We have always had atheists among us,” the philosopher Edmund Burke wrote in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, “but now they have grown turbulent and seditious.” It seems that in our own day some prominent atheists are agitating for greater political and social influence. In this connection, leading atheist thinkers have been writing articles declaring that they should no longer be called “atheists.” Rather, they want to be called “brights.”
Yes, “brights,” as in “I am a bright.” In a recent article in the New York Times, philosopher Daniel Dennett defined a bright as “a person with a naturalist as opposed to a supernaturalist world view.” Dennett added that “we brights don’t believe in ghosts or elves or the Easter bunny or God.” Dennett’s implication was clear: brights are the smart people who don’t fall for silly superstitions.
Writing in the British newspaper The Guardian, Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, a leading defender of Darwinism, also identified himself as a bright and called on other atheists and agnostics to embrace the term and to mobilize as a political movement. Like Dennett, Dawkins defined a bright as one who espouses “a world view that is free of supernaturalism and mysticism.” Dawkins couldn’t help mentioning that most scientists and intellectuals are brights. Religious people, he implied, can be found among the ranks of the less intelligent.
Clearly Dennett and Dawkins, like many atheists, are confident that atheists are simply brighter—more rational—than religious believers. Their assumption is: we nonbelievers employ critical reason while the theists rely on blind faith. But Dennett and Dawkins, for all their credentials and learning, have been duped by a fallacy. This may be called the Fallacy of the Enlightenment, and it was first pointed out by the philosopher Immanuel Kant.
The Fallacy of the Enlightenment is the glib assumption that there is only one limit to what human beings can know, and that limit is reality itself. In this view, widely held by atheists, agnostics, and other self-styled rationalists, human beings can continually find out more and more until eventually there is nothing more to discover. Advocates of the Enlightenment Fallacy insist that knowledge of reality can be obtained by reason alone, and that reason can science can, in principle, unmask the whole of reality.
In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant showed that these assumptions are false. In fact, he argued, there is a much greater limit to what human beings can know. To understand what Kant is getting at, consider the example of a tape recorder. A tape recorder, being the kind of instrument it is, can only capture one mode or representation of reality. It can only capture sound. Tape recorders can only “hear,” they cannot see or touch or smell. Thus all aspects of reality that cannot be captured in sound are completely and forever beyond the reach of a tape recorder.
The same, Kant argued, is true of human beings. The only way that we apprehend reality is through our five senses. If a tape recorder represents reality in a single mode, human beings can perceive reality through five different modes: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. But why should we believe, Kant asked, that our five-mode instrument for apprehending reality is sufficient for capturing all of reality? What makes us think that there is no reality that goes beyond, that simply cannot be apprehended by, our five senses?
Kant persuasively noted that there is no reason whatsoever for us to believe that we can know everything that exists. Indeed what we do know, Kant said, we know only through the refracted filter of our experience. Kant argued that we cannot even be sure that our experience of a thing is the same as the thing-in-itself. After all, we see in pretty much the same way that a camera does, and yet who would argue that a picture of a boat is the same thing as a boat?
Kant isn’t arguing against the validity of perception or science or reason. He is simply showing their significant limits. These limits cannot be erased by the passage of time or by further investigation and experimentation. Rather, the limits on reason are intrinsic to the kind of beings that humans are, and to the kind of apparatus that we possess for perceiving reality. The implication of Kant’s argument is that reality as a whole is, in principle, inaccessible to human beings. Put another way, there is a great deal that human beings will simply never know.
Notice that Kant’s argument is entirely secular: it does not employ any religious vocabulary, nor does it rely on any kind of faith. But in showing the limits of reason, Kant’s philosophy “opens the door to faith,” as the philosopher famously noted.
If Dawkins and Dennett have produced refutations of Kant that have eluded the philosophical community, they should share them with the rest of us. But until then, they and other like-minded atheists should refrain from the ignorant boast that atheism operates on a higher intellectual plane than theism. Rather, as Kant showed, reason must know its limits in order to be truly reasonable. The atheist foolishly presumes that reason is in principle capable of figuring out all that there is, while the theist at least knows that there is a reality greater than, and beyond, that which our senses and our minds can ever apprehend.
This article, in a slightly different form, appeared in the Wall Street Journal. For comments, write Dinesh D’Souza at firstname.lastname@example.org.