The influence of gender and philosophical specialization on assessing natural theological arguments – part 1
April 27, 2012 — 1:01

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Existence of God  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 8

Earlier on this blog, I have reported results of a survey on natural theological arguments (N=802), see here and here. To briefly recall, the survey asked philosophers to rate the strength of natural theological arguments, grouped into 8 arguments that seek to support belief in the existence of God, and 8 arguments that seek to support belief in metaphysical naturalism. My initial analysis indicated that religious belief (theism, atheism or agnosticism) reliably predicts the extent to which people will evaluate these arguments. However, in my analysis I examined only the effects of religious belief on the total overall assessments, not the arguments individually. In this post, I will report some fine-grained analyses on how philosophers evaluate individual arguments, as a function of their religious belief, gender and whether or not they specialize in philosophy of religion. Since the statistics are quite detailed, I will make this a two-part post, starting out by the positive arguments. The analyses have been conducted by Robert O’Brien, a statistician at the University of Miami.


Robert pointed out that I could test for the effects of gender and theism as covariates. I then suggested to him we could also see whether philosophy of religion made a difference. So he used an ordered logit/cumulative logit model to conduct the tests. I will here summarize his analyses for the positive arguments. To keep things brief, I’ll only report the significant differences.
Brief summary:
Religious belief strongly affects the extent to which participants rate each of the arguments. Controlling for this, philosophers of religion evaluate the following arguments more favorably: design argument, cosmological argument, argument from religious experience, and the argument from miracles. We also found some gender effects. Women rate the ontological argument and the pragmatic argument more favorably than men, men rate the cosmological argument more favorably than women, and there is an intriguing interaction between gender and religious belief for the argument from beauty and the argument from miracles.
Discussion
As you can see in the detailed report below, theism/atheism/agnosticism is in most cases the strongest predictor of how favorably participants rate arguments. In some cases, a belief by gender interaction proved to have a particularly strong effect (see e.g., the odds ratios for female theists compared to male atheists for the argument from beauty: female theists are 33.34 times as likely as male atheists to assess this argument favorably).
What I found particularly interesting was that philosophy of religion had a significant effect in a positive direction for several arguments. So regardless of whether or not philosophers of religion are theists, they tend to rate several arguments more favorably, with the strongest effects for the design argument (odds ratio 1.76) and the cosmological argument (odds ratio 1.53). I am wondering for possible explanations for this. It is probably not the technical nature of these arguments, as the ontological argument in its various forms is also quite technical. I am inclined to think that this provides some support for these arguments, since even atheist philosophers of religion are more inclined to rate these arguments strongly, but I am aware that many Prosblogion readers would disagree! It does tie in with my anecdotal observation that non-PoRs frequently dismiss arguments (e.g., only recently, a philosopher of science said to me “The fine-tuning argument, it’s just ridiculously weak”). Perhaps one needs to be acquainted with arguments in order to properly assess their full strength, in which case expertise could explain the difference.
I cannot even begin to explain the gender effects. Recent work by Buckwalter and Stich found gender differences in philosophical intuitions, so I suppose this work ties in with this. It could also be due to sampling bias (remember my difficulties in finding female participants). In any case, the stronger evaluation of philosophers of religion of positive arguments, regardless of their religious beliefs, is interesting for the debates on disagreement in philosophy of religion. Rowe argued in 1979 in defense of friendly atheism: according to him, atheists could maintain, coherently, that they have strong evidential grounds for atheism *and* that theists are reasonable in disagreeing with them. In the next installment, I will discuss whether philosophers of religion also rate some individual negative arguments more strongly.
Detailed results

  • Design argument: The strongest predictor of positive assessment of the design argument is religious belief. In the sample, theists are 12.15 times as likely as atheists and 5.84 times as likely as agnostics to rate the design argument more favorably (p < 0.0001 for both statements). Agnostics are 2.08 times as likely as atheists to rate the design argument more favorably (p < 0.0001). Controlling for theism, philosophy of religion also influences assessment of the argument. Participants who are philosophers of religion are 1.76 times as likely as those who are not to rate the design argument more favorably (p-value = 0.0005).
  • Cosmological argument: Again, religious belief is the strongest predictor. In this sample, theists are 23.12 times as likely as atheists and 6.93 times as likely as agnostics to rate the cosmological argument more favorably (p < 0.0001 for both statements). In this sample, agnostics are 3.34 times as likely as atheists to rate the cosmological argument more favorably (p < 0.0001). Philosophy of religion is also a predictor: participants who are philosophers of religion are 1.53 times as likely as those who are not to rate the cosmological argument more favorably (p= 0.01). Interestingly, gender is also a significant predictor: males are 1.52 times as likely as females to rate the cosmological argument more favorably (p= 0.01).
  • Argument from religious experience. Theists are 12.2 times as likely as atheists and 3.71 times as likely as agnostics to rate the argument from religious experience more favorably (p < 0.0001 for both statements). Agnostics are 3.29 times as likely as atheists to rate the argument from religious experience more favorably (p < 0.0001). Philosophy of religion as an AOS also has an effect. Controlling for religious belief and gender, participants who are philosophers of religion are 1.39 times as likely as those who are not to rate the argument from religious experience more favorably (p-value = 0.042).
  • Pragmatic arguments for theism. Both gender and religious belief affect how participants rate pragmatic arguments. In this sample, theists are 4.74 times as likely as atheists and 2 times as likely as agnostics to rate pragmatic arguments in favor of theism more favorably (p-value < 0.0001 and p-value = 0.0004, respectively).Agnostics are 2.37 times as likely as atheists to rate pragmatic arguments in favor of theism more favorably (p-value < 0.0001). Females are 1.59 times as likely as males to rate pragmatic arguments in favor of theism more favorably (p-value = 0.005).
  • Ontological argument. Here too, gender and religious belief affect how participants rate this type of argument. In this sample, theists are 7.76 times as likely as atheists and 3.83 times as likely as agnostics to rate the ontological argument more favorably (p-value < 0.0001 for both statements). Agnostics are 2.02 times as likely as atheists to rate the ontological argument more favorably (p-value = 0.0002). Females are 1.43 times as likely as males to rate the ontological argument more favorably (p-value = 0.029).
  • Argument from beauty. Here’s where things get messy: there is an interaction between religious belief and gender. In this sample, male theists are 26.83 times as likely as male atheists and 7.72 times as likely as female atheists to rate the argument from beauty more favorably (both p-values < 0.0001). Male theists are 5.71 times as likely as male agnostics and 2.79 as likely as female agnostics to rate the argument from beauty more favorably (p-values < 0.0001 and p-value = 0.0007, respectively). Female theists are 33.34 times as likely as male atheists and 9.6 times as likely as female atheists to rate the argument from beauty more favorably (both p-values < 0.0001). Female theists are 7.1 times as likely as male agnostics and 3.46 times as likely as female agnostics to rate the argument from beauty more favorably (p-value < 0.0001 and p-value = 0.002, respectively). Male agnostics are 4.7 times as likely as male atheists to rate the argument from beauty more favorably (p-value < 0.0001). Female agnostics are 9.62 times as likely as male atheists and 2.77 times as likely as female atheists to rate the argument from beauty more favorably (p-value < 0.0001 and p-value = 0.003, respectively). Female agnostics are 2.05 times as likely as male agnostics to rate the argument from beauty more favorably (p-value = 0.035). In this sample, female atheists are 3.48 times as likely as male atheists to rate the argument from beauty more favorably (p-value < 0.0001).
  • The argument from miracles. Belief, gender, belief x gender, and PoR are statistically significant predictors of how participants rate the argument from miracles. In this sample, male theists are 27.27 times as likely as male atheists and 12.7 times as likely as female atheists to rate the argument from miracles more favorably (both p-values < 0.0001). Male theists are 10.26 times as likely as male agnostics and 3.56 as likely as female agnostics to rate the argument from miracles more favorably (both p-values < 0.0001). Female theists are 20.93 times as likely as male atheists and 9.75 times as likely as female atheists to rate the argument from miracles more favorably (both p-values < 0.0001). Female theists are 7.88 times as likely as male agnostics and 2.73 times as likely as female agnostics to rate the argument from miracles more favorably (p-value < 0.0001 and p-value = 0.0074, respectively). Male agnostics are 2.66 times as likely as male atheists to rate the argument from miracles more favorably (p-value = 0.0008). Female agnostics are 7.66 times as likely as male atheists and 3.57 times as likely as female atheists to rate the argument from miracles more favorably (p-value < 0.0001 and p-value = 0.0001, respectively). Female agnostics are 2.88 times as likely as male agnostics to rate the argument from miracles more favorably (p-value = 0.0011). Female atheists are 2.15 times as likely as male atheists to rate the argument from miracles more favorably (p-value = 0.012). Participants who are philosophers of religion, regardless of sex or belief, are 1.42 times as likely as those who are not to rate the argument from miracles more favorably (p-value = 0.043).

Thanks to Robert for doing these incredibly interesting analyses.

Comments:
  • Truth-seeker

    I’d just like to report that before I became a theist on the basis of design + cosmological arguments, I would have rated those types of arguments low, in particular because I wasn’t aware of the details that would later lead me to change my mind. I wonder how many theists rate the arguments higher precisely because a nuanced version of the argument led them to become theists.

    April 27, 2012 — 11:11
  • Anon

    ^ that’s a good insight. I have a few atheist friends who’ve moved from a kind of hard atheism to agnosticism precisely because they were unaware of the developments in natural theology over the last 50 years. Once they were exposed to a few of these refurbished arguments, they realized that the New Atheists shouldn’t be venerated as intellectual heroes.

    April 27, 2012 — 12:16
  • Ryan

    Couldn’t the issue actually go the other way though? After all, focusing on philosophy of religion does require that one consider it a worthwhile pursuit, and if one has such a negative opinion of the arguments that one does not regard it as a worthwhile pursuit, then one will not become a philosopher of religion. So, I’d think self-selection is still very plausible as a mechanism.
    An issue related to this that comes to my mind is Keith Parsons leaving:
    http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/2010/09/goodbye-to-all-that.html
    I know that I rated the theistic arguments rather low myself though, so this is possibly just me defending my poor ego.

    April 27, 2012 — 21:55
  • Helen De Cruz

    Hi Ryan,
    The only way to adjudicate between these competing explanations would be to do a longitudinal study. How many people who are atheists would want to call it quits because the arguments would be so poor? Now, the proportion of theists in my sample decreases over time, and this is also the case for philosophers of religion (faculty in PoR is only around 70% theists, all groups combined it’s more…I do not have access to my spss file at home.) I guess this ties in with my question about Rowe’s friendly atheism: to what extent is it possible to hold (a) that the arguments for atheism outweigh those for theism and that there is strong evidence for atheism and (b) that theists are reasonable in not accepting arguments for atheism? My guess would be that most atheists who remain in phil of religion are friendly atheists.

    April 28, 2012 — 10:50
  • Ryan

    I think an interesting aspect of this is the correlation between beliefs.
    Theism and philosophy of religion both correlate with belief in libertarian free will. Libertarian free will is not required by the cosmological or teleological argument though, or vice versa.
    http://philpapers.org/surveys/linear_most_with.pl?A=main:God:theism
    http://philpapers.org/surveys/linear_most_with.pl?A=profile:AOS:Philosophy%20of%20Religion
    This could just be that this is clustering around non-naturalism caused by a perceived relationship. It could be a different epistemic paradigm at work. It could also be bias though, as free will plays a major role in theology. Do you think untangling those relationships may help understand the situation as well? (You may have already written your answer elsewhere)

    April 28, 2012 — 15:10
  • Helen De Cruz

    Hi Ryan,
    I think these correlations can be explained by two (perhaps interacting) factors:
    1. Some philosophical views are, as you point out, presupposed in theology, and perhaps also presupposed by some versions of arguments for God’s existence. The A-theory seems to play an important role in cosmological arguments, so it’s perhaps not surprising that nearly half of theist respondents in the PhilPapers survey (as opposed to only 20.8% of atheists) preferred the A-theory. Libertarian free will plays a role in much contemporary theology, but historically there have been different ideas (e.g., Calvinism). Even some neo-thomistic writings deny libertarian free will.
    2. A clustering of non-natural properties through the explanatory framework of theism. That would explain objectivism in aesthetics, moral realism, a priori knowledge etc. If God exists, it seems easy to smuggle in objective beauty, moral norms, innate ideas etc. f God doesn’t exist, it’s still possible (e.g., moral objectivism in a Godless world has been defended by Wielenberg and recently others), but not so straightforward.

    April 29, 2012 — 2:49
  • Ryan:
    “Libertarian free will is not required by the cosmological or teleological argument though, or vice versa.”
    Though some versions of the cosmological argument require God to have an indeterministic free will, or else God’s choice doesn’t explain contingent facts in the way the argument alleges. So while full libertarianism isn’t needed, compatibility between freedom and indeterminism is required.

    April 29, 2012 — 20:26
  • Truth-seeker

    The only way to adjudicate between these competing explanations
    No doubt there are multiple explanations that play a role to various degrees. I want to be careful about guessing without (much) more information.
    (My default policy is to assume the best in people; after all, everyone is aware of different things.)

    May 1, 2012 — 12:36
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