Philosophers of religion are religious. Why?

In 2009, David Chalmers organized a massive survey of over 3000 professional philosophers, grad students, and undergrads, asking them questions about all things philosophical and compiling the results. The results are broken down by area of specialization, age, race, gender, and everything else you might be interested in.

Here’s a link to the paper, and here to a listing of all survey results.

This is basically my favorite philosophy paper to read, and I find myself going back to look at the results all the time. I’d love to see an updated version of this survey, done ten years later, to see how things have changed (if at all).

There’s a whole lot I could talk about regarding this paper, but today I’ll just focus on one really striking result. Take a look at the following table from the paper:

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What’s shown is the questions which were answered most differently by specialists and non-specialists. At the very top of the list, with a discrepancy more than double the second highest, is the question of God’s existence. 86.78% of non-specialists said yes to atheism, and by contrast only 20.87% of philosophers of religion said yes to atheism. This is fascinating to me.

Here are two narratives one could construct to make sense of these results.

Narrative One

Philosophers that specialize in philosophy of religion probably select that specialization because they have a religious bias. A philosophically-minded devout Catholic is much more likely to go into philosophy of religion than, say, philosophy of language. And similarly, an atheistic philosopher would have less interest in studying philosophy of religion, being that they don’t even believe in the existence of the primary object of study, than a religious philosopher. So the result of the survey is exactly what you’d expect by the selection bias inherent in the specialization.

Narrative Two

Philosophers, like everybody else, are vulnerable to a presumption in favor of the beliefs of their society. Academics in general are quite secular, and in many quarters religion is treated as a product of a bygone age. So it’s only natural that philosophers that haven’t looked too deeply into the issue come out believing basically what the high-status individuals in their social class believe. But philosophers of religion, on the other hand, are those that have actually looked most closely and carefully at the arguments for and against atheism, and this gives them the ability to transcend their cultural bias and recognize the truth of religion.

As an atheist, it’s perhaps not surprising that my immediate reaction to seeing this result was something like Narrative One. And upon reflection, that still seems like the more likely explanation to me. But to a religious person, I’m sure that Narrative Two would seem like the obvious explanation. This, by the way, is what should happen from a Bayesian perspective. If two theories equally well explain some data, then the one with a higher prior should receive a larger credence bump than the one with a lower prior (although their odds ratio should stay fixed).

Ultimately, which of these stories is right? I don’t know. Perhaps both are right to some degree. But I think that it illustrates the difficulty of adjudicating expertise questions. Accusations of bias are quite easy to make, and can be hard to actually get to the bottom of. That said, it’s definitely possible to evaluate the first narrative, just by empirically looking at the reasons that philosophers of religion entered the field. If somebody knows of such a study, comment it or send me a message please! The results of a study like this could end up having a huge effect on my attitude towards questions of religion’s rationality.

Imagine that it turned out that most philosophers of religion were atheists when they entered the field, and only became religious after diving deep into the arguments. This is not what I’d expect to find, but if it was the case, it would serve as a super powerful argument against atheism for me.

4 thoughts on “Philosophers of religion are religious. Why?

  1. I lean towards selection bias rather than expert knowledge for why philosophers of religion are more theistic than philosophers in general. There’s a quote from a study by Helen de Cruz that points in that direction. I have three links to that one source, everything but the study itself since that link seems to be broken, “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.” Here are some belief change stats from that study of 151 philosophers of religion by Helen de Cruz : 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% [I would push back a lot on the supposed correlation of analytic thinking and a lack of religious belief. So here we go: That last one shows that in less religious countries like the UK or Czeck Republic “analytic thinkers were mildly more religious” and the study suggests that people with low analytic skills may tend to conform to the cultural norm” (rather than religion having a causal role) ]
    Tangent over, we’re back to metaphilosophy of religion there was an intriguing comment to [[[“…there are more philosophers of religion updating their beliefs toward atheism and agnosticism than toward theism”

    This assumes that all the revision to atheism and agnosticism is moving from theism to one of those. But De Cruz’s data don’t tell us how many of those moving to agnosticism moved there from atheism; those would be moves away from atheism (and in some sense, moves “toward” theism).]]] Anyways, there is a group of experts that are interesting though, I was wondering if agnostic biblical scholars were arguably moving in the direction of a historical Resurrection. Apparently in the Seventies anyone would be laughed out of a room for bringing up the empty tomb or bodily appearances of Jesus to his disciples after his execution, or that the early church taught the resurrection, but things have changed somewhere in the course of three or four decades to where there are skeptics and atheists in the area that take those things to be well-established.

  2. It doesn’t help that non Phil of religion academics literally don’t understand the arguments, but all have huge opinions about it. Ed Festers a former atheist and philosopher of religion talks about this in his book. Having your views “tempered” seems rather meaningless, as I’m considering Catholicism after studying this subject, and considering how many atheists I’ve met who are absolutely convinced by people who have no idea what they are saying (ie Dawkins or Hitches) there’s no reason to think that they are not utterly restrained by cognitive biases.
    The short of it is the vast majority of experts in the field believe the arguments are sound, and until you get the same kind of dara for other fields who have such huge opinions ie “what percentage of physicists who believe in an eternal universe we’re atheists before they were physicists?”, the point is sort of immaterial.

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