Results of the survey on natural theological arguments
February 17, 2012 — 15:26

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Existence of God  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 27

I would like to thank everyone who has completed my survey on natural theological arguments. This survey’s aim was to get a rough idea on how philosophers today evaluate various natural theological arguments in terms of their strength/plausibility. My study was motivated by the observation that philosophers frequently voice intuitions about the general plausibility of natural theological arguments, e.g., “since Darwin, the argument from design has lost its appeal”, or “the hiddenness argument is a strong contender to the problem of evil as an argument against the existence of God.” However, actual data on philosophers’ assessments of these arguments was, to my knowledge, unavailable. I’m very pleased with the large sample (802 respondents!). The data will be used in a monograph I am currently writing on the cognitive basis of natural theology.
Descriptive statistics about the sample

  • Respondents (N = 802) were recruited through a philosophy mailing list and several philosophy blogs
  • Average age: 36.5 years (SD = 11.8 years)
  • Gender: 75.8 % were men and 24.2 % were women. This is a gender imbalance, but it is not out of line with other philosophy surveys, and may reflect the general gender imbalance of philosophy.
  • Religious self-identification: 40.5 % theists, 40.4 % atheists, 19.1 % agnostic or undecided (I’ll refer to this group as agnostic for short, realizing that not all agnostics see themselves as undecided).
  • Target group: 85.8 % of respondents self-identified as philosophers; the remaining 14.2% did not (the real percentage may be higher, as some respondents said they had some training in philosophy at the undergraduate or graduate level, but moved on to major in other fields).
  • AOS: The most mentioned philosophical specialization was philosophy of religion (33.8 %). The other most mentioned areas of specialization were, in descending order, metaphysics (27.8 %), ethics (26.8 %), epistemology (25.8 %), history of philosophy (22.2 %) philosophy of mind (19.2 %) – The total is more than 100 % because respondents could indicate multiple AOS
  • Academic position: graduate students (33.3 %), faculty including tenure track (32.9), non-tenure track with PhD (15.8%), undergraduates (8 %), non-academics (10 %).

Statistical analysis
I used a linear model to examine which factors (age, religious self-identification, gender, AOS, philosopher or not, academic position) might influence the overall assessment of natural theological arguments. As we will see below, the only statistically significant independent variable for the assessment of the natural theological arguments turned out to be religious belief. Whether or not one is a theist, atheist or agnostic influences to a very significant extent how one evaluates the arguments (more on this below). Other seemingly significant independent variables like philosophical specialization were no longer significant when controlling for religious self-identification.
How strong do philosophers rate natural philosophical arguments?
Respondents were asked to rate how strong they found a series of natural theological arguments, on a likert scale of 1 (very weak) to 5 (very strong). They also had the option of indicating they were not sufficiently familiar with the argument in question. Arguments were organized in two groups (arguments for and arguments against the existence of God) of 8 items each. The results are summarized in figures 1 and 2, grouped in arguments for and arguments against.
Overall, the strongest natural theological argument was the argument from evil (mean score: 3.55). The second strongest rated argument was also an argument against God, namely the argument from parsimony (mean score: 3.01), followed by a positive argument, the cosmological argument (mean score: 2.984), and the argument from lack of evidence (mean score: 2.855). Least popular overall were the argument from miracles and the argument from beauty.
Update: Following Mohan Matthen’s observation at NewApps, I thought it would be a good idea to include a figure where you can see the mean score of each argument, viz. the mean score with theists, atheists and agnostics lumped together. This picture indicates that arguments against the existence of God (the second half of the bars) are overall rated somewhat highly than arguments for the existence of God. The boxplots on Figs 3 and 4 show what is going on here: atheists rate arguments for lower than theists rate arguments against.
Fig. 0: Overall mean scores of arguments for the existence of God (first 8 bars) and arguments against the existence of God (next 8 bars) – lumping together theists, atheists and agnostics
Fig. 1: mean scores for arguments for the existence of God
Fig. 2: mean scores for arguments against the existence of God
Do theists, atheists and agnostics significantly differ in how they assess arguments for and arguments against the existence of God? To assess this, I computed a total overall score for arguments in favor and one for arguments against. This overall score was not normally distributed, so I used non-parametric analyses (Kruskal Wallis test, with post hoc Mann Whitney U) to assess the differences. However, parametric tests (ANOVA and Scheffé) yielded very similar results and an identical significance level. In the light of this, and also given that ANOVA is reasonably robust against deviations to normality, I will report the parametric results here.
Arguments for the existence of God
Theists, agnostics and atheists differed significantly in their overall assessment of arguments for the existence of God. F (2, 684) = 457.9, p < .001.
Posthoc tests (Scheffé) reveal all these differences to be significant. Theists were more positive in their evaluation of arguments for the existence of God than atheists. Not only is there a significant difference between theists and atheists, but agnostics occupy their unique position, in between both. All tests are at a p level of < .001. boxplots_for.png
Fig. 3: mean total scores for arguments for the existence of God for theists, atheists and agnostics
Arguments against the existence of God
Theists, agnostics and atheists differed significantly in their overall assessment of arguments for the existence of God. F(2, 632) = 102,98, p < .001. Posthoc (Scheffé) tests again suggest that these differences are all significant. This time, atheists are significantly more positive in their assessment of arguments against the existence of God, whereas theists were least compelled. As with the arguments in favor, agnostics occupy their position in between, being more positive than theists, but less than atheists.
Fig. 4: mean total scores for arguments against the existence of God for theists, atheists and agnostics
In how far do atheists and theists differ in their assessment of individual arguments?
The largest disagreement is about the cosmological argument: theists find this a very strong argument (mean = 3.92), atheists assess it as significantly weaker (mean = 2.48). For arguments against God, the largest disagreement is on the argument from lack of evidence. Whereas atheists clearly hold that there is a lack of evidence (mean = 3.77), theists disagree (mean = 2.17).
There is most agreement about the argument from evil, which is assessed as strong by both theists (mean = 3.49) and atheists (mean = 3.73); also, both theists and atheists agree on the strength of the hiddenness argument (theists mean = 2.69; atheist mean = 3.12)
Gender effects
Although I found no statistically significant differences in how people assess the arguments according to gender, there were other interesting gender differences.
Males are disproportionately represented in philosophy of religion: of the philosophers of religion in the sample, 90.4% self-identified as male, and 9.6% self-identified as female. This disparity is higher than one would expect given the gender imbalance in the sample, Chi2(1, N = 802) = 47.5, p < .001.
Women in the sample were more likely to be atheists and agnostics Chi2(2, N = 802) = 45.4, p < .001.

  • Among the female respondents, 45.9 % were atheists, 32 % agnostic and 22.2 % theists.
  • Among the male respondents, 46.4% were theists, 38.7 % atheists and 15 % agnostics. [there was a typo before here – thanks to the one who pointed this out to me]

This may be due to sampling. Speculatively, since the data collection does not allow me to test this hypothesis, it seems to me that this is due to a high percentage of theists who are overwhelmingly male at Prosblogion, and a high percentage of atheists at feminist philosophers who are female. But that’s just pure speculation.
Philosophy of religion and theism
This is an update, included as a result of a question by Alexander Pruss. Like in the PhilPaper survey, I noticed a strong correlation between theism and philosophy of religion. Of those who listed philosophy of religion as an AOS, 73.1% were theists, 17% were atheists and 10% were agnostics.
Of those who did not include PoR as an AOS, 23.9% were theists, 52.4% were atheists and 23.7% were agnostic/undecided.
This result is highly significant, Chi2(2, N = 802) = 180,34, p < .001.
The results indicate that theists, atheists and agnostics significantly differ in their assessment of the strength of natural theological arguments. Does this mean that one’s religious beliefs already strongly influence one’s assessment of arguments, as Jennifer Faust suggested? Faust holds that religious arguments are question-begging in a doxastic sense, i.e., whether or not one accepts the premises of an argument depends to a large extent in one’s antecedent beliefs in the conclusion (which is either ‘God exists’ or ‘God doesn’t exist). So, for instance, an atheist when confronted with a particular version of the cosmological argument will intuit there is something fishy with one of the premises (she may question, for instance, whether or not whatever begins to exist has a cause for its existence). An alternative explanation is that the respondents were influenced by particular natural theological arguments in the shaping of their religious beliefs. This seems a bit less plausible to me, however. It is also conceivable that people change their minds on the basis of arguments. The argument from evil, rated as strong by all groups, may lead a theist to doubt his beliefs and to adopt an agnostic or atheistic stance. This short survey does not allow me to decide which of these explanations is more likely.
If you’ve read this far, you might also want to read some methodological notes on the stimuli: many respondents argued in the optional comments form that pragmatic arguments are not strictly speaking arguments for/against the existence of God, but rather for/against belief in God. Since there are both a pragmatic arguments for theism and one for atheism, this is not problematic for the statistics presented below. Another frequently voiced concern was that the arguments are coarse grained. Many respondents proposed that they were unimpressed with the Anselmian ontological argument, but thought the modal ontological argument was strong. Similarly, the fine tuning argument was judged to be a lot stronger than its classical Paleyan predecessor. My main reason for not differentiating was to keep the survey accessible, also to non-specialists (I’m confident not many non-philosophers of religion would know about the modal ontological argument). Finally, the arguments were presented as arguments for/against God, but I did not specify which concept of God (pantheism, classical theism, deism, etc.). This was done for simplicity’s sake. Allowing participants to choose between concepts of God would have made the statistics harder to interpret and less robust, and would also made the survey less accessible for non-specialists. I should note there is a survey on alternative concepts of God.

  • Gregory Lewis

    Really interesting stuff!
    One thing that strikes me is that Theists rate arguments against God consistently more strongly than Atheists rate arguments for God. (Mean for Theists for anti-God arguments looks around 2ish, whilst for Atheists its 1.7ish. No idea about significance).

    February 17, 2012 — 16:43
  • mikmik

    I noticed that as well, but also, the same holds true for the agnostics.
    Overall, arguments against existence were rated stronger, and that’s telling.

    February 17, 2012 — 20:45
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    It is striking how whereas theists evaluate atheistic arguments to be on average only about 25% less powerful than theistic arguments, atheists evaluate theistic arguments to be on average about 50% less powerful than atheistic arguments.
    Another issue concerns the variability between the strength of individual arguments as evaluated by theists and atheists. In the context of theistic arguments, theists, atheists and agnostics display little variation in their perceived strength of the individual arguments (the respective normalized standard deviations being 0.126, 0.131 and 0.145 respectively – by “normalized standard deviation” I mean the standard deviation divided by the mean). But in the context of atheistic arguments the picture changes quite a bit. Atheists evaluate atheistic arguments quite uniformly whereas theists evaluate atheistic arguments with great variability (the respective normalized standard deviations being 0.087 and 0.196 respectively – in contrast agnostics at 0.130 remain consistent).
    It is difficult to interpret these results. Given that, as all humans, philosophers too are psychological beasts, perhaps these results tell us more about how they feel than about the arguments. So, perhaps unconsciously theists try to demonstrate that they are not as dogmatic as they are often pictured, and therefore make a show of overestimating the strength of atheistic arguments (and of underestimating the strength of theistic arguments). Conversely perhaps atheists try to counter the impression that in comparison to theism atheism is failing to produce interesting arguments, and thus make a show of underestimating the strength of theistic arguments. This last effect may also explain why atheists find atheistic arguments to be so uniformly (and so highly) good. Finally the great variability in theists’ estimation of atheistic arguments may simply show that the only atheistic argument they really take seriously is the argument from evil. Indeed if one removes that argument from the sample then the normalized standard deviation quickly sinks from 0.196 to 0.112.
    A few more things that caught my eye:
    Agnostics evaluate the strength of the atheistic arguments 37% higher than the strength of theistic arguments, whereas one would expect some agnostics to find theistic arguments a little stronger and some to find atheistic arguments a little stronger, resulting in a mean difference of about zero. Perhaps agnostics are really atheists who have not come out of the closet. Or perhaps humans have a predisposition towards theism so that even when they find atheism to be stronger they prefer to remain uncommitted.
    Atheists think that the second strongest theistic argument is the argument from religious experience. I found that quite surprising. Agnostics on the other hand evaluated the same argument as dead last.
    I was surprised by the fact that atheists found the ontological argument to be stronger than the moral argument.
    Finally I was also surprised by how highly theists evaluated the atheistic argument from parsimony.

    February 18, 2012 — 3:04
  • Thomas

    One thing that strikes me is that Theists rate arguments against God consistently more strongly than Atheists rate arguments for God.
    I´m not sure, but this may be (partly) due to the fact that many atheists aren´t properly familiar with the best theistic arguments. For example, there are many strawman versions about the cosmological argument out there. Perhaps many atheists who rated the cosmological argument as ‘very weak’ had the “everything has a cause, so the universe has a cause” -“argument” in their mind. I mean, someone like William Rowe, who really is familiar with this argument, certainly wouldn´t rate it as very weak.

    February 18, 2012 — 6:31
  • “An alternative explanation is that the respondents were influenced by particular natural theological arguments in the shaping of their religious beliefs. This seems a bit less plausible to me, however.”
    Here’s a more specific hypothesis in the vicinity: Theists who find natural theology arguments plausible are more likely to remain theists, because finding the natural theology arguments help counter the force of rational and non-rational influences opposed to theistic belief.
    I’m not claiming any special status for this hypothesis other than not being implausible.

    February 18, 2012 — 8:33
  • “One thing that strikes me is that Theists rate arguments against God consistently more strongly than Atheists rate arguments for God.”
    Here’s a piece of data from a biased sample of one: I tend to find formulations of the argument from evil by theists to be significantly more compelling than formulations of the argument from evil by atheists.
    Question: How did atheism/theism correlate or not with being a philosopher of religion?

    February 18, 2012 — 8:37
  • Helen De Cruz

    Alexander, your question is very interesting – so I did the test and will shortly include it in the main text. Bottom line: there is a significant correlation between being a philosopher of religion and being a theist. 73.1% of those who listed philosophy of religion as an AOS self-identified as theists, 17% as atheists, and a further 10% as agnostic/undecided (it’s probably more than 100% due to rounding). Of those who did not list philosophy of religion, only 23.9% self-identified as theists. This is a highly significant result, I think it replicates the PhilPapers survey results as well.
    As for your earlier remark, I like that explanation too. In Natural Signs and the Knowledge of God, Stephen Evans speculates that this may be an important function of natural theological arguments: for theists, arguments for the existence of God may help one to remain confident in one’s beliefs. In the face of atheist discourse, natural theological arguments can have an important function in bolstering the reasonableness of one’s beliefs.

    February 18, 2012 — 9:04
  • Aaron

    “73.1% of those who listed philosophy of religion as an AOS self-identified as theists.” An astounding number really, as this figure significantly diverges from other areas of philosophy. It seems to me clear that there is an important self-selection effect at play here which should help deflate some of the figures on how strong some viewed some of the arguments for “God”, the argument from religious experiences, notably.

    February 18, 2012 — 10:13
  • Helen De Cruz

    Aaron, thanks for this. The self-selection bias indeed cautions us to make strong generalizations. Nevertheless, I think we went from no data other than intuitions to some interesting data – many people, I included, were surprised about the results for the cosmological argument, for example. But I am a bit puzzled about how this would deflate some of the figures. I presented the assessments of theists, atheists and agnostics separately as mean values, so you can see how theists differ in their evaluations. In particular, to take your example, although theists rate the argument from religious experience overall as stronger than atheists and agnostics, the relative importance of this argument for theists was relatively low (only 5th place) whereas it was on the second place for atheists in the arguments for.

    February 18, 2012 — 10:27
  • RD Miksa

    Good Day Aaron,
    Actually, in contrast to what you said, what I would argue from the specific results that you mention is that they demonstrate that philosophers in other areas of philosophers likely have a poor grasp of the depth and strength of theistic arguments, and thus they dismiss theistic arguments in an unjustified way. By contrast, philosophers of religion, who study theistic arguments in depth and detail, gain a clear appreciation of the strength of theistic arguments, and are thus more prone to lean towards theism.
    In fact, my above point reminds me of a quote by naturalist Quentin Smith, who essentially corroborates my idea and states that most naturalist philosophers are utterly unfamiliar with the best that theistic philosophers have to offer in today’s philosophical arena. Here is the quote:
    “Due to the typical attitude of the contemporary naturalist…the vast majority of naturalist philosophers have come to hold (since the late 1960s) an unjustified belief in naturalism. Their justifications have been defeated by arguments developed by theistic philosophers, and now naturalist philosophers, for the most part, live in darkness about the justification for naturalism. They may have a true belief in naturalism [Smith obviously assumes this as he himself is a naturalist], but they have no knowledge that naturalism is true since they do not have an undefeated justification for their belief. If naturalism is true, then their belief in naturalism is accidentally true. This philosophical failure (ignoring theism and thereby allowing themselves to become unjustified naturalists) has led to a cultural failure since theists, witnessing this failure, have increasingly become motivated to assume or argue for supernaturalism in their academic work, to an extent that academia has now lost its mainstream secularization.” (
    Take care,
    RD Miksa

    February 18, 2012 — 12:07
  • RD Miksa

    Good Day Everyone,
    I was just thinking that, in fact, this result,
    “73.1% of those who listed philosophy of religion as an AOS self-identified as theists, 17% as atheists, and a further 10% as agnostic/undecided.”
    could lead one to create an argument–albeit a weak argument, for it is an argument from authority–for the rationality of one’s own theistic belief. Very roughly, this argument would work as follows:
    1) For a lay-person it is rational to accept the opinion of experts when those experts are speaking about a result in their field of study.
    2) Three-fourths of the experts in philosophy of religion, which is the field that specializes in the study of God’s existence, are theists and thus hold that God exists.
    3) Therefore, for the lay-person, it is rational to accept the experts’ results and thus it is rational for the lay-person to be a theist and believe that God exists.
    And this argument, it seems to me, is no different from when a lay-person, in daily life, defers to medical experts, or scientific experts, or any other kind of expert in order to determine what is rational to believe or not.
    Take care,
    RD Miksa

    February 18, 2012 — 12:28
  • Robert Gressis

    Here’s a question: aren’t arguments for skeptical conclusions often quite powerful? For instance, I am not a skeptic about the external world, moral objectivity, or free will, but I find the arguments against both to be very strong. One of the features of skeptical arguments that makes them strong, I think, is that it is very easy to come up with a response to non-skeptical responses to skeptical arguments. For instance, when I pretend to be a moral nihilist, it’s quite easy to imagine responses to defenses of moral objectivism. By contrast, it’s a bit harder for me to come up with defenses of moral objectivism against skepticism of it.
    My point is that the ease and rapidity with which people can come up with skeptical arguments and supporting arguments is one of the factors that moves people to rate those arguments to be strong. Or so it seems to me.

    February 19, 2012 — 10:14
  • Robert:
    When you’re talking of “skeptical conclusions” do you mean conclusions like “we don’t know if there is free will” or conclusions like “there is no free will”?
    The arguments against there being an external world, moral objectivity or free will aren’t that strong, I think.
    The arguments against our knowing about these things are stronger (though in the end, I think, they fail).

    February 19, 2012 — 12:11
  • Here’s a potential explanation of the correlation between being in phil of rel and being a theist:
    – If theism is true, philosophy of religion is the most important area of philosophy.
    – If theism is not true, philosophy of religion is not a particularly important area.

    February 19, 2012 — 12:14
  • Helen De Cruz

    This seems like a plausible explanation to me, and it seems even useful to explain some other philosophical specializations as well. For instance, in the PhilPaper survey there was a strong correlation between AOS phil of mathematics and Platonism about abstract objects (60%) vs nominalism about abstract objects (20%). In the general, non-aos phil of mathematics it was 40.1% platonism and 40% nominalism. Here one could argue that if you believe that abstract objects exist in the realist sense, you may find philosophy of mathematics more worthwhile than if you think nominalism is true.
    I’ve noticed that in the PhilPaper survey the correlations are similar to mine: of those who list phil of religion as an AOS, 72.3% self-identify as theists, 19.1% as atheists. This is almost the same as in my study.

    February 19, 2012 — 15:20
  • Robert Gressis

    Hi Alex,
    I was thinking of both. In the case of external world skepticism, I meant the conclusion that we are not justified in believing in the external world. In the case of free will and moral skepticism, I meant the conclusion that we are justified in believing that free will does not exist and that there are no moral facts (I realize the claims, “there are moral facts” and “there is moral objectivity” are perhaps different).

    February 19, 2012 — 15:56
  • Helen:
    “Here one could argue that if you believe that abstract objects exist in the realist sense, you may find philosophy of mathematics more worthwhile than if you think nominalism is true.”
    I think the distinction in phil of math that I’d make here would be between:
    1. platonist realism
    2. nominalist realism
    3. anti-realism (non-cognitivism or error theory)
    Of these, we would expect 3 to be underrepresented among philosophers of math for the reasons in question. But the importance of phil of math doesn’t seem to me to depend much on whether 1 or 2 is true: the analysis of mathematical truth is important whether or not 1 or 2 is the right theory. So, on the analogue to my hypothesis about phil of rel, we’d expect 3 to be underrepresented and 1 and 2 to be overrepresented among philosophers of math.
    Does “nominalism about abstract objects” include both 2 and 3, or only 2? If it includes both 2 and 3, then that fits well with the survey, since by underpresenting 3, one underrepresents 2 and 3.
    Interestingly, my own confidence in nominalism in phil of math (I inclined to structuralism) went down as a result of learning of these results from you. I do think that the opinion of the experts in phil of math carries has some evidential weight. And likewise in phil of rel. This is true even if there is a plausible selection bias hypothesis, because even given the bias hypothesis, there will probably be some residual confirmation left over.

    February 19, 2012 — 17:56
  • Helen De Cruz

    Alexander: unfortunately, the Philpaper survey did not distinguish between these different positions (2 and 3). So nominalism about abstract objects includes both error theory (fictionalism etc.) and various forms of structuralism.
    I’m intrigued about the evidential weight we should put on the opinion of experts in various domains. I’m inclined to think few would find this principle objectionable for, e.g., science (e.g., defer to the majority opinion of geologists about the age of the Earth), but I’m not sure if this would work for philosophy. Once one assumes that there is at least some philosophical knowledge, the conclusion that we should defer to experts in philosophy of religion does seem inescapable if you are correct that there is some residual confirmation left over.

    February 20, 2012 — 7:34
  • My main reason for attaching weight to the opinion of platonists in phil of math was something like this line of thought: “If they’re like me, they love Ockham’s razor. That they’re not realist nominalists makes it likely that they see problems for nominalist reductions that I don’t see. So, there is some reason to think there are problems for nominalist reductions that I don’t see.”
    This generalizes to the idea that when the experts in an area think a reduction fails, and one is not an expert but thinks the reduction works, that should provide some confirmation of the thesis that the reduction has difficulties one is not aware of. And the more technical the area–say, phil of math–the more likely that there be difficulties one doesn’t see off the top of one’s head.

    February 20, 2012 — 7:50
  • hiero5ant

    Here’s a more specific hypothesis in the vicinity: Theists who find natural theology arguments plausible are more likely to remain theists, because finding the natural theology arguments help counter the force of rational and non-rational influences opposed to theistic belief.
    This strikes me as eminently plausible, since that is the precisely their function; like much (if not most) contemporary PoR, they are not attempts at rational reconstructions of existing human practices (constitutional democracy, art criticism, science etc.) Rather, they are Christian Apologetics conducted under conditions of gentlemanly restraint. And like all apologetics, they are fundamentally inward-aimed, designed not to be persuasive to neutral parties, but to protect those already within the fold from external challenges to a faith arrived at with the aid of nonrational means (revelation, tradition, scripture, faith etc.)
    One need only take a few steps outside one’s college philosophy department to the Campus Crusade for Christ rally on the quad to hear the identical arguments delivered with courage and conviction, naming names, not with the VIN number hastily scratched off like on a boosted car.
    A philosophy of religion that walked and quacked like a real philosophical duck, as opposed to an Apologetic duck, would spend a lot less time quibbling over flourishes on curlicues on ornaments on tweaks on millenia-dead arguments like “the universe must have had a cause” or “it is possible that there might be a logical reason to allow evil”, and a lot more time looking at actual practices, especially those beyond the limited horizon of the generic Western monotheism the natural-apologetic arguments in this survey concern.
    Phil-Art and Phil-sci spend a lot of ink on issues of demarcation. How much PoR is dedicated to questions like “can a sharp boundary be drawn between the text-based faiths of the Axial Age, and animism and folk religion?” or “how do adherents conceptualize schisms within their own tradition, and could meaningful parallels be extracted in the case of (say) Mahayana/Theravada, Sunni/Shia, Catholic/Protestant?” or “how does the practice of religion change when its priests acquire total control of government, like in Tibet, Iran, and Texas?”
    I think Alexander Pruss is definitely on the right track here. Broadly speaking, a strong consensus in a subfield of philosophy is absolutely entitled to weight, but is nowhere near as epistemically probative as in a science. But I get exasperated when I see attempts to spin a Theistic majority in PoR who find natural-apologetic arguments “persuasive” as evidence of some kind of “expert opinion”. Exasperated, but not surprised, since the aroma of academic authority was what the apologists were pursuing all along.

    February 20, 2012 — 13:36
  • “…and a lot more time looking at actual practices, especially those beyond the limited horizon of the generic Western monotheism the natural-apologetic arguments in this survey concern…”
    I am sure there is interesting philosophical work to be done there, but it is not all that interesting to me. I am a metaphysician, and I pursue those aspects of the philosophy of religion that are a part of metaphysics. Anecdotally, most philosophers of religion are pursuing it either as a part of metaphysics or as a part of epistemology. This does mean that “philosophy of religion” is somewhat misnamed–generally as it is practiced, it isn’t about religion as such (i.e., as a practice).
    While that’s a problem about the name, it’s not a problem about the discipline. If there is a God, questions about the nature and existence of God are arguably more interesting than questions about human practices. And there is a God.
    “Phil-Art and Phil-sci spend a lot of ink on issues of demarcation”
    But have they made significant progress? 🙂

    February 21, 2012 — 7:49
  • RTN

    Interesting results, Helen. I look forward to seeing the full paper. I’d enjoy examining the data, once the paper is published of course, with your consent. I’d like to look at interactions with denominational affiliation among theists and confidence in arguments for God’s existence. Also, am I right to think that analysis of data correlating atheists in PoR/theists in PoR with confidence in arguments for God/confidence in arguments against God is not complete? I would speculate that the splits between the atheist/theist means would further separate. Not a hypothesis. Just sayin’.
    Would you care to extrapolate somewhat on your results and discuss whether you would infer that philosophy of religion as a subdiscipline is unhealthy? Your results indicate that the mean values of atheists’ ratings of arguments for God and arguments against God were, both of them, closer to the respective means of agnostics. In addition, take Stephan Evans at face value for a minute: theists themselves appear to be inflating the evidential value of arguments for God’s existence because, as you paraphrase, “for theists, arguments for the existence of God may help one to remain confident in one’s beliefs. In the face of atheist discourse, natural theological arguments can have an important function in bolstering the reasonableness of one’s beliefs.” My reading of the situation is that philosophy of religion is unhealthy, and further that your data are best understood as demonstrating a statistically significant conflict of interest.
    Countless studies in the cognitive psychology of bias, conflicts of interest and other psychology of religion results concerning motivated skepticism, would appear quite relevant in framing your data. Consider just one: In a foundational experiment on cognitive bias researchers investigated effects of argumentation on proponents and opponents of capital punishment—talking about a Lord paper. Both sets of participants read summaries of the procedures, results and critiques of studies on the deterrent effects of capital punishment. One set of documents provided evidence of the deterrent efficacy of punishment, and this set referred to research done in the same U.S. state before and after capital punishment was instituted. The other set of documents provided evidence of the deterrent inefficacy of punishment, and this set referred to research done in different states, some with and some without capital punishment. Half of each group was given the first set showing deterrent efficacy and half of each group was given the second set showing inefficacy. In other words half of each group had their pre-theoretical beliefs confirmed by the available evidence and half of each group had them disconfirmed.
    The results exhibited a pattern of cognitive bias that became a focus of continued research in subsequent decades. Participants in both groups considered the documents supporting their convictions to represent a well-designed study that offered valuable evidence about the utility of capital punishment. Participants did not ignore counterevidence to their convictions; instead they thoroughly, carefully criticized the evidence against their convictions. Do we have evidence of that with your data, I wonder? I don’t think so.
    According to cognitive dissonance theory, participants on both sides critically considered the opposite theory more carefully in order to buffer counterevidence with ‘consonant’ information. But participants did not reason impartially, weighing the evidence on both sides independent of their own commitments. Participants’ attitudes became polarized. Do we have evidence of that in your data? Probably.
    So all in all your use of the term ‘reasonableness’ in the above quote struck me as unusual. Care to explain whether you were using this term as a means of positive epistemic appraisal and, if so, what it means in the context? Put otherwise, in your opinion, if Evans is correct, doesn’t that function as a partial defeater or, better, as evidence for a systemic conflict of interest, for religious philosophers of religion regarding their endorsement of arguments for God’s existence?

    February 22, 2012 — 21:59

    One of the striking results from my survey on natural theological arguments is that most philosophers of religion are theists. Even if I restrict my count to a subsample consisting only of those people who are philosophers, who have listed philosophy o…

    February 25, 2012 — 8:09
  • hiero5ant

    In reverse order, I would say the finding that these human activities lack binary, algorithmic demarcations but are more like fields of force powered by subjective concerns, whose boundaries are more of a sort of falling off with distance constitutes an important result. And then there are of course the other issues I mentioned in passing as examples of what a healthy “philosophy of ___” is typically engaged in. Is there anything in PoR answering to e.g. Rawls’s rational reconstruction of constitutional democracy, or Dworkin’s reconstruction of law as integrity, or Van Fraassen’s account of scientific theories as aiming only at empirical adequacy? Why do these philosophical disciplines expect their practitioners to anchor their thoughts to actual facts about the practices they philosophize upon, where PoR seems at least informally to actively dissuade analysis and criticim of specific religious claims?
    (I know from the emoticon that you didn’t mean lack of progress to be an argument, but when this criterion is turned on PoR the assessment can only be described as dire, even in relation to other areas of philosophy. Will anyone aver that the discipline is making visible progress toward answering “is there a god” when the conversation is almost entirely composed of the frozen-in-amber natural apologetics listed in the OP?)
    I’m unclear what possible subject matter PoR could be construed as having for its target of analysis, if not actual religion as actually practiced, nor what specific metaphysical interests you have in mind that could only be addressed (or best be addressed, or whatever) under that rubric. Other than idle logic-chopping based on speculative definitions unanchored from any possible experience* (a rock so big he can’t lift it, foreknowledge implies determinism etc.), the only topics I can think of off the top of my head seem to already have their own subfields. If you want to talk about Divine Command theories, there’s already Metaethics; if you want to talk about First Cause, there is already Physics, and Philosophy of Physics. The problem for the believer is that the secular, scientific perspective of modernity has steadily banished these phantasms from the relevant community of inquiry, so PoR gives the appearance of being a sort of dumping ground for discarded ideas, where the Apologist can go on making the same old arguments but maintain a patina of academic respectability by confining her language to the vague, emaciated talk of a stripped-down PhilosopherGod.
    I fault nonbelievers working in PoR for enabling this practice, allowing Socratic philosophical inquiry to be hijacked by Christian Apologetics while ignoring what by all accounts ought to be the subject matter of something called “philosophy of religion”: free, critical analysis of the actual history and beliefs of actual religions.
    (* by this I don’t mean to imply like a positivist that it is illegitimate to make metaphysical conclusions remote from direct observation, only that these speculations be in some sense motivated by and therefore anchored in experience. So if you want to conclude that causal beliefs reveal a genuine metaphysical structure of the universe, instead of being mere Humean regularities in experience, well and good; just make sure your premises involve actual examples of the practice of attributing causes, and actual, motivated problems solved by your theory, rather than contemplating “the definition of cause” and seeing how far that plus deduction will take you.)

    February 26, 2012 — 1:09
  • Joshua Rasmussen

    The results indicate that theists, atheists and agnostics significantly differ in their assessment of the strength of natural theological arguments
    Since there are many, many arguments within each general type, it could also be that the participants aren’t actually assessing the very same arguments. In my own case, a certain cosmological argument was instrumental in inclining me toward theism. But in discussing (testing out) that particular argument with others, I have found that most philosophers (atheists and theists alike) have only a surface understanding of it (not that my own understanding is complete).
    So, it could also be that those who are more likely to come across a particularly cogent defense of a particular version of a particular argument are then more likely to be persuaded by that argument and so rate it as persuasive. I know we suffer from confirmation bias problems, but I doubt that’s the only (or even main) explanatory factor here. Which instances of an argument type one is aware of surely plays a role here, too.

    February 27, 2012 — 20:34
  • Helen De Cruz

    Joshua, thanks for your comments. One of the things I noticed in the optional comments is that respondents have differing assessments for different versions of the arguments. For instance, the modal ontological argument was regarded as better than other versions. Not all my respondents were familiar with all these different versions. If I do a follow up on this study, I could examine more fine-grained distinctions between these arguments. Purely anecdotally, I noticed that colleagues who are not philosophy of religion and atheists have only a surface understanding of arguments. Perhaps in order to get an interest in natural theological arguments, one already has to at least see theism as a live option, or at the very least, as a rationally defensible position. This might explain why friendly atheists may sometimes get persuaded by natural theological arguments, but not those who start from the prior assumption that theism is just not rationally justifiable.

    February 28, 2012 — 13:51
  • I doubt that Smith is right.
    Beversluis and Parsons no longer do atheological books,because they find no reason to further debate the sterility of supernaturalism. The arguments themselves count against the theistic philosphers of religion!

    March 3, 2012 — 15:34