Atheist Survey Results (n=23)

Last summer, I published the responses that I’d received to my “Twelve Questions to Ask an Atheist”. Since that time there have been additional answers submitted on this site, on various other blogs (here and here), on Facebook, and on Reddit.

The number of responses is now up to 23, so I’ve compiled the updated data below. It should go without saying that this is not a scientific poll. I’m sure there’s quite a bit of selection bias here, and the answers are probably more representative of “internet atheists” than they are of the general atheist population.

But I hope you find it interesting, regardless. Some of the results I found really surprising (#6), others less surprising (#3, #5, #7), and others somewhat revealing (#11, #12).

As before, my original questions will be in boldAtheist responses will be italicized, with the # of similar responses in parentheses. If you’re interested in my own reaction to these responses, check out my original summary.

1. Does the universe have a beginning that requires a cause? 

– Yes (4)
– No (3)
– Probably
– Probably not (2)
– Don’t know (9)

– No clear response (3)
– Claims the question is a fallacy

…If so, what was this cause?

– There was no cause (3)
– It was inevitable
– We CAN’T know
– P-Branes/Special Black Hole Hypothesis/Quantum Foam/Penrose Cyclic Universe
– Don’t know, not applicable, or no clear response (17)

2. Is materialistic determinism compatible with the intrinsically probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics?

– Yes (4)
– No (5)

– Don’t know (8)
– Kind of, since laws are still reliable on the macro-level (2)
– Claims the question is a non sequitur
– “Material” is not a coherent concept in the realm of quantum mechanics
– No clear response (2)

3. How do you account for the physical parameters of the universe (the gravitational constant, the strong nuclear force, the mass and charge of a proton, etc.) being finely tuned for the existence of stars, planets, and life?

– Anthropic principle/multiple universes will produce one capable of harboring life (10)
– Conveniently fixed parameters don’t imply that they were fine-tuned…reason unspecified (6)
– The universe isn’t fine-tuned; it’s barely even compatible with life (5)
– The parameters are what they are out of necessity

– Claims this is begging the question

4. Why is the human mind naturally fluent in the language of mathematics, and how do you explain the eerie, seemingly unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in describing the laws of nature?

– Most people aren’t good at math (10)
– Math is merely explanatory (6)

– This fact isn’t unreasonable (2)
– We evolved to have adaptable brains (2)
– Math isn’t that effective

– Claims the question is circular
– No clear response

5. Do you believe that DNA repair mechanisms, catalytically perfect enzymes, and phenomena such as substrate channeling are best explained by naturalism? If so, why are rational human scientists and engineers so woefully incapable of imitating the precision and complexity of cellular machinery that (presumably) arose via strictly irrational processes?

Note: Although not explicitly stated, I infer that virtually all respondents would say “yes” to the first question. Answers to the second question:

– Science is still too young (13)*
– Evolution isn’t irrational (7)*

– Lack of knowledge doesn’t mean God is the answer (2)

– There’s no master design to understand
– Design is inferior to evolution
– Insufficient knowledge of genetics to answer the question

*Two responses included the ideas “science is still too young” as well as “evolution isn’t irrational”.

6. Do you believe free will to be illusory?

– Yes (3)
– No (11)
– Don’t know (3)
– Depends on how one defines “free will” (2)

– Sort of
– Probably not, because of quantum mechanics
– Free will is an incoherent concept

– Claims the question is pointless 

…If so, can the punishment of crimes be ethically justified (and does the word “ethical” have any real meaning)?

– Yes (9)
– No clear response, or not applicable (14)

7. Does objective morality exist?

– Yes (5)
– No (17)
– Don’t know, and it doesn’t matter

…If so, what is its source…and how do you define “objective”?

– It’s simply defined as human well-being (2)
It’s innate and driven by self-interest

– Pluralistic moral reductionism is needed
– There are certain unarguable facts about what is moral

– Not applicable (18)

…If not, do you concede that concepts like “justice”, “fairness”, and “equality” are nothing more than social fads, and that acts of violence and oppression must be regarded merely as differences of opinion?

– No, morality is universal and selected for by evolution and/or social necessity (6)
– No, we can rely on an empathy-based system of morality (3)
– Kind of (3)
No clear answer (5)
– Differences of opinion, yes – but not “merely”

– Not applicable (5)

8. In what terms do you define the value of human life? Is the life of a human child more or less valuable, for example, than that of an endangered species of primate?

– It’s a personal/subjective decision (7)
– Value is based on our ability to “experience” (5)
– Human value is based on empathy for our own species (4)
– No definition is completely logically consistent (2)

– Life is precious, since it’s the only one we get

– Human life transcends value
– Our value is defined as our value to others
– Human value is self-evident
– Unsure how to respond

9. Much attention has been given to alleged cognitive biases and “wishful thinking” contributing to religious belief. Do you believe that similar biases (for example, the desire for moral autonomy) play a role in religious nonbelief? 

– Yes (14)
– No, or mostly no (6)
– Unsure
– No clear response
– Claims the question commits ad hominem and tu quoque fallacies

…If not, what specifically makes atheism immune to these influences?

– Lack of belief is the default (2)
– Morality is inherently autonomous
– Can’t imagine any reason someone would wish for there not to be a God

– No clear response, or not applicable (19)

10. Do you believe religion (speaking generally) has had a net positive or a net negative effect on humanity.

– Net positive (3)
– Net negative (11)
– Depends on the religion; net negative for the Abrahamic religions
– Unsure, or neutral (8)

…If the latter, how do you explain the prevalence of religion in evolutionary terms?

– Religious belief probably isn’t genetic, so it can’t be bred out (2)
– Religion has evolutionary benefits, despite having a net negative effect on humanity

– Religion survives through the intervention of man, particularly those who benefit from religion
– In the past, religion provided a way to preserve cultural memory
– Religion hasn’t been around very long on an evolutionary scale
– Something doesn’t have to be positive to spread through a population
– No explanation offered (5)
– Not applicable (11)

11. Is it rational for you to risk your life to save a stranger?

– Yes (4)
– No (5)

– Depends on the situation and/or level of risk (10)
– It’s not a question of rationality, but of terminal values (2)
– “Depends on how good she looks”
– Unsure

12. How would you begin to follow Jesus if it became clear to you that Christianity was true?

– Would follow (5)
– Wouldn’t follow (6)
Might follow the teachings of Jesus, but that isn’t Christianity (2)
– It would depend on how this truth was revealed (3)
– Christianity can’t be true (3)
– No answer given (4)

…What would be the hardest adjustment you would have to make to live a faithful, public Christian life?

– Adjusting wouldn’t be that difficult; would eagerly welcome knowing that Christianity was true (2)
– Praying, since it seems weird, creepy, and strange
– Trying to figure out how the Bible became so corrupted

– Trying to convince myself that the God of the Bible is deserving of worship (2)
– Don’t think it would be possible to adjust

– No clear response, or not applicable (16)


8 thoughts on “Atheist Survey Results (n=23)

  1. Below I’ve copied a handful of the Facebook responses that I wasn’t able to link to in the original post:

    Ewan M.

    1. Probably not.
    2. “Material” is not a coherent concept in the realm of quantum mechanics.
    3. I don’t think it’s been shown that the universe is particularly fine-tuned. Also, there is nothing to explain – it is tautologically true that we are in universe that supports life.
    4. Maths is effective because the universe is a fundamentally logical system – minds included.
    5. Because they are so very precise and intricate – having arisen from a logical process. Just because we have more foresight doesn’t mean we’re automatically better at engineering.
    6. Yes – the problem of punishing criminals then becomes one of incentives, not morality.
    7. Morality is subjective, but one can make objectively backed statements about the collective happiness and so forth.
    8. Happiness weighed by mental similarity to me.
    9. Cognitive biases mean that the thought processes deviate from perfectly Bayes-rational behaviour. As such, they apply to reasoning, not conclusions of that reasoning. One can arrive at atheism for illogical reasons produced by cognitive biases, but atheism appears to be the rational option.
    10. There’s insufficient data.
    11. Depends on context.
    12. I don’t think that’s possible.

    Lee M.

    1. I don’t know. Cause and effect are properties of macro events in this universe. We cannot logically extrapolate that property outside or “before” the universe and quantum mechanics is another thing altogether.

    2. Sure, if I’m understanding what you mean by “materialistic determinism” to be “matter does stuff.”

    3. There is no fine tuning. If the properties of the universe were such that stars could not exist, they wouldn’t.

    4. The human brain can compute numbers and equations. We use math to describe observations. Nothing “eerie” about it.

    5. Yes. Evolution is not an “irrational process.” It’s chemistry. Replicate a cell? As in cloning? Been there, done that. We’ve also grown organs. As for any other definition of “replicate,” why bother? What would be the point?

    6. No. We are influenced in decisions but I don’t see evidence for it being illusory.

    7. No. Objective would be that which is true uninfluenced by feelings or opinion. 2+2=4 is objective. Justice, fairness, and equality are nbot social fads, but concepts. Acts of violence and oppression are differences of opinion, but not merely.

    8. I don’t know what this first part is asking me. Maybe. It would depend on other factors.

    9. Bias may play a role for some. I don’t pretend to know the mind of others. But in general you are combining a circumstantial ad hominem and tu quoque fallacy here.

    10. Being that I consider truth and methodology for obtaining truth to be more valuable than good feelings, I would say negative. Our minds have evolved to be superstitious, but religion really hasn’t been around all that long anyway.

    11. Depends on other circumstances. Maybe, maybe not

    12. This would depend on the manner in which such became known to me and what version of Christianity it was.

    Tarn F.

    1. I don’t know – it’s possible that the question is meaningless (it refers to causality outside of the context of time, at least on mainstream physics/cosmology)

    2) On some interpretations of QM, it’s not probabilistic. Having said that – even probabilistic determinism can still be determinism. It’s the acausal aspects that concern me. Still, determinism on the macro level appears to be conserved

    3) multiverse/Big World+anthropics works. Also, multivariable calculus weakens fine-tuning, and the universe is certainly not *optimized* for life.

    4) It’s not. We developed mathematics, but it’s incredibly difficult to teach. We have an innate grasp of *numbers*.
    That’s what it was developed for. A great deal of mathematics is *not* useful for describing the natural world. Still, there are some unanswered questions here.

    5) Yes, and because evolution had an immense amount of time to work on these things. Evolution is a very weak cumulative optimization process with several billion years behind it. Human intelligence is a very strong cumulative optimization process with a few thousand (writing+agriculture. Before writing, there was no easy way for innovation/science to build on itself. Before agriculture and the specialization it enabled, no-one had any significant time to spend on innovation/science)

    6) No. I’m a compatibilist. Yes and yes.

    7. The first question here depends on the second part of the second question. Generally, yes, but pluralistic moral reductionism is needed here.

    8. Personhood, sentience, intelligence, ability to feel suffering, possession of desires.

    9) Often, yes. Cognitive biases are somewhat of a specialty of mine. I would point towards certain errors in rationality as a significant factor in (some) religious belief. Atheists often have the same issues, they just tend to be directed at something else. Ultimately though, discussion of errors in rationality need to be directed at individuals, not beliefs.

    10) It depends. obviously, I think religion is far from optimal, but some things could be worse than the state of religion now. Ultimately, my answer to the question “Would you remove all religion if you could” depends largely on what replaces it.

    11) It’s not a question of rationality – it depends on your terminal values

    12) Well, it depends. If I “learned that Christianity was true”, odds are I wouldn’t follow Jesus. I’d need some answers first.

    Disclaimer: These are complex topics. For many of them I have multiple levels of answer. For many of them I haven’t traced them back all the way – they are only partially solved.

    Mark W.

    1. (Two part question) Yes. What that cause was is yet to be determined. However, to date, there is no evidence that suggests that this cause was an intelligent being with a power and will all on it’s own that can choose whether the Universe can exist or not exist.

    2. I lack sufficient knowledge to give a good answer to this question. But this appears to be trying to link the quantum world with the larger world we see, and from what I understand, this problem is still being addressed.

    3. “Fine-tuned* is a loaded description. Begging the question “who/what tuned it?”. My response to this question has been; “What evidence do you have that these things WOULD be something else were it not for God?”

    4. Math isn’t easy for everyone. Ask my daughter. And there isn’t anything “eerie” about it. Humans developed mathematics in terms we can comprehend from observations we have made.

    5. I do not have sufficient knowledge of genetics to answer this question.

    6. No. We have free will within the bounds of reality.

    7. No. I do not concede that “justice”, “fairness”, and “equality” are a social “fad”, they are a social necessity. Violence and oppression are differences in opinions.

    8. An excellent question. I personally would value the child over any animal. Life naturally has a bias towards it’s own species over any other. However, our empathy allows us to regard other species as also important to this world in their own way, and there may be people who hold the lives of other species to be “more” valuable.

    9. If I understand this question correctly it is talking about “faith”. From my perspective, Atheism is not “immune” to faith, however it does not “rely” on faith in order to tell them what the truth of reality is.

    10. From what I’ve studied, religions has had a positive effect on people when it is first introduced in many cases. But over time these effects become less and less positive.

    11. Another excellent question. The best answer for this I can come up with on short notice is; “Depends on how good she looks.”

    12. I don’t really know on this one. And I’d like to counter with a question of my own;

    How would you begin to follow Mohammed if it became clear to you that Islam was true? What would be the hardest adjustment you would have to make to live a faithful, public Muslim life?

    Sam P.

    Happy to answer these – in fact I’d love to do so:

    1. I think at some point there HAS to be something that ultimately wasn’t itself caused. As to what that was, it could be something is, I’m inclined to think it would be very simple – a single fact of existence, or a singular force of nature, or a singular principle of existence which resulted in a cascade of events which gave rise to the universe.

    Perhaps it could be something like time-energy uncertainty, which meant the universe came into being randomly and without ’cause’ aside from that uncertainty. Who knows.

    2. I’d suggest the randomness and probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics shows a distinct lack of rigid determinism in the way matter works. i don’t think materialism means determinism for that reason.

    3. Fine tuning is one of those things I think people misunderstand. To say something like a universal constant has been ‘tuned’ you have to be thinking that it could feasibly have taken on a different value – that’s not necessarily true. It could HAVE to take on that value. It could be derived from other facts.
    The ‘gas constant’ for example turned out to be a result of combining a whole bunch of other constants. It wasn’t ‘tuned’ at all – it was an inevitable consequence of a few other underlying values.
    I personally think that if we had all the knowledge of the universe, all of the constants would be able to be worked out this way. I don’t think they could vary…. except maybe one that’s at the bottom of it all.

    There’s artefacts of mathematics which make it so certain numbers are the only ones which could ever possibly satisfy various constraints. There are only three pairs of Brown numbers in existence for example.
    Or another example – the shrodinger equation is an eigenfunction and its solution has very specific eigenvalues – only certain energy values are possible for particles as a result. I think the constants we currently call ‘fundamental’ would be constrained by similar things, and their value has an explanation.

    They’re simply gaps in our knowledge anyway – fudge factors. Look up fudge factor in wikipedia and you’ll see Planck’s constant as an example. These constants are placeholders until we can make sense of why they have the value they do.

    4. Mathematics is logical, and so is the universe. The reason you can describe everything with maths is because maths was constructed to describe the universe in the first place.And if we found something that maths didn’t describe adequately, we could literally invent a new maths to describe it. (Heck, what do you think imaginary numbers are?!)

    There are systems of maths out there which work entirely differently to the way you might be used to – Hamiltonian numbers for example have numbers that each correspond to a 90 degree rotation in four dimensional space… freaky.

    And I wouldn’t say the human mind is naturally fluent in the language of maths… try teaching it!!

    5. yes, these things are best explained by natural mechanisms. The reason we can’t reproduce them is because we don’t have time for millions upon millions of trial and error iterations. Random variation followed by selection is a brilliant way to make new things perfect for the job.

    There were a bunch of guys at some university who designed a computer chip capable of re-wiring it’s own circuits. They put it through a process of randomly changing those circuits, then selecting what worked over and over again to try and get it to effectively solve a mathematical equation. After a while of going through this process, it worked faster than any man-made system ever, and operated in ways our knowledge couldn’t currently explain.

    random change followed by selection ALWAYS wins over human invention.

    6. Yes, I believe the usual concept of ‘free will’ is an illusion, for the same reason i think determinism is false – quantum uncertainty, random and probabilistic events. We simply don’t control those things and they’re factually at work in our brain circuits.

    Having said that, moral culpability and punishments etc play a very important role in mediating people’s future behaviors, so it’s far better to keep that around.

    7. I think there are objective facts concerning what is moral, yes. I think that sort of thing is true of any word you could invent – there’s always going to be facts concerning whether certain things fit the definition. The word ‘moral’ is no exception. I don’t see how it possibly could be an exception. I’m not sure that a ‘source’ is needed for that any more than it is needed for the objective facts regarding whether something is 30 metres in length or not.

    8. I think life is valuable because it literally IS our very existence. I think the whole concept of ‘value’ to things is nonsense if we don’t value our own life. Without our own life intact we could have nothing else at all to value. Life trumps everything.

    As for other people’s lives – that comes from empathy, and appreciation for all the positive things others bring to our lives. As for weighting those lives against one-another.. I guess you’d have to weigh up the positive contribution each one brings to everybody’s existence. But i don’t claim to know all the exact answers to these things. I’d probably choose a human child over an endangered ape child simply because human life is more important to my own life than an ape’s.

    9. I’m not really sure what ‘wishful thinking’ could possibly play a role in not being religious. Wishing there isn’t a god? I’ve honestly never met a person who was an atheist out of wishing there was no god. If I met one i’d call them a fool for fearing something they didn’t think existed, or else pretending they didn’t believe it existed when they clearly do.

    10. I think religion has had overall negative effects. I explain it’s prevalence by the simple fact that it’s one of those things which encourages it’s own spread throughout populations and across generations.Things don’t have to be positive to spread through the population – even in evolutionary terms.

    11. rational? I’d call that an emotional response first and foremost.. as for whether it’s rational.. not sure. I don’t have enough information to say.

    12. I’d robably talk to some of my friends I’ve met at uni who are quite religious and ask them. I know a couple who would be very supportive, and one who i know full well thinks in similar ways to me and would be able to talk me through things in a way i could resonate with. The hardest adjustment? praying. It seems weird, creepy and strange to me and i’d feel ridiculous doing it considering to me it seems like talking to yourself.

    Felix M.

    1. Define beginning? Space/time has a start but there is no ‘before’ that as there was no t < 0.
    Currently there is no good concept of what happened at less than 1 Planck & the conditions just after that are so far removed from what we understand as our normal causal reality it really makes no sense to ask questions of beginning and causes with respect to the universe.

    2. Yes

    3. They aren't, there are a number of constants that can be tweaked to provide 'better' conditions, more stars in the right

    4. Depends upon what you define as mathematics. Much of it we are not naturally fluent in and some maths is nigh impossible to think in.
    Maths describes a lot that is not within nature to the point that so much of it doesn't describe the laws of nature that one could ask how do you explain the eerie, seemingly unreasonable in-effectiveness of most of mathematics in describing any of the laws of nature.

    5. They are best explained because no other explanation is as complete, as parsimonious or is able to provide predictions as to those phenomena and mechanisms.
    They are capable of doing so, by using evolutionary processes & algorithms.
    Also they are not irrational processes, they are quite rational. In that, given the conditions the most optimal option is selected.

    6. Free will as classically defined is an incoherent concept. We do though have volition. And even if free will or volition is illusory then the punishment of crimes can be justified as it is a determinator of actions, although to what respect it determines behaviour would still be up for discussion.

    7. For something to be objective it is not subject to the mind of an individual. As morality itself is the judgement of values by some entity then it is incoherent to speak of objective morality.
    It can though be grounded in objective facts, the effects of actions can be used to determine the morality of those actions.

    8. I reject the requirement to weigh one against the other as a false dichotomy. Similarly, the valuation of a individual's life (whether human or not) is not subject to static terms. It depends entirely on what are in many ways unknowable facts. The individual's value cannot be determined until they have performed the actions on which one can determine what value they have had.

    9. We are all subject to biases, cognitive failures, and flaws in our perception. What we must all do religious and non-religious alike is understand them and try as much as we can to adjust & account for them.

    10. At times it has had some positive effects although it is nigh impossible to extricate these from the negative and vice-versa, currently it seems to be have more of a negative effect when those within religious circles try to assert relevance outside of their private beliefs in modern times.
    Religion almost inevitably springs from a number of evolutionary beneficial behaviours and psychological tendencies that almost all humans have.

    11. Yes

    12. I would give away my possessions to any who asked for them. I would then attempt to understand how the bible came to be so corrupted and to try to find the reality of Jesus' teachings. Although for it to become clear to me that Christianity was true I would have to know that reality first and it be confirmed by some neutral party.

  2. A random comment, I can’t help but notice that your extra responses were all from men. Interesting.
    This was a very interesting essay to me. I am a Christian, but I also can’t explain a lot about my religion but it does not bother me, for faith is a mystery and a gift.
    My father was a general science teacher and still today is a very strong Christian. I was raised to reconcile science with our shared Christian faith; my raising up was also a gift because I don’t feel the need to worry about how the scientific age of the earth corresponds with the message of Genesis. It doesn’t matter to me. The cross is what matters to me. Good post, Matt.

    • Yeah, the cool thing about science is that the more I learn, and the more I progress career-wise, the more certain I become that my faith is well-justified.

    • It’s also interesting to me that the responses were disproportionately from men. As an atheist who is fairly in-tune with other online atheists, I can tell you there has been a lot of noise and argument about the intersections between skepticism and the treatment of women — much of it negative and intolerant, I am disappointed to report. Some people don’t extend their skepticism from religion to the prejudices of our time, and that is unfortunate.

  3. This is one of the most fascinating posts I’ve ever read.
    I really appreciate the attempt to really understand those with whom one disagrees. I’ll have to take this as an example to follow (as well as taking away some surprising responses).

    Thank you for putting this together.

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