai Nielsen
Kai Nielsen earned a PhD in Philosophy from Duke University in 1959. He then held academic positions in universities throughout the United States and Canada: Marshall College, Amherst College, NYU, SUNY Binghamton, the University of Calgary, Brooklyn College, the University of Ottawa and Concordia University. He is a member of the Royal Society of Canada and is now retired.
 Kai Nielsen, Atheism & Philosophy, (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Press, 2005), 79.
 Kai Nielsen, Atheism & Philosophy, (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Press, 2005), 79  In America, Does More Education Equal Less Religion?, Pew Research Center, April 26, 2017, http://www.pewforum.org/2017/04/26/in-america-does-more-education-equal-less-religion/  John Shook, The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers in America from 1600 to the Present, (New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), 720.  Holmes Rolston III, Science & Religion, (Philadelphia, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2006), 343-345.  J.P. Moreland and Kai Nielsen, Does God Exist?, (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1993), 39.  Max Planck, The Philosophy of Physics, (New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 1936)  Max Planck, Where is Science Going?, (London, England: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1913), 117-140.  Max Planck, Where is Science Going?, 103.
Blog copyright by Patrick Prill, 2020.
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