A 2013 survey “What Do Philosophers Believe?” I have cited frequently when dialoguing and writing on contemporary philosophy and the views held by professional philosophers discovered that a large proportion of philosophers are atheists (1). The authors of the study, David Bourget and David J. Chalmers, surveyed 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). And given that God, the concepts of gods, and arguments for God are big questions in the philosophy of religion it is hardly surprisingly that several of the topics 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 found what the authors define as “surprising” results. The metasurvey suggested “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.” So, it is not only that philosophers have lost cognizance of what beliefs their peers hold, but it is clear then that philosophers differ across the board. However, when it comes to the theism vs. atheism debate, most fall on the side of atheism. The study found that a majority 72.8% of western philosophers identify as atheists while theism only accounts for 14.6% (other = 12.6%).
There have been some questions raised in response to the study. On the question as to why atheism dominates the academy, William Lane Craig, a Christian-theist and influential Professor of Philosophy who has been named among the 50 Most Influential Living Philosophers today (2), questioned the study sample. In an interview he explains 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” (3).
Craig wonders about “exactly 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.”
Christian philosopher Alvin Plntinga, nestled alongside Craig in the list of the 50 Most Influential Living Philosophers today, stated that philosophy is unique beast 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. Plantinga references a study that I’ve touched on before.
Nonetheless, one ought to wonder why institutions with higher religious representations within the faculty weren’t included. One might also wonder whether or not that would have made any difference to the results of the study whatsoever.
2. TheBestSchools. The 50 Most Influential Living Philosophers. Available.
3. Gutting, G. 2014. Is Atheism Irrational? Available.