Belief in God

I’ve had the suspicion that most philosophers are (like me) inclined toward atheism, but now there is solid evidence to back this up. The impessive PhilPapers survey results have just been released, and 73% of philosophy faculty surveyed accept or lean toward atheism, while only 15% accept or lean toward theism.

Interestingly, amongst philosophy graduate students, only 64% accept or lean toward atheism, while 21% accept or lean toward theism (and the numbers are about the same for undergraduates). Do more people in general nowadays become atheists as they get older, or is there something about getting more philosophy training that makes it more likely that one will drop belief in God, or is there something about the getting-a-job process that leads theist grad students to disproportionately not become professors?


An interesting new Newsweek article talks about the striking decline in the number of people who identify as Christians:

To the surprise of liberals who fear the advent of an evangelical theocracy and to the dismay of religious conservatives who long to see their faith more fully expressed in public life, Christians are now making up a declining percentage of the American population. … the percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 percentage points since 1990, from 86 to 76 percent.

And here’s another interesting statistic:

The proportion of Americans who think religion “can answer all or most of today’s problems” is now at a historic low of 48 percent. During the Bush 43 and Clinton years, that figure never dropped below 58 percent.

And here’s one more:

The number of people willing to describe themselves as atheist or agnostic has increased about fourfold from 1990 to 2009, from 1 million to about 3.6 million. (That is about double the number of, say, Episcopalians in the United States.)

Along the lines of what I’ve suggested before, this decline in the number of self-identified Christians raises an interesting question: are that many people really giving up their personal belief in Christ, or has it just become more culturally acceptable for non-Christians to say that they aren’t Christians? And if it’s the latter, what fraction of the 76% of ostensible Christians are still falsely declaring that they’re Christians, just because that’s the culturally expected thing to say?

We value having true beliefs, and the way we support the thought that we have true beliefs, and our opponents don’t, is by giving reasons for our beliefs. But what if, in the process of giving reasons, we’re really just rationalizing — cherry-picking the arguments and evidence that we like, and unfairly dismissing the arguments and evidence we don’t like?  

Hilary Kornblith has an interesting paper discussing this issue: “Distrusting Reason”, from Midwest Studies in Philosophy 1999. He writes:

When we rationalize, at least when we do it sincerely, we are not aware of doing so; we are not aware of being motivated by anything other than a desire to get at the truth. And it is precisely because of this that the process of scrutinizing our reasons for belief may, at times, be terribly counterproductive from an epistemological point of view. Scrutinizing our reasons, when we are engaged in sincere rationalizing, will get in the way of the goal of believing truths.

How does giving reasons get in the way of the goal of believing truths? Giving reasons can do so because  (according to Kornblith) we give a biased presentation of the reasons:

When we scrutinize our own reasons for belief, we … take the evidence that is available to us at face value. Because the biasing processes that selectively filter our evidence take place behind the scenes, as it were, unavailable to introspection, we are able to produce perfectly good reasons for belief, reasons that not only survive our private scrutiny, but would survive public scrutiny as well. The process of scrutinizing our reasons, in the case of sincere rationalization, gives the illusion of being responsive to available evidence. And the more intelligent one is and the better one is at the skills of presenting and defending arguments, the more powerful the illusion will be, if one engages in rationalizing, that one is forming beliefs in ways that are appropriately responsive to evidence. … From the point of view of belief fixation, reason-giving is frequently epiphenomenal. 

I’m inclined to think that Kornblith is right that this sort of rationalization at least sometimes happens. 

It’s worth thinking about for what topics of belief one would be most likely to rationalize. I can most easily see this happening for deep-seated beliefs, beliefs that impact, for example, the way one views one’s purpose and meaning in life. Thus, beliefs about the existence of God are prime candidates for rationalization. When people give arguments for why they believe, or don’t believe, in God, we should be wary of the possibility that they are giving a biased presentation of the arguments. Perhaps even more importantly, the people who are giving the arguments should be wary of the possibility that they themselves are evincing bias. I get the sense that people are pretty good at remembering to search for bias when they hear arguments for views they oppose, but are remarkably non-self-introspective when it comes to their own presentations of reasons for belief. 


I haven’t yet posted anything about politics on this blog, but I can’t resist pointing out this line from Obama’s acceptance speech:

We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers.

Contrast that with what George H.W. Bush offensively said in 1987:

No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.


On a perhaps related point, there’s been a rather striking decline in the number of Americans who say they believe in God — from 90% to 80%, in just the past five years. I wonder if this is because 10% of Americans really stopped believing in God in the past five years, or because there’s been more discussion as of late of the atheism/theism controversy, and hence it’s become more culturally acceptable to declare oneself a non-believer. And if it’s the latter, what fraction of the 80% of ostensible theists in the 2008 poll are still falsely declaring that they believe in God, just because that’s the culturally expected thing to say?




I consider myself an atheist — while I’m not certain that there is no God, I think it’s pretty unlikely that there is. (Some intelligent design arguments make me less certain that there is no God than I would be had I not heard the arguments, so that’s why, even though I’m an atheist, I think intelligent design arguments are worth taking seriously.) 

But some people have questioned my claim that I’m an atheist. For example, in response to my claim that there are objective moral truths, someone weighed in with this:

When someone talks about not believing in God, but believing in some sort of objective reality like “morality existing in the universe,” it just makes me think that they are just rejecting the cartoon “God” of so many Christians, rather than the real God.  To me that objective morality or directionality of the universe IS God.  Get rid of the beard and the clouds…  Love.  Creativity.  Truth. Morality…  In my mind if you believe in an objective reality of these things, you do believe in some sort of “god”, perhaps just not a personal aspect of “it”.  

Well, I certainly don’t believe in a cartoon version of a Christian God. But I don’t believe in the Christian God either, as long as one construes the Christian God to be the God who became flesh in the form of Jesus Christ and died for our sins, or even just if one construes the Christian God to be the God that will provide at least some people with an afterlife in communion with him. 

So I don’t believe in the Christian God. Do I believe in some sort of God? Well, it depends on how people define God. I believe in love, and I believe in objective morality, and I believe in creativity — if one wants to simply define God as love, or morality, or creativity, then yes I believe in God. But normally when I think of God, I think of a being that created the physical universe, and I don’t think that love or morality or creativity created the universe. Also, normally when I think of God, I think of a being that is immensely powerful and knowledgeable, and I don’t think that love or morality or creativity is immensely powerful or knowledgeable. In fact, I don’t think it even makes sense to say that love or morality or creativity is knowledgeable — this is known in philosophical circles as a category mistake

But if it turns out that there are lots of theists who say that they believe in God simply because they believe in love or morality or creativity, then I guess I’d happy to join their side, and say that I believe in God too. I would worry, though, that I was misleading people when I said that, because there are at least some people out there (like me right now) who have a quite different conception of God than that, and that’s what leads some of us to say that we’re atheists.

Tom at Thinking Christian has responded to my posts about Christians (and others) living up to their beliefs with this:

when a thoughtful, friendly (shall I say?) critic speaks to us like this, we need to pay attention. We need to let it bother us.

Because far more than we would want this to be the case…. he’s right.

See also his insightful follow-up post. He correctly points out that the fact that many Christians aren’t living in accordance what they claim to be the God-given value system doesn’t provide much evidence against the truth of Christianity:

What do our inconsistent practices say about us and about the faith? They show that we’re human, we have habits, we are not perfectly consistent creatures, we’re influenced by what’s most present to our awareness. They show that we need God and his grace. All of this is entirely consistent with what Scripture says about us.

It still strikes me that, if God were to exist, it would be much more apparent to everyone that God does exist. But obviously that isn’t the way the world works, and Christianity has a story to tell about why the existence of God isn’t transparently apparent to everyone. 

Tom does recognize that, even though Scripture can account for why Christians aren’t living up to their beliefs, they should nevertheless strive to:

Our message is a lot more convincing when delivered with true Christian character behind it. We have to give ourselves grace for our failures, but we can never stop striving for growth.

For more positive feedback, see these posts from; he calls me his “new favorite atheist”.

Tom at Thinking Christian wrote a thoughtful post inspired by my previous post on whether people really believe in God. Tom picked up on this claim of mine:

That said, there are real issues about how to reconcile people’s behavior with their professed belief in God…

Tom agreed that there are real issues here:

How can we Christians reconcile our behavior with our professed belief in God? Are we as loving, as just, as devoted to truth, as worshipful toward God, as humble as our beliefs call for us to be? Of course not. We’re all on a path, at different places and moving at different speeds, and often our behavior is at odds with our beliefs. … The truth is, we mess up. Our one hope is the loving grace of God through Jesus Christ.

I appreciate Tom’s honesty and humility here. (In fact, this is something that I appreciate about many thinking Christians.) Setting aside the philosophical arguments, it’s this sort of honesty and humility that helps make me sympathetic to Christianity. It’s the actual behavior of many Christians, in contrast, that helps make me unsympathetic — and helps make me think that many Christians don’t actually believe what they profess to believe. 

The example I gave before was that of grieving death, and Tom pointed out that perhaps there are real differences between how believers and unbelievers grieve. He may be right about that — it’s hard to get into the inner mental state of someone who is grieving. So here’s another example instead — if Christians think that some people are saved and some are not, and there is something really worthwhile in being saved, and those who aren’t saved are really missing out, then why aren’t they spending more energy encouraging people to be saved? (One standard account is that the saved people go to heaven, while the unsaved don’t, but I recognize that different Christians differ on these details.) Yes, there are people who devote their lives, or at least significant portions of their lives, to missionary work and evangelism, and I admire them for following their convictions. It’s the Christians who don’t do this that I have trouble understanding. I know people who profess to be Christian and yet who live their lives pretty much like atheists do, except for the occasional trip to church, or prayer over dinner. For these people, their behavior is deeply at odds with their professed beliefs, and it makes me wonder if they really believe what they say they believe. 

Tom’s line that Christians “mess up” only partially accounts for the apparent disconnect between these sorts of Christians’ beliefs and actions. To focus on a timely example, I put what happened to Bristol Palin in the “messing up” category, and it’s nice to see that her community is forgiving her. But it’s the systematic behavior that concerns me — the systematic lack of evangelism in many Christians’ lives, the systematic acting as if God is not watching and judging their every behavior, the systematic living as if life is not spiritually sacred. 

Since I’m throwing stones, it’s only fair that I target my own glass house too. I’m sure there are atheists who don’t live in accordance with their own principles — and probably I don’t either, though it’s hard for me to identify systematic behavior along these lines. But here is one concern I have about how I live my life. I am vegetarian for ethical reasons, and I am especially opposed to how animals are treated in the factory farming process. I think that those who causally participate in this process, by for example eating factory farmed animals, are doing something morally wrong, and innocent animals are living horrible lives as a result. Nevertheless, I eat at restaurants that serve dead animals, and I am friends with meat-eaters, and I don’t do that much to actively try to encourage people to become vegetarian. Perhaps, for me to live in accordance with my principles, I should do much more to try to prevent this needless suffering. But I don’t — I take the easy way out, and pretty much live in accordance with society’s expectations for normal behavior. In this limited way, I identify with the Christians who choose to live a normal life, instead of spending their time evangelizing and going on missions.

I’ve recently read a couple different pieces arguing that belief in God is less common that it superficially appears — many people who profess belief in God don’t really believe. George Rey has an article, “Meta-Atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception”, in the book Philosophers Without Gods, where he argues that the reasons for atheism are “obvious”, the claims of theists are “mad”, and hence those people who say that they believe in God are deceiving themselves. And Daniel Dennett has a chapter in his book Breaking the Spell, called “Belief in Belief”, where he (in part) points out that some theists are happy as long as other people profess belief in God, but most theists don’t quiz others on the details of their religious beliefs, so as a result people can get by in society just professing belief in God, without having much actually worked out by way of their actual beliefs on God. Moreover, he says that

some people who consider themselves believers actually just believe in the concept of God. … They … think that their concept of God is so much better than the other concepts of God that they should devote themselves to spreading the Word. But they don’t believe in God in the strong sense. (p. 216)

In some ways, I find Rey’s strong position — that theists are self-deceived — more plausible than Dennett’s seemingly weaker position — that some people are just focussed on the concept of God, not the actual existence of God. I have trouble seeing how people could think that the concept is worth promoting, even if they really don’t believe in God, and are honest to themselves about not believing in God. But Rey’s position makes more sense to me. It helps me to think of a standard sort of self-deception story, where e.g. a husband is being cheated on by his wife, but the husband chooses to ignore the evidence of deception, and chooses not to think about the possibility of cheating. People who profess belief in God might be doing the same thing — ignoring the lack of evidence for God, just fitting into their social circle where their family and friends all profess believe in God too (on the occasions where the topic comes up). 

Ultimately, though, I don’t agree with Rey. Rey seems to be portraying most all theists as self-deceived, whereas I would say that there are lots of theists who aren’t. Perhaps non-philosophers who haven’t thought much about these issues are more likely to be self-deceived, but I know various theistic philosophers who have thought long and hard about these issues, and really think that there are good arguments for the theistic view. In fact, I think that there are some prima facie somewhat plausible arguments for the theistic view, even though I’m not ultimately a believer. Rey is being too uncharitable to the proponents of arguments he disagrees with.

That said, there are real issues about how to reconcile people’s behavior with their professed belief in God, issues that I’ve thought about long before reading Rey and Dennett. For example, people who say they fully believe in God, and fully believe that saved people are going to heaven, are nevertheless really sad when a loved one dies. Why? These theists should believe that the loved one, assuming the loved one is saved too, is in a much better place than Earth. The theists should be happy that the loved one is in a better place — just as I would be happy if my loved one got to go on an amazing vacation. Granted, it makes that the theists would miss their loved one, but why is there such grief and despair? The theists should believe that they’ll be joining the loved one before too long — it’s just a temporary absence. (And it’s especially temporary once one takes into account the theists’ belief that we’re going to live forever.) The grief and despair that some theists express makes me wonder if these people don’t really have the theistic beliefs that they profess to have. And that’s just one example of how theists’ beliefs don’t seem to match theists’ actions.