Monday, June 15, 2015

Why Are So Many Scientists And Philosophers Atheists?

In the largest survey of philosophers ever done, it was revealed that 72.8% of philosophers are atheists and only 14.6% are theists. To me, the results of this survey never really felt surprising. I had known for quite a while that the vast majority of philosophers were atheists or leaned toward it. This survey just confirmed that suspicion.

As for scientists, a 2009 Pew survey showed that 41% of American scientists don't believe in god or a universal spirit, effectively making them atheists. And in the National Academy of Scientists, a survey showed that 93% are either atheists or agnostics. Contrast this to only 7.1% of the general American public identifying as atheist or agnostic according to the latest Pew survey.

So, one thing is for sure, scientists and philosophers are overwhelmingly more likely to be atheists. But why? Is it that people who enter these fields are already atheists, or is it that these fields expose people who are believers to new data and ways of thinking and they become atheists? I can't say for sure. Both are probably true to a degree. I know of at least one philosopher, Dan Finke (who blogs at Cammels with Hammers), who's told me that studying philosophy made him question his religious beliefs, which effectively made him an atheist.

From Pew's survey about scientists, one thing strikes me rather odd. When broken down by age, scientists who are between 18-34 are only 32% atheist, and those that are 65+ are 46% atheist. This means that as scientists get older, they're more likely to be atheists. This is the exact opposite of the surveys of belief among the general public, which show the younger generation is more likely than older generations to be atheist.

So, what gives? Why would the demographics of scientist on god be the exact opposite as the general public on age? Could it be that people go into the sciences as theists, and become atheists the longer they stay in the field, presumably because they're exposed to new data and ways of thinking that challenge their theistic beliefs? If that was the case it would make sense of the data. But I'm not sure. Being exposed to new data that challenges your religious views can definitely make you doubt them, and those doubts can lead to atheism, like a gateway drug.

This could be the case, but I'm only speculating here. It seems plausible to me that being in these academic fields can result in one being an atheist. But, there are theistic philosophers, albeit a small minority. So what explains them? Well, on the survey, the largest field of philosophy that has the most theists is—what else—the philosophy of religion, of which 72.3% are theists—the exact opposite of the overall survey. So are philosophers of religion going into the field as theists, or are they becoming theists by being exposed to new ways of thinking about religion and new data? I don't have any data showing the latter to be true, and it is suspected that many people who are already theists go into the philosophy of religion, like William Lane Craig, just as many people who are already Christian go into biblical studies.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Did Pew Project The Future Of Religion Accurately?

A few months ago Pew released a report about the population growth projections of religion from 2010 until 2050 and many atheists and secularists were a little dismayed, to put it mildly. The world's religiously "unaffiliated" were projected to only grow from 1.13 billion to 1.23 billion, and would actually drop as a percentage of the world's population from 16.4% to 13.2%. By contrast, Islam would be the fastest growing religion, going from 1.6 billion to 2.76 billion, and from 23.2% of the world's population, to 29.7%.

Holy shit.

The numbers are projected, it seems, largely from fertility rates, which Muslims have the highest of, with a rate of 3.1, compared to the unaffiliated at 1.7. But I think using fertility rates as the primary factor in projecting future growth rates of religious affiliation is faulty, if indeed that's what Pew is doing.

It seems that they're not taking into account conversions and deconversions. Many theists are leaving their religions and becoming unaffiliated (which includes all deists, agnostics, and atheists) and this is especially true in the West, where the number of Christians is dropping precipitously. Their future projection of the percentage of the unaffiliated in the US by 2050 seems deeply suspect, and indeed, out of whack with their other data.

Take a look at the graph to the left from the report. They projected that the percentage of unaffiliated Americans by 2050 to be only 25.6%. I say "only" because their own latest study on religion in America that came out just a month after this report shows the unaffiliated population to be at 22.8%, up almost 7 percentage points from just 2007.

Pew doesn't seriously think that the number of unaffiliated Americans will rise just 3 percentage points from now until 2050 after they just grew nearly 7 percentage points in 7 years do they? No. Rather, there is a flaw in their methodology in projecting future religious growth, which, I suspect, relies almost entirely on fertility rates. As such, they're dramatically underestimating the projected growth of the world's unaffiliated population.

I have my hopes that a large part of the Islamic world will secularize in the social sense, if not in the political sense, and religion will continue to dramatically decline as it has in the West. There was a report recently that 5% of Saudi Arabia's population is atheist. 5 percent! That's technically higher than the population of Americans who identify as atheist (3.1%), according to Pew.

American Free Market Capitalism In Action - 1960: Harvest of Shame

This is what a total unregulated free market dictates. Enjoy!

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Should We Mock Religion?

Religion: To mock, or not to mock? That is the question.

There is wide disagreement over whether religion should be mocked and ridiculed among atheists. On the one hand, it's argued that mocking religion demystifies it. This takes away its allure and prestige and removes it from the pedestal, which makes it easier to see religion for what it really is. And that all too often is not really all that pleasant. On the other hand, it's argued that mocking religion can make atheists seem insensitive, angry, and hostile, appear unwilling or unable to engage with religion intellectually, and it can have the unintended consequence of the backfire effect.

These are all possible outcomes of religious ridicule. That's why my view on it is that we should do both. Atheists should ridicule religion, and we should engage with it intellectually. Now, here's the thing. Some of us can do both quite well, and some of us are better at one a lot more than the other. I can generally do both fairly well. But not everyone can engage in the highly complex and esoteric subject matter that is required to have the god debate. And not everyone has the sense of humor required to satire and make fun of religion.

This week's Jesus and Mo

Humor can be used to mock religion into extinction, so I think there's value in mockery. It can make the intellectual price of religious belief so costly, and give it such a bad taste that it can discourage belief. This I think has a measurable effect. For example, today in most social circles if you come out as a creationist you'll be laughed right out of the room. I know, because I pretend to be a creationist all the time with people who don't know me just to see how they react, and often they immediately laugh at me. Then of course I tell them that I was just fucking with them.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Roswell Analogy

Just about everyone is familiar with the story of what allegedly happened in Roswell New Mexico back in the summer of 1947. Historian Richard Carrier makes an interesting analogy between the Roswell UFO incident and the origin of Christianity, in what he calls the Roswell Analogy.

What really happened? A guy found a bunch of sticks and tinfoil in the desert.
What was said to have happened? Immediately afterwards people claimed it was debris from a crashed UFO.
What was said to have happened within just thirty years? A flying saucer and alien bodies crashed and the US military recovered them and they autopsied the aliens and kept it all secret from the public.

And this all happened in the 20th century, in the era of universal literacy, modern journalism, TV and radio. If such a legend can grow so fast and still have millions of believers in modern times, how easy do you think it was for a legendary Jesus to have been made up and believed in by people during antiquity, where literacy was probably 5 percent or less, there was widespread superstition, and there were no newspapers, or journalism, or mass communication?

  • The "tinfoil in the desert" is analogous to the "revelations of the archangel named Jesus."
  • The "flying saucer and alien bodies" would be analogous to the "historical Jesus of Galilee."

Now imagine if all we had were the stories written by the Roswell believers from thirty years later and information derived from them and nothing else. We would not know about the tinfoil. All we would know about was the testimony about the flying saucer and alien bodies that were recovered. Neither of which ever existed.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Why Some Countries Are Poor and Others Rich

"If there’s one generalization you can make about religion and wealth, it’s that the less people believe, the richer they stand a chance of being."

Interesting video explaining why some countries are poor and some are rich. Religion, as you can imagine, doesn't fair too well:

Why is belief quite so bad for wealth creation? Because in general, religiosity is connected up with the idea that the here and now can’t be improved, so you should focus on the spiritual and look forward to a next world instead. It makes quite a bit of sense when you live here. In the rich world on the other hand, people are generally great believers in their capacity to alter their destiny through effort and talent. 
Incidentally, to explain the anomaly of the United States, religion seems not to slow
down economic growth here because it is a particular sort of religion: an overwhelmingly Protestant and exceptionally materialistic kind. The American God doesn’t want you to think of building the new Jerusalem in the next world, he wants it here and now in Kansas or Houston.

So according to this video, a particular kind of Protestantism found here in the US enables the US to be one of the most religious countries and one of the most wealthy countries in the world. It sounds to me like he's talking about the prosperity gospel, the kind today espoused by the likes of Joel Osteen, which seems to be uniquely Protestant. It does make sense. American Protestantism tends to emphasizes a strong work ethic, economic materialism, and innovation. And similarly, it's no surprise that many Northern European nations where Protestantism dominates were leaders of the industrial revolution. But that's not to say that Protestantism cannot hinder progress. After all, many if not most of the strongest proponents of intelligent design today are Protestants, and the Amish are all Protestants.

So overall, religion is bad. As the video puts it, "If there’s one generalization you can make about religion and wealth, it’s that the less people believe, the richer they stand a chance of being." That's at least one good reason to continue fighting to end religious belief.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Evidence From Neuroscience That Free Will Is An Illusion

Starting with Benjamin Libet's experiments in 1983 which gave some of the earliest evidence that conscious decisions are preceded by unconscious neural activity, there have been numerous scientific studies recently that have confirmed this to a much higher degree. Here is a list of some of those tests:

Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain


  • Taken together, two specific regions in the frontal and parietal cortex of the human brain had considerable information that predicted the outcome of a motor decision the subject had not yet consciously made. This suggests that when the subject’s decision reached awareness it had been influenced by unconscious brain activity for up to 10 seconds.
  • The temporal ordering of information suggests a tentative causal model of information flow, where the earliest unconscious precursors of the motor decision originated in frontopolar cortex, from where they influenced the buildup of decision-related information in the precuneus and later in SMA, where it remained unconscious for up to a few seconds.

Tracking the Unconscious Generation of Free Decisions Using UItra-High Field fMRI


  • Researchers show that it was possible to decode the decision outcomes of such free motor decisions from the pole of anterior medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10) and the precuneus/posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), up to 7 s before subjects were aware of their intention.
  • Taking into account the temporal delay of the BOLD signal (which is in the order of a few seconds), it is possible that these signals reflect processes up to 10 seconds before the actual decision.

Predicting free choices for abstract intentions


  • Researchers are able to show that the outcome of a free decision to either add or subtract numbers can already be decoded from neural activity in medial prefrontal and parietal cortex 4 s before the participant reports they are consciously making their choice.
  • Previous findings have been mostly restricted to simple motor choices.
  • In the current study, participants were not cued to make decisions at specific points in time but were allowed to make decisions spontaneously. By asking participants to report when they first consciously decided, we could investigate what happened in the brain before the decisions were consciously made. We found that both medial frontopolar cortex and posterior cingulate/precuneus started to encode the specific outcome of the abstract decisions even before they entered conscious awareness. Our results suggest that, in addition to the representation of conscious abstract decisions, the medial frontopolar cortex was also involved in the unconscious preparation of abstract decisions.

Reading My Mind


  • CBS 60 minutes report from 2009 showing how fMRI imaging can recognize with a high degree of accuracy the contents of thoughts about objects like a hammer, a window, an apartment etc. 
  • Report reveals there are enough similarities between different people such that once enough people's brains are measured when thinking about an object, a person who never scanned can have their thoughts predicted with 100 percent accuracy when thinking about those objects. 

Internally generated preactivation of single neurons in human medial frontal cortex predicts volition.


  • Recording the activity of 1019 neurons while twelve subjects performed self-initiated finger movement, this study shows progressive neuronal recruitment over ∼1500 ms before subjects report making the decision to move.
  • A population of 256 SMA (supplementary motor area) neurons is sufficient to predict in single trials the impending decision to move with accuracy greater than 80% already 700 ms prior to subjects' awareness. Furthermore, they predict, with a precision of a few hundred ms, the actual time point of this voluntary decision to move.
  • Using an SVM classifier to predict the time point at which the subject reported making the decision to move, the algorithm detected the occurrence of the decision in 98% of the trials and only missed W in 2% of the trials.

There Is No Free Won’t: Antecedent Brain Activity Predicts Decisions to Inhibit


  • Our main argument is as follows: Libet et al, (1983) had suggested that decisions to inhibit action have an important role in freedom of will, because, he argued, they do not have any obvious unconscious neural precursors. In Libet’s view, this makes decisions to inhibit crucially different from decisions to act, for which, he claimed, there is a clear unconscious precursor. Libet’s dualistic notion of “free won’t” has been criticised on theoretical grounds. However, in our view, a stronger rejection of “free won’t” could come from actually showing that a decision to act or not can be driven by a preceding, presumably unconscious neural activity. Our results identify, for the first time, a candidate unconscious precursor of the decision to inhibit action. These results count as evidence against Libet’s view that the decision to inhibit action may involve a form of uncaused conscious causation.
  • The dualistic view that decisions to inhibit reflect a special “conscious veto” or “free won’t” mechanism is scientifically unwarranted.

As the data keeps piling up the evidence against free will gets stronger and stronger. If mental phenomena were caused by electro-chemical brain states as the data shows, the traditional dualistic picture of mind causing physical states is empirically ruled out by the data. Libertarian free will, and dualistic interactionism have no empirical support. The question now is whether you're a compatibilist or an incompatibilist. This is not to say that this evidence alone is absolute proof free will is an illusion, or that we've resolved the hard problem of consciousness. We still don't know how the brain causes consciousness, and it is possible we may never. But, we don't need to know how the brain causes consciousness in order to know that the brain causes consciousness. 

*This list will grow as I find more studies.


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