Philosophy 101 (philpapers induced) #8: Belief in God: theism or atheism?

Philosophy 101 (philpapers induced) #8: Belief in God: theism or atheism? October 28, 2015

Having posted the Philpapers survey results, the biggest ever survey of philosophers conducted in 2009, several readers were not aware of it (the reason for re-communicating it) and were unsure as to what some of the questions meant. I offered to do a series on them, so here it is – Philosophy 101 (Philpapers induced). I will go down the questions in order. I will explain the terms and the question, whilst also giving some context within the discipline of Philosophy of Religion.

This is the eighth post after

#1 – a priori

#2 – Abstract objects – Platonism or nominalism?

#3 – Aesthetic value: objective or subjective

#4 – Analytic-Synthetic Distinction

#5 – Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism?

#6  – External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism?

#7 – Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will?

The question for this post is: Belief in God, theism or atheism? Here are the results:

God: theism or atheism?

Accept or lean toward: atheism 678 / 931 (72.8%)
Accept or lean toward: theism 136 / 931 (14.6%)
Other 117 / 931 (12.6%)

One might be inclined to leave it at that. It’s pretty simple, right? The obvious observation is that most philosophers are atheist. Most people who spend a lot of time deeply thinking about things and stuff and ideas and concepts conclude that God is indeed an idea or a concept in people’s minds. And nothing more. God has no ontic reality. God doesn’t “exist”.

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

 

But I don’t want to leave it there because the devil is in the detail and looking more closely at the figures can lea to some more interesting questions. The subjects of this survey were professional philosophers and graduates around the world. However, for those who know philosophy well, being the study of, well, everything, one normally has to specialise. Thus the subjects of the survey cover the whole gamut of philosophy disciplines: morality and ethics, religion, abstracts, science, maths, epistemology, consciousness and so on. The list is long. The key to this list is the philosophy of religion.

As many Christians have made great effort to emphasise, the philosophers in the philosophy of religion discipline bear different results. 72.8% of the 3226 philosophers who took the PhilPapers survey in 2009 said that they accept or lean towards atheism. Among philosophers of religion, though, 72.3% accept or lean towards theism. That is a big reversal. Here is what the Daily Nous says about this:

Adriano Mannino considers the question in a post at the group blog Crucial Considerations. Of these figures, he writes:

On the face of it, there are two hypotheses which could explain the data, one of them worrying for atheists, the other less so:

Expert Knowledge: Philosophers of religion possess expert knowledge on the arguments for and against God’s existence. The arguments for God’s existence are just overall more convincing and render God’s existence more probable than not.

Selection Bias: People often become philosophers of religion because they are religious, or at least have a high credence in God’s existence. Theist often become philosophers of religion, not the other way around.

He then makes use of the results of the data from the study by Helen De Cruz (VU University Amsterdam) of why philosophers of religion went into that field and how their beliefs concerning theism and atheism changed over time. He ends up concluding that the evidence is best explained by the “selection bias” hypothesis. He says:

The theists to atheists/agnostics ratio is even higher before exposure to philosophy of religion. This confirms the impression we got from considering philosophers’ motivations for doing philosophy of religion: most philosophers of religion were already theists when they started, so there is a strong selection bias at work.

Moreover, there are more philosophers of religion updating their beliefs toward atheism and agnosticism than toward theism, so we can reject the hypothesis that although there is a strong selection bias, expert knowledge favouring theism is still reflected in the fact that philosophers of religion convert more often to theism than to atheism/agnosticism while acquiring expertise in the field. The numbers show that the ratio of theists to atheists/agnostics declines with exposure to philosophy of religion.

From Mannino’s original post, I will take an extended quote which very nicely sums up the state of affairs (in a different colour to retain formatting):

Expert Knowledge or Selection Bias?

To draw further conclusions concerning the two hypotheses we need more empirical data, as the 2009 philsurvey does not contain sufficient information to determine their truth or falsity. Helen De Cruz’s study, however, contains qualitative data on why philosophers started doing philosophy of religion as well as quantitative data on how their beliefs concerning theism and atheism developed over time. This is exactly what we need.

Motivation for doing philosophy of religion: The study brings to light three main reasons for doing philosophy of religion. The most prevalent is described by the author of the study as “faith seeking understanding”, religious people who want to better understand their own belief. The second frequently cited reasons was Proselytism and witnessing: many philosophers of religion felt that doing philosophy of religion was part of their calling as religious people. One philosopher for example wrote: “My religious commitment helps to motivate some of the work I do (part of which involves defending and explicating Christian doctrine)”. The third most cited reason was a fascination with religion as a cultural phenomenon. These results give some support to the selection bias hypothesis, but since the study does not contain the numbers for each of these responses it is too early to tell.

Belief-revision: The study contains numbers on how philosophers engaged in belief-revision due to their engagement with philosophy of religion. Of all the respondents (136 of 151 answered the questions on belief-revision) more than 75% underwent some degree belief-revision on topics in philosophy of religion, and around 67% of all participants observed a change in their beliefs which can be attributed to philosophy:

no change: 24.3%

belief revision to atheism or agnosticism: 11.8%

belief revision to theism: 8.1%

philosophy polarized: 9.6%

philosophy tempered: 25%

other change: 12.9

change, but not attributed to philosophy: 8.1%

These numbers show that there was an overall shift toward atheism/agnosticism of 3.7% if we compare both directions of belief-revision: the direction of belief-revision was most frequently in the direction of atheism/agnosticism.

This supports the view that the theists to atheists/agnostics ratio is even higher before exposure to philosophy of religion and confirms the impression we got from considering philosophers’ motivations for doing philosophy of religion: most philosophers of religion were already theists when they started, so there is a strong selection bias at work.

Moreover, there are more philosophers of religion updating their beliefs toward atheism and agnosticism than toward theism. This seems to weaken the hypothesis that although there is a strong selection bias, expert knowledge favouring theism is still reflected in the fact that philosophers of religion convert more often to theism than to atheism/agnosticism while acquiring expertise in the field. The numbers show that the ratio of theists to atheists/agnostics declines with exposure to philosophy of religion.

This verdict is confirmed if we look at the percentage of theists who report that exposure to philosophy of religion tempered their beliefs and the percentage of atheist who reported a tempering of their beliefs. Of the theists, 33.7% reported a tempering influence, whereas only 10.3% of the atheists reported a similar influence. In other words: a higher proportion of theists become less sure about beliefs such as taking the Bible to be literally true, accepting the Fall, regarding Catholics as heretics, etc. than atheists who become less sure about aspects of their atheism or more appreciative of theist views.

Despite these statistical conclusions it is still possible that most theists remain theists due tostrong arguments for theism, and those atheists/agnostics who convert to theism do so for the same reason, while conversion to atheism/agnosticism happens due to weak arguments. This may be very implausible, but it is an epistemic possibility.

However, it seems that the fact that this epistemic possibility is highly unlikely is already sufficient to undermine appeal to authority arguments in this domain. In most cases it is truth-tracking to reject appeal to authority arguments if strong selection biases are at work in the field and the experts in question are more likely to reject the view in question after acquiring expert knowledge on the topic. Even if it just so happens that this is not the case when it comes to theism, it is still reasonable to reject appeal to authority arguments for theism, because rejecting such arguments is overall more likely to promote true beliefs. Long story short: atheists should not be worried about the theists to atheists ratio in philosophy of religion.

I think this is really important information to bear in mind as the “most philosophers of religion are theists” card is very often played in answer to the philpapers’ stats.

I can well imagine that people getting into POR might well be seeking to post hoc rationalise their positions, and it is interesting that there is a net move away from theism within the discipline.

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