What Is Atheism?
According to Matt, a commenter at Shtetl Optimized, and Matthew, a commenter at Overcoming Bias, (I don't think they are the same people) the difference between scientists who call themselves theists and scientists who call themselves atheists is not a difference of opinion on the nature of the Universe but it instead a difference of opinion on the nature of religion. According to Matt:
When you say “God” in your lectures, and indeed when most scientists say “God”, we know it is a euphemism for the “harmony of the natural world” or some similar concept. We know this because we are a community of like-minded individuals who all use the term in the same way. The problem is that the general public do not know this. There is quite a section of the population to whom the word “God” always means some very specific bloke up in heaven. They will always assume you are talking about him, however many times you refer to him as her or she, and however many times you explain the whole “God of Spinoza/Einstein” thing. They simply have a mental block about using the word in any other way.According to Matthew:
I must remind both Matt and Matthew that if you pat yourself on the back too hard, you can develop bursitis.
At some level, almost everyone believes in "God" if the definition is broad enough. That is, almost everyone accepts that the universe is lawful, that there are universal ("omnipotent" if you like) organizing principles which are responsible for the existence of everything. Scientists tend to call these the "laws of physics" or "natural laws". The disagreement comes about when hypothesizing the nature of this lawfulness and organization which pervades reality, and the existence of additional organizing principles in addition to the laws of physics.
By and large I think that elite professors are too intelligent to believe in the common understanding of "God". If the word is only used to refer to an anthropomorphized super-entity, it seems likely that the vast majority of educated, scientifically literate, high-g people will reject such a formulation. The main problem here is assuming that the word "God" has a common meaning across all the surveyed populations.
I don't think the rest of us should accept the judgment of atheists. As far as I can tell, a typical atheist becomes an atheist in middle school (formerly known as junior high school). In other words, they are rejecting a middle-school understanding of religion. It's as though they were rejecting modern physics on the grounds that not everything is relative or Darwin's explanation of evolution on the grounds that the fittest don't always survive.
This applies even despite the apparent fact that professors at “elite” universities are more likely to be atheists. After all, if we take the judgment of the more prestigious universities as authoritative, we must also be convinced of the inferiority of “short people with big ears.” I suspect that professors at prestigious universities are recruited from atheist subpopulations (e.g., students at prestigious universities or ambitious people who focus their ambition towards being part of the Galileo–Darwin–Einstein lineup). We can check the latter quite easily by trying to identify people with similar ambitions but who lack the intellectual firepower popularly associated with the Ivy League. For example, are drop-outs from Harvard, Yale, or Princeton particularly likely to be atheists?
Digression: Does atheism in the intellectual class go with socialism? After all, an unchecked belief that you know more than hoi polloi in the field of religion might go with a similar belief in economics.
A final comment: If the only thing we know about an idea is that the best argument for it is that it is believed by professors at elite institutions, we should be skeptical of it. After all, if there were any real argument in favor it, those talented people would have discovered it.