Do Western Philosophers Believe in God?

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A 2013 survey entitled What Do Philosophers Believe? discovered that a large percentage of Western philosophers are atheists (1). The authors of the study, David Bourget and David Chalmers, attempted to survey 1972 western philosophers from 99 leading philosophy departments across 30 different philosophical issues.

It is important to note that only 931 responded to the survey (a 47.2% response rate). Given that God, conceptions of gods, and arguments for God are big questions in the philosophy of religion it is hardly surprising that several of the questions involved relatable issues,

“What are the philosophical views of contemporary professional philosophers? Are more philosophers theists or atheists? Physicalists or non-physicalists? Deontologists, consequentialists, or virtue ethicists?”

The study produced “surprising” results. The meta survey suggests “that many of the results of the survey are surprising: philosophers as a whole have quite inaccurate beliefs about the distribution of philosophical views in the profession.” Philosophers differ across the board on numerous important philosophical issues. However, when it comes to the theism-atheism debate, most fall on the side of atheism. The study found that a majority 72.8% of Western philosophers identified as atheists while theism only accounts for 14.6%, and other = 12.6%.

Critical Responses to the Study

Some philosophers are concerned with the study. On the question as to why atheism dominates the academy, theologian and philosopher William Lane Craig reflects that “When this survey came out I was immediately puzzled because I thought, “I never received any such survey.” Neither did any of my colleagues at Talbot. There are seventeen professional philosophers on our campus. None of them were surveyed” (2). Craig wonders,

“[E]xactly who received this survey. Well, when you look into it what you find is that this survey only was sent to 1,972 philosophers – less than 2,000 philosophers. It was sent to faculty only from 99 selected departments of philosophy. Just 99. Only 62 out of the 99 were in the United States. The rest are foreign – in Europe and Australia and so forth. Of the 1,972 that were surveyed, do you know how many actually responded? Less than half. Only 931 philosophers completed this survey. Yet this is supposed to be a comprehensive study of the belief of philosophers about God.”

This is striking since Craig is one of the most influential philosophers around (3). Theistic philosopher Alvin Plantinga states that philosophy is unique when it comes to its representation of atheism. If 72.8% of philosophers are atheists “then the proportion of atheists among philosophers is much greater than (indeed, is nearly twice as great as) the proportion of atheists among academics generally,” says Plantinga.

Another philosopher, John Rasmussen, provides several reasons why one should not read too much into Bourget and Chalmers study:

1. Idea leaders who are atheists have narrower employment options at churches, synagogues, Christian colleges, etc., and so are more likely to filter into universities instead.

2. Those who specialize in the field that investigates the God question are mostly theist. Some say this is due to a selection-effect where theists are more likely to study God. I suspect that’s part of it. However, the percentage is still less than in the general population, and there is a lot of social pressure toward religious skepticism (to signal that you are an independent thinker — a true philosopher).

3. I’ve had many conversations with philosophers (including famous philosophers) at conferences about God, and, unless they specialized in philosophy of religion, they didn’t know much about the arguments for God. I’ve had many conversations where a philosopher said my argument gave them something new to think about and even moved them closer to theism.

4. In the popular sphere, there is an impression that philosophers move toward atheism by reason and only cling to theism by psychological factors. In view of the above considerations, and lots of personal experience, I have a different impression, one closer to Francis Bacon’s: “A Little Philosophy Inclineth Mans Mind to Atheism; But Depth in Philosophy, Bringeth Mens Minds about to Religion.”

References.

1. PhilPapers. 2013. What DO Philosophers Believe? Available. Access the full PDF article here.

2. Gutting, G. 2014. Is Atheism Irrational? Available.

3. TheBestSchools. The 50 Most Influential Living Philosophers. Available.

10 comments

  1. I don’t have figures but judging by examples like Craig, Habermas, J.P. Moreland, among others, a sizable proportion of well known conservative Christian apologists appear to have degrees in philosophy rather than biblical studies.

    Also, I bet that at conservative Christian institutions one finds an overwhelming majority of the philosophy professors are conservative Christian theists.

    And there always seem to be new conservative Christian institutions of higher learning arising in reaction to the movement by older Christian institutions toward more moderate and/or diverse views. Yale was founded by conservative ministers in reaction to Harvard’s “theological excesses.” Now look at Yale. Or compare Princeton today with the days when it was home to professor B.B.Warfield and his defense of plenary verbal inerrancy. Westminster Theological Seminary was formed in reaction to Princeton accepting “modernists” on its faculty. Study the “fundamentalist-modernist” debates of the 1920s and how they led to the founding of conservative colleges in reaction, like Bob Jones.

    And just as longstanding Christian colleges and universities grew less conservative the same could be said about conservative Christian students once they learn about the range of scholarly debate and opinions in the field of biblical studies.

    The oft repeated mythical stories that warned about the dangers of higher education, which often include an enthusiastic young preacher who goes to seminary (“cemetery”) and comes back doubting everything are not so mythical. From the world famous evangelist Chuck Templeton (who preached with Billy Graham for many years) until going to Princeton to engage in Biblical Studies, to Robert Funk, the agnostic historical Jesus scholar who had been a fundamentalist in his youth, these myths are real, they are the stories of thousands of people who lost their zeal after engaging in biblical studies.

    As the top conservative New Testament textual scholar in America, Dan Wallace, said:

    “As remarkable as it may sound, most biblical scholars are not Christians. I don’t know the exact numbers, but my guess is that between 60% and 80% of the members of SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) do not believe that Jesus’ death paid for our sins, or that he was bodily raised from the dead.”

    Also from Dan Wallace:

    “In one of our annual two-day meetings about ten years ago, we got to discussing theological liberalism during lunch. Now before you think that this was a time for bashing liberals, you need to realize that most of the scholars on this committee were theologically liberal. And one of them casually mentioned that, as far as he was aware, 100% of all theological liberals came from an evangelical or fundamentalist background. I thought his numbers were a tad high since I had once met a liberal scholar who did not come from such a background. I’d give it 99%. Whether it’s 99%, 100%, or only 75%, the fact is that overwhelmingly, theological liberals do not start their academic study of the scriptures as theological liberals. They become liberal somewhere along the road.” [The quotations above are part of another leaver’s multi-part testimony on his blog, The Reluctant Skeptic]

  2. I’d say it is fairly predictable that many philosophers are more likely to be atheists (interested to see what the general consensus is about the creation of the universe) than theists. It’s a bit sad to see, but also the fact that the conductors of the survey left out a lot of philosophers is a bit dodgy though, seems like some hard-core selection bias happening right there.

  3. The Atheist is the end product of Religion. We should not be surprised when any institution that should produce theists in fact produces atheists. And the Atheist will still have a relationship to god, even though he doesn’t think it exists. He may also avoid the mental illness associated with religion, and may not so readily be involved in conflict normalised by religion.

    But communism has close links with religion, and are known for their harsher regimes. So there is a smaller group that like myself who believe god exists, but minimise religion.

  4. Quite interesting indeed. At the university I studied at, the philosophy department was quite good for secular philosophy, but Eastern philosophy was absent, and when they tackled God, it was so superficial that it was laughable

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