The Psychology and Cultural Evolution of Religion Predicts Bias in Philosophy of Religion
March 8, 2013 — 12:08

Author: Ryan Nichols  Category: Uncategorized  Tags: , , , , ,   Comments: 22

“What is the first business of philosophy? To part with
self-conceit. For it is impossible for anyone to begin to learn what he thinks
that he already knows.” –Epictetus,
Discourses, Book 2, Ch. 17.

[cross-posted at CERC] At HECC and CERC we study religion–its cultural evolution and transmission, its psychology, its
emotional and cognitive makeup and more. But you might think that studies about
how the plebs experience religion are fundamentally different than studies
about how sophisticated academics experience religion. In a recent paper Paul Draper and I diagnose bias not just in
religious persons but in philosophers of religion. If the guiding hypotheses of
CERC about the psycho-social purposes of religion are accurate, extensive
biases even amongst elite thinkers are what we would expect.

Before knickers get in twists, we are not arguing in this
work that religious belief is epistemically unwarranted or unjustified. We
aren’t crafting a debunking argument based on spurious causal sources of religious
belief. Matter of fact religion is a sine qua non of modern life. It would be
not only silly but wrongheaded to attempt to banish religion from the world.
Religiosity covaries with lots of positive outcomes. (You wouldn’t want to live
longer and be healthier, would you?) In the words of the Doobie Brothers,
internal and external forms of religiosity are alright with me. More than
alright. Besides, folks in and out of the phil religion biz have narrowed the
meaning of ‘religion’ leaving out intriguing options like Ietsism
and the religious implications of the Simulation
. At least those who want to “commit it then to the
flames”, a la Hume in the immortal conclusion to his Enquiry Concerning Human
, should first get straight one what they want to burn.

This doesn’t mean we pull punches. Religious philosophers of religion appear quite biased. Of course all philosophers are biased–me not least amongst us–but the cultural evolution and psychology of religion gives us special reason to think that religious philosophers of religion will be a few standard deviations higher than the mean. This is ruining philosophy of religion. Symptoms of the bias include partisanship, polemicism, narrowness of focus and the persistent evaluation of arguments in phil rel with in-house criteria, criteria that appeal to doctrinal commitments or some such. Examples of each abound. Here are two.

Partisanship: Even a philosopher like Richard Swinburne, who demands evidence for his religious views (and has very precise standards of what counts as evidence), takes partisanship for granted. He says that philosophical theists endeavor to provide “cogent arguments for the existence of . . . God” (2001, 3) while philosophers who are atheists “endeavor to show that there is no God” (2001, 5). The ubiquity of this attitude in the discipline suggests readers won’t find this worthy of mention.


Polemicism: In philosophy of religion opponents are labeled as “enemies” (Peter van Inwagen 2006, 6, referring to those who use the fact of evil to “attack” theism) and an argument is called “triumphant” by someone who admits that it fails to establish its conclusion (Alvin Plantinga 1974, 111). We strongly suspect that rousing emotional language suffused with violent connotations is not used with as much frequency elsewhere in philosophy. ‘Strongly suspect’ only because we don’t have the data yet. I’m working on it.

But if these are the symptoms, what is the diagnosis? We present a diagnostic hypothesis in three parts.

First, all human beings appear to be cognitively biased with respect to their preferred beliefs. Since Lord, Ross and Lepper (1979), cognitive psychologists have done untold numbers of experiments documenting the effects of cognitive bias on preferred beliefs. Taber and Lodge (2006) improve on earlier work and present participants with arguments for and against both gun control and affirmative action. In addition to testing hypotheses about prior attitude effects, confirmation bias, and disconfirmation bias, they also tested hypotheses about attitude polarization, attitude strength, and a sophistication effect. Unsurprisingly, in the case of confirmation bias, it was found for all groups examined that proponents of an issue sought out more supporting than opposing arguments. What struck me was the following result: this effect was significantly more pronounced for sophisticated respondents, who selected like-minded arguments 70-75%. (‘Sophistication’ is a measure of intelligence, testing participants’ political knowledge in this case.) Some of the most ‘sophisticated’ religious believers are theologians, philosophers of religion and pastors. Could it be that similar effects would be found amongst them? Yes but studies testing for this have not been carried out. Helen De Cruz’s forthcoming research on the psychology behind the design argument is something to look forward to in this connection. (Click here for a peek.)

“I think it clearly and abundantly evident that true religion lies very much in the affections.” So says Jonathan Edwards in A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. If religion was selected for by cultures for psycho-social outcomes like heightened pro-sociality amongst the in-group, I couldn’t agree more with Edwards, which brings us to the second component of our diagnosis. Religious believers, including philosophers of religion, are likely to exhibit bias due to affective triggers. Edwards’ point has been well-documented by psychologists studying the covariance of rates of emotion and critical thinking. The upshot is that “those high in emotional conviction generated more refutational arguments [for preferred beliefs] than did those low in emotional conviction” (Edwards and Smith 1996, 17-18). Many religious philosophers of religion, having committed their whole lives to a body of religious doctrine, have strong emotions about their religious beliefs. Prior commitments associated with strong attitudes and emotions are strongly correlated in these and other studies with higher rates of cognitive bias and attitude polarization.

Third, religiosity as it is typically experienced by philosophers of religion is intimately tied to a suite of additional socio-psychological factors that lead to more bias. I refer to factors having to do with effects of priming with supernatural agency concepts, religious motivations for pro-sociality, religious means of reducing free-ridership and in-group cheating; and very positive features of religion, including religiosity’s covariance with empathy, honesty, and willingness to help. Religious people in groups are bound together more tightly–no doubt from the outside, it would appear often, enviably tightly–in ways that non-religious people are typically not. Pro-social bonds such as these appear to trump selfish, first-person motivations and lead to sacrifices of behavior for the good of the group.

But these same bonds covary with negative cognitive and behavioral outcomes too. Some studies indicate religiosity of a certain kind covaries with aggression against the out-group and bias against outsiders. (See John Teehan’s recent book for discussion of how this plays out in the history of between-group conflict in the major monotheistic faiths.) This bias is especially prominent against atheists today, as a forthcoming study Jen Wright and I have done about the social costs of atheism confirms. We also find it amongst religious philosophers of religion, who are in ‘combat’ with atheists. Who is likely to recognize a mistake or form the belief that an opponent’s argument or objection is ultimately convincing if that involves conceding defeat at the hands of a spiritual enemy in what Plantinga has called a “battle for men’s souls” (1991, 16)?


Together these three sources of bias function as conflicts of interest that set philosophers of religion apart from other groups of philosophers–from, say, four-dimensionalist metaphysicians. When a four-dimensionalist comes to give up that theory, she does not get fired or pressured to resign from her job, as would most (and do some) religious philosophers of religion at religious institutions, were they to change their minds about theism. The sort of emotional convictions and social bonds that religious philosophers of religion have about things like God’s existence or Jesus’s forgiveness of sins
have no parallel in the case of four-dimensionalists.

We identify some reasons for optimism in the paper-length version … but I am cynical. You might think that declaring one’s bias would alone assist in resolving the problem, for example. But not only doesn’t openly declaring a conflict of interest prevent bias, studies indicate it makes it worse!  But more unfortunate in our (and Epictetus’s) opinion is the way that the methods in philosophy of religion used to negotiate the terms of the debate themselves are subject to bias. One Christian philosopher wrote recently,

As Christian scholars we are of course free to entertain all manner of “what if” questions, some heterodox, some heretical. . . . While we’re free to entertain such thoughts, I believe we are constrained by our faith to answer them in certain ways. If it seems to me that a particular claim is well-argued but it contradicts a significant tenet of the faith . . . , then I should seek to refute rather than defend it. (Gary DeWeese 2012, 7)

Patients, heal thy selves.


Almost forgot that philosophy’s case of anosognosia makes that a bit difficult.

Humm. Paul, we didn’t talk about this. What are we charging for co-pays? I’d better get malpractice insurance!

  • Very interesting, and worth looking into. I’m a little surprised, though, that the diagnosis section of the post doesn’t indicate any institutional elements — just standard cognitive bias, affective triggers, and pro-social bonds in the philosophers of religion. But one of the examples that you use, the possibility of getting fired or pressured to resign from a job at a religious institution, seems primarily to involve institutional structure and incentive, not any of the three you mention. (Of course, it can be an effect of aggression against an out-group, but the relevant bias in the philosopher of religion is not this but the pressure and incentive to signal conformity to maintain his or her job. This contrasts with the examples given in discussing pro-social bond, in which the philosophers of religion are actually exhibiting in-group, out-group behavior.) Do you address any institutional or systemic factors in your paper?

    March 8, 2013 — 15:42
  • Ryan Nichols

    Thanks for the astute comment. We do discuss ways that institutional membership may correlate with biases. But let’s make a distinction between two sources. Such correlations might be explained as caused by the institution through efforts by the institution or its officers to cognitively channel the thoughts and emotions of its members. But such correlations might also be explained as caused by members of the institution themselves due to a desire to conform or to fear of reprisal, for example, during an inquisition.

    Though I recognize that the two are not independent of one another (the more thought control, the more one would internally monitor), my impression is that you were referring to something like the first type. We do not discuss that, however. That sort of bias appears to me to be less a form of conflict of interest and more a form of external thought management. No doubt many institutions engage in just such techniques. But what we do discuss in this connection is the role of in-group membership in the production of bias. Granted, in-groups are often not associated with ‘institutions’, but in many cases they overlap considerably. For example, one’s church might function as one’s primary in-group as well as an institution.

    March 8, 2013 — 16:33
  • Daniel Johnson

    Hi Ryan,
    Three questions/comments:
    (1) In your second point, you discuss the harmful epistemic effects of emotions. Are you ignoring the possible positive epistemic effects of strong emotions? There is a growing literature arguing that emotions are ways of knowing the world (in particular, knowing value claims); could it be that certain emotions that people have are accurate guides to the world, and those missing those emotions are missing important sources of information? At least, it seems that your point here relies on a substantial, and controversial, underlying epistemology.
    (2) Relatedly, much of your post, though you don’t say so explicitly, carries an air of the sort of traditional foundationalism that has come under so much attack in the 20th century. Some of your examples of “bias” — like the DeWeese quote at the end — just sound to me like a consequence of the fact that human beings don’t have all the same fundamental epistemic commitments. (DeWeese is just saying that religious believers are and ought to be more committed to their central religious convictions than to the premises of arguments brought against them. What is the problem?) This seems to me not a result of cognitive dysfunction, but an unavoidable result of the human situation — the fact that some beliefs which are not universally held can be properly basic. Human inquiry is irreducibly pluralistic in that way. (Wolterstorff’s Reason Within the Bounds of Religion is an articulation of this traditional Reformed viewpoint, but plenty of non-religious folks would agree with the basic idea.) In other words, the identification of “bias” seems to me insufficiently nuanced. A use of religious convictions as bottom-line commitments that govern reasoning in any given case is not automatically a case of “bias.”
    (3) I see the warfare metaphor (attack, defend, opponents, enemies, etc.) in every domain of philosophy I work in (metaphysics, Asian philosophy, philosophy of sport, epistemology) even when these don’t bear on religious debates. It is a natural metaphor for the move and countermove of philosophical debate. I would be surprised if it were more common in philosophy of religion than elsewhere. If it does show up more in philosophy of religion, it might just be a consequence of the fact that people care more about religious questions. And frankly, they should, because they are among the most important philosophical issues.

    March 9, 2013 — 7:54
  • Kenny Pearce

    I do think partisanship is more pronounced in philosophy of religion than in other areas of philosophy with which I am familiar, and that it’s a problem. Although there are certainly disagreements among theists and disagreements among atheists, philosophers of religion often seem to me to be eager to agree with their ‘teammates’ and disagree with the ‘other side,’ even where there is not really any particularly strong connection between (e.g.) theism and the view on which the theists agree. There is also, I think, a stronger tendency in philosophy of religion than in other areas to refrain from finding fault with arguments for one’s own ‘side,’ and leave it to the other ‘side’ to find the faults. None of this is universal, or even nearly so (for instance, van Inwagen has been quite critical of ontological and cosmological arguments). Also, I think these tendencies can be found in other areas of philosophy (or academic discourse generally) as well, but I do have the impression that this sort of thing is more widespread in philosophy of religion than in other areas. In fact, I think this is part of what accounts for the correlation between theism and libertarianism being, in my view, too strong to be explained by the force of the (known) arguments alone.

    March 9, 2013 — 13:47
  • Mark

    (1) For lots of philosophers of religion, there is a strong reason why they would be better at evaluating arguments for the views that they are committed to. That is that many of us do not think that warrant in holding these views depends much at all on these philosophical arguments. Someone who has identified him- or herself with endurantism or with the A-theory has strong reason to pitch arguments as better than they are, for there is nothing to be said in favor of being an A-theorist or an endurantist other than the philosophical arguments for it. But to hold Christian beliefs, for most folks, does not require the success of any philosophical arguments.
    (2) I don’t share the ‘Ugh’ at partisanship. One way that we get at truth is by philosophers taking up a position as advocates of that position, trying to generate all of the arguments they can in favor of it. I think the adversary system in philosophy is not a bad system at all. Do you have reason to think that philosophy would do better if we all just tried to act like judges instead of many of us acting like attorneys?
    (3) Instead of the above-the-fray stuff, why don’t you actually give an example of an argument in the philosophy of religion, or a debate, that you think is tainted by the sort of bias that you are diagnosing?

    March 9, 2013 — 13:50
  • Chris Tucker

    It’s unclear to me whether any of the things you mentioned are symptomatic of bias. Consider partisanship. In philosophy, as a general rule, people tend to argue for views that they actually endorse. It isn’t always this way, but people generally “endeavor to show” that their position is correct/supported by good arguments, rather than some point of view they don’t endorse. If I’m going to sink months or years into a project, it better be something I care about, and I tend to care more about positions I endorse (or regard as the best of the available options). Surely, you don’t think this, by itself, is a problem. Right?
    Nor does using “in-house criteria”, by itself, reveal bias. Arguments in every area of philosophy will begin with assumptions that haven’t been established in that paper. Philosophers without those assumptions may consequently find the paper less interesting, but having starting assumptions is hardly sufficient for bias.
    I suspect that Plantinga and PvI’s language has more to do with their characteristic writing style than some hidden bias.
    I will admit that if you are partisan in certain ways or use in-house criteria in certain ways, that probably indicates bias. A similar point holds for the other criteria. But I worry that, at least in the blog post, the symptoms have been described too crudely to track bias.

    March 10, 2013 — 17:49
  • Chris Tucker

    1. You say, “There is also, I think, a stronger tendency in philosophy of religion than in other areas to refrain from finding fault with arguments for one’s own ‘side,’ and leave it to the other ‘side’ to find the faults.” This has not been my impression. If anything, I get the opposite impression in phil religion literature. I won’t list examples, because you’ve already mentioned some and neither of us can give anything like a representative sample here. I just wanted to register my dissent and thereby invite you to say more to support this impression, if you have the time and interest.
    2. I suspect you are right that the correlation between theism and libertarianism is not to be explained by there being undefeated good arguments concerning their connection. Yet it’s unclear to me why you conclude that the best explanation of this data is that theists let other theists get away with stuff that they wouldn’t let atheists get away with. In fact, it is hard for me to see how it could even be a potential explanation, at least not without making the explanation sound a bit silly (e.g, compatibilist theists have powerful arguments that theism+compatibilism is the better package, but they don’t bother to mention it because they don’t want to pick on their buddies the libertarian theists).

    March 10, 2013 — 18:17
  • Ryan Nichols

    Daniel, Kenny, Mark and Chris, thank you for your comments. In case it wasn’t obvious, the parting sentence in my post indicates that I am subject to biases and am capable of misdiagnosing the problem. I don’t think I have yet, but I’m happy to learn from your remarks.

    In response to your first comment, Daniel, concerning the positive value of emotions: yes, we discuss this in the paper. Not only that, we point out ways that religious participation encourages several emotions with very beneficial effects. But I’m afraid I don’t understand why neglecting the value of emotion, were we doing that, would lead to a ‘controversial underlying epistemology’.

    Regarding the DeWeese quotation, you mention that this appears not to be evidence of bias but rather the consequence of a kind of pluralism about epistemic commitments. For my part I do not understand DeWeese’s point as being made in advocacy of a Christian form of foundationalism–far from it. It represents explicit advocacy of motivated cognition that is not aimed at the impartial pursuit of truth. Imagine teaching students that when they find a “well-argued” position in some other area of philosophy that appears to contradict their preferred belief, they should simply “seek to refute” it. Give me a couple examples of what you think is bias because I find DeWeese’s textbook.

    I agree with your remarks Kenny. One way of exploring the bias hypothesized in my post and your comment is to examine the correlations between commitment to theism or Christianity, to arguments for or against God’s existence, and listing PoR as a specialty. In addition to your post, Helen De Cruz has an earlier post here ( about this.

    Mark, you mention that Christian philosophers are likely better at evaluating arguments for positions that support theism than for opposing arguments because ‘to hold Christian beliefs, for most folks, does not require the success of any philosophical arguments.’ But if argumentation for or against God’s existence is functionally irrelevant to a Christian philosopher’s maintenance of her beliefs, why would she know arguments for her position so much better than arguments against? I didn’t follow that point.

    I won’t endorse, here at least, a tough-minded access-internalist requirement for justification. But do you think that when Christian philosophers themselves adopt DeWeese’s advice, that this is–how to put it while avoiding moral language?–consistent with being an impartial philosopher who pursues truth?

    Your second remark asks me what I think would be best for philosophy. I have neither the perspective for that sort of speculation nor the voice to project it. But the implication is dour–that some philosophers ought to engage in motivated cognition and advocate positions that they might not have reasons for because it is better for ‘philosophy’. Far from it. This sort of partisanship is what is harming philosophy of religion nowadays–and anyway this seems some distance from the open-minded, impartial pursuit of truth.

    We discuss a few arguments in the paper at more length but I don’t regard what Paul and I are doing as somehow unengaged with arguments, or above the fray as you put it. To the contrary, metaphilosophical arguments in philosophy of religion are some of the most important arguments in the field. We mentioned DeWeese, but might also have mentioned Plantinga’s influential “Advice to Christian Philosophers”, which strikes similar metaphilosophical notes.

    Chris, correct: simply because individuals argue for a view that they endorse is not an indication of bias; and having assumptions one begins with is also not biased. But when motivated cognition leads to lack of impartiality and a conflict of interest regarding one’s own beliefs, we have bias. Surely scientists are also motivated when testing their hypotheses. But when a scientist cares so much about the results that he fabricates data or neglects to consider confounding explanations, he is guilty of a bias. Unlike in science, however, philosophy doesn’t enable us to conduct replications, so biased argumentation is often not identified as biased argumentation.

    Please consider reading a bit of the empirical work that tests and documents cognitive biases (some are linked to above). You’ll get a better understanding of how psychologists study bias and how it might apply to philosophy in general. Thanks for the comments guys.

    March 10, 2013 — 19:19
  • Kenny:
    I do think the correlation between theism and libertarianism can be explained by arguments and the like. A number of the best defenses and (partial) theodicies have a component of free will and will not work given compatibilism. The problem of the first sin is a much more serious problem if compatibilism is true.
    Anti-universalism (which is, arguably, a Christian teaching, and there is a correlation between theism and Christianity, since Christians are theists) is difficult to reconcile with compatibilism.
    Moreover, objections to the very idea of indeterministic free will (the Mind Argument, as van Inwagen calls it) are less likely to be made by theists, since it is difficult to reconcile with divine creative freedom, and scientific arguments about the near-deterministic functioning of our electrochemical brains have less traction on dualists, and one would expect theism to be correlated with dualism since theists are committed to at least one immaterial mind.
    On the other side, there is the argument from sovereignty, of course. There may be other specifically theistic reasons favoring compatibilism or decreasing the evidence for libertarianism, but they are not widely known, while the above are pretty widely known.
    There are responses to all the points here, but the existence of arguments like these may be sufficient to explain the theism-libertarianism correlation.

    March 11, 2013 — 9:27
  • Dr Nichols:
    “But the implication is dour–that some philosophers ought to engage in motivated cognition and advocate positions that they might not have reasons for because it is better for ‘philosophy’. Far from it.”
    One should distinguish between the philosophers not having reasons for these views and their not having philosophical, or purely philosophical, reasons for them. For instance, the evaluation of traditional historically-based Christian apologetics is only partly a philosophical matter. Likewise, if Plantinga-type epistemology is correct, a philosopher could have direct non-philosophical justification in various theological claims, like that God has forgiven one’s sins. And so on.
    By the way, there are plenty of philosophical views that it is reasonable to reject just because they contradict something that is obviously true. For instance, were it not for the obvious fact of change, the Parmenides-Zeno view that the world is unchanging would be very well motivated. The Liar argument for dialetheism is one of the strongest philosophical arguments there is, but it argues for a patently false thesis. The Unger argument that we don’t exist is pretty plausible, but it is reasonable for us to reject the conclusion in light of the obvious fact that we exist. Perhaps (though somewhat less so, since I think this argument is rather weaker than the previous ones) likewise for the Galen Strawson argument against responsibility.
    Indeed, I think it would be unreasonable to take seriously the conclusion that there is no change, that some truths are falsehoods, that we don’t exist or that we aren’t responsible.
    But at the same time, the arguments do need to be taken seriously, not because they might be sound–I think it is unreasonable to think that–but because we can hope to deepen our understanding of the relevant concepts by working through such arguments.
    And indeed these arguments are taken very seriously. We have much serious high-quality philosophical work on the Zeno arguments, almost all by people who see it as obvious that there is change and who are all trying to find the holes in the arguments. Likewise with the Liar (though there is a bigger dialetheist camp that accepts the argument than in Zeno’s case). (I don’t know enough of the literature on the other two arguments I mentioned to comment on quality.) So high-quality work on the issues raised by an argument is compatible with being firmly convinced of the argument’s unsoundness.
    Moreover, it may be that one has no properly philosophical reasons for denying the conclusions of these arguments. My reasons for holding that there is change, that no truths are false, that we exist and that we are sometimes responsible for our actions may not be any different from the layman’s reasons. I suppose I can also come up with arguments for some of these, but the contribution of these arguments to my credence will be small.
    I am not claiming here that some religious truths have the same kind of certainty as the claim that no truths are false. I am only pointing out that it is quite possible to be completely convinced of a proposition, to such a degree that one will take almost any argument against it to be unsound, and yet to do very good work on the arguments for and against it.
    Moreover, I expect we’ve all met cases where an argument is more powerful as formulated by an opponent of its conclusion. For instance, I’ve typically found presentations of the argument from evil to be more powerful when they are made by theists. (I wonder if this might not be related to the observation–by C. S. Lewis?–that one better understands a temptation when one doesn’t give in to it. For by giving in to it, one typically hasn’t allowed the temptation to push one with all its strength.) There are other examples, theological and non-theological.

    March 11, 2013 — 10:29
  • Joshua Rasmussen

    Ryan, this is neat and valuable research. I appreciate these efforts to bring to light the scope and nature of obstacles to a sincere pursuit of truth.
    How might the situation be improved? Here are some ideas I try to incorporate into my thinking and intentions:
    1. Be willing to be wrong in everything: let *every* belief be susceptible to being overturned. (the joy of discovery!)
    2. Aim to learn from those who see things differently than I do. Be quick to listen carefully.
    3. See my interlocutors as teammates: we come at problems from different perspectives in order to promote mutual understanding and new insights.
    4. Practice the discipline of looking for problems with arguments/reasons/intuitions that support beliefs I may have antecedent held. Once we are aware of cognitive bias, I think (hope!) we can take some corrective measures to at least help the situation.
    5. Pursue inclusivity–look for steps, premises, empirical data, etc, that appeal to the widest possible audience.
    6. Esteem/value your philosophical colleagues of all stripes (this may be number one for me). In a phrase: “build a culture of honor”.
    To help the discipline as a whole, maybe we could pursue more team projects, where the members of the team vary widely in religious belief and non-belief. And we could perhaps do better to advertise (and celebrate!) mutual agreements where they are to be found.

    March 11, 2013 — 11:03
  • Heath White

    I do not object to the idea that theistic philosophy of religion brings out more bias than philosophy generally does; it would not surprise me if you were right. However, it seems to me that atheistic philosophy of religion has exactly the same suite of problems, with the possible but not likely exception of the third point. (I can’t quite follow the argument in that paragraph.)
    On the first point, naturalism and atheism are part of the identity of many philosophers, perhaps most of all when those philosophers choose to do philosophy of religion, and of course they are quite sophisticated in their reasoning. On the second point, many atheists and naturalists are quite militant about these beliefs, and have strong emotions attached to them, precisely because they are identity or worldview issues for them. The third point is a little harder to follow, but I do not think any objective reader of the New Atheists, for example, will come away thinking that these writers do not have any out-group bias against theists, and several reviewers have said as much in print.
    So my view is: the stakes are higher in philosophy of religion than in, say, the philosophy of reference; everyone’s emotions are more engaged; and so the prevalence of distorted thinking is likely to be higher all around. The best we can do is be aware of that problem and cultivate personal and institutional antidotes. But the view that non-theists are somehow immune to this problem (if that is anyone’s view on this thread; I’m not certain it is) is itself a case of biased self-deception.

    March 11, 2013 — 12:10
  • Eric Steinhart

    I think it might be wise, methodologically, to try to seek specific places where bias might be manifest. I would argue that one of the key places is the failure to consider all the available religious alternatives. This has a direct impact on arguments which involve disjunctive syllogisms and on arguments which involve theological identifications. Specifically:
    (1) The use of disjunctive syllogisms in theistic arguments. Thus (for instance) in various cosmological arguments, the explanation is either mechanical or personal, and that’s it. No further alternatives are deemed worthy of consideration. This is clearly a type of bias, given that other alternatives are present in the literature.
    (2) The cosmological arguments go to a first cause or ultimate explainer; the design arguments to a cosmic designer or complexity designer; the ontological arguments to a maximally perfect being. But the failure to consider alternatives means that, in each case, these are swiftly and typically without argument identified with the Christian God. And, in each case, alternatives are present in the existing literature or in present religious communities which just go unconsidered.
    (3) The use of hedges such as “genuine”. Consider the article on Mormonism by Howsepian ((1996) Are Mormons Theists? RS 32 (3), 357-70). He argues that “none of the so-called Gods in the Mormon Godhead are genuine Gods” (363, his itals). Of course, a “genuine” God is Anselmian, in a way familiar to orthodox Christians. It would be fine to say that Mormon Gods are not orthodox Christian Gods. But the use of the qualifier “genuine” indicates a religious bias.
    (4) All this goes to the main problem: a lack of religious diversity in PoR. Christianity is not the only religion nor is it the only type of theism (nor is Abrahamism the only type of theism). But you wouldn’t know that from examining the literature in PoR. Bias could be decreased by greater religious diversity, including new religious movements.
    But there is progress in this direction, so we can be hopeful.
    – Eric

    March 11, 2013 — 13:57
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    I tend to think that there is bias in philosophy of religion, not because of any particularly good evidence I’ve seen, but because of the subjective facts of the religious life.
    Consider the following scenario: Suppose on some island there lives a race of mostly color-blind people some of whom though have a slightly better color perception. Not a clear color perception like we do mind you, but a basic kind, which lets them clearly perceive that they live in a colorful world, but gives them no particularly clear perception of the particulars. Some for example claim that strawberries are bright red and some others claiming that they are rather a pale green. Nevertheless colorers insist that the world is colorful and try to device arguments to prove it. But that’s not the main thing colorers do, for they mostly revel in the beauty of the colorful world they experience and which transforms them. When asked they may say things like “I believe the world is colorful because the alternative is impossible”. Acolorers on the other hand try to device arguments to prove that the world is colorless. Acolorers do not doubt that many people perceive colors, even they themselves sometimes do, but point out that in a colorless world many people would suffer from colorful delusions anyway. As they point out, there is a natural tendency in peoples’ cognitive equipment to produce color-like impressions. Colorers agree, but point out that this is just what one would expect to be the case in a colorful world.
    Now here’s the thing. Studies in that world demonstrate that colorers in general, and especially those how dedicate their lives to the study of colors or else have the strongest color impressions, display a cognitive bias when facing arguments related to the world being colorful or colorless. But then, so what? How exactly is one in the existential position of a colorer not to display any bias and any emotion whatsoever when discussing the lovely colorful world she is experiencing and which is transforming her life?
    Coming back to our world, if the bias is probably there, what is one to do about it in the business of objective philosophy? Well, the fact that philosophers of religion tend to be biased is irrelevant to one’s evaluation of their thought. Unbiased philosophers are free to evaluate and compare the merits of arguments for religion and for non-religion one to one, using the same epistemic principles they chose in an unbiased way, and let the chips fall where they may. And publish the results. Clearly such work would be useful in our quest for truth. On the other hand, it seems to me that to argue about cognitive bias among philosophers of religion does not have anything of particular value to offer. Beethoven when he wrote the ninth was completely deaf, and Degas when doing his later bronze dancers was almost a cripple. So what? How do these facts affect one’s evaluation of their work? If these artists despite being physically handicapped, and if these philosophers of religion despite being cognitively biased, manage to do great work – the more impressive it is.
    Of course, another thing altogether is dogmatism. But I don’t think philosophers of religion or sophisticated theists tend to be dogmatic.
    As for non-religious people being pressured to resign from their job – the devil is in the details. I only wish to point out that if a teacher at a ballet school decides that teaching ballet makes no sense, then it also makes no sense for her to stay teaching at that school, does it? Neither does it make sense for, say, a samba school to employ a ballet teacher.
    Finally, as for DeWeese’s quote which you call a textbook example of bias, are you sure you are not displaying some bias here yourself? Suppose a physicalist philosopher had said the following in a meeting of like-minded philosophers:
    “As physicalist scholars we are of course free to entertain all manner of “what if” questions, some heterodox, some heretical. . . . While we’re free to entertain such thoughts, I believe we are constrained by our physicalist worldview to answer them in certain ways. If it seems to me that a particular claim is well-argued but it contradicts a significant tenet of physicalism. . . , then I should seek to refute rather than defend it.”
    Are you prepared to accuse that physicalist philosopher of impartiality to truth? Isn’t it natural, when facing a well-argued claim that contradicts one’s worldview, to seek to refute rather than defend that claim? After all, are there many atheist philosophers out there who when facing, say, the argument from objective moral values, seek to defend it?

    March 11, 2013 — 18:04
  • Gordon Knight

    I don’t think most proponents of the cosmological argument make an immediate unjustified leap to a belief in a personal God, and if they, do, they are making a pretty serious mistake. It may be possible to move from the the conclusion of the cosmological argument to an agent cause of the universe, given some argument about what sort of cause is necessary to actually create something. But you can’t just do it automatically.
    I find it odd that anyone would think that theistic arguments per se prsent arguments for a Christian God. I know Swinburne makes a brave attempt, as did St.Thomas, but these attempts moved far beyond arguments for bare theism.
    I agree it is odd that philososophy of religious is, pardon me, so bloody orthodox. Where is the philosophical discussion of process theism? the closest we get to anything outside traditional mainstream christianity is open theism, and OPers are, in my view, way to tepid (“Oh our view is not really that Unorthodox–it was just the damn greeks!) This is not to deny that there are muslim,hindu,budhist and jewish philosophies of religion–I am thinking of what is most often found in Faith and Philosophy and Religious Studies (the latter being much more pluralistic)
    On the other hand, anyone who has spent any time talking to even the most intellectually sophisticated atheist will realize, more often than not, that theism is not just not taken seriously as a real metaphysical possibility

    March 12, 2013 — 14:54
  • Josh:
    “See my interlocutors as teammates”. I want to highlight this (which is just one among many very helpful remarks you make) as really, really important. If an adversarial system helps get at the truth, then we should look at the adversarial striving as cooperation in the interpersonal aggregation of evidence, much as opposing sports teams should look at themselves as cooperating in the production of athletically excellent play and, ideally, fun for participants and audience. Opposing sports teams are on the same side at this meta-level, and opposing philosophers, too. But it is easy in philosophy, and I assume at least as easy in sports, to lose sight of the meta-level cooperation and to fail to be grateful for it.

    March 13, 2013 — 9:21
  • On the subject of cognitive biases, I’d like to offer a suggestion about one worth investigating. Since I don’t know the literature on cognitive biases, I don’t know if this has been studied.
    Anecdotal evidence suggests that this cognitive bias is extremely wide-spread in philosophy (and many other disciplines) and is very strongly reinforced by the rewards system operative in the discipline. This is the bias in favor of one’s original ideas. Think of how it feels (am I alone in this?) to learn that an idea one just came up was already published by Jones in 1989! Lack of original ideas is fatal to one’s research career in a way that lack of good ideas need not at all be.
    Yet, this bias could potentially be epistemically good for the group even if it’s epistemically bad for the individual.

    March 13, 2013 — 9:35
  • Ryan Nichols

    Thank you Alexander for your thoughtful comments.

    Philosophers and others have philosophical and non-philosophical reasons for their beliefs, I suppose. With the mention of Plantinga, and ‘direct non-philosophical justification,’ perhaps we are talking about something akin to properly basic beliefs. People, and philosophers, take for granted properly basic beliefs whether they are analytic–‘no truths are false’–and when they are not–God forgives some people their sins. While I don’t want to gripe about philosophical practice, for reasons summarized in the main post, I infer that many, many beliefs that philosophers have put behind glass by calling them properly basic are preferred beliefs. Redescribing this set of beliefs as properly basic or foundational, sacred or practically necessary, does not appear to relieve philosophers of the burden of proof put upon them by results about bias in cognitive science.

    Strictly speaking this discussion goes beyond the scope of my points about the effects of bias on philosophy of religion. (Draper and) I don’t enter into any argument that beliefs that are due in part to a confirmation bias, say, are ipso facto unjustified. My goal is to afford religious philosophers of religion in particular opportunity to pause and reflect on whether some of their religious beliefs are not held due to biases.

    Your follow up points about Joshua’s remarks were well put. (The other echo’s Mark’s point earlier.) Seeing interlocutors as teammates is very important, as I think is working with people outside philosophy.

    March 17, 2013 — 20:07
  • Ryan Nichols

    Joshua, thank you for what I take to be enthusiasm about the forward-looking nature of my project! I wholeheartedly endorse your suggestions for increasing the mindfulness of our practice of philosophy. On a personal note, philosophy hooked me after a logic class, at which point I felt like I could finally approach questions about God’s existence. But being a science fiction fan even before being a philosopher, your first point–emphasizing the joy of discovery–has been my navigational North Star in my own journey. I concluded a science fiction and philosophy book with the following, which I paste in for you:

    It is because of wondering that men began to philosophize and do so now.
    First, they wondered at the difficulties close at hand; then, advancing little
    by little, they discussed difficulties also about greater matters, for example,
    about the changing attributes of the Moon and of the Sun and of the stars,
    and about the generation of the universe. Now a man who is perplexed and
    wonders considers himself ignorant (whence a lover of myth, too, is in a
    sense a philosopher, for a myth is composed of wonders), so if indeed they
    philosophized in order to avoid ignorance, it is evident that they pursued
    science in order to understand and not in order to use it for something else.
    (Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Translated by Hippocrates G. Apostle. Book A.1.2, 982b.
    Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970.)

    March 17, 2013 — 20:09
  • Ryan Nichols

    Heath, even though you are correct that many atheists, esp the New Atheists, choke readers with suffocating levels of bias that appear genetically engineered to infiltrate the alveoli (my words, not yours), your primary point that atheist philosophers have exactly the same set of problems is mistaken for reasons I entered into. You implied that I implied that non-theists are immune to bias but nothing is further from the truth. Non-theists are of course severely biased, as is everyone. However, on the basis of numbers of studies controlling for religiosity, religious individuals exhibit more cognitive biases concerning their preferred religious beliefs than atheists do their preferred non-religious beliefs.

    March 17, 2013 — 20:10
  • Ryan Nichols

    Eric, my collaborator Paul Draper has impressed upon me your main point and our need as philosophers to put this into the context of biases. In addition to the helpful examples you’ve mentioned, on the top shelf is the problem that philosophy of religion is dominated by partisans who are either theists or atheists. As you say, bias would be decreased by greater religious diversity. This needn’t even mean attempting to hire a polytheist when one’s department has an opening in PoR. Rather, it might mean devoting a bit of one’s already-cramped research time reading a few articles in non-traditional PoR. Thanks for the remark.

    March 17, 2013 — 20:13
  • Ryan Nichols

    Dianelos, as to your concluding point, about the physicalist, if we find a physicalist saying that we can infer that such a person is seriously biased. You mentioned that “to argue about cognitive bias among philosophers of religion does not have anything of particular value to offer”. Perhaps but please explain what you mean by ‘value’. FYI I don’t measure the value of this work in terms of how many philosophers’ minds the work itself changes. What value there is in this project lies in giving philosophers clear opportunities to make informed, data-driven choices about how they will practice their craft–specifically, about how they argue and what they take for granted and why.

    I want to insist on this point because I’m not (I hope) telling others what to believe or how to change, let alone telling them that their beliefs are unjustified or irrational. I’m pointing out some robust biases, how they have been tested in the psych lit, some of their effects, and with Paul’s help porting those into PoR to suggest, in some cases strongly suggest, that various PoR beliefs appear biased. What philosophers do with that information is–as it can only be–up to them.

    Apologies if this series of replies to comments doesn’t appear correctly formatted.

    March 17, 2013 — 20:18
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