Does higher education cause atheism?

Barry Kosmin, whose American Religious Identification Survey is one the basic datasets for anyone trying to understand religion in America, isn’t convinced higher education causes people to become atheists:

Undoubtedly, educational attainment is closely associated with intelligence. So any link between intelligence and atheism seems persuasive. …

As regards atheism, one mistake often made, even by many experts, is a failure to differentiate atheism from disbelief and indifference to religion. Certainly, higher education since the days of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment has encouraged critical thinking, skepticism, empiricism, and free inquiry, all of which are often seen as inimical to supernaturalism and traditional religious beliefs. But you could argue that these values do not necessarily encourage atheism per se, but rather its closely associated philosophical or theological position: agnosticism.

I tend to think that’s true, and would go farther. I’d say that, all else being equal, this sort of background will lead to an indifference towards theistic claims. Of course, that also happens to be my own position, so maybe I just assuming that I’m normal – a dubious assumption! But Kosmin’s distinction is important. For all the talk that happens about the high rates of atheism in Europe (a theme of various gnu writers, and a common counter to the “religion is inevitable, so let’s just work with it” position that accommodationists sometimes adopt), I would guess that Europe’s low rate of church membership is less a matter of principled atheism and more an indifference to religion, theological claims, etc.

That apathy towards theistic claims is probably also pretty common among Jews and Catholics, and probably in plenty of other mainline Protestant groups. People go to church, or affiliate themselves with a particular church group, for lots of reasons, many of which have little to do with theology. My guess, and I haven’t tried to parse this out using survey data yet, is that you’d find that many American theists are apathistic theists. I’d also argue that getting into arguments with such people about theism specifically will only tend to accentuate their theism (cognitive research shows this to be a common reaction to having your beliefs challenged), and will make theism seem more salient, thus reducing their apathy.

Returning to Kosmin’s essay, I’d add that what I think tends to move people out of an apathistic agnosticism and into outright atheism is a reaction against religious douchebaggery. The attacks of September 11, 2001, did that for several of the New/gnu/extreme/affirmative atheists, as does the wingnuttery of fundamentalists and the radical religious right. Again, I’m still poking around for data that would test this claim, and welcome suggestions.

Kosmin continues by noting some confounding factors in the correlation between educational attainment and atheism:

There’s also a historical or cultural lag explanation as to why people get it wrong about the well-educated in the contemporary United States. Most people still think of higher education in terms of an elite liberal-arts education that stresses Enlightenment values. But in recent decades, the recruitment pattern into higher and post-graduate education has changed in terms of disciplines as an ever greater proportion of the population has received a bachelor’s degree (now approaching one-third of young adults). The newer cohorts of the credentialed are more female and more Southern—traditionally groups with more theistic beliefs—and often received very little exposure to the natural sciences and philosophy. As a result, today’s well-educated Americans are more religiously diverse than in the past. Statistically, these processes inevitably involve a regression to the mean of American religious conviction, which reflects the majority belief in a “personal God” (73 percent according to the American Religious Identification Survey 2008).

In the comments, the incomparable Tom Rees points out research from last year which found that training in the natural sciences is less corrosive to religious belief or practice than training in the humanities or the social sciences. Biology, engineering, and physical science/math majors tended to have lower rates of theistic belief than a comparable cohort that didn’t go to college, but tended to attend church more often. Humanities majors and social science majors tended to decline even further in theistic belief, while also attending church less often. This is a surprising result, as is the study’s authors’ conclusion: “it is Postmodernism, not Science, that is the bête noir of religiosity.”

And now, off to examine polling data and edit pictures from last weekend’s wedding.

Comments

  1. #1 msironen
    February 22, 2011

    This sounds like a rather self-congratulatory juggling of definitions.

    - “Oh, those educated people don’t actually DISBELIEVE our theistic claims, they’re just INDIFFERENT to them!”

    The mind doesn’t really reel at the significance of the distinction.

    Also your claim about apathetic theists doesn’t seem quite plausible. Many (even a majority) of believers might be indifferent to theologic minutiae, but not the core claim(s) of theism. If they were, and intellectually honest to boot, they could be argued out of identifying as theists in 5 minutes.

  2. #2 brainwashedatheist
    February 22, 2011

    Oh what great strides we have made in debunking the myths of religion! Any keen observer of social and cultural conditions can easily see that progress has been made. A few examples would be the great decrease in unwed children, lower std rates comparable to previous generations, less mental illness such as depression, greater fiscal responsibility in government and personal life, more dominant academic test scores compared to other nations than our religious predecessors, and a overall greater tendency for humanitarianism. Oh hold on… My bad I guess I must have slipped up here all these things are well umm the opposite of what I said. Fortunately though I am learning to become more like an athiest or should I say learning to lie better?

  3. #3 brainwashedatheist
    February 22, 2011

    Thinking outside the box? What is this concept? There is a God or is there a God? Oh my how shall I determine a solution to such a complex question? Let me start be attending a university that will teach me to be open-minded and explore all plausible explanations(as long as they are sanctioned by those in power). Of course a rise in numbers of those believing the same as me must me credibility in my argument! Besides what have those pesky religious nuts contributed to science anyway? Besides the founding of practically every scientific branch(discipline)obviously nothing. Oh and Western civilization what did religion really attribute to that? We could have had the enviroment to spurn scientific debate, inquiry, and research in any culture rather in be Islamic, Norse, or hell even Congo could have got the job done. Thank God, shit hell did not mean to say that I have to learn how to take those dern words out of my everyday vocabulary. Something has forced me to use them and I just can’t seem to understand what. That is a bad thing I guess, CRAP there I go again, bad is derived from the religious concept of evil so should I say umm well hell I think I will just keep my mouth shut and use the tactic of claiming that I am of higher intelligence and accusing anyone that questions this of being of lower intelligence. Sounds pretty good to me. I hope my grammarr and spell ing are correct or should I ask my professor who I drink my kool-aid with if he will teach me to use SPEll chekc. I am so glad I am not one of those brain-washed religious fanatics!

  4. #4 brainwashedatheist
    February 22, 2011

    Thinking outside the box? What is this concept? There is a God or is there a God? Oh my how shall I determine a solution to such a complex question? Let me start be attending a university that will teach me to be open-minded and explore all plausible explanations(as long as they are sanctioned by those in power). Of course a rise in numbers of those believing the same as me must me credibility in my argument! Besides what have those pesky religious nuts contributed to science anyway? Besides the founding of practically every scientific branch(discipline)obviously nothing. Oh and Western civilization what did religion really attribute to that? We could have had the enviroment to spurn scientific debate, inquiry, and research in any culture rather in be Islamic, Norse, or hell even Congo could have got the job done. Thank God, shit hell did not mean to say that I have to learn how to take those dern words out of my everyday vocabulary. Something has forced me to use them and I just can’t seem to understand what. That is a bad thing I guess, CRAP there I go again, bad is derived from the religious concept of evil so should I say umm well hell I think I will just keep my mouth shut and use the tactic of claiming that I am of higher intelligence and accusing anyone that questions this of being of lower intelligence. Sounds pretty good to me. I hope my grammarr and spell ing are correct or should I ask my professor who I drink my kool-aid with if he will teach me to use SPEll chekc. I am so glad I am not one of those brain-washed religious fanatics!

  5. #5 msironen
    February 23, 2011

    A few examples would be the great decrease in unwed children, lower std rates comparable to previous generations, less mental illness such as depression, greater fiscal responsibility in government and personal life, more dominant academic test scores compared to other nations than our religious predecessors, and a overall greater tendency for humanitarianism. Oh hold on… My bad I guess I must have slipped up here all these things are well umm the opposite of what I said.

    This must be one of the most confused arguments I remember coming across (in fact I’m not completely sure he’s even trying to make one). The apparent gist of it is that since “debunking the myths of religion” HASN’T actually led to all sorts of societal progress (some of which seem to have an ever so slight conservative bent), therefore… well I’m just shooting in the dark here but, atheism is false?

    Fortunately though I am learning to become more like an athiest or should I say learning to lie better?

    I have it on good authority that atheists mostly know how to spell “atheist” so the latter is probably closer to the mark.

  6. #6 citygod
    February 23, 2011

    Unwed children? I suppose he means children of unwed mothers, which is very different. And why yes, those rates are probably “better” (meaning lower) among atheist/agnostic women, and in states with lower rates of churchgoing etc. And those godless Europeans are on average better humanitarians and students than we Americans.

    I agree that what makes people anti-religious is the hypocrisy and misbehavior of religious leaders and religious people in general. It doesn’t necessarily make them anti-theistic though. Their morality is shot, but cosmology is another subject.

    The last two paragraphs give a nice punctuated nuance to the headline. It also confirms for me that Postmodernism is just the latest legitimate child of the Enlightenment.

  7. #7 Anthony McCarthy
    February 23, 2011

    People believe or not on an individual basis, not on any basis discoverable by statistical analysis of surveys. A characterization of the question on the basis of that will produce an abstraction that tells you nothing about most of the people surveyed or most of the people in the species, it may tell you nothing about any real person. Though I am convinced that modern education brings out the selfishness and conceit of people, especially their conceit, both of which I’d characterize as immoral or, worse, amoral.

    I became an agnostic the more I learned, atheism was just another assertion that people could know by reason than can be known by reason so I was never an atheist. I didn’t believe in God until I studied enough Buddhism until I didn’t care if there was a God or an afterlife and knew that any description I or anyone could have about the God of my youth COULD only be a vague, distorted image because people are bound to think in human terms and that’s the way people think. There wasn’t any bar to my believing in a very different God than the one I believed in up into my teens and I found I did.

    Having read several of his books about epistemology, I think I believe in something like the God of A. S. Eddington, largely mysterious but there and good. I am an agnostic believer. I believe because of my experience, not because of anything I’ve read or reasoned through.

    well I’m just shooting in the dark here but, atheism is false?

    Doctrinaire atheism is of unknowable truth since people aren’t equipped to have a negative answer to the question using that very reason that they claim to have, no more than it is to have a positive answer using reason.

    I’ve known agnostic atheists, two of my brothers and one of my sisters among them, none of whom want anything to do with the new atheists.

    I’m kind of amazed at the assumption that theology is a low level intellectual activity when anyone who has read much of it would know that isn’t true. It’s no less intellectually rigorous than Peter Singer or Daniel Dennet, much of it requires far higher levels of thinking. Reading Karl Barth or Bonhoeffer is far more challenging than Dennett. She doesn’t write theology, but read Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind if you think that religious folks are low level thinkers. Compare her thinking on the idea of memes to Dennett’s or Dawkins, for example.

  8. #8 Anthony McCarthy
    February 23, 2011

    Oh, about the Sam Harris type “9-11″ type ruse for atheistic obnoxiousness. All of the people involved in 9-11 were nominally Muslims, though none of them seem to have taken the Islamic ban on suicide or taking innocent life seriously,about the first government to express condolences to the United States was Iran, or so I’ve read.

    All of the suicide bombers and those controlling them were males, they were all, as far as we know, heterosexual ( some of whom spent their last nights in the decidedly impious act of going to a strip club ). A number of those who were involved had higher educations, some of them in science and technological topics.

    The choice of concentrating on their religious identification, which, as seen, would seem to be contradicted by conventional Islam, is an act of ignorance and/or bigotry.

    Suicide bombing would seem to have originated in the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a specifically atheist, would be Marxist, group, which has no divine injunction against suicide or killing the innocent. The suicide bombers are, arguably, bad Muslims just as the Crusaders weren’t exactly rigorous followers of the Gospels of Jesus, you can’t honestly use them to lodge a legitimate critique of the religions or the followers of those religions who reject them. Not if you want to be honest about it.

  9. #9 msironen
    February 23, 2011

    I’m kind of amazed at the assumption that theology is a low level intellectual activity when anyone who has read much of it would know that isn’t true. It’s no less intellectually rigorous than Peter Singer or Daniel Dennet, much of it requires far higher levels of thinking. Reading Karl Barth or Bonhoeffer is far more challenging than Dennett. She doesn’t write theology, but read Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind if you think that religious folks are low level thinkers. Compare her thinking on the idea of memes to Dennett’s or Dawkins, for example

    I’m not sure if anyone’s accused of theology of being particularly simple or its practitioners simple-minded. For all I know (I freely admit I haven’t studied theology much at all), it could, intellectually, be on par with any field of science or philosophy one cares to name. It’s just that the premise of the whole endeavour is frankly suspect if not outright ridiculous, and the fact that if theology as a whole disappeared from the face of the Earth tomorrow, it wouldn’t impoverish mankind in any discernible manner.
    Indeed, one of the most distressing things about theology to me personally is the fact that so many lives and careers of brilliant people have been wasted on it.

  10. #10 TB
    February 23, 2011

    “This sounds like a rather self-congratulatory juggling of definitions.”

    No, it’s a good reminder that a vast majority aren’t really interested in this whole debate.

    On another note, it’d be interesting to follow people not just through college but their entire lives to see how strongly they cast off religion. Do they start identifiying as atheists? Do they stay uninterested in the whole thing? Do they return to a church at some point (like when they get married and have children?)

    And for all those question, why?

  11. #11 abb3w
    February 23, 2011

    Personally, I prefer playing with the GSS (because I’m lazy, and Berkeley’s SDA makes it easy). Filtering 2006-2008 results, running variables GOD vs DEGREE, and contrasting control of RELIG versus RELIG16 suggests that for those who were raised as Protestants, college education does tend to reduce the degree that one believes in God – to the point where there religious identification may change. The effect is much less pronounced among Jews, Catholics, irreligious “Nones”, and assorted miscellaneous religious – perhaps because of differing traditions in pre-college religious education?

    Filtering further to those raised Protestant and controlling for sex suggests this effect is possibly reduced but still present among college-educated ladies (unbelieving graduate-degree women are rare enough that the GSS sample size is too small to be clear). Controlling instead for REG16 indicates that higher education still leaves those who started Southern protestants stronger believers than Protestants elsewhere; my immediate conjecture (or rationalization) is that they probably started more religious. Alas, I don’t see any obvious measure of age-16 religious belief in the GSS variables.

    Of course, correlation isn’t causation; the decrease doesn’t necessarily go all the way to Atheist “I don’t believe”; and the pre-college degree of belief may well affect the final degree of disbelief that results.

    Anthony McCarthy: People believe or not on an individual basis, not on any basis discoverable by statistical analysis of surveys.

    While people believe or not on an individual basis, there are commonalities as to why people decide the way they do, some of which are indeed statistically discernible. That said, statistically discerned correlations only reflect probabilistic tendencies.

  12. #12 Anthony McCarthy
    February 23, 2011

    – It’s just that the premise of the whole endeavour is frankly suspect if not outright ridiculous, msironen

    If you want to talk about theology as a whole, it’s certainly no more suspect than any other speculative endeavor, and, in the end, everything, including all of science and mathematics are based in things that are unknowable. All of our knowledge begins with our experience and our understanding of our experience, we wouldn’t be able to draw the simplest logical inference that begins any a chain of development without accepting something as a given, based in our experience.

    Theology, taken as a whole, is no more insecurely based than the assumptions of positivism, on which practically the entire intellectual development of modern atheism is based. I’m skeptical of the idea that human consciousness follows the kinds of physical laws that physical science has developed, though that has been the ground assumption of virtually all of the social sciences. I think the entire reason for psychology to begin with that assumption was in the desire to attain the same status that physics and chemistry had at the time, though I think it was also a leap of faith to assume that. I think the best of theology in that period would stand better review than the schools of psychology that came and went in that period.

    As it wears thin, I think the presently fashionable cog-sci, will prove to be as prone to illusions and wishful thinking as much of the less successful attempts at theology and as every formal codification of psychology has been. The positivist habit, which is endemic in the new atheists, of declaring that any question they can’t deal with is meaningless won’t stop those questions being asked because most people find them far more meaningful than anything the positivists can come up with.

    — and the fact that if theology as a whole disappeared from the face of the Earth tomorrow, it wouldn’t impoverish mankind in any discernible manner. msironen

    I can’t remember who it was who pointed out that the moral assertions of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris were the product of the Western religious tradition, Christianity and Judaism, mostly. Reading the alternative in the atheistic tradition, looking at the results of the various, officially atheist countries, I think the abandonment of the idea that people had a status apart from their physical components would be very much missed. I’m extremely skeptical of the idea that a purified materialism would produce a more tolerable life than the imperfect one that belief in the sanctity of life would. I’m in favor of perfecting and extending that very nonmaterialistic, entirely unscientific idea to all of life, instead of abandoning it on the basis of its present day imperfection.

  13. #13 Al
    February 23, 2011

    I don’t think the experts fail to “differentiate atheism from disbelief and indifference to religion” because in my experience, agnostics and apatheists are really atheists. Agnosticism is the assertion that we cannot know if any god exists. Almost all atheists and many theists are agnostics. Atheists have no belief in any god. Most people who claim to be agnostics are just preferring to highlight their lack of certainty in an attempt to ride the fence and avoid criticism. But most don’t *believe* in any god and are thus atheists.

    The same goes for apatheists. Most are agnostic atheists who just prefer not to be part of the debate. Most people in the world are not philosophers and find the field useless in their everyday lives. Educated people are no exception to this. They don’t care because they don’t believe in god, and they don’t think the problem is tractable, so why bother debating it?

    I doubt that confronting either one of these types of people would lead them to theism. They would probably either deflect the question, agree halfheartedly with you, or ignore you.

  14. #14 Jeremy Oxford
    February 23, 2011

    This might just be my philosophy student bias, but I could see why students of the humanities might have a lower average of theistic beliefs than the natural sciences. If you take a subject in the humanities you are more likely to come across discussions about the existence of god than you would in natural sciences. Religion is just more common of a topic.

  15. #15 NoOneSpecial
    February 23, 2011

    Higher education doesn’t cause atheism any more than churches cause theism. Other personal traits, like curiosity and the ability to think critically, are probably what can lead to attaining a higher education as well as atheism.

    Also, being indifferent to theistic claims isn’t necessarily not atheism. There are many ways to answer the question, “do you believe in gods?”

    If you say, “yes,” you’re a theist. If you say, “no,” you’re an atheist. If you say, “meh,” then you obviously do not agree with the theistic claim which makes you an atheist. The latter two examples may come from having a different epistemological foundation but they both come from the same non-agreement with the theistic claim.

    Agnosticism is not some fuzzy middle ground between theism and atheism. Agnosticism is an epistemological position where theism/atheism are ontological positions.

  16. #16 Anthony McCarthy
    February 23, 2011

    — While people believe or not on an individual basis, there are commonalities as to why people decide the way they do, some of which are indeed statistically discernible. That said, statistically discerned correlations only reflect probabilistic tendencies. abb3w

    The commonalities in belief found by analysis of surveys are artificial constructs, if a few other questions were included in the surveys another set of “commonalities” might be likely and others asserted by a different analyst of the same surveys. What you discern with your statistics might or might not be an accurate description of one or a subset of those surveyed, it won’t be accurate for a part of it, it might, actually, not accurately describe what any one of them believes. Which would require a lot of work to find out.

    With all of that, what use any probabilistic tendencies so derived would be is even more liable to be the results of wishful thinking and opportunism. The shelf life of surveys is quite variable. All of which makes this an area of the study of human behavior unreliable in any scientific sense. As I said, I’m skeptical that behavior and consciousness are governed by physical laws, which, by the way, are the product of human minds. I doubt that our minds are governed by any discernible laws, none that are likely to conform to physical laws that govern inanimate objects. Though you’re bound to come up with something when you pour money into the attempt, history shows that it’s not likely to last long.

  17. #17 abb3w
    February 23, 2011

    Anthony McCarthy: I’m skeptical of the idea that human consciousness follows the kinds of physical laws that physical science has developed, though that has been the ground assumption of virtually all of the social sciences.

    Technically: an inference, not an assumption; and a relatively recent one (say, circa 150 years old or so).

    It’s valid to question whether a separate set of rules for consciousness might make for a “better” theory; however, there is no such hypothesis giving a more probably correct description of the current evidence at this point. There are a few interesting anomalies (EG: out-of-body experiences), but right now they’re more readily explained by known neurological effects, selective reporting, distortions of memory, and simple “some people lie”.

    I suspect we’d have to get into the formal mathematical theorem associated with the principle of Parsimony, however.

    Al: I don’t think the experts fail to “differentiate atheism from disbelief and indifference to religion” because in my experience, agnostics and apatheists are really atheists.

    This conjecture would seem to be contradicted by the Pew 2008 data. Note, EG, page 5, here: approximately half of those who self-identify as “Agnostic” believe in God or a Higher Power, as opposed to around 15% of “Atheists”. (Yes, that makes no sense; still true.)

    While those who self-identify as Agnostics very frequently do not believe in any G/HP, it’s definitely a weaker tendency than those self-identified as Atheist.

    Jeremy Oxford: If you take a subject in the humanities you are more likely to come across discussions about the existence of god than you would in natural sciences.

    And in the social sciences, you’re more likely to encounter lots of information that undermine the concept of the universal decency of mankind.

    NoOneSpecial: Agnosticism is not some fuzzy middle ground between theism and atheism.

    Philosophically, correct.
    Anthropologically? Less so.

  18. #18 abb3w
    February 23, 2011

    Anthony McCarthy: The commonalities in belief found by analysis of surveys are artificial constructs, if a few other questions were included in the surveys another set of “commonalities” might be likely and others asserted by a different analyst of the same surveys.

    In some cases, yes; analysis and sampling artifacts do happen. In others, no; not all results are necessarily such artifacts.

    Anthony McCarthy: With all of that, what use any probabilistic tendencies so derived would be is even more liable to be the results of wishful thinking and opportunism.

    The “use” of any of it is a separate question from “accuracy”, related to the difference between “ought” and “is”. However, I don’t think you intended to open that can of worms.

    I suggest that your presumption that the probabilistic tendencies must all be sampling artifacts rather than actual tendencies seems to better fit under the banner of “wishful thinking”.

    Anthony McCarthy: As I said, I’m skeptical that behavior and consciousness are governed by physical laws, which, by the way, are the product of human minds.

    I believe you are confusing or conflating two senses of “physical laws”: the rules that humans infer from the apparent pattern of the universe’s behavior, and the rules that actually govern the pattern of the universe’s behavior. I also suspect you may be mixing emergent higher-level patterns and the lower-level rules that allow for such patterns.

    This, with other remarks, leaves me pretty certain our philosophical premises are sufficiently different as to render further discussion between us unlikely to convince anyone, or clarify either viewpoint.

  19. #19 Al
    February 23, 2011

    I stand corrected by the data. Thank you Anthony. I do wonder how many of those who claim to believe in a higher power (I guess they are deists?) do so out of social pressures.

  20. #20 Anthony McCarthy
    February 23, 2011

    – Technically: an inference, not an assumption; and a relatively recent one (say, circa 150 years old or so). abb3w

    Since William James said that psychology was to be treated as a natural science in his Principles of Psychology and since every major figure in psychology since then has claimed that what they were doing is science I’d say it was far more than just an inference, it’s an article of faith.

    The only reason the methods of physical science were adopted was because they worked visibly and reliably, and there was no reason to believe that human minds would be revealed by those same laws. It’s a different kind of thing. The entire endeavor has proceeded as if that decision was more than just an assumption. The results have been impressive in their unreliability.

    — It’s valid to question whether a separate set of rules for consciousness might make for a “better” theory; however, there is no such hypothesis giving a more probably correct description of the current evidence at this point. abb3w

    It’s a valid observation that what consciousness is, what it consists of, what it does, how it does it, whether or not consciousness is a uniform entity, etc. is not known. What gets talked about as “consciousness” is the product of trying to deal with it with the methods and tools of science. You come up with something when you do that, the reality of that something is assumed, for now, by those doing it and those who want to believe what they say, but the status of what is said is ever shifting, ever changing, and open to the highest degree of skepticism, even by other people in the business of studying “consciousness”. Even the high point of that, the fMRI pictures and their analysis seem to be anything but universally accepted. I look at the attempt and think it’s largely a product of wishful thinking and gullible funding. As of 2011, I don’t think it’s science, I doubt it will be any more reliable than psychology has been.

    — In some cases, yes; analysis and sampling artifacts do happen. In others, no; not all results are necessarily such artifacts. abb3w

    Just as a “behavior” has to have been performed by an organism to exist, a belief has to be believed by a person to actually exist. I’m bringing up a higher level of skepticism about the entire business of trying to characterize something as complex and unknown as religious belief on the basis of a survey and whether or not what you can learn from that will tell you about actual belief, what is believed by any person. You will come up with something, some assertions, some generalizations. What you come up with might be something that someone will raise their hand to when asked and say “Credo”, but they could be the one and only person in the survey population who would. You would have to go back and ask them to find out if the abstraction you invent with the survey is accurate.

    As with behavior, belief is extremely difficult to detect and articulate and it has the added problem of being dependent on self-reporting of unknowable accuracy. It’s not like physical systems that can be seen and measured. The difficulties of dependence on self-reporting is just the beginning of the trouble.

    – There are a few interesting anomalies (EG: out-of-body experiences), but right now they’re more readily explained by known neurological effects, selective reporting, distortions of memory, and simple “some people lie”. abb3w

    “Some people lie”. Well, you seem to want to take their word for it when they are reporting what they believe, why not on what they perceive when they believe they are “out of their body”? Why believe them in one case and not the other, other than your personal preference. I’m skeptical about both being “out of the body” and your rejection of it.

    I got into an argument about a badly reported “experiment” done about “out of body experiences” in Britian. The BBC asserted that the tiny study that was done chalked up another victory for scientific materialism, and the new atheist blog I saw it on was giving an “amen” to that. Well, the report asserted that 1 out of 10 people report having an “OBE”. With that number, a tenth of the human population, it strikes me as very unlikely that all of these “OBEs” would actually be the same thing. Even in the terms of fundamentalist materialism, I doubt that the brains of the “experiencers” were actually operating in the same way despite the verbal similarity in the reporting.

    My objection to drawing any inference based on a tiny study of volunteers, hardly a random sample of the population, was angrily rejected because it was too hard to get a random sample and the rules governing human subjects. How that was supposed to overcome the necessity of having a representative random sample seemed to be considered unreasonable. Though I don’t think it’s any more reasonable to assert that a tiny sample could represent the billions of people on earth.

    I think it’s wisest to allow people to decide what their experience means for them without second guessing them so long as they seem to be able to function with reasonable competence and without harming the rights of other people. I can tolerate people believing things I don’t as long as they are no danger to themselves or others.

  21. #21 Robert Hagedorn
    February 23, 2011

    Intelligent religion thinking is not oxymoronic. Do a search: The First Scandal.

  22. #22 brainwashedatheist
    February 23, 2011

    Josh says,

    Unwed children? I suppose he means children of unwed mothers, which is very different. And why yes, those rates are probably “better” (meaning lower) among atheist/agnostic women, and in states with lower rates of churchgoing etc. And those godless Europeans are on average better humanitarians and students than we Americans.

    I agree that what makes people anti-religious is the hypocrisy and misbehavior of religious leaders and religious people in general. It doesn’t necessarily make them anti-theistic though. Their morality is shot, but cosmology is another subject.

    The last two paragraphs give a nice punctuated nuance to the headline. It also confirms for me that Postmodernism is just the latest legitimate child of the Enlightenment.

    JOSH,

    There is one problem with your argument. The problem is you base your answers on what you have been taught rather than what reality indicates. This is precisely where the motivation for the name brainwashedatheist was derived. Factual arguments are not made with words like “probably” or by avoiding the initial argument. When referring to the difference between past American generations and the current in terms of unwed pregnancies you avoid taking up this issue and rather compare segments of the current population. Why? Of course my original argument included satire and misspellings to illustrate just how complete the brainwashing for many atheists has become. I was actually hoping that we could switch names? Please? Also another indication of brainwashing, lack of knowledge, or a lie is found in your statement,

    And those godless Europeans are on average better humanitarians and students than we Americans.

    Huh? I wonder where you got this information? Surely it wasn’t here. This link explains that the average “religious” person gives approximately 3 times more to charity than their non-religious counterparts. http://www.ionainstitute.ie/index.php?id=1279

    As far as unwed pregnancies you can find that here. As you can see with the rise of atheism and the non-religious the breakdown of the nuclear family is occurring.
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/13/AR2009051301628.html

    Feel free to correct me on any of these points. Beware though that I will back these up with things called facts and reason. I desire that you learn to be less guided by emotional knee jerk reactions and learn to dig a little deeper to get to the truth of a matter. Blind faith in atheism, religion, science, or aliens is always a bad thing.

  23. #23 abb3w
    February 27, 2011

    A further rebuttal to Anthony McCarthy would seem to take too much effort for the likely impact. The bulk of the details tie in to the relationship between science (in the precise sense that I am using the word) and the theorem mathematically expressing parsimony in a formal sense; that would require getting into the underpinning math – major results from Kolmogorov, Chomsky, Godel, Turing, and in turn the underpinning set theoretic foundations of the lot. Some of Hume’s work also ties in – both the Induction and Is-Ought problems.

    brainwashedatheist: Factual arguments are not made with words like “probably” [...] Feel free to correct me on any of these points.

    Only pure mathematics such as geometry or set theory involves inference of unary probability – and not even all of pure mathematics. All “factual” arguments of inference about the empirical (in the sense of “associate with experience”) world are implicitly probabilistic: it can only be said you’re probably not a cabbage.

    It’s again tied in to the theorem underlying parsimony.

  24. #24 Anthony McCarthy
    February 27, 2011

    “those godless Europeans”, who are mostly religious believers. Even in allegedly atheist Sweden, 40% of teenagers choose to be confirmed in the Church of Sweden, and that’s not accounting for members of other religions.

    abb3w, “parsimony” isn’t part of science. I’d like to see how how you would support it with science. It’s also not any guarantee of validity. I haven’t thought about it in terms of mathematics. Is there a proof for it?

    And, as I never tire of pointing out, William of Occam was a Franciscan of the strict observance who got into trouble with the Pope for being too Franciscan. There is every reason to believe he believed in large numbers of things that the new atheists would find horrific, St. Francis’ stigmata, among those.

    If you insisted on “parsimony” you could very likely exclude right answers which you didn’t think was the most elegant one. I believe that Leibniz as well as Kant were critical of the dogma. So, it’s a matter of personal preference, who you hold as authoritative on the matter.

  25. #25 Anthony McCarthy
    February 27, 2011

    “those godless Europeans”, who are mostly religious believers. Even in allegedly atheist Sweden, 40% of teenagers choose to be confirmed in the Church of Sweden, and that’s not accounting for members of other religions.

    abb3w, “parsimony” isn’t part of science, Bertrand Russell called it an axiom of formal logic. He said it was useful at times but he didn’t, as far as I’m aware, call it a requirement. I’d like to see how how you would support it with science. It’s also not any guarantee of validity. I haven’t thought about it in terms of mathematics before. Is there a proof for it?

    And, as I never tire of pointing out, William of Occam was a Franciscan of the strict observance who got into trouble with the Pope for being too Franciscan. There is every reason to believe he believed in large numbers of things that the new atheists would find horrific, St. Francis’ stigmata, among those.

    If you insisted on “parsimony” as the acid test, you could very likely exclude right answers which you didn’t think was the most elegant one. And an answer you reject because it doesn’t seem sufficiently stingy in its support might turn out to be more true. I believe that Leibniz as well as Kant were critical of the dogma. So, it’s a matter of personal preference, who you hold as authoritative on the matter.

  26. #26 abb3w
    April 26, 2011

    Ah, missed this.

    Anthony McCarthy: abb3w, “parsimony” isn’t part of science, Bertrand Russell called it an axiom of formal logic.

    Check out Popper’s Conjectures and Refutations; he refers to it as “Simplicity” there, and thus would apparently disagree with you. While it may be taken as an axiom, it is more rigorously derived (and more precisely expressed) as a theorem.

    Anthony McCarthy: I’d like to see how how you would support it with science.

    I’m not sure what you mean by that. Support the claim that parsimony is used? Anthropologically, it’s been observed by Popper and others. Parsimony itself can’t be philosophically supported by science; since it’s a result of philosophical underpinnings science takes for granted, that would be circular reasoning. Instead, it’s a result of pure mathematics that can be applied.

    Anthony McCarthy: I haven’t thought about it in terms of mathematics before. Is there a proof for it?

    You can find a PDF via tinyurl.com/33t9def if you’re curious. Be warned, it’s probably graduate level math.

    Of course, a proof requires axioms to start with. Trivially, it’s dependent on ZF axioms (independent of choice) and axioms to define what probability means (Kolmogorov’s or similar). Less trivially, it requires assuming the pattern is in an ordinal degree hypercomputation complexity class. (The paper only addresses the case of degree zero — recursively enumerable complexity — but extends easily enough to higher complexity classes.)

    Anthony McCarthy: If you insisted on “parsimony” as the acid test, you could very likely exclude right answers which you didn’t think was the most elegant one.

    “Elegant” doesn’t describe the technical criterion very well.

    Anthony McCarthy: And an answer you reject because it doesn’t seem sufficiently stingy in its support might turn out to be more true.

    I’d say “suppositions” would seem a better word than “support” (although “posits” might be closer); and potentially, yes, that can happen. The catch being, while the theorem doesn’t preclude the possibility that such an alternative is correct, the theorem indicates that such alternatives are more likely to be wrong than the more parsimonious candidates.

  27. #27 Epistemology
    December 7, 2011

    Barry Kosmin is completely wrong about what atheism entails. He needs to learn some basic epistemology.
    Atheism is about belief, not knowledge. What you believe and what you claim to know are distinct.

    An individual is an atheist if they lack the belief that a deity exists, regardless of what they claim to know.

    Agnosticism is about knowledge. Atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive. It is perfectly possible to both lack the belief that something exists and at the same time not claim to know whether it exists or not. For example, I don’t believe that unicorns exist, but I don’t claim to know that they don’t.

    The majority of atheists are agnostic, they don’t believe a deity exists but they don’t claim to know that one doesn’t.

    Most atheists acknowledge that it is possible a deity could exist, however the possibility of somethings existence is not evidence for its existence. To use the possibility of x’s existence as an argument for believing that x exists is a fallacious appeal to ignorance.