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.”
2. Gutting, G. 2014. Is Atheism Irrational? Available.
3. TheBestSchools. The 50 Most Influential Living Philosophers. Available.