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Do ‘Religiously Knowledgeable’ Atheists Believe in God?

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Filed under Atheism

Survey

A new Pew study has found that a majority of Americans (53%) say they would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate if that candidate self-identified as an atheist. Only 5% say that self-identified atheism would make them more likely to vote for a candidate. Perhaps Americans would think a bit differently if they knew about a secret that was hidden (until now) in the data for Pew's U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey. Recall what the media focused on when this was data was released:

  • Los Angeles Times: “If you want to know about God, you might want to talk to an atheist. Heresy? Perhaps. But a survey that measured Americans' knowledge of religion found that atheists and agnostics knew more, on average, than followers of most major faiths.”
  • Reuters: “They may not believe in God or gods but they know a thing or two about them. Atheists and agnostics topped a survey of religious knowledge among Americans released on Tuesday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.”
  • New York Times: “Americans are by all measures a deeply religious people, but they are also deeply ignorant about religion. … Researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life phoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions… Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics.”

However, digging a bit deeper into the data (available here) you’ll find that only 47% of adult atheists and agnostics in the United States are aware that an atheist is “someone who does not believe in God” and do not believe in God themselves. Additionally, the “knowledgeable” agnostics presumably appear in the 13% who are aware of the atheist definition and don’t know if God exists. Thus, six in ten answer in a manner that one might expect. Would Americans be more likely to vote for the 5% who are unaware that an atheist is someone who does not believe in God or of the even larger 35% of atheists and agnostics who are aware of the definition but who also say they believe in God?

Overall, 37% of self-identified atheists and agnostics in America believe in God regardless of awareness of the definition. This seems like a remarkably interesting finding that was not mentioned in the widely cited study of religious knowledge (...belief in God among atheists is something Pew has documented elsewhere as, for example, on page 5 of this report).
 
athknow1
 
The Pew report compared average religious knowledge scores across different religious affiliation sub-groups. Self-identified atheists and agnostics did indeed outscore those of other religious affiliations. But there are indications—perhaps glimpses is a better term given sample sizes—that atheists and agnostics who don’t believe in God and/or never go to religious services are slightly less knowledgeable than other atheists and agnostics who are either open to believing in God or who go to religious services with some frequency.

The figure below isolates the 201 atheists and agnostics surveyed who know that an atheist is someone who “does not believe in God.” It shows the average total score on the religious knowledge quiz for those who 1) personally do not believe in God, 2) who are unsure of a belief in God, and 3) who believe in God. The non-believers score an impressive average of 20.6 out of 32 but those unsure of a belief in God (24.2) and those who believe in God (21.0) score even higher, on average.
 
athknow2
 
Among the broader population of atheists and agnostics surveyed (independent of their knowledge of what an atheist is or their belief in God), those who go to religious services with some frequency get more correct answers on the religious knowledge quiz than those who never attend these services.
 
athknow3
 
It makes sense that atheists and agnostics who go to religious services might be more knowledgeable about religion because they hear religious content there. But should those open to belief in God or those attending religious services also be more informed about science? The survey included a series of questions that measured scientific knowledge. As shown in the figures below, 97% of atheists and agnostics who claim not to believe in God know that Charles Darwin developed the theory of evolution, while other self-identified atheist and agnostic respondents were less likely to get this correct. Yet for all other scientific questions, those self-identified atheists and agnostics open to belief in God, or who believe in God, were more likely than non-believers to correctly answer. The second figure shows that those with some religious service attendance were more likely than those who never attend to answer each of the scientific questions correctly.
 
athknow4
 
athknow5
 
In the past, I've noted how atheists have among the lowest retention rates in the United States (defined as children raised as atheists self-identify as such as adults.) This generated a lot of discussion and a follow-up post detailing the many differences between the much larger and growing group of “Nones” (14% of U.S. adults with a “nothing in particular” religious affiliation) from those self-identifying specifically as atheists or agnostics (2% and 3% of U.S. adults, respectively).

I assume the above analysis may lead to some questions as well:

Q: Is this statistically valid? Just more than 200 atheists and agnostics were interviewed.
A: I did not create the sample nor conduct the survey. Pew did. Yet that didn't stop many in the news media from making much out of the conclusion, “If you want to know about God, you might want to talk to an atheist.” Those headlines were based on this very same, small sample. If the results above regarding the percentages of atheists and agnostics who know the definition of an atheist or who believe in God are “invalid,” then so is the finding that atheists and agnostics are the most religiously knowledgeable.

Recall that Pew also included even smaller sub-groups in its analysis that made news (e.g., 117 Hispanic Catholics were interviewed and reported on.) Small sub-groups are generally not uncommon in survey reports and can be found in other recent Pew research). The margins of error are, in my opinion, quite high. But then again I am just pointing to a source that made a lot of news, and noting that there is another story in the data which I think deserves exploration in future studies with larger sample sizes.

Q: If Pew didn’t mention any of this it must not be important. Why should I trust any of this?
A: Pew doesn’t mention many results in reports that one can find in their data. No one can completely describe all the possible relationships in a data set—especially when one is under a deadline to produce a summary report when the data are fresh. Greg Smith, who worked on this study, is, in my opinion, one of the leading religious researchers in the country. Yet, it would be unrealistic to expect even the best researchers to uncover every interesting finding in their data. Often they spend years examining and publishing out of the same data set before it is fully explored. It is also the case that Pew seems to have a very direct reporting style. They present topline and sub-group results in reports and do not venture extensively into other aspects or connections in their data. Thankfully, Pew provides their data to researchers to study and publish with the data further.

Q: I don’t trust CARA as a Catholic research center. What do you know about atheists?
A: When we noted the low retention rate for atheists someone replied:

"These were apparently culled from raw data supplied to CARA. They should perhaps then be taken with a grain of salt, as CARA is religiously affiliated, but we'll accept them as is."

There is always the fallback of CARA or Georgetown being Catholic institutions, but that has nothing to do with whether the date had "too small an N” or “Pew didn’t report it”. It’s nice to see we still get the benefit of the doubt by the commenter quoted above. The Catholic Church certainly listens to and learns from atheists. I would hope atheists could fathom accurate and unbiased research coming from an academic, religiously-affiliated center staffed by social scientists. In the end, math works the same for anyone, regardless of religious affiliation (and again the data are available for anyone to download and examine themselves).

Q: Should Pew include atheists who believe in God as "real atheists" in its studies?
A: This is the standard in both academic and non-academic survey research. Self-identity is always used. Survey researchers find all kinds of oddities in polls such as “very liberal” Republicans, Catholics who do not believe in God, or "Nones" who are born-again Evangelicals. The world is complex and no one has a monopoly on defining membership in the “atheist” community.

Q: Why blame reporters for misconceptions when all they have are the research reports?
A: Reporters should make a greater effort to skeptically depart from the press releases. Increasingly the news people follow, discuss, and trust is data-driven (see for example FiveThirtyEight, Vox, The NY Times Upshot). Good reporters of the future will be those who can engage the data.

In my own discussions with journalists I have really appreciated Jerry Filteau and Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ (also a social scientist). On a number of occasions, interviews with them have led me to go back and re-examine some facet of the data. Both look for more than what is in the report and start with a skeptical or questioning point-of-view. They are the types of journalists that I can say have made me a better social scientist.

Researchers should do more to ensure misconceptions are not being made by omissions in their reports. Too often religious research for media and public consumption seems to be more of an impressionist painting than a high-definition photograph. I think it is our responsibility to note all the quirks we find—even when these may detract from the headline narratives. Reality is complex, important, and beautiful (most of the time). Thanks to Pew, I am now confident that there really are knowledgeable atheists who know what an atheist is but who also believe in God and go to Church a few times a year (although few people are aware of this group). The world is a big place and there is room enough for everyone in the portraits we paint with data.
 
 
Originally posted on the CARA Blog. Used with permission.
(Image credit: North Country Libraries)

Mark Gray

Written by

Mark M. Gray is a Senior Research Associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) and the Director of the CARA Catholic Poll (CCP). Dr. Gray has a Ph.D. in Political Science and a M.A. in Social Sciences from the University of California, Irvine. In addition to his research at CARA he teaches social sciences classes at Georgetown University.

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  • MrsWolf

    Theism/atheism is a label that applies to someone's belief about the existences of a god or gods. Gnoticism/agnoticism is a label that applies to someone's claim to knowledge about any subject (in this case, the existence of a god or gods). By using these definitions, we end up with four categories of belief/knowledge when it comes to the existence of god(s). Gnostic theists believe and god and claim to have knowledge of god's existence. Agnostic theists are people who believe in god but don't *know* if god exists. Agnostic atheists do not believe in god(s), but also don't *know* if god(s) exists. Gnostic atheists do not believe in god(s) and claim to *know* that god(s) don't exist.

    I myself am an agnostic atheist. I do not believe that god(s) exist, but claim no definitive knowledge about whether god(s) exist or not.

    I think that if most people are being honest, they would have to admit they are agnostic - both theists and atheists. I have met very few people who claim to *know* whether god(s) exist, no matter which side of the atheist/theist belief they are on.

    Agnosticism is not a middle ground between theism and atheism. I think it muddies the waters when we talk about "atheists/agnostics." Two different things.

    -- Heather

    • Jim (hillclimber)

      I agree on the need to distinguish between atheists and agnostics, but I don't see the knowledge / belief distinction as the best way to get at it. As you wrote (and I agree), no one has certain knowledge about anything. So, per your definition (as you also indicate) everyone would be an agnostic, rendering "agnostic" as a very unhelpful designation. Agnostic can only be a useful term (in the sense of distinguishing a certain subgroup of actual people) if we understand that "knowledge" is not the same as "certain knowledge".

      I would instead support the emphasis on "commitment" that we see in this Merriam-Webster definition of "agnostic": "one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god". Both atheists and theists have a degree of commitment to interpreting the world through a particular lens, but agnostics (in principle) do not.

      • MrsWolf

        That's an interesting definition of "agnostic." I agree that it seems to get at the essence of what people usually mean when they say "agnostic."

        I am not sure that I completely agree with the idea that everyone who is a theist or atheist have a commitment to seeing the world through that lens. I don't know why, but the word "commitment" is rubbing me the wrong way. I guess because it implies volition and I am not sure that belief/non-belief is entirely volitional. I don't think I could choose to see the world through a theistic lens, just as I am sure that many theists could not choose to see the world through an atheist lens.

        It's not that people can't change their beliefs - many people certainly do. Maybe it's because I view (non)belief as having a more "emotional" component rather than being purely rational.

        -- Heather

        • Jim (hillclimber)

          Maybe it's because I view (non)belief as having a more "emotional" component rather than being purely rational.

          Agreed! ... almost ... I would say it a bit differently I guess:

          So much of our "rational" discourse about God's existence is just a veneer for deep unacknowledged intuitions about symmetry. That said, I don't want to disparage rational discussion. Rational reflection can lead one to a different sense of symmetry. And once you begin to intuit a new symmetry, you can experiment with increasing levels of commitment to that vision.

    • Loreen Lee

      May I add to the discussion with a brief summation of what I 'believe' would be a definition of agnosticism arising out of Kantian philosophy, (as usual). In that philosophy the term 'knowledge' was applied to what is possible within the understanding, as is the case with scientific 'knowledge'. When it comes to metaphysical 'truths' therefore, the assumption is that such faith oriented beliefs are not the subject of knowledge, (that is why it is called faith as contrasted with 'reason'. Thus I can define myself as an agnostic on the assumption that my knowledge 'of the world' is in some way different from metaphysically based faith, which I therefore cannot 'know'.

      This definition of agnosticism is thus radically different from any direct opposition in relation to the original meaning of gnosticism. At the time, (early Christianity) gnosticism was, I believe, considered to be a heresy, for it was considered that no one could have 'direct knowledge' of 'God'. (Something inherited from tradition from the Jewish concept of Yahweh, I presume). But I do find it ironic, (I'm always finding things ironic) that whereas gnosticism was once 'condemned' by the Church, that today 'agnosticism', within a different definition, and meaning, could also be considered not to be 'in line' with faith teachings. But if someone asks me whether or not I am an agnostic, I believe I shall go with the Kantian 'definition', even though I 'know' not how my 'commitment' will be interpreted. grin grin.

      • "When it comes to metaphysical 'truths' therefore, the assumption is that such faith oriented beliefs are not the subject of knowledge, (that is why it is called faith as contrasted with 'reason'."

        This is an interesting position. In my mind, faith and reason are not two forms of knowledge but two paths for acquiring knowledge. For example, I can reason that my wife loves me from pure deduction, or I can have faith that she does based on her character and past actions. Both arrive at true knowledge but by taking different paths.

        Faith and reason not contradictory forms of knowledge; they're distinct and supplementary paths to the truth. As Pope John Paul II said in the first line of his magnificent encyclical on faith and reason, titled Fides et Ratio:

        "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth."

        • M. Solange O’Brien

          Those examples don't appear to match the terminology of faith and reason as theists generally understand them: deducing that my boyfriend loves me and reasoning that my boyfriend loves me based on character and past action are both "reason".
          Believing the boyfriend loves me on no evidence at all more closely matches how I understand theists use the term faith, "things unseen, hoped for" as it says somewhere in the gospels.
          If I can reason my way to an answer based on empirical evidence, then, it's not faith.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            That's in the Letter to the Hebrews, not in the Gospels, and the line is:

            Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

            Notably, there is no line of scripture that says:

            Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for for no good reason, the conviction of things not seen and not even suggested by the data.

            Faith is hope that goes beyond the data, but that doesn't mean that the data don't point in the direction of that which we hope for.

            A similar (though more limited) hope beyond the data is seen in scientists of all stripes, who hope that they will eventually find models of reality with more explanatory power. Theirs is a reasonable hope because all the data so far point in that direction, but it is also a conviction of things not [yet] seen.

          • David Nickol

            Here are the definitions of faith, hope, and charity from the Catechism:

            1814 Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself. By faith "man freely commits his entire self to God." For this reason the believer seeks to know and do God's will. "The righteous shall live by faith." Living faith "work[s] through charity."

            1817 Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ's promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit. "Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful." "The Holy Spirit . . . he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life."

            1822 Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Which part of that do you see as being in tension with what I wrote?

          • David Nickol

            I didn't quote enough. Faith is a theological virtue. According to the Catechism . . .

            They [theological virtues] are infused by God into the souls of the faithful to make them capable of acting as his children and of meriting eternal life. They are the pledge of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the faculties of the human being. There are three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity.

            Also . . .

            179 Faith is a supernatural gift from God. In order to believe, man needs the interior helps of the Holy Spirit.

            Supernatural gift. In order to believe, you need a supernatural gift.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Yes, of course. Not gospels. Sorry, pain meds kicking in.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Nothing in the quote indicates that faith means a rational conclusion from visible evidence.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Right. It is not a rational conclusion. It is a rational hope.

          • Loreen Lee

            i believe however that it can be a rational conclusion based on argument thus there is a little bit of hope possibly "mixed in" with the "faith"> (see above com box)> and that"s one of the reasons why faith is both rational and a theological virtue in the sense of being based on "identity" rather than comparison or analogy>

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Hope and conviction aren't the same. Scientists (with a few exceptions), do NOT have faith that adequately testable models can built in any way similar to how theists believe in their theism.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Can you explain what you think the difference(s) is (are)?

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            I can but try. But bear with me, I'm working this out. Let's try an analogy to start with. A scientist sees the sun rise on a regular basis. He rationally infers that it will rise again. The Christian (I'd use a different analogy for other religions) is told by his sacred text and priest that the sun will rise, despite never having seen it rise.

            One is reasonable inference, the other is "things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."

            A place to start.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            OK, good first volley. Let me throw it back at you with revisions and see if we can get to some place in the middle:

            To nitpick slightly on the scientist side, I think we should say that this scientist is rationally *predicting* that the sun will rise, because he is hazarding a statement about future data, rather than inferring the cause of already observed data. A prediction is never a rational conclusion, it is only ever a rational hope.

            As for the Christian scenario, that's an OK way to set it up, but as it stands it is so contrived that I need to request an adjustment before I try to work with it. We all have some first-hand experience of reality that we can use to judge the plausibility of received wisdom. So, to adjust and augment your scenario a bit: let's suppose that this person, because of the future post-environmental-apocalypse conditions in which he lives, will never have an opportunity to see the sun rise (it's too dangerous in those atmospheric conditions to be exposed to the sun, let's say). However, at night he is able to play along the shore, diving under the waves. His experience with the waves is that whenever he dives under a wave and waits, the wave always passes. No matter how big the wave, it has always passed over him eventually, and there has always been a new opportunity to come up for air. The tradition of his ancestors tells him that once upon a time, people experienced the rising of the sun. His trusted interpreters of that tradition tell him that it was very much like the experience of coming up for air after diving underneath a wave. They furthermore tell him that the rising of the sun has always been interpreted as revealing the essence of reality. He reflects on his experience with the waves, he squares that against the received testimony about the rising sun, and he decides that the rising sun is plausible. He then orients his life around that his interpretive tradition's understanding of what the rising sun means. He now has a rational hope that goes beyond anything he has directly experienced.

        • Loreen Lee

          Thanks Brandon. I was a bit unsure of myself when I posted this, because there did seem to be some quest for definition. I just wonder whether explicit distinctions would be at all possible. How do you 'scientifically' get to the root of what a person 'thinks'. They are constantly looking for quantitative parameters in psychology for instance, but they are 'hard' if not 'impossible' to come by.

          I hope I didn't create the impression that 'faith and reason are contradictory forms of knowledge'. I hoped to make the distinction that there are different kinds (as you would agree with) or ways of interpreting 'reality'. Scientific 'knowledge' based on Kant's categories: (quantity, quality, relationship, modality) are deemed to be knowledge because they fall, because of the concepts, within the range of the understanding.
          As said in another comment, I believe that the CC has always understood that faith, (being metaphysical??!!) is somehow 'beyond the understanding', even within a context that does not specify precisely what is meant by 'understanding'. Thanks again.

        • David Nickol

          Didn't we just have a post recently warning us that the word faith as used by Catholics in religious discussions was not to be confused with the same concept as in "I have faith that my wife loves me"? Faith in Catholicism is a supernatural gift from God, as I understand it.

          I agree with M. Solange O'Brien that "deducing that my boyfriend loves me and reasoning that my boyfriend loves me based on character and past action are both 'reason.'" It seems to me that "reason" and "intuition" are really both reason—one being consciously worked out and the other being the result of unconscious processes that are nevertheless weighed, assessed, and used as the basis for a conclusion.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I wish we didn't have this term "supernatural", but I know it is the Catechism, so let's work with it. What do you think it means to say that something is supernatural? I propose that all hope for the future and all trust in others that goes beyond calculated gambles is supernatural in the sense that it goes beyond the natural order of things. Rocks falling to the ground don't exhibit trust. Neurotransmitters firing across synapses don't exhibit trust. Only a person, who is already a supernatural entity, exhibits trust.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            That's a very unusual definition of supernatural. I would certainly agree that specific neurochemical states don't "display" trust. But I certainly dispute that persons are "supernatural" entities. That would be a unique definition. And in what sense does hope for the future go "beyond" the natural order of things?

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            That's a very unusual definition of supernatural.

            That's a fair complaint. I explore this in my response to David, below.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            On this point I think I am on more secure footing:

            But I certainly dispute that persons are "supernatural" entities.

            I think it is fair to say that the Church invented the word "person" that we use today, and the catechism says that human persons have a transcendent character.

          • Loreen Lee

            Thank you Jim. Makes me think that sometimes I can trust my 'intuition'.

          • David Nickol

            I propose that all hope for the future and all trust in others that goes beyond calculated gambles is supernatural in the sense that it goes beyond the natural order of things.

            It seems to me you are trying to give a naturalistic definition to supernatural. How do you know that hope and trust are not part of the natural order of things? They are certainly not Christian inventions. Even animals display something very much like trust. Did God cause the Egyptians to "trust" that the pharaohs they buried in pyramids were going into some kind of afterlife? If you describe every kind of trust and hope as supernatural, then it seems to me to be necessarily the case that God grants a "supernatural" gift to many people to have hopes and trusts that involve things that are not true, and in some cases abominable, for example, that human sacrifices will placate angry gods.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I'm throwing it out there as a question really. I think the word "supernatural" needs to be thought through in a fresh way. I would love to see a review of what the word has meant over time in the history of the Church.

            I wonder if it would be fair to say that term originated at a time when "the natural order" was (erroneously) thought to be well understood. In that context (perhaps) anything that was beyond understanding and amazing was considered "supernatural". If that is true, then maybe the meaning of the word "supernatural" should be closer to "completely surprising".

            As I understand it, the whole import of God's "supernatural" activity is not: "whiz, bang, watch this magic trick and believe". The import is rather that God periodically surprises us, throws us off balance, forces us to look at things in fresh ways. To believe in the miraculous is to believe that God will always be beyond you, always be able to surprise you.

            They are certainly not Christian inventions.

            I agree! I don't think the catechism says that faith is a Christian invention.

            Even animals display something very much like trust.

            I agree here too! The starving animal that hopes beyond hope that he will find food over the hill in the next valley is a premonition of, and the foundation for, faith.

            "As the deer pants for the water brooks,

            So my soul pants for You, O God."

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            (Continued)

            then it seems to me to be necessarily the case that God grants a "supernatural" gift to many people to have hopes and trusts that involve things that are not true, and in some cases abominable, for example, that human sacrifices will placate angry gods.

            I would have to accept that too, yes. I think the response to this has to be similar to the response to those "dark passages" in the Bible that Matthew Ramage and others have proposed. The whole thing about being on a journey throughout history, gradually emerging into the light, etc.

            Our faith and hope has not changed from the time of those human sacrifices, but our understanding of our faith and hope has changed. We have had a gradual revelation that our faith and hope must be reasonable.

          • Loreen Lee

            Yes the celebration of the Eucharist does indeed turn the concept of sacrifice 'upside down' doesn't it. A sacrifice of thanksgiving.(and love).

          • Loreen Lee

            i agree> i usually relate the term super_natural to meta_physical> also as i am aware of space and time< and consequently can believe myself to be outside them< i think of this as "evidence" that there is something super natural about thise> that i"m outside of space and time (as defined as a intuition by kant) and thus in this sense "im_mortal i>e> my experience as a human i describe as having a kind of "immortality?supernatural?metaphysical character>

          • To me the word supernatural refers to phenomena that occur in violation of natural laws. Not that there are more complex of unknown laws, rather these laws are somehow abridged with no explanation. I see no way to reasonably accept that such phenomena occur rather than accept that that we are simply ignorant of the natural forces at play. Eg. it would be fallacious to conclude that the statues of Easter Island moved supernaturally simply because we don't know how humans could have moved them.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I think that is the way most people think about it (including, I imagine, most believing Catholics), but the Catholic tradition holds within it a very strong tradition for thinking about it differently. I'll have to lean on others to cite all the right sources, but I think there has always been this understanding in the Catholic tradition that miracles are not violations of anything except our preconceptions. They have never been understood to violate the natural law, because the natural law is a component of the logos of God, and it is not possible to violate the logos of God. The supernatural stands beyond the natural order of things, but it does not stand in violation of it.

            I see no way to reasonably accept that such phenomena occur rather than accept that that we are simply ignorant of the natural forces at play.

            But for those phenomena where we are ignorant of the natural forces at play, what is your reason for concluding that natural forces must be at play? And what constitutes a "natural" force to you? Does it have to be a force that operates with some consistency and regularity (this is how I understand the term "natural")? And if so, are you presupposing that nothing ontologically surprising can ever happen?

          • To me "natural laws" are the patterns we observe that appear to be I breakable. For example, for humans to overcome the force of gravity and send voyager 1 out of the solar system, we need to make use of other forces, such as electromagnetism by means of combustion. So we don't say that escaping the sun's pull was a violation of the laws of nature. In this case gravity. We call these patterns "laws of nature" or physics colloquially, science would technically call them extremely well supported theory. So not only do these patterns need to be consistent, they can never be abridged. This is what the uniformity of nature means. Gravity means objects with mass will always attract each other, and so far they always always do.

            I understand the supernatural position to be that sometimes gravity is irrelevant. God could make voyager fly across the universe not by fitting it with engines or using any other sort of unknown material force, and not through any sort of mechanism in nature. It just happens when god wills it. I see no basis to accept that such power is possible or happens.

            If you think that god is somehow always making use of some kind of forces of nature etc, this means he is just making use of unknown natural forces, I see no reason to call this supernatural.

          • When there is unexplained phenomena I reach NO conclusions about the causes. We cannot investigate supernatural causes, so what is the point? We can investigate whether there are natural causes and in the last 300 years especially, we have learned enormous amounts that have been of great value.

            When we apply methodological naturalism we do not necessarily deny supernaturalism, rather we say let us continue to look for only natural causes. Since supernatural causes would not be subject to the uniformity of nature, we can never confirm or deny them. Such conclusions are always a result of an argument from ignorance.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            We cannot investigate supernatural causes, so what is the point?

            To me the point would be that, if something appears to be completely surprising (per scientific determination), then perhaps it is reasonable to assign special significance to the event, to see it as symbolic of a hidden intent to be surprising, to see it as the composer calling your attention to a special part of the song.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I see no reason to call this supernatural.

            I agree actually. At least, I think there are expressions we could use that would be less misleading in modern English.

            But as long as we are stuck with a term that is (in my opinion) somewhat misleading, I want to try to get at the best way of understanding it.

            I have tried this analogy with others before and never had much traction, but please humor me as I try it again. Consider a song that is written in 4/4 time, but it has a brief bridge that is written in 3/3 time. The song as a whole has a cohesive logic that goes beyond the cohesive logic of the 4/4 main part of the song. I think it is fair to consider the 4/4 section of the song to be the "natural order" of the song. The 4/4 part of the song is not "violated" when you transition to the bridge, unless the bridge is very poorly written. If it is some tasteless solo that is not sensitive to the way that the 4/4 part of the song works, that would be a violation. But if the bridge creates an intelligent and elevating contrast to the main part of the song, that is not a violation.

            I am proposing that most of our lives occur in the 4/4 part of the song, so I think that is all that we can really study scientifically. The bridges are there for a moment, and then they are gone.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            In many ways, supernatural is a null term: if we can observe it, measure it, it's part if the natural world - even if it's only visible indirectly. And it's supernatural, we can't detect it at all; so we cannot say if such a thing even exists. It's time the term was relegated to the Dictionary of Lost Terms.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I don't think that is true. I don't think "supernatural" has ever been understood to apply only to the spiritual dimension and not the physical dimension. Miracles are understood to be manifested through material reality.

            I do think the term supernatural is problematic, but what I have sort of proposed is that "supernatural" can be understood to refer to that which is permanently surprising. Here is a reflection on what I mean by that:

            When I watched this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eS-USrwuUfA for the first time, I was totally thrown. The phenomenon spoke to me in the most direct nonverbal way of transformation and new beginnings. As the video is watched again and again, and as the underlying biochemical processes are studied more and more, our understanding of the phenomenon is enriched, and our appreciation for the beauty of the phenomenon will probably grow. At the same time, our ability to be surprised by it will diminish. When you watch the video for the fortieth time (as I probably have), it no longer is able to speak to you in that direct slap-you-in-the-face sort of way. That is because it is part of the natural order. It is part of the regular rhythm of the universe. We can study that rhythm, because the natural order is at some level repetitive and consistent.

            The question is: might some things be permanently, ontologically, surprising? If so, I would propose that such phenomena are appropriately labeled "supernatural".

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            The term supernatural is a fuzzy one - but I admit I don't see how your definition is useful in any way - it doesn't represent a historical use of the term; it doesn't represent any use I've ever seen. Why not simply invent a new term, rather than appropriate an old one?

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            it doesn't represent a historical use of the term

            You could be right about that, but I'm not so sure. As I said at the outset, it would be good to get an expert to weigh in on the historical sense of what exactly "the natural order" refers to. It seems very plausible to suppose that when people first started referring to "the natural order", they didn't use all the same conceptual categories that we do. They may not have been attuned to distinctions that we now make (or, possibly, vice versa). I agree that my definition probably doesn't represent the recent (last 200 years or so) colloquial meaning of "supernatural" but I am not sure that that colloquial meaning has the same historical nuance that the Church's teaching is meant to convey.

            As for whether my definition is useful, I am proposing that it is useful primarily because it allows us to talk about the element of surprise and mystery in God's activity. It points to the fact that God's work doesn't all proceed according to some tidy Euclidean geometry (though, thankfully, much of it does). It proceeds at times according to something more like a fractal pattern, with non-repeating dramatic surprises and outrageous dangling oddities. There is an underlying harmony and logic to all of it (as there is with fractals), but "the natural order" need not be understood to be coextensive with that underlying logic. I am proposing that the "natural order" is the just the part of the underlying logic that has some degree of repetition and consistency.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            I'm also curious about why you find that "surprising" A good argument could be made that "surprise" is simply a reaction that does not accord to our intution. But we recognize that our intuition is a learned thing based on a set of data points and observation. Intuitions can and are retrained all the time.
            And surely, for a Christian, surprise is never possible: given an infinitely powerful, omnipresent being, ANYTHING AT ALL is possible. Anything.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Anything at all is possible, but that certainly doesn't mean that we have no expectations about what will happen! If there were no expectations, it would be impossible to identify miracles. We believe that God is constrained by love to make the world "intelligible enough". Not just intelligible enough to survive, but intelligible enough that we can (dimly) perceive his nature. We also believe that he transcends us infinitely, and that he has a habit of calling our attention to that transcendent dimension acts that are not comprehensible to us.

            “Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey." -- Lumen Fidei

          • The term is useful for fiction though.

          • Loreen Lee

            as is my custom in quoting kant< he would agree as reason is considered to be the larger umbrella term< and empirical knowledge based on a strict definition of what constitutes understanding is a specific instance of reason< which includes not only logic< but intuition

          • Ben Posin

            Did Solange's post vanish? Would have liked to have read it.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            My posts seem to come and go. Most times, I post and the only place it shows up is in the list of recent comments. I don't know why.

        • Loreen Lee

          Quote: This is an interesting position. In my mind, faith and reason are not two forms of knowledge but two paths
          for acquiring knowledge. For example, I can reason that my wife loves
          me from pure deduction, or I can have faith that she does based on her
          character and past actions. Both arrive at true knowledge but by taking
          different paths.

          want to read the new comments am looking for consistency also can"t easily get from upper to lower case

          i would see what you call faith in accordance with the kantian distinction of what later is come to be known as scientific knowledge< because it is based not on "certainty" (as in mathematics your wife"s character can be "read" through her behavior and actions> these observations are also testable> you can make a specific request and her compliance will be "evidence" of her love for you

          i would find that pure deduction is closer to how faith is seen within the modern context> the difference between the moderns and Aristotelian logic is that the syllogism has been replaced by propositional logic but the antinomies show that certain arguments can both be proved and disproved< on either side of the debate thus belief faith for this reason is correlated with "reason" and "scientific" knowledge is correlated with the "understanding">

          (will return later to check whether i can correct for upper and lower case) thank you>

        • Ben Posin

          Sorry, I have an alarm that goes off whenever someone suggests we might have faith in our spouses in the same way the word faith is actually used by theists. In your example, you haven't actually set out two distinct ways of getting at knowledge. Having "faith" in your wife based on her character and past actions is pretty standard evidenced based reasoniing.

          If you had comparable evidence of God's nature, existence, actions, etc., then we'd be comparing apples to apples. But theists don't, and so are doing something different mentally when having faith in God then when trusting in their spouse. And that sort of faith. Doesn't strike me as an equivalent path to knowledge, or even a path at all.

          • "If you had comparable evidence of God's nature, existence, actions, etc., then we'd be comparing apples to apples. But theists don't."

            Ah, but we do! We have both the personal experience of God acting in our lives--and in the lives of millions of people throughout history--and the objective evidence of a contingent, finely-tuned universe; the existence of objective moral truths; the historical evidence of Jesus' Resurrection; etc.

            Placing faith in my wife's current love, based on her character and past actions, is like placing faith in God based on the above evidence.

          • Ben Posin

            Brandon,

            I find it remarkable that you might think you have similar evidence about the existence and nature of God as about your wife. That suggests a perhaps insurmountable divide between what we think of as reasonable, and how we see the world. But to consider your examples;

            Interaction in our lives: my wife sat with me at a clinic last night as I sought to get a broken nose reset (don't ask). I could see her, hear her, feel her, with my standard senses, and so could the doctors who answered her questions. Does God drop in on your doctors visits in this way (in the non-metaphorical, the Dr. Is getting annoyed at God's questions sense?)

            Historical evidence: I've seen my wife's birth certificate, the houses she grew up in, pictures from baby until now, and personally known her for over a decade. Jesus doesn't really stack up well in comparison.

            Finely tuned universe: remains to be demonstrated, and, if demonstrated, tells you very little about nature and intents of God. And wow, the fact that you'd have to resort to something like this really shows we're not comparing apples to apples evidence-wise.

            Objective moral truths: you should know from taking part in discussions here that there is no consensus that objective morality is a real thing, much less that it has any connection with God. Again, I'm struck by the absurdity that you put something like this forward when suggesting your evidence concerning God compares to that concerning your wife.

          • "I find it remarkable that you might think you have similar evidence about the existence and nature of God as about your wife."

            That's not what I said. You've misrepresented my view. What I said was that faith in God is akin to faith in my wife's love, not her existence.

            Please re-read my comments.

          • Ben Posin

            Edits: typos

            Brandon: maybe I could have used clearer language, but your criticism is way off base, and strikes me as ducking. You said that your faith in God is comparable to your "faith" in your wife's love, and described your faith in your wife's love as based on her character and past actions. So if these two things are to be called comparable, you must have similar evidence about God's character and past actions. Otherwise you are doing something quite different in each case.

            So, help clarify things for me: do you really think you have similar amounts of knowledge and evidence of your wife's character and past actions and God's?

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I'd like to suggest where I think this conversation has gone wrong.

            For each wife referred to in this thread, there are really two different meanings of the expression "my wife".

            One meaning is: "a recognizable constellation of organized and animated molecules". Indelicately, we might call this the "animated carcass" referent of "my wife". This is the referent when Ben says (paraphrasing), "My wife asked the doctor a lot of questions." Here he is just reporting on the data.

            Another meaning is: the interior "I" who has the experience of being that Ben's wife has. (I am assuming that Ben believes, as I do, that his wife has some interior experience of reality, that it "feels like something to be her".) This would be the referent if Ben had said: "I believe my wife cares about me, because she asked the doctor a lot of questions." Here he is interpreting the data through an interpretive lens. Science can judge the facticity of the data about his wife, but it has no way of challenging the interpretive lens that he uses to ascertain his wife's interior existence.

            One way to think about it is to say that the animated carcass is a living symbol, or a living metaphor, for who your wife really is. Her body, her voice, her written words - these are all metaphors for who she "really is".

            As a side note, I thought the movie "her" was a fascinating exploration of some of these ideas. It explores the question: "When is it in fact rational to interpret data (in that case, the data were the verbalization from the guy's OS) as being symbolic of a deeper interior reality?" It is also a great reflection on the necessity of particularizing love (problems arise because the OS has no bodily need of particularizing "her" love) .

          • Ignorant Amos

            ...the historical evidence of Jesus' Resurrection;...

            That would be?

          • Jesus' honorable burial, his empty tomb, his post mortum appearances, the disciple's sudden transformation and belief in the Risen Jesus, etc.

            Please see: The Resurrection of Jesus

          • JB

            One tiny problem - Jesus didn't exist. Cool story otherwise.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Which we must take as seriously as Mohammed's converse with Gabriel, the miracles of the Buddha, the golden tablets of Joseph Smith, etc. we have decades later records of non eyewitness accounts.

            Is that the kind of evidence you have if your wife's love?

          • Ben Posin

            I don't know how to even continue the conversation at this point. But maybe Brandon will find your comment as irrelevant as mine so we won't have to.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Brandon's response is interesting, though, in that is shows most clearly the fundamental distinction between devout theists and rational-minded atheists (which is not to say that the theists are not rational-minded, but merely clarifies that we're not dealing with unthinking atheists and are dealing with strongly believing theists): what does "evidence" look like.
            For Brandon, the Bible is evidence of the same kind and nature as the words and behavior of his wife. For Brandon, his personal experience and feelings are evidence of the same order as sequencing HVR1.
            I do not understand why he considers these kinds of evidence equivalent.

          • "For Brandon, the Bible is evidence of the same kind and nature as the words and behavior of his wife."

            I did not say that. If you think I did, please show where and I'll clarify.

            What I claimed was that both historical texts and personal clues were evidence for a faith-based belief, not that they were necessarily of the same kind.

            "For Brandon, his personal experience and feelings are evidence of the same order as sequencing HVR1."

            Again, you put words in my mouth. I never said this or insinuated it. But to clarify, what do you mean by "of the same order"?

            "I do not understand why he considers these kinds of evidence equivalent."

            Again, I never claimed all these different streams of evidence are "equivalent." But when you say equivalent, in what regard to you mean? Do you mean they are equivalently compelling? Equivalently evident to our senses? Equivalent in form?

            Two things can be equivalent in one regard, but not others. For example, men and women are equivalent in dignity but not in anatomy.

            Until you clarify your terms, and stop misrepresenting my own position, it's hard to make progress in dialogue.

          • Ben Posin

            Are they equivalent in reliability? Verifiability? Replicability? In persuasive strength? Those are the sorts of thing I want to know.

            I get that you don't like it when you think people putting words in your mouth. But things you say have logical consequences, and people are going to infer these consequences and comment about them when relevant to the conversation. It's a pretty normal thing.

            There comes a point where you're being obstreperous by repeating "ha, where did I say that?" rather than just explaining what it is you do believe, or why you disagree with the statement. You're the one blocking progress in the dialogue when you do this. I urge you to rise above this impulse.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I'd like to suggest where I think this conversation has gone wrong.

            For each wife referred to in this thread, there are really two different meanings of the expression "my wife".

            One meaning is: "a recognizable constellation of organized and animated molecules". Indelicately, we might call this the "animated carcass" referent of "my wife". This is the referent when Ben says (paraphrasing), "My wife asked the doctor a lot of questions." Here he is just reporting on the data.

            Another meaning is: the interior "I" who has the experience of being that Ben's wife has. (I am assuming that Ben believes, as I do, that his wife has some interior experience of reality, that it "feels like something to be her".) This would be the referent if Ben had said: "I believe my wife cares about me, because she asked the doctor a lot of questions." Here he is interpreting the data through an interpretive lens. Science can judge the facticity of the data about his wife, but it has no way of challenging the interpretive lens that he uses to ascertain his wife's interior existence.

            One way to think about it is to say that the animated carcass is a living symbol, or a living metaphor, for who your wife really is. Her body, her voice, her written words - these are all metaphors for who she "really is".

            As a side note, I thought the movie "her" was a fascinating exploration of some of these ideas. It explores the question: "When is it in fact rational to interpret data (in that case, the data were the verbalization from the guy's OS) as being symbolic of a deeper interior reality?" It is also a great reflection on the necessity of particularizing love (problems arise because the OS has no bodily need of particularizing "her" love) .

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            But that doesn't address what I see as Ben's concern (and mine) - that Brandon is giving equivalence to two utterly dissimilar kinds of evidence.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I guess it depends which evidence you are referring to, and whether we are talking about it as evidence of God's nature or just evidence of God's existence.

            To take a specific example, Brandon mentioned the existence of a contingent, finely tuned universe as evidence of God's existence. Let's leave aside the finely-tuned part for now, because I know that is contentious. Even without that, the existence of a contingent universe can be interpreted as a symbol of an interior / hidden reality, in the same way that Ben's wife's body can be interpreted as a symbol of an interior / hidden reality.

            Moreover, even if you don't think the universe is finely-tuned for our existence, you can still interpret the apparent orderliness of the universe as symbolic of God's interior ordered nature, just as Ben can interpret his wife's rearrangement of books on the bookcase as symbolic of her interior ordered nature.

          • Ben Posin

            Jim,

            You can interpret anything as anything. The fact that in both cases you're doing a sort of interpretation doesn't make them really parallel==one act of interpretation can be much more reasonable than the other, based on the available evidence.

            I mean, c'mon! When I want to investigate my wife's intentionality, I can ask her questions about what she intended, and she'll tell me! And I can test the connection between her intentions and words by asking her what she intends to do in the future, and then seeing that she does it! The "order of the universe" ...not so much.

          • "I don't know how to even continue the conversation at this point. But maybe Brandon will find your comment as irrelevant as mine so we won't have to."

            Ben, I'm certainly interested in fruitful conversation, but not if you misrepresent my views. There's no point in conversing if you're unwilling or unable to engage my actual views, not straw men.

            You twisted my words to say, "Having faith in God's existence is similar to having faith in your wife's existence." That's simply not what I said, and you've yet to acknowledge your error.

          • Ben Posin

            Brandon,

            I don't want to misrepresent you. Quoting you directly: "placing faith in my wife's current love, based on her character and past actions, is like placing faith in God based on the above evidence" (the above evidence being God acting in your life, a finely tuned universe, objective moral truth, and historical evidence of Jesus' resurrection, etc.)

            I acknowledge that you did not say having faith in God is like having faith in you wife's existence, your end comparison was with God and your wife's love. I retract any statement to the contrary. Ok?

            That still leaves the basic point that has me flabbergasted: the comparison of evidence you are making (in your above quote) between the evidence you have for your wife's love and the evidence you have for God (the two things you compare having faith in). The points of comparison of the evidence seem similar to what I said before: your wife verifiable has said to you and others (I presume) that she loves you, she has chosen to marry and live with you, has had children with you, presumably does affectionate things for you and probably makes sacrifices for you, as no doubt you do for her. I am willing to bet there is a ton of evidence supporting your wife's love! When I think of the evidence you suggest for faith in God, it seems to be of an enormously different category. This is what makes me think the word "faith" means something different in each example.

            Do you disagree?

          • Thanks for the charitable retraction, Ben. I appreciate you engaging my actual points.

            I will happily agree that the evidence for my wife's love is distinct from the evidence of God's existence, but the response to each set of evidence--what Christians call "faith"--is categorically similar.

            We must distinguish between the *type* of evidence and the *type* of response.

          • Ben Posin

            We are nearing the heart of our disagreement, which Solange previously intuited from an earlier post of yours. It would be helpful to explore what you see as the difference between these two types of evidence. One way in which they appear different to me is that the type of evidence showing your wife's love is better, stronger, verifiable and more reliable than that you have suggested exists for God. This isn't like saying sometimes a prosecutor relies on dna evidence, sometimes on video evidence and fingerprints. I hesitate to suggest the sort of comparisons that seem appropriate for fear of being seen by you as rude or inflammatory.

            What I think is that the strength of these types of evidence is so different that walking away from each with similarly strong beliefs is inappropriate; one is reasonable confidence based on the evidence, the other is what atheists see as faith, a belief stronger than warranted by the evidence

            The only way to suggest the same sort of belief is at play here is to assert that the two types of evidence are equally strong. That's what I infer you are doing, and that, frankly, is what I am not quite sure how to respond to, so foreign is it to my way of thinking.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            It certainly appears to be a case of confirmation bias.

          • Ignorant Amos

            Isn't the whole NT an exercise in confirmation bias to the apologist?

          • Ben Posin

            Just following up to see if you had anything further to say regarding the differences between these "types" of evidence. I'd hate to think you were more interested in wrangling retractions out of me than discussing the issue you were so keen to make sure I didn't misrepresent you on.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            But why do you think it's justifiable to react similarly to these types of "evidence"? We can, at best, draw radically different kinds of conclusions from them. The tools we apply to them are radically different. Why use the same vague term for both reactions?

          • "Which we must take as seriously as Mohammed's converse with Gabriel, the miracles of the Buddha, the golden tablets of Joseph Smith, etc. we have decades later records of non eyewitness accounts.

            Is that the kind of evidence you have if your wife's love?"

            I'm not sure what you're asking--this is a confusing comment.

            But in general, we can gauge the veracity of each of those religious claims based on the available evidence. Some of them—like Mohammed's conversation with Gabriel and Joseph Smith's reception of divine revelation--are purely testimonial and essentially non-falsifiable. There were no eyewitnesses. Therefore, those claims carry far less weight than the historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection that I shared above, which is based on multiple, independent eyewitness testimony.

          • Ignorant Amos

            But in general, we can gauge the veracity of each of those religious claims based on the available evidence. Some of them—like Mohammed's conversation with Gabriel and Joseph Smith's reception of divine revelation--are purely testimonial and essentially non-falsifiable.

            What? You mean in the same way Paul's claims of devine revelation are purely testimonial and non-falsifiable?

            There were no eyewitnesses. Therefore, those claims carry far less weight than the historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection that I shared above, which is based on multiple, independent eyewitness testimony.

            Brandon, there is no eyewitness account of the Resurrection in the NT. There is only testimonial of a burial in a tomb and sightings of a person called Jesus after the tomb was found empty. But the testimonials are fraught with problems.

            There is not a single mention of a tomb, empty or not, in 22 of the 27 books of the NT. Especially in discussion where such a point would add a great deal of credence to the text. Don't you consider that odd.

          • Ignorant Amos

            Jesus' honorable burial, his empty tomb, his post mortum appearances, the disciple's sudden transformation and belief in the Risen Jesus, etc.

            We could go into each of those separately. But generally, they do not constute evidence. They are details of a story told some considerable amount of time after the time the tale purports to have occurred.

            Please see: The Resurrection of Jesus

            Still trotting out that liar Gish Galloper WLC? Wouldn't he be classed as heretical to Catholicism? There is a difference between theology and history. Bart Ehrman tried explaining the details to WLC when debating him, but Ehrman was overwhelmed by the snake oil salesmans showmanship.
            The question at the head of the debate was stacked in favour of WLC.

            Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?

            WLC says...

            What, after all, is the resurrection hypothesis? It’s the hypothesis that Jesus rose supernaturally from the dead. It is not the hypothesis that Jesus rose naturally from the dead. That Jesus rose naturally from the dead is fantastically improbable. But I see no reason whatsoever to think that it is improbable that God raised Jesus from the dead."

            In other words, God-did-it, because God can do anything. Craig asserts this notion as true as a given.

            Just like "theory," "evidence" is a word with numerous meanings depending on how it's applied. So if Craig can find one person, from any point in history, who is willing to say "Jesus was resurrected," he's got evidence. Is it good evidence? Duh, of course not. But it's evidence. By the same standard, I could easily lose a debate asking me to prove that there's no historical evidence for Galactic Overlord Xenu. And the Salem Witch Trials provided all kinds of evidence (read: other people's testimony) proving that those women were, in fact, in league with the devil.

            http://atheistexperience.blogspot.com.es/2009/02/case-study-william-lane-craig-vs-bart.html

            Your idea and my idea of what constitutes evidence differ immensely. Which wouldn't matter so much, but the stakes warrent a bit more substance in my opinion.

          • Max Driffill

            Brandon,

            We have no reason to assume any of these things based on accounts of the Gospels. The gospels were penned decades after the events they purport to describe.

            We simply cannot know, with any kind of historical certainty any of what you assert here. On top of this we have very good reasons for doubting.

            We cannot know for instance whether, Jesus had an honorable burial (it is extremely unlikely given that he was found guilty of sedition). Pilate was not exactly known for his kid gloves. There is no reason to think he would make an exception in the general practice of crucifixtion (which was to let the bodies be taken by carrion eaters) for unruly Jews, even over Passover. Thus continuing to trot out, the empty tomb, will not make it any more true. What you would need is some independent evidence from outside the Gospels (which tell different stories anyway). This you don't have, and the gospels don't qualify as independent attestations,as they represent a cherry picked sampling of numerous gospels about Jesus that have since been manipulated.

            Jesus' alleged post mortum appearances are also problematic in the extreme. Assume the post mortum accounts are more or less true. They say nothing about whether or not the person they think was Jesus was actually Jesus. Indeed, they didn't recognize him for some time. In its oldest form, Mark, (the Gospel on which the other synoptics heavily draw upon as a source), the author doesn't have any post mortum appearances. The oldest, and best manuscripts of Mark, end at 16:8 with two Mary's fled, and never said anything to any man of what they saw, which to be clear wasn't Jesus. The later added verses have all the grace of any ret-con. The Jesus that appears is in a different form. Anyway people have trouble recognizing him during these episodes and seems like it could have wishful thinking or the guy running a scam."Oh I'm Jesus, no really, I know I don't look like Jesus, but trust me." Why is clarity so hard? I mean Herod thought Jesus was John The Baptist raised from the dead. Strange eh? We are also left with the fact that people who really want to see an old friend, a dear loved one, often misapprehend sights and sounds. Such people are only too eager to imagine something crazy has occurred. People used to see Elvis everywhere. I'm certain you haven't lost any sleep over that. And he isn' the only one. http://listverse.com/2009/04/02/top-10-people-rumored-to-be-alive-after-death/

            We also cannot know how sudden the disciple's transformation and belief occurred. When one looks at the stats, Christianity grew no faster than the Mormon Church is currently growing. But even if we grant that they did rapidly change their minds, it would not constitute evidence of the truth of what they believed, it would only be evidence that they believed a certain proposition. Belief in X doesn't constitute evidence for X.

    • Loreen Lee

      Also, (as an addendum to my previous comment) when it comes to the term atheist, this too could have multiple interpretations. It is generally taken within this forum to mean lack of belief in the 'existence' of God. However, it has also a more precise meaning, when theism is contrasted with such God-beliefs as deism and pantheism. In this sense one can be an atheist, and at the same time 'believe in God/god'.

  • Loreen Lee

    I do not consider this study to be scientific. It is not based on factual observation, nor experiment. It is thus not falsifiable. It is rather dependent upon how specific individuals interpret several concepts: atheism, theism, agnosticism. Each individual may thus have a different interpretation of what is meant by these terms, contributing to great variation in the statistics, and inaccuracy in the final analysis.
    This is interesting, because it is also not a 'metaphysical' study. Indeed, many such studies are similar in structure, especially when it comes to determining what, how, people 'think'. In a lot of cases, the participant is asked to choose a reference number - say from one to ten. Even that distinction, might have been helpful in coming to a more accurate description of what beliefs/knowledge could be credited to the participants. It merely demonstrates to me, at this time, that even science can rest of many different determinations of what constitutes 'evidence'. It would have been helpful, as a final suggestion, if the terms had been defined, for starters. I would expect if this was done, the results would have had more credibility.

    • "I do not consider this study to be scientific....Each individual may thus have a different interpretation of what is meant by these terms, contributing to great variation in the statistics."

      This is true and was precisely the point of the article: is it right to conclude that atheists have are more religiously knowledgeable when we can't even conclude what an atheist is? And when many self-identifying atheists, including those performing highest on the knowledge tests, actually believe in God?

      Mark Gray essentially responded to your comment in his first Q/A:

      "If the [survey] results above regarding the percentages of atheists and agnostics who know the definition of an atheist or who believe in God are “invalid,” then so is the finding that atheists and agnostics are the most religiously knowledgeable."

  • What this piece seems to show is that there is a great degree of confusion over these labels.

    The relevant question is: how do the rates of religious knowledge compare between those who hold a belief in a god and those who do not?

    As far as I can tell those who lack a belief have more knowledge about religion. This makes sense to me anecdotally, as in my experience, many people lose a belief in a God because they have investigated their religion, and found it lacking. This often leads to deism and the investigation of other religions, and atheism. We hear this constantly from atheists. E.g. Matt Dillahunty, Seth Andrews.

    I further think that this study suggests the process does not often work in reverse. Conversion stories generally involve an emotional experience. We don't hear stories about people coming to God intellectually through research and philosophical argument. See William Laine Craig, Francis Collins.

    • MrsWolf

      Funny. You and I were posting almost the same thought at the same time.

      Cheers!

      • Indeed! I'm not sure how this actually plays out in jurisdictions with higher rates of atheism. Here in Canada my suspicion is that most people lack a belief and are less knowledgable.

        • MrsWolf

          I'm also Canadian and I don't think that most people lack a belief in god. If you look at 2011 Census information, 67% of Canadian reported being Christian. It is true, however, that the proportion of people calling themselves "non-religious" is much higher (~24%) than in the USA.

          I would say that religion is much less of a factor in Canada than in the USA from a social and cultural viewpoint. Our culture is certainly not centred on religion like it is in the US.

          • Loreen Lee

            Just another Canadian here, making note that another distinction not explicitly put forward in the study, is that many who call themselves atheists, are simply 'not church goers'! i.e. non-denominational.

          • Of course, identifying as Christian does not mean one holds a belief in a god.

    • "Conversion stories generally involve an emotional experience. We don't hear stories about people coming to God intellectually through research and philosophical argument. See William Laine Craig, Francis Collins."

      That's a pretty bold claim to make--"generally"--without any evidence other than two anecdotal examples. Care to back up that claim with data?

      Your assertion certainly doesn't jive with my own experience, either personally or with the many other converts I know. Just look at the contributors to this site. Several have converted from atheism to Catholicism, and I don't think any came to God primarily because of an "emotional experience."

      • Ignorant Amos

        One example is the desire for curiosity, Reiss said. Religious intellectuals, who are high in curiosity, value a God who is knowable through reason, while doers, who have weak curiosity, may value a God that is knowable only through revelation.

        http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/religdes.htm

        The question is what is the ratio of those that turn to religion because of their intellectual curiosity vis a vis all the other factors listed why folk are religious. Certainly in the case of Francis Collins it was an epiphany moment...many intellectuals are following in the footsteps of their family and culture. Generalisation, I'm not not fussy about, but I'd say most people are not religious because of intellectual curiosity, just that many intellectuals who do convert, do so for that reason.

  • MrsWolf

    I don't find it particularly surprising that atheists tend to be more knowledgeable about religion than believers. Most people in the USA are raised in some sort of religious tradition. If some of these people become atheists at some point in their lives, it stands to reason that these are people who have considered the religious beliefs they were brought up with before changing their minds about what they believe. People who have taken the time to reflect like this are going to be more knowledgeable than someone who has not walked this path.

    Before someone objects, I realize that many people of faith also reflect on their religious traditions and beliefs and conclude that those beliefs are correct. I am not trying to say that religious people are unthinking. I do think, though, that not all people reflect or investigate in this way. And since most atheists are not raised as atheists (speaking strictly from a probability model), they, as a group, are more likely to have had to educate themselves about religion during their lives. I think the same would also likely be true for people who have changed from one religion to another.

    -- Heather

  • David Nickol

    I am not exactly sure what useful knowledge this post contains. It is somewhat confusing, as I suppose any post would be about atheists who believe in God! I had a difficult time reading it carefully the first time, and I couldn't bring myself to read it again. Is it that atheists who believe in God are slightly more religiously knowledgeable than atheists who don't believe in God? I just took a short version of the quiz, and I am not sure I would call it a "religious knowledge" quiz. (I answered all questions correctly.) It is more of a "trivia" quiz about world religions. I put trivia in quotes since I don't think the questions are about trivial things, but they require no in-depth knowledge of any religion. They require the type of knowledge required to do well on Jeopardy and little or nothing more.

    In any case, there is nothing in the post that would influence me to think differently about God or any particular religion. The main take-away from almost any poll of the general population on any subject one would expect people to be familiar with is that people are a lot less knowledgeable than one would imagine or hope. For example, there was a news story a couple of years ago that said nearly two-thirds of Americans couldn't name a single Supreme Court Justice.

    • cminca

      I thought it was me--I, too, didn't understand either the writing or the point.

      • M. Solange O’Brien

        My initial impression is that it is an attempt to dispute the idea that atheists are more knowledgeable than theists - specifically Catholics. I know this result was hotly disputed and very offensive to most of my theist friends.

        • cminca

          So instead of working on making theists more knowledgeable about their religions he is spending time trying to prove that statement is statistically questionable?

          Shall we editorialize on the author's priorities?

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Well, the attempt to claim the more knowledgeable atheists as theists in practice adds some weight to my hypothesis.

          • cminca

            So he is claiming that the atheists who are too ignorant to know that they are actually theists are, in fact, theists?

            Well, if that's what he wants.......

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Yes. Admittedly, the Pew study confirms the fact that self-identification and actual practice differ - often dramatically. We also know that this is a problem in many areas of study - politics, culture, religion, etc.

          • cminca

            While I understand how people self-identify as watching PBS or flossing daily (things that are perceived as "good"), I'm surprised that people would over self-identify as a supposedly bad thing (being an atheist).
            That says something about the perception of organized religion that, I would think, would be more upsetting to the author than possible mischaracterization of the statistics.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Interesting thought.

    • Loreen Lee

      well i didn"t know before that the jewish sabbath began on the friday>

      • David Nickol

        Well, the Jewish day begins at sundown, so as soon as the sun sets on what is Friday according to the Western calendar, for the Jews, the remainder of Friday (the Western sixth day of the week) is the beginning of the 7th day, and therefore the sabbath. And the Jewish sabbath ends at sundown on what is Saturday, according to the Western calendar. So it's not exactly that the sabbath begins on Friday. It's that the Western calendar begins the day at midnight, and the Jewish calendar begins the day at sunset. Aside from the Sabbath, the Jewish calendar does not give names to the days of the week. They are just first day, second day, and so on.

        • Loreen Lee

          Thanks for the explanation. And on the seventh day He rested! Their numbers correlate or are expressed by their alphabet too, I understand.

        • Loreen Lee

          From the post 'Soft Atheist' etc. Quote: (between yourself and Tess)
          .
          May I suggest you read his "Proslogium" and "Cur De Homo".

          I think you mean Cur Deus Homo.

          Something about whether the incarnation and Crucifixion was necessary for redemption....Does Sabbath mean 'seven' as in the seventh day, the day of rest. If this is the case, Jesus/God certainly did not rest on that day, if it is true that he descended into hell, for the redemption of those souls. He would then 'have arisen' on a new 'first day'. - as a new creation? Don't want to get any more deeply involved in speculation than that. I just will hope to continue to learn from you. Thanks.

    • Moussa Taouk

      Yeh, I'm with you David. I don't get how the article contributes to anybody discovering whether or not God exists. I guess there could be of some value in knowing that there is confusion out there regarding terminology. But I think that's more a sociological question than a "does God exist?" question.

  • Zibal

    I will keep my comment short.....and stick to the obvious. I go along with the obvious simple wisdom of Mark Twain on this one....
    "There are lies, damned lies and statistics."

    In my humble opinion, Research is most often used to Bolster Political and or religious Agendas. The questions asked of the people polled are most often leading and inaccurate so as to favor a certain agenda. Nuff said.

    http://www.csulb.edu/~kmacd/346bias.html

    I apologize if I don't have a doctorate before my name an an impressive array of credentials after my name to lend credibility to my opinion. Pax.

    • Loreen Lee

      Neither do I have more than a BA in philosophy. That doesn't mean we haven't thought through what we have learned/experienced. I didn't read between the lines though and have actually no idea what SN's intention is/was.

      • Zibal

        Do you have any doubt that the
        raison d'être of SN is not to promote belief in god and Catholicism?

        • Loreen Lee

          No question no doubt in my mind that you are correct about their purpose. I just found a comment above that explains a possible intention: i.e. to demonstrate that theists are 'just as knowledgeable about their religion as atheists' That would be an attempted subterfuge. Wow!

          • Zibal

            sarcasm acknowledged.....am duly humbled......-: pax.

          • Loreen Lee

            Don't do yourself a discredit. You made a very good point: in agreement with a little discussion in previous posts. (Follow M. Solange for this and hopefully you'll find it). I tend occasionally to be 'ironic' myself. No 'disgrace' in this. Both Socrates and Jesus used irony, etc. grin grin. Relax!!!!

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Jesus in particular seems to have had wicked sense of humor his followers rarely appreciated.

          • Loreen Lee

            I would like to qualify this observation, after discovering the withdrawal of the original comments. Perhaps it would be more 'objective' to note that the irony is discerned in the text and not attribute it to 'intention'. This discussion has made me think that there is some sort of relationship between the logic of a discourse, and what one hopes to achieve that is not as straight forward as I originally believed. Have to think about this.

          • Loreen Lee

            My apologies as I believe there has been some misinterpretation within our communication. I understand that it is not the intention of your remarks to be offensive (for want of better word) in any way. I, like you attempt to avoid 'argument' preferring to simply state my 'point of view'. I have had some confusion as to what is being said in this argument, however, and am now thinking that the logic of a particular argument is not always understood. I don't know the author's intentions; I can only 'hope' to follow the argument. Please forgive me if I have mistaken the direction of your comments. Thank you. Hope to read more of your comments.

  • infidel1000

    Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that the data and its interpretation in this report are true and accurate. The implication is that self-identifying atheists are slightly less well informed by the educational system than believers. Could this have any connection to the fact that the religious right and their political enabler, the republican party. have spent the last twenty years trying to tear down the public education system in this country?

    • M. Solange O’Brien

      Wouldn't that be that self-identifying atheists are slightly MORE well informed? They're the ones that show a greater understanding of religions - although the questions asked were really pretty appallingly inconclusive.

  • I think it's worth asking what this has to do with reptilian muslim climatologists from Mars. I'm really not joking.

    • Ignorant Amos

      Isn't that how Jediism started? As a bit of a joke meme to piss of the census?

      http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Jedi_census_phenomenon

      Certainly a lot more Jedi's than most mainstream religions had in the first decade of their church.

      Interesting the tact that the Aussie government has taken, ignore it and the cult will disappear as a fad.

  • Thanks for the very interesting write up. I did not realize that such a large percentage of self identified atheists and agnostics also believe in God/higher power... I recall a former coworker telling me that she was agnostic and then describing her spiritual beliefs to me. From everything she was telling me, she sounded like she was more deistic than agnostic.

    It would be interesting to extrapolate that statistic between atheists and agnostics. My guess would be that those aware of the definition of atheism/agnosticism and also identify as believing in God would be significantly higher for agnostics than for atheists.