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Global trends in religiosity and atheism
August 8, 2012 6:05 PM   Subscribe

Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious persons or a convinced atheist? [.pdf of survey results] The WIN-Gallup International ‘Religion and Atheism Index’ measures global self-perceptions on beliefs, based on interviews with more than 50,000 men and women selected from 57 countries across the globe in five continents. The survey also provides trend data for shifts in attitudes since 2005.
posted by wilful (121 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
China and Japan lead the pack in terms of both non-religiosity and atheism. I was surprised by how non-religious Turkey is, yet is extremely non-atheist. The USA only makes the "top ten tables" in the decline in religiosity 2005 to 2012.
posted by wilful at 6:10 PM on August 8, 2012


That's a weirdly worded question. Why not just "do you consider yourself a religious person or a non-religious person?" "Convinced atheists" is both oxymoronic and redundant since it's one type of non-religious person.
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:12 PM on August 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


I can see the distinction between "non-religious" and "atheist", if I squint hard. But I don't see how the distinction helps at all.

Convinced atheist is perfectly well worded, it is not an oxymoron.
posted by wilful at 6:15 PM on August 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


RELIGIOSITY IS HIGHER AMONG THE POOR

Cause or effect?
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:17 PM on August 8, 2012


Every now and then it hits me how unrepresentative of the rest of the U.S. my friends and associates are...
posted by Fists O'Fury at 6:18 PM on August 8, 2012


Interesting point based on this report: the Catholic Church is taking an absolute kicking in Ireland.
posted by jaduncan at 6:18 PM on August 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Convinced atheist is perfectly well worded, it is not an oxymoron.

You're right about that; I was thinking of it more as "convinced unbeliever," which would be an oxymoron. I just think there are probably way more people who really don't believe in supernatural what-have-you, but most of them shy away from a label like "atheist," which has associations with obnoxious contentiousness (I happily call myself an atheist, though).

And the "convinced" part is like, "Are you SURE? Are you REALLY REALLY sure?" It seems almost designed to make people avoid that answer.

Whereas if you asked, "Are you a religious person or not a religious person?" you're using way less loaded and slanty language.
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:21 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


What's an unconvinced atheist? Agnostic?
posted by Splunge at 6:21 PM on August 8, 2012


What the hell is an unconvinced atheist? An agnostic? Weird.
posted by Decani at 6:22 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


SNAP!, Splunge!
posted by Decani at 6:22 PM on August 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


60% religious seems unbelievably low for the US. I often feel like the only atheist I know (other than my wife).
posted by octothorpe at 6:22 PM on August 8, 2012


Born atheist. Unconvinced otherwise.
posted by Ardiril at 6:28 PM on August 8, 2012 [23 favorites]


Well, I think you have to look at that along with the percentage of folks in this country who say they are atheists (5%).

I've always found this strange, at least in my experience. I (an American) know very few people who are devout anything and very few people who reflect upon religion on a daily/weekly/monthly basis BUT many of them would be shocked (SHOCKED!) to find that I considered myself an atheist.

I think it has a station near the word "socialist" in this country in that it has less to do with what it actually means and more to do with the fact that it has become a stand in for "morally bankrupt and proud."
posted by sendai sleep master at 6:29 PM on August 8, 2012 [9 favorites]


Weird distinctions, although somewhat typical. You can be a "convinced atheist" and religious, e.g., many Buddhists.
posted by milarepa at 6:29 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


The way I'd break it down is:

Convinced Atheist = "There is no God"

Unconvinced Atheist = "I'll believe it when it's proven through Science"

Agnostic = "How the hell should I know?"

Non-Religious = "Belief as needed for football victories and/or orgasms"
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 6:29 PM on August 8, 2012 [21 favorites]


octothorpe, there are lots of people who "believe" for social reasons; they want church pot-lucks and softball leagues and discounted tuition for the local Catholic school and ceremonies to mark life events (baptism, confirmation, church weddings, funerals). They are also probably willing to say they're non-religious in an anonymous setting—but also probably not willing to say they're atheist.
posted by sonic meat machine at 6:32 PM on August 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


I often feel like the only atheist I know.

Harvey Milk had an excellent suggestion for how to fix that sort of problem...
posted by trackofalljades at 6:32 PM on August 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


My mother subscribes to an interpretation of Reform Judaism where God is composed entirely of the set of things that exemplify Jewish ethical ideals.

I would count her as a convinced atheist who is religious.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:33 PM on August 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Religious" to my mind suggests adherence to some sort of system of beliefs above or beyond holding a belief in deity. In this sense, one can be a theist without being religious, and one could be "not a religious person" and hold a theistic or atheistic position on the question of whether one believes in deity. I'm reminded of those who consider themselves "spiritual but not religious," and I wonder how they would respond to the question. Then there are systems of belief that are considered by some to be religious without requiring theistic belief (some varieties of Buddhism and Ethical Culture).

"Convinced atheist" is an odd term. It isn't an oxymoron, but I think FelliniBlank's onto something that the way the question is phrased may skew the results. I suspect people already are reluctant to apply the term atheist to themselves given the social stigma attached to the term even when they have no theistic belief; adding the intensifier "convinced" could compound this effect.
posted by audi alteram partem at 6:34 PM on August 8, 2012


Which category is the one appropriate for the "Belief in Belief" crowd?
posted by Chekhovian at 6:36 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I often feel like the only atheist I know.

Don't worry. Believe that others exist even if you can't directly see them.
posted by jaduncan at 6:36 PM on August 8, 2012 [22 favorites]


The way I'd break it down is:

Convinced Atheist = "There is no God"

Unconvinced Atheist = "I'll believe it when it's proven through science"


I am an atheist through-and-through. If I were answering this poll, the only answer I would give is "convinced atheist". But the only definition I'm comfortable with is "I'll believe it when it's proven through science." Being so cocksure of it is just another kind of blind faith, which is what I'm really against, and which is what atheist (as a category, not a rote translation/definition) means to me.

Don't know how others interpret it, but there's a data point for you.
posted by phunniemee at 6:39 PM on August 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm kind of with phunniemee, but part of that is that if "god" or "gods" are proven by science, at that point it's just something like gravity or the speed of light, it doesn't require faith, which is the cornerstone of religion. You could prove that god exists and I'd still be an atheist, in that sense.
posted by maxwelton at 6:43 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Huh. I'm surprised how low the US ranks on their world religiosity league. Interesting.

As for the "religious/non-religious/convinced atheist" thing, I think that's a reasonable way of trying to elicit something of the range of people's attitudes (even though I'm one of those who thinks the term "agnostic" is philosophically meaningless and that you're either a theist or an atheist). People use these terms with hopeless imprecision in the real world and there's no point in a poll like this trying to provide everyone with a quick philosophy lesson by way of clarifying people's answers. I can't imagine that there's a very large group of people who would happily describe themselves as "atheists" in a poll like this but who suddenly come over all coy at the phrase "convinced atheist."
posted by yoink at 6:44 PM on August 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


You could prove that god exists and I'd still be an atheist, in that sense.

No, you're be an irreligious theist. It's the "religion" part that hinges on faith--not the "god" part, according to your own logic.
posted by yoink at 6:45 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are a lot of people who describe themselves as having a sort of vague belief/spirituality who, while definitely not being atheists, behave fairly indistinguishably from them on a day to day basis. Unlike what I think of as "religious" people, this sense of belief is more of a background philosophical POV than something that guides them day to day or which they use to make decisions.

Seems like a fairly common / reasonable thing for belief to devolve into for people who don't need ot have a coherent and specific set of philosophical beliefs about God/religion/etc.
posted by wildcrdj at 6:47 PM on August 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm fascinated by the idea of "proving god exists via science". How exactly would that work? How could an omnipotent being prove to you that it is actually omnipotent and not just really powerful and/or technically advanced?
posted by sineater at 6:52 PM on August 8, 2012


They forgot to ask if you are "spiritual, but not religious".
posted by thelonius at 6:52 PM on August 8, 2012


I would like to see a more complicated survey instrument. They need several independent measures of religiosity, like:

(1) How often do you attend religious services? [With some options provided.]

(2) How much money have you donated to religious organizations in the last year?

(3) On a scale from blah to bleck, how religious are you?

(4) On a scale from blah to bleck, how religious would your friends/family/co-workers say that you are?

(5) What religious affiliation most closely resembles your beliefs? [Big list including atheism.]

(6) How much time to you spend in prayer/meditation each week?

(7) Do you believe that God exists? [Capitalization optional.]

(8) Which description of God most closely resembles your beliefs? [Big list including "There is no such thing as a god."]

...

Some of these questions could also be supplemented with confidence ratings. For example, (4) and (7). Or you could ask a follow-up to a question like (8): how confident are you that your beliefs about God are correct?

This sort of instrument could be expanded upon or adapted in lots of different ways, but you get the idea. Asking one question, which has options that are weirdly orthogonal to one another, is not a very good way to evaluate how religious people are.

Also, why so much focus on Ireland?!?
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 6:53 PM on August 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


This is very poorly worded, as it uses a broad generalization for religious/non-religious, but then adds the unique qualification of certainty for atheism. Even Dawkins and Hitchens do not/didn't consider themselves 100% certain that there is no god, just that it was highly unlikely there was a god.

"A religious person" is an overly broad label. People might self-identify as "religious" for a variety of reasons other than the certainty of their convictions, e.g. they go to church because it's cultural/how they were raised, everybody else in their community does, they think it's good for the kids, a spouse/family member insists, it has social/business advantages, etc., like Christmas/Heaven/Jesus without necessarily investing too much thought into it. That's "religious", right?

"Not a religious person" could just as easily apply to the same people as above, e.g. they observe the rituals, like Jesus, etc. but don't necessarily believe much of it. Or they may consider themselves "not a religious person" because they don't observe enough of the formal rituals (e.g. they don't go to church, but still pray).

"A convinced atheist" seems to demand a level of certainty that is narrower than "religious"/"not religious". Again, many atheists -- including Dawkins and Hitchens -- aren't "certain" there is no god, they just think there's little/no evidence, and therefore consider the existence of supreme being highly unlikely (and even less likely that a given religion is uniquely correct). For example, Dawkins rates his level of disbelief as 6 out of 7 (or sometimes a 6.7/7), where 7 is "absolute certainty" there is no god.

This is exactly the wording you'd use to underreport the number of atheists, as it weeds out people who might otherwise consider themselves "atheists", but just aren't certain enough to categorize themselves as "convinced atheists", and hence might choose the label "not religious".
posted by Davenhill at 6:54 PM on August 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


I often feel like the only atheist I know.
Have some faith...I had a grand lunch and coffee with one today.
posted by snap_dragon at 6:55 PM on August 8, 2012


Agnostic = "How the hell should I know?"

Agnosticism is the belief that knowledge of the existence or nature of god is impossible to obtain (at least in this world). So it's more like "One can't know"

The opposite to agnostic would be a gnostic.

One can be a Christian agnostic (because faith). One could be an atheist and be agnostic, because hey. You can't prove the nonexistence of god any more than you can prove the nonexistence of unicorns.

Colloquially, people say 'agnostic' when they mean 'I don't know' or 'I don't want to be held to an opinion' - which is fine. Just wrong.
posted by device55 at 6:56 PM on August 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


What did the UK do wrong to be left off the survey?
posted by unSane at 6:57 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


for me the interesting question is, how could you tell if someone who self-identified as a religious believer, wasn't?
posted by facetious at 6:59 PM on August 8, 2012


I am an atheist. I am not a "non-religious" person. I've attended the services (I have a 5 year perfect attendance pin for Sunday school). I was confirmed. I know the ceremonies and know what;s considered sacred or unclean.

I also have been drunk on communion wine enough times to know transubstantiation is bunk (I've done this with Protestant and Catholic wine). I've watched a friend eat enough communion wafers to make a teenager sick.

I was an altar boy. A religion minor in college.

I've done directed and self-directed religious retreats. I've attended Shaker and Quaker and Temple and Buddhist services, and more religions than I can remember. I've been in hindu temples and watched an American Indian friend do his last Sundance. I've worn official Army dog-tags that said I was pretty much everything from an Atheist to a Hare Krishna. I could go on for a long damn time.

I cast about, studied and researched, and passionately wanted to believe. Fuck, I was two steps away from joining the seminary or perhaps a monastery. When my father—currently a second-career pastor, then a young seminary student—was rewriting his "statement of belief" (he'd failed his first attempt) I took it upon myself to write my "statement of disbelief." I wanted to be clergy. I love the pageantry, the theater, the beauty and the story.

I've just never felt the presence of a higher power. I was promised that if I open my heart to Jesus he would enter. I stood with the other kids singing "Jesus Loves Me."

I have learned to fake it when I need to. I try to respect something I think is fucking dumb. I sometimes admire the whole thing, but in the end, I have faith there is no God, and while I may respect and defend your right to have these beliefs, I've learned I don't have to respect the actual beliefs.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:02 PM on August 8, 2012 [10 favorites]


And while I may respect and defend your right to have these beliefs, I've learned I don't have to respect the actual beliefs.

Sort of a "love the believer, hate the beliefs" kind of thing?
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 7:10 PM on August 8, 2012


Religious? No. Spiritual in a way that acknowledges a Creator and engages in some ritual to acknowledge something greater than myself? Yes. Which box do I check?
posted by kamikazegopher at 7:12 PM on August 8, 2012


I have, variously, described myself as a militant agnostic ("I don't know, and you don't either"), an Agent Mulder agnostic (I want to believe, but the evidence just isn't there), and a Jewish agnostic (because I wouldn't dream of not practicing any other religion).

Mostly I think that something outside the universe (if it exists) is probably not going to be observable or measurable from inside the universe, and I try not to worry about it. Not sure where that puts me on this scale.
posted by nonasuch at 7:14 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ghana is the world's most religious country, as demonstrated by their Movie Posters
posted by ShutterBun at 7:20 PM on August 8, 2012


Not sure where that puts me on this scale.

I think it puts you somewhere between "Ω" and "dump truck."
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 7:20 PM on August 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Agnosticism is the belief that knowledge of the existence or nature of god is impossible to obtain (at least in this world). So it's more like "One can't know"

That is not what the man who invented the word, Huxley, thought it meant, nor is it what most contemporary users of the word take it to mean.

"Agnostic" simply means "does not know." It makes no claims, at all, about whether knowledge may be, eventually, attainable.
posted by yoink at 7:35 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


So we're airing our special snowflake details now? Sweet! I'm a "won't-be-impressed-by-anything-less-than-a-god-that-encoded-a-message-in-Pi"-ist. Maybe you could call me a Saganist? Better make that a CarlSaganist, just to avoid any unfortunate connotations...

So where does that put me on this scale?
posted by Chekhovian at 7:36 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well done Ireland!
posted by Long Way To Go at 7:46 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I believe that puts you just left of |ℵ1|, Chekhovian.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 7:52 PM on August 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Not sure how much I can trust a survey when the (very short) question has a typo in it.
posted by anothermug at 7:52 PM on August 8, 2012


ap·a·thy/ˈapəTHē/
Noun: Lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern.

I am an apathist.....if that is even a word.

That is about as much thought I care to give to the issue as it relates to me. The PDF did not seem to have a designation for how I feel about religion, which is, simply put, that I do not give shit one way or another.

If there was to be a colored chunk representing me, I suppose it would be brown. As I did not see a brown colored chunk in those bar charts, then I guess the issue is moot. Would not have mattered anyway.

For other people, if all that hoopla means something to you, great..have at it. Keep on keeping on.
posted by lampshade at 7:54 PM on August 8, 2012


I think it has a station near the word "socialist" in this country in that it has less to do with what it actually means and more to do with the fact that it has become a stand in for "morally bankrupt and proud."

Here is why, sendai sleep master.
posted by jet_silver at 7:56 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm a polyatheist. I don't believe in many gods.

(actually, no--I'm pantheist. Spinoza ftw)
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:20 PM on August 8, 2012


Sort of a "love the believer, hate the beliefs" kind of thing?

Kind of? i don't even feel a compulsion to love the believer. That guy is probably an ignorant asshole and not worthy of my time. I don't think children should play with fire, but if you are an adult and think it's a wonderful pastime, I'll probably write you off as an idiot, but I will encourage you to entertain me (as long as I don't have to pay for your mistakes).

It actually comes back to love the right to believe what you want. I'll take a bullet for that. Seriously. I did my six plus two. This is why I signed up. As much as it makes me ill to do so I defend asshats right's to belief and speech.

So someone like Fred Phelps I can hate the believer and the beliefs.

I'm 42. I've spent the last 25 years coming to grips with the fact that people believe all kinds of stupid shit. I carpool with a guy that thinks I am an idiot because I haven't liquidated my stocks since the Mayans say the world is ending in 2012. I tried point out if the world is ending ending it really doesn't matter if my money is in gold or Federation credits. He has his right to his stupidity. I don't hate him for this idea. I do wonder why he fucking is carpooling for the last 4 months of his life, but hey, not really my concern.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:26 PM on August 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


Yeah, I call myself agnostic, because it seems intellectually dishonest to say/think that "I know/am convinced there is no god," which seems to me, what atheism claims. For all I know there could be a god/gods/etc.

Dawkins spends a chapter attacking the notion of agnosticism as weak atheists in the God Delusion, and I thought his arguments were crap (besides, I'm still the enemy of his enemy!).
posted by whatgorilla at 8:41 PM on August 8, 2012


That percentagewise decrease in self-described religious people is large enough for a (huge) decrease in the absolute number of them as well. An oversimplified calculation (ignoring various complications*): Something like 220 million less religious people now than there were in 2005. Despite the population having increased by something like 530 million in that same time span.

*: For example, assuming the rate among the 38 or 40 countries surveyed in both 2005 and 2012 holds approximately true for the world in general, and ignoring differences between adults and kids that are likely not dealt with in this survey
posted by Flunkie at 9:16 PM on August 8, 2012


I can see the distinction between "non-religious" and "atheist", if I squint hard. But I don't see how the distinction helps at all.

Because they are two different things?

I've spent more of my life gradually sliding from "religious" to "non-religious" and now into the territory of "atheist". I think I could probably convert if it were important to a perspective spouse, and I could probably raise my children in religion with no real qualms, but on a personal level, worshipping a god is just not that interesting to me.

If we're getting all special-snowflakey? I believe in god in the sense that I believe in money, or college diplomas, or the concept of calendar time. It's an abstract notion that exists. I like to think about god as a metaphor. God is as real as Captain Kirk or Odysseus or Hester Prynne. And that's OK with me. As long as nobody wants to make me believe that wine is blood only at 10:30 AM on Sundays when preceded by a specific prayer, I'm cool.
posted by Sara C. at 9:38 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Very very rough back of the envelope calculations:

Religious people are a minority worldwide by 2030.

Minority in the US by 2019.
posted by Flunkie at 9:46 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was trying to find some polls today because of a related AskMe that got me wondering about conversion rates.

Like, using that Ireland example, and the 3% to 10% atheists over the last 5 years. How much of that is just demographic shift, and how much of that would be actual decoversions? And is it more common for people to become more or less religious like this, vs. converting to a new religion?

Adherents.com has a big pile of different polls on this sort of thing, but I could never find one on conversions.
posted by RobotHero at 9:48 PM on August 8, 2012


For all I know there could be a god/gods/etc.

And for all you know there could be fairies or gnomes in the world too. Do you say you are "agnostic" about their existence, too?
posted by yoink at 10:01 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


CAPTAIN KIRK IS REAL

please don't burst my bubble
posted by Flunkie at 10:04 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Of course Captain Kirk is real.

I mean, he was never an actual human being who was born and who died. But then, nobody's claiming that for most gods, either.
posted by Sara C. at 10:26 PM on August 8, 2012


I think the distinction between atheist and non-religious is an important one to make nowadays. I contend that there are a very significant number of people who would describe themselves as religious, including clergy, who do not believe in a literal God.
posted by ODiV at 10:27 PM on August 8, 2012


One thing I noticed, paging to the end of the paper, is that it lists how data was collected for each country. For the US and Ireland (among many others), the surveys were given online. Although I'm sure that they try to correct for this, I have serious doubts about the reliability of that kind of data to represent the country as a whole.
posted by Edgewise at 11:04 PM on August 8, 2012


"Well done Ireland!"

In the context of what is actually precipitating the shift, this seems like a really horrific thing to say.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:12 PM on August 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


TEN COUNTRIES EXPERIENCING NOTABLE DECLINE IN RELIGIOSITY SINCE 2005
United States
2005: 73%
2012: 60%
Change: -13%


Faster please.
posted by andoatnp at 11:16 PM on August 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


I'm 42. I've spent the last 25 years coming to grips with the fact that people believe all kinds of stupid shit.

Hard to determine from something written online, but it comes across disdainful and a bit contemptuous of other people. It sounds less like lost faith in God and more lost faith in man.

Of course it may be my Confucian side showing, which pretty much requires I believe the innate goodness of people and good governance of leaders. Yeah, I feel the eye rolling already.
posted by FJT at 11:21 PM on August 8, 2012


"And for all you know there could be fairies or gnomes in the world too. Do you say you are 'agnostic' about their existence, too?"

-- I've never been asked. I do think there's a categorical difference between believing in a fairy/gnome (or a tea-cup in orbit) and accepting the hypothetical existence of a (non-religious!?) being who created or initiated the reality/universe/etc. as we know it.

When it comes to human-created gods (Abraham, Greek, Norse, etc.), I'm atheist. But to claim to deny even the possibility of something like a creator seems more like making a leap of faith...and I'm not into faith.
posted by whatgorilla at 11:36 PM on August 8, 2012


Jonathan Livengood: Also, why so much focus on Ireland?!?


It's a report compiled be an Irish research company (RedC) from data collected by an international survey company (Gallup). There are probably other reports from other viewpoints using the same data set. The typo etc mentioned above is likely an artifact of the report, not the survey.

Someone mentioned that the survey was run online. That is only true for 11 of the 57 countries.

a. Face to Face: Countries 35 (n=33,890)
b. Telephone: Countries 11 (n=7,661)
c. Online: Countries 11 (n=10,376)
posted by Iteki at 11:45 PM on August 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


How about:

Atheist: there is no creator. The primordial soup just came to a boil all on its own.

non-religious: there may be a creator but he's not a republican, and he doesn't give a shit about my lottery ticket, your mother's goiter, or that guy's football team.

agnostic: Don't bother calling, because he doesn't pick up. Well, if he does pick up, let me know.

religious (1): There is a God. I'm pretty sure She's a Democrat.
religious (2): God is a Republican.
religious (3): God loves me, but he hates you.
religious (4): See you in Hell.
religious (5): God help us all.
posted by mule98J at 11:47 PM on August 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


The following quote from Stephen F. Roberts sums up the situation very nicely:

"I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."

I'll happily accept there is a God when it gets scientifically proven. In the mean time, I don't believe Allah, Thor, flying unicorns or little green men from Mars either. I do note with irony that Mars is the roman god of war. I don't believe in him, either.
posted by ArkhanJG at 11:52 PM on August 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


Also, no need to get too hung up on the "confirmed" part of confirmed athiest. It's a perfectly cromulent use of the word, like confirmed bachelor.

Adjective:
(of a person) Firmly established in a particular habit, belief, or way of life and unlikely to change: "a confirmed bachelor".


I've just realized we were talking about "convinced athiest" and I turned it around in my brain as meaning the exact same thing... However, I will let the post stand as the survey was of course also run in probably over at least 30 different languages, and the terminology probably varied slightly, but was equivelant to the above.
posted by Iteki at 11:56 PM on August 8, 2012


But ftr, convinced defines as 1, completely certain, but also 2, firm in ones beliefs or cause.
posted by Iteki at 12:02 AM on August 9, 2012


wilful: I was surprised by how non-religious Turkey is, yet is extremely non-atheist.

Yeah, something funny is going on here. The report later mentions that there were large shifts from "Religious" to "Not religious" between 2005 in Turkey and Hong Kong without good explanations. I suspect it has to do with how "religious person" and "not a religious person" were phrased in Turkish, but the results aren't posted on the local pollster's website.
posted by ecmendenhall at 12:27 AM on August 9, 2012


Religious? No. Spiritual in a way that acknowledges a Creator and engages in some ritual to acknowledge something greater than myself? Yes.

I have, variously, described myself as a militant agnostic ("I don't know, and you don't either"), an Agent Mulder agnostic (I want to believe, but the evidence just isn't there), and a Jewish agnostic (because I wouldn't dream of not practicing any other religion).

Maybe you could call me a Saganist? Better make that a CarlSaganist, just to avoid any unfortunate connotations...

I am an apathist.....if that is even a word.

I'm a polyatheist. I don't believe in many gods. (actually, no--I'm pantheist. Spinoza ftw)


I can't help but assume most atheists are hardcore electronic music fans.
posted by Palindromedary at 1:23 AM on August 9, 2012


I suspect that one of these two is true:
1) We are only virtual people, in a simulation.
2) Lord Shiva is very patient, and can wait forever.
posted by Goofyy at 1:39 AM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I used to call myself an atheist, but now I always call myself an unbeliever, much clearer.
posted by Pendragon at 2:31 AM on August 9, 2012


And no, i'm not an embittered and cynical writer, afflicted with leprosy and shunned by society.
posted by Pendragon at 2:37 AM on August 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think the numbers are somewhat skewed in countries where there is a political dimension to the religious/non religious question.
\Especially in Turkey I think there are few classical atheists to be found, but the "religious" label will be associated with the conservative islamic movement as compared to traditional kemalist and laicist views.
posted by ts;dr at 3:07 AM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm still shocked that they left out the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, which is likeliest the nearest thing to Ireland itself. How can you even talk about the reasons for religious decline without even looking at the society which is nearest to you in culture and values?
posted by Jehan at 3:20 AM on August 9, 2012


Like, using that Ireland example, and the 3% to 10% atheists over the last 5 years. How much of that is just demographic shift, and how much of that would be actual decoversions?

Hard to tell; the CC now no longer let people formally leave.
posted by jaduncan at 4:07 AM on August 9, 2012


Religion, faith, and lack thereof can't be condensed meaningfully into such teeny bullet points.

I think there are patterns underlying the entirety of the universe, patterns that literally could be no other way because they are the only things that are physically possible. You can find these patterns in everything, sometimes blatantly, sometimes more gently. I think there's something significantly meaningful to this, no matter whether you view the world from a human-centric lens or not. These patterns can be practically useful and still worth tons of abstract contemplation.

Sometimes I'll refer to witnessing those simple patterns forming complex, sublime things as viewing the face of God. And I like that kind of God, the one that underlies everything and from which wisdom can be found if you devote yourself to studying it. But that God isn't a person, he never spoke from Mount Sinai, and he expects us to figure out that gay people are normal on our own. So am I an atheist or am I religious? I could argue convincingly either way.
posted by Rory Marinich at 5:00 AM on August 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Religious? No. Spiritual in a way that acknowledges a Creator and engages in some ritual to acknowledge something greater than myself? Yes. Which box do I check?

Surely 'engages in some ritual to acknowledge something greater than myself' means your answer is easy: religious. It probably doesn't particularly matter to the question if you're a one person religion.

One thing that gets tricky is that 'religious' and 'atheist' are not necessarily distinct categories. Certainly Unitarian Universalists will say they can go together (and say so on the website). I also understand that in some schools of thought, atheism and Judaism are not incompatible, but I definitely don't know enough about Judaism to explain it.

There's also the question of religious practices that are so embedded into the culture that people do them, even if they don't believe in or actually really practice the religious bit. I'm sure we could think up secular examples of hymn-singing. (Does 'Jerusalem' count? It's got a sort of weird history, I think.)
posted by hoyland at 5:26 AM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


My mother subscribes to an interpretation of Reform Judaism where God is composed entirely of the set of things that exemplify Jewish ethical ideals.
This made me think of this article about certain conservative Christian pedagogists' dislike of set theory (presumably because it's modernist or something).
posted by adoarns at 5:58 AM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Could someone from the Czech Republic explain why that particular country is the standout atheistic country in Europe, east or west?
posted by picea at 6:43 AM on August 9, 2012


I think many clergy of the Christian religions do not believe God exists. We know there are a few (through published personal testimony) -- but I suggest there are quite a few.
posted by lathrop at 6:44 AM on August 9, 2012


Am always surprised at how very religious India is. I know my friends and I are unrepresentative but still.
posted by peacheater at 7:02 AM on August 9, 2012


The question strikes me as bad because it conflates two different categories together. Not all religions require a belief in "god." Not all atheists are non-religious. Granted, this may not be a mainstream distinction, but it's common enough to strain a survey already burdened with assuming that "religious" is sufficiently cross-cultural. Also, was there a post hoc analysis of the Web-based survey data to show that the sample matched census demographics?

Now granted, I'm a cranky old queer and UU Humanist who can't see a question demanding that people pick identities without pointing out that emperor of constructed identity has no clothes, but I don't know how to honestly answer that one.

whatgorilla?: Yeah, I call myself agnostic, because it seems intellectually dishonest to say/think that "I know/am convinced there is no god," which seems to me, what atheism claims. For all I know there could be a god/gods/etc.

My only objection to agnosticism is the attempt by (some) agnostics to put themselves above the fray by arguing against a limited view of atheism.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:02 AM on August 9, 2012


I'm 42. I've spent the last 25 years coming to grips with the fact that people believe all kinds of stupid shit.
Hard to determine from something written online, but it comes across disdainful and a bit contemptuous of other people. It sounds less like lost faith in God and more lost faith in man.


Eh, I never formed a faith in God so never had it to lose. I kept thinking it would happen, and at some point I really thought people were just pretending, that it was something we'd agreed to to as a society. Then I realized people actually do believe in higher powers.

I will admit I've gotten more cynical with age, but I'm not really "contemptuous of other people." I'm not placing myself above anyone. I'm sure I believe all kinds of stupid crap as well (and not limited to religion).
posted by cjorgensen at 8:30 AM on August 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


When it comes to human-created gods (Abraham, Greek, Norse, etc.), I'm atheist. But to claim to deny even the possibility of something like a creator seems more like making a leap of faith...and I'm not into faith.

But you cannot know that Odin (say) doesn't exist. If Odin were suddenly to reveal himself to the world, it wouldn't require you to declare that there was some inherent fault in your powers of reasoning: it would simply be that evidence was finally presented that made the belief tenable.

Being an atheist does not mean "deny[ing] even the possibility of something like a creator." It simply means not having seen any evidence to support the hypothesis. I'm an atheist, but I fully accept that it is "possible" (in the abstract, logical sense) that a creator could exist or have existed.

So far as I can see, religion is the only area where we think there is some special state of "not knowing" which deserves its own special label ("agnosticism"). The reasons for that are entirely social (it is considered impolite to declare oneself and atheist because it implies a direct judgment on other people's beliefs: which always strikes me as odd, because to declare oneself a Christian or a Jew, for example, is to declare that a direct judgment on all non-Christian or non-Jewish beliefs). There is no philosophical justification for the existence of the word "agnostic." In fact, logically, there should be a direct inference from "I am agnostic" to "therefore I am an atheist."
posted by yoink at 9:23 AM on August 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


I describe my atheism as assigning just as much likelihood to any given creation story/god/religion as I do to the easter bunny or santa claus. I.e. I'll believe it when I see some falsifiable peer-reviewed evidence and until then it's fiction.

Which, mind you, would still let me be religious (I'm not). I know several atheists who participate enthusiastically in Judaism; they derive benefits from attaching themselves to that particular tribe and the rituals and requirements that entails. Likewise the fictional stories of any given religion can be powerful emotional anchors, influential metaphors for the human condition, historically important and good guides for day to day life without in any way requiring them to be true.

What concerns me isn't religion as much as faith, especially faith in contradiction of evidence. Around here that leads to laws that contradict reality and those concern me quite directly. If we could survey on that question I'd be highly interested in the results. Something like "If your religion said 2+2=5 which would you believe" but of course you can't just ask things that baldly and expect to get anything sane back.
posted by Skorgu at 9:30 AM on August 9, 2012


Being an atheist does not mean "deny[ing] even the possibility of something like a creator." It simply means not having seen any evidence to support the hypothesis. I'm an atheist, but I fully accept that it is "possible" (in the abstract, logical sense) that a creator could exist or have existed.

You have to be really careful with admitting the possibility of allegedly necessary beings. In some prominent modal logics, given the assumption you've just agreed to (or appear to have agreed to), you can rigorously prove that God exists.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 9:35 AM on August 9, 2012


In some prominent modal logics, given the assumption you've just agreed to (or appear to have agreed to), you can rigorously prove that God exists.

I would buy tickets to that show. Will you enlighten us with your carefully wrought modalities?
posted by Chekhovian at 9:40 AM on August 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Sure. Give me a few minutes: I want to be sort of careful with the details and give some background.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 9:50 AM on August 9, 2012


You have to be really careful with admitting the possibility of allegedly necessary beings. In some prominent modal logics, given the assumption you've just agreed to (or appear to have agreed to), you can rigorously prove that God exists.

No, I've seen those arguments (starting with Descartes's version). They are all rather tedious and transparent exercises in question begging. To grant the possibility that a being might exist, even to grant the possibility that the existence of that being could be proven to be a necessary precondition for the existence of the universe is not the same thing as granting that the necessity of that being's existence has yet been proven. And that is what needs to be proven before we can move from "necessity" to "existence."
posted by yoink at 10:05 AM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm adamantly agnostic (in a more Spencerian sense) when it comes to things like "first cause" and ipsum esse. They are plausible but almost certainly unknowable in human terms, and additional theological assumptions beyond "uncaused cause" or "essence of being" are unwarranted. It's doubtful they're logical constructs more capable of a personal or prophetic relationships than the infinity of real numbers.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:12 AM on August 9, 2012


I'm an atheist, but I fully accept that it is "possible" (in the abstract, logical sense) that a creator could exist or have existed.

I'm an atheist and I fully deny the possibility a creator could exist or could have existed (in any sense). Mostly I take this belief on faith.

When you get to the point that you leave open the unprovable to possibility you're not following logic. I could suddenly be popped to the other end of the universe by magic too or grow a third eye, but this doesn't mean I am going to accept these events as possibility until after they happen.

If God were to reveal Himself to me in all His glory I am pretty sure it would be time for me to switch up my meds. YMMV.
posted by cjorgensen at 11:33 AM on August 9, 2012


You have to be really careful with admitting the possibility of allegedly necessary beings. In some prominent modal logics, given the assumption you've just agreed to (or appear to have agreed to), you can rigorously prove that God exists.

Yes, if there's a creator, it's got a lot to answer for.

Sorry. I seem to be stuck in a Monty Python rut today.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:55 AM on August 9, 2012


In the first couple decades of the twentieth century, the American philosopher C.I. Lewis proposed a collection of modal logics S1, S2, ..., S5, motivated in large part by the fact that the material conditional (p → q) does not seem to adequately capture the logic of "if ..., then ..." constructions in ordinary language. For much more on this, see the SEP article on the origins of modern modal logic.

In the 1940s, Carnap and Barcan (independently) started using possible worlds to give a semantics for Lewis' syntactical systems. Carnap in particular argued that the ordinary (read "pre-theoretical) notion of logical truth is best explicated by S5. And there are some nice meta-logical results about S5, for example, Kripke proved (in the 60s) that the sentential version of S5 is complete and decidable. More recently, S5 and other modal logics have been used to think about provability.

All that as a defense of the claim that S5 is not an ad hoc system developed by some religious nuts in order to prove that God exists. (It still might not be a defensible logic, but it does have serious areligious motivations.)

Anyway, as with other logics, S5 has both an axiomatic formulation and a natural-deductive formulation. I will give the proof in a natural deduction setting, since that makes the proof very simple. Then I will make some remarks about the proof -- sketch the intuition and give some objections to it.

In order to get S5 in sentential logic, add to ordinary sentential logic two operators over sentences φ -- Nec(φ) and Pos(φ) -- for necessarily φ and possibly φ, respectively. (Normally, these would be represented by a box and a diamond, respectively, but I don't know how to make html love me like that.)

S5 has the following rules (permissions) of inference.

Nec Intro: From (φ1 & φ2 & ... & φn) → ψ one may infer (φ1 & φ2 & ... & φn) → Nec(ψ).

Nec Elim: From Nec(φ) one may infer φ.

Pos Intro: From φ one may infer Pos(φ).

Pos Elim: From (φ1 & φ2 & ... & φn) → (ψ → θ) one may infer (φ1 & φ2 & ... & φn & Pos(ψ)) → θ.

The core of the argument is the following interesting result in S5: from Pos(Nec(X)) it follows that Nec(X). Here is the proof.


(1) Pos(Nec(G)) . . . . . . Premiss

(2) Nec(G) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Assumed for conditional proof

(3) G . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . From (2) by Nec Elim

(4) Nec(G) → G . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . From (2) and (3) by → Intro

[→ Intro is a standard natural deduction rule that allows us to discharge assumptions in conditional proofs]

(5) Pos(Nec(G)) → G . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . From (1) and (4) by Pos Elim

[We could infer directly from here to G by modus ponens, but we want a stronger result along the way.]

(6) Pos(Nec(G)) → Nec(G) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . From (5) by Nec Elim

(7) Nec(G) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . From (1) and (6) by modus ponens

(8) G . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . From (7) by Nec Elim


What the proof shows is that if you assume that something necessary is possible, then that thing is necessary (and also actual).

In order to turn this result into a full proof that God exists, you just need a pretty standard, medieval definition of God as a being whose essence implies existence (or some equivalent definition whereby it is analytic that God is a necessary being).

If you want more, take a look at the SEP article on ontological proofs, especially Section 7, which discusses Plantinga's modal proof.

The intuition behind the proof depends on the usual possible worlds semantics for modal logic. According to that semantics, something is possible if and only if it holds in at least one possible world, and something is necessary if and only if it holds in every possible world. The intuition, then is that if there is a world in which it is true that there is a being that exists in every possible world, then it must be that the being really does exist in every possible world. And, of course, our world is possible. So, the being exists in our world, too.

One might dispute the proof either on the basis of the premiss that a necessary being is possible or on the basis of the rules of inference. (One might, I suppose, also dispute the definition of God as a necessary being, but I'm not sure what traction there is for that sort of debate.) Moving to a weaker modal logic blocks the proof. But then, you ought to give reasons -- preferably independent of the argument about whether God exists -- for accepting some other modal logic or at least for rejecting S5.

In response to yoink's remark (wow it's taking me a long time to write this comment!), of course every proof begs the question in some sense. That is, if the proof is deductive and valid, then the conclusion is already there, so to speak, in the premisses. The question is whether the premisses and rules of inference are rational/reasonable. But the inference rules have been defended by atheists (like Carnap) for quite independent reasons, and the premiss is something that yoink seemed to accept initially, which is exactly why I urged caution.

For what it's worth, I think the right reaction -- especially for an atheist -- is to stop saying that God is possible. One need not deny that God is possible; rather, one may suspend judgment about whether or not God is possible.

I hope that was worth the price of admission, Chekhovian.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 12:04 PM on August 9, 2012


What the proof shows is that if you assume that something necessary is possible, then that thing is necessary (and also actual).

Definitely question-begging, then, eh?
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:18 PM on August 9, 2012




I suspect it has to do with how "religious person" and "not a religious person" were phrased in Turkish, but the results aren't posted on the local pollster's website.

I don't know about that.

I was in Turkey back in February, and based on an outsider's observation of people in Istanbul (and I realize that society out in the hinterlands is more conservative), if I had to guess I'd say that Turkey is about as religious as the US.

Turkey is also a rapidly changing society. The Turkish economy has developed HUGELY over the last couple of decades. Turkey was very much a developing (or even declining) country in 1990, and yet the standards of living in Istanbul in 2012 are on par with any Western European city. It doesn't surprise me that people now self-report as less religious than they did 10 or 20 years ago.

Also, yeah, keep in mind that self-describing oneself as "religious" has a political element, as someone upthread mentioned.
posted by Sara C. at 12:21 PM on August 9, 2012


JL, I'm going to have to stare at that a bit.

I rather liked this bit from one of the links you supplied:
However, as Bertrand Russell observed, it is much easier to be persuaded that ontological arguments are no good than it is to say exactly what is wrong with them.

Thankfully, as an experimentalist, I somewhat relieved of the burden of pure reason you carry. I just build a gizmo and test something if I want to analyze it. An old boss of mine used to have lunch with Phil Anderson, a big name theorist. Anderson would posit that various things had to be true about these new materials for all these strong theoretical arguments, and my boss would just say "neener, neener, it's not true, because we don't find that in our measurement". This, my boss, a "dumb" experimentalist, routinely had the better of Anderson in their arguments.
posted by Chekhovian at 1:41 PM on August 9, 2012


Chekhovian: what's wrong with it is that the atheist shouldn't concede that "there is a possible world in which there exists a being which exists in all possible worlds": when you put it that way, the consequences become obvious. The "6.9 on the Dawkins scale" atheist doesn't mean that when they concede that God "possibly exists": they mean that it's epistemically possible that God exists, that is, they're conceding that they personally might be wrong.

Draper has a good argument that if theism is necessary, it's more likely that it's necessarily false than that it's necessarily true: Luke Muehlhauser quotes the relevant section of the longer document.
posted by pw201 at 2:20 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


The "6.9 on the Dawkins scale" atheist doesn't mean that when they concede that God "possibly exists": they mean that it's epistemically possible that God exists, that is, they're conceding that they personally might be wrong.

That's right. One could say, "Oh, I didn't mean possible in any strict sense, I mean that my degree of belief that God exists is low but not zero." Perfectly fair thing to say. But again, this perfectly fair thing to say is a more careful, cautious qualification of the claim that it is possible that God exists.

Anyway, your conclusion that atheists shouldn't concede the premiss is exactly what I said at the end of my over-long spiel. Indeed, that was the point of my first remark: an atheist should not say that God is possible -- at least, not without careful qualification of that admission.

I would think that atheists of the 6.9 variety would just put a very low credence on the claim that Pos(Nec(G)).

... a "dumb" experimentalist ...

I want to be very, very clear that I do not think experimentalists are dumb. I'm an experimentalist, too, just not a very good one. (I run social science experiments pretty frequently in order to get a better handle on how people think about crazy hypothetical cases that philosophers are always debating.)

Anyway, I think there is actually a pretty experimental-friendly reminder in here: often we cannot determine what is possible just by consulting our imagination. So, we shouldn't say that things are possible just because we have a vague impression that they are so.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 2:42 PM on August 9, 2012


When you put it that way pw, the argument starts to sound more like an episode of Stargate Sg1 than something published in a peer reviewed journal. Sorry JL. My favorite possible worlds bit in SG1 was when Carter using her "experimentally proven fact" that matter can only travel one way through an open wormhole, reasoned that the infinite parallel possible worlds of the multiverse had to occasionally come into contact with each other, to preserve causality.

Now that was all bullshit dreamed up by a lowbrow SF writer. But it resulted in a handy excuse for the standard SF trope of meeting your parallel self. And cute reasons for it to happen again in the future.

So in what do the ontological proofs result, aside from a smug sense of self satisfaction in having "proven" something that you already believed without doubt. That's just philosophical masturbation.
posted by Chekhovian at 2:47 PM on August 9, 2012


Pos Elim: From (φ1 & φ2 & ... & φn) → (ψ → θ) one may infer (φ1 & φ2 & ... & φn & Pos(ψ)) → θ.
I don't follow.

I read this as "If some set of conditions φ all being true implies that if ψ is true then θ is true, then if all of those conditions φ are true and it's possible that ψ is true, then θ is true."

Am I reading it wrong? If not, it doesn't seem to make sense as a general rule. Counterexample:

φ = "X is a positive number"
ψ = "Y is a negative number"
θ = "X * Y is a negative number"

We certainly have φ → (ψ → θ) : "If X is a positive number, then if Y is a negative number, then X * Y is a negative number".

Since we have φ → (ψ → θ), this "Pos Elim" claims that we also have (φ & Pos(ψ)) → θ.

That is, Pos Elim claims that if X is a positive number, and Y might be a negative number, then X * Y is a negative number.

Again, am I misunderstanding something about this? Because what I am reading it to mean frankly seems farcical.
posted by Flunkie at 4:20 PM on August 9, 2012


Or even simpler:

φ = some trivial tautology
ψ = something
θ = ψ

We certainly have φ → (ψ → θ). So we therefore have (φ & Pos(ψ)) → θ. And φ is tautological, so we have Pos(ψ) → θ. And θ = ψ, so we have Pos(ψ) → ψ.

We have "proven" that if something is possibly true, then it is true.
posted by Flunkie at 4:33 PM on August 9, 2012


Jonathan Livengood: an atheist should not say that God is possible -- at least, not without careful qualification of that admission.

Why not? It's a perfectly reasonable use of the word "possible." In fact, I'd posit that virtually nobody outside some very constrained circles of philosophy tyros ever use "possible" to mean anything like "it is true is some other, ontologically distinct but causally isolated and unobservable world." Rather, as pw201 pointed out, such statements are almost invariably statements about confidence in a belief or something similar.

often we cannot determine what is possible just by consulting our imagination

Except, evidently, when (unintentionally or otherwise) making affirmative statements about other possible worlds...

And, on preview, what Flunkie said.
posted by dilettanti at 4:33 PM on August 9, 2012


"it is true is in some other, ontologically distinct but causally isolated and unobservable world." It is possible that I am even worse at proofreading than I am at typing in the first place. And it is possibly true in this world, not just true in some other possible world.
posted by dilettanti at 4:37 PM on August 9, 2012


Again, am I misunderstanding something about this? Because what I am reading it to mean frankly seems farcical.

Oh, Jesus is my face red.

No, you're not misreading. You're absolutely right, and those conclusions would indeed be silly. There is a simple explanation for what is going on here: I screwed it up. This is what happens when I try to remember modal logic on two hours sleep after not thinking about it for five years.

I left out a very important clause on the rules of inference, and then to top it off, I applied the rules incorrectly (well, correctly according to what I wrote down, but incorrectly according to S5).

Here is what I left out: All of the φi, ψ, and θ terms must be modal terms. In other words, all of those terms have to be of the form Nec(.), Pos(.), ~Nec(.), or ~Pos(.).

The proof, when corrected for my stupidity -- crap, this is embarrassing -- is actually shorter:

(1) Pos(Nec(G)) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Premiss

(2) Nec(G) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Assumed for conditional proof

(3) Nec(G) → Nec(G) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . From 2 by → intro to discharge

(4) Pos(Nec(G)) → Nec(G) . . . . . . . . . . . From 3 by Pos Elim

(5) Nec(G) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . From 1 and 4 by modus ponens


Unless I'm making another serious mistake, the correct rule set does not allow the silly inferences you mention. I really should have known that I had done something wrong when my "proof" made it possible to get to G without going through Nec(G). Really, really dumb on my part. Apologies for the mistake.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 9:58 PM on August 9, 2012


Again, perhaps I'm misunderstanding, but that sure looks to me like:

(1) Totally irrelevant

(2) Assume our desired conclusion is true

(3) Totally irrelevant

(4) Totally irrelevant

(5) Our desired conclusion is therefore true
posted by Flunkie at 10:32 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


So in what do the ontological proofs result, aside from a smug sense of self satisfaction in having "proven" something that you already believed without doubt. That's just philosophical masturbation.

Hmm ... I don't think that's really how the project goes. Maybe it is for some people, but not for everyone.

If the modal logics had been developed in order to prove things about God, then I would more readily agree that there isn't any point to the proofs. But the logics themselves were developed for very different reasons, and they get applied to lots of problems -- even in real-world applications, like artificial intelligence.

One might object to the premiss of the proof, but then, that's how almost all arguments go. More importantly, it is actually an interesting discovery that in S5 you can prove that Pos(Nec(φ)) → Nec(φ). You can't prove that result if you are working in S1. (At least, I'm pretty confident that it can't be proved in S1. Given my stellar modal logic skills displayed above, maybe I should be more circumspect.) And the premisses in logical proofs are usually translations of ordinary language claims anyway (as they are in this case).

So, suppose you found the claim that God is metaphysically possible compelling. It is not a foregone conclusion that from that assumption you can prove that God exists. But now suppose that for other reasons, you think that S5 gives the correct modal logic. (You could be persuaded by Carnap's arguments about logical truth, for example.) And suppose that you accept the definition of God as a necessary being and the translation of that into S5. Then, if you are being honest and consistent, you ought to say that God exists.

You could, of course, be more convinced that God does not exist than that S5 was the right modal logic. In that case, you should probably switch modal logics! But then, that's a gain, too, isn't it? If you are persuaded that God does not exist, then the ontological argument has taught you something about which modal logic you should endorse and also taught you something about the reasons you had for endorsing that modal logic in the first place (namely that they aren't very good).
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 10:41 PM on August 9, 2012


Flunkie,

Your earlier criticism was spot on. You caught a mistake that I made. Your latest criticism doesn't even seem like it's really trying, just saying, "Boo logic!"

I could just be misunderstanding what your point is, though.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 10:43 PM on August 9, 2012


In step (2), you say:
Nec(G) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Assumed for conditional proof
If you mean by this something other than "Assume that G is necessary", please explain to me what it is that you mean.

In step (5), the terminal step, you say:
(5) Nec(G)
If you mean by this something other than "We have proven that G is necessary", please explain to me what it is that you mean.

Assuming I am correct about what you mean in each of those two steps: Of course you can prove G is necessary if you assume that G is necessary.
posted by Flunkie at 10:47 PM on August 9, 2012


Reading what you have again, this part isn't right:

(2) Assume our desired conclusion is true

That's not what line (2) is doing. Line (2) is setting up the derivation of pp. You have to use conditional proof in the natural deduction setting. You would have to do that even in boring old sentential logic.

The very next line discharges the assumption of Nec(φ) in order to get Nec(φ) → Nec(φ). So, the sentence on line (3) does not depend on any assumptions at all: it is a theorem of S5.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 10:48 PM on August 9, 2012


Maybe that's not very clear. Let me try saying it in a slightly different way. The typical strategy for proving a conditional, like φ → ψ, in a natural deduction system is to begin by assuming the antecedent (in this case φ) and then proving the consequent (in this case ψ). Then the assumption for conditional proof (φ) gets discharged by putting it as the antecedent of a conditional with the thing that followed as the consequent of that conditional.

So, in ordinary sentential logic, in a natural deduction system, if you want to prove that it is a theorem (logical truth) that pp v q, for example, the proof looks like this:

(1) p . . . . . . . . . . . Assumed for conditional proof

(2) p v q . . . . . . . . From (1) by v introduction

(3) p → (p v q) . . . From 1 and 2 by → introduction, discharging assumption (1).

Sometimes, we explicitly keep track of what assumptions each line in the proof depends on. In this proof, line (1) is an assumption, and line (2) depends on the assumption in line (1). But line (3) does not depend on any assumptions at all.

Does that make sense?
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 10:58 PM on August 9, 2012


That's fine, but what you meant would have been much clearer if you had just skipped the say-but-not-really-mean "assume x" and instead just gone straight to "x implies x", which is tautologically true.

Anyway, it seems to me that this entire argument is contingent upon "Sure, maybe I'm wrong" being equivalent to "There is a possible world in which a god exists" -- whatever "possible world" means, let alone "there is a possible world" -- and upon the "necessary" in the "exists in all possible worlds" sense being equivalent to the "necessary" in the "God is necessary for existence" sense. All of this strikes me as just handwavey English-to-logic pseudotranslation baloney.

So some Thirteenth Century monk claimed that god is necessary, and some atheist today said maybe god exists. Whoop-dee-doo. Some super-hardcore atheist claims that it is necessary that there is no god, and that other atheist still says maybe god exists. If the claims of the monk and the first atheist imply that god exists, then the claims of the two atheists imply just as well that god doesn't.

All sorts of silly conclusions can be drawn when you artificially conflate natural human language with mathematical language.
posted by Flunkie at 12:49 AM on August 10, 2012


Excuse me, I mean "and that other atheist says maybe the hardcore guy is right". Point about vague handwavey pseudotranslation baloney remains unchanged.
posted by Flunkie at 12:59 AM on August 10, 2012


Now you're just being abusive in a not really understanding what's going on sort of way. I wrote up the proof the way I did because those are the rules for that proof system. You can't just write down "x implies x" in that system, you have to prove it. Yes, it's a tautology, but so are ((pq) → p) → p and lots of other sentences that most people don't see as immediately and obviously true (i.e. you need to actually write out the truth tables or the proof in order to be convinced that they are tautologies). I'm not trying to be sneaky here. If I were trying to pull a fast one, I wouldn't have written out the details of how the system works or given a real proof at all or admitted my mistake in the first "proof" that I wrote down.

A big part of my concern here is that "possibly p" and "I have low, non-zero degree of belief that p" are not the same thing. And conflating those two can lead to serious confusion, especially in the context of debates about God. If you look back at yoink's comment and my off-hand remark about that comment, you will see that (a) yoink goes back and forth between degree of belief and possibility "in the abstract, logical sense" several times, and (b) I qualified my remark to say that he appeared to be accepting the modal premiss that then later appeared in the proof, which Chekhovian asked to see. (In retrospect, I should have either declined or linked an article instead of trying to go through details of the proof, but I thought people here might be interested in something with a bit more meat on it, and I thought if I went slowly in writing up my comment that I wouldn't make any errors. Silly me on both counts, I know.)

Also, you will note that I nowhere endorsed the soundness of the argument. (The argument is clearly valid, but if its premiss is false, then it is unsound.) Instead, I said that one should suspend judgment about whether God's existence is possible, since if one assumes that God is possible, then one has good reason to think that God exists, owing to what is usually meant by the word "God," insofar as one has good reason to think that S5 governs reasoning about possibility and necessity.

All of this is by way of personal conceptual house-cleaning. It is good to know what our commitments are, and sometimes, the commitments we have are non-obvious.

Anyway, at this point, I'm going to leave it, because I don't think we're really having a productive conversation about what makes reasoning correct (or incorrect), or about the details of modal logic, or about variations on the ontological argument, or about what point a proof of the existence of God serves. And we're certainly very far away from the original post.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 2:06 AM on August 10, 2012


Now you're just being abusive in a not really understanding what's going on sort of way. I wrote up the proof the way I did because those are the rules for that proof system. You can't just write down "x implies x" in that system, you have to prove it. Yes, it's a tautology, but (...)
I don't care about the part that led to temporary confusion about what you were saying. As I said, it's fine. It would have been clearer if written another way, in my opinion, but whatever.
I'm not trying to be sneaky here. If I were trying to pull a fast one,
If I thought you were "trying to pull a fast one" with the say-but-not-mean "Assume X", after you had explained what you actually meant by it, why on earth would I have said that it's fine, and then moved on?

Again, I don't care about that part. It's irrelevant to my objection to the argument, which begins in the second paragraph. The first paragraph essentially just being "OK, that's fine, would've been clearer, but whatever", about a side issue, and the second beginning with "Anyway, ..." and being the heart of the matter. That heart of the matter which -- maybe I'm wrong -- you don't seem to have responded to at all. Instead you just took issue with... well, with me agreeing with you about a side issue after you clarified it.
Also, you will note that I nowhere endorsed the soundness of the argument.
WTF? You will note that I nowhere mentioned anything even vaguely related to what I think your opinions might be.
Anyway, at this point, I'm going to leave it, because I don't think we're really having a productive conversation (...)
OK. If you change your mind, and you want to have a productive conversation about it, try responding to the actual objection instead of going on a five paragraph rant about how abusive I am due to the fact that I agreed with you about a side issue after you clarified what you meant by it. The "actual objection" being that the argument is handwavey English-to-logic pseudotranslation baloney.

I mean, seriously, it boils down to:

(1) Somebody said something is necessary;
(2) Somebody said "Sounds wrong, but hey, I guess, who knows, maybe";
(3) Hands wave in order to transform those two statements into math;
(4) Math mathifies;
(5) Hands wave in order to transform the mathematical conclusion back into English;
(6) The guy from #2 has admitted that the guy from #1 is right!

The "math mathifies" step might be perfectly fine. The step immediately preceding it and the step immediately following it, though, not so much. GIGO. As can be seen by the guy from #2 also saying "... but maybe the hardcore atheist who says it is necessary that no god exists is right".
posted by Flunkie at 6:12 AM on August 10, 2012


I have to say comrades...this is the strangest/bestest religion thread in my limited MeFi experience. Bravo! And keep it up.
posted by Chekhovian at 7:56 AM on August 10, 2012


I wish I'd got those math symbols out last night when I was having an argument about belief systems in the pub with my missus and our friends. Instead, I got accused of being shouty (which I wasn't, btw)
posted by Myeral at 8:08 AM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I mean, seriously, it boils down to:

(1) Somebody said something is necessary;
(2) Somebody said "Sounds wrong, but hey, I guess, who knows, maybe";
(3) Hands wave in order to transform those two statements into math;
(4) Math mathifies;
(5) Hands wave in order to transform the mathematical conclusion back into English;
(6) The guy from #2 has admitted that the guy from #1 is right!


Well, done, Flunkie, well done.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:10 AM on August 10, 2012


...owing to what is usually meant by the word "God,"...

There isn't a single definition to the word "God." In fact, its meaning often mutates during discussions about the existence of its referent.

I have the solution though. Let's define God as something that exists if there is a possibility it exists. Then your proof is short and unrefutable.
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:56 AM on August 11, 2012


Er, irrefutable.
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:56 AM on August 11, 2012


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