Saturday, January 27, 2007

How Sure Are You?

Scott Adams asks,
If you reckon that the existence of God has less than a 1 in a trillion chance of being true, based on all the available evidence, but not proof, can you call yourself an atheist? And if so, would you still be irrational?

I think one can be much less certain that God does not exist and still be an atheist. Atheism is a belief, like a belief that elves and werewolves don't exist. If you're only about 50% sure, then "agnostic" is probably the best label for you, but once you start getting in the 80-90% confidence range, "atheism" is simply the best description.

Obviously, these probabilities are only estimates as there is no easy way to quantify the evidence.

Anyway, I thought it would be fun if everybody (theists included) chipped in on what they thought the odds of God's existence are. To clear things up, we'll specify that "God" refers to a being which continues to interact with the world, as opposed to a Creator who's been hands-off ever since. In fact, why not list the odds of various beliefs? Please list the following:

(1) The odds of a personal God (i.e. one who interacts with the world) existing.
(2) some major form of Catholicism being true.
(3) some major form of Protestantism being true.
(4) some major form of Judaism being true.
(5) some other major or minor religion being true.
(6) something like deism or pantheism being true.

Please list your denomination, if any.

Here are my answers:
(1) 3%
(2) <1%
(3) <1%
(4) <1%
(5) <1%
(6) 10%


BaconEating AtheistJew said...

I'm as close to zero as possible for each category.
I'll just say that my definition of Atheism is based on the fact that I see no proof that God existsi in any way shape or form.
In other words, God is an invented concept. WHy should I even consider a God to exist? Just because a lot of people believe in something made up?

CyberKitten said...

I think that the odds in favour of the existence of God are too small to measure with present technology.

Ezzie said...

Change the Q to "mostly" true...

1) > 50% (but I'm not saying how much more :) )
2) < .01%
3) < .02%
4) No comment, but WAY higher than any other religion, major or minor.
5) < 1%
6) < 10%

That's the closest to an answer you'll get out of me...! :)

Stephen said...

(1) Personal God who interacts with the world: 33%. This is really difficult to quantify, however. Where atheists see no evidence of God's existence whatsoever, theists see evidence of God's existence in every blade of grass.

Because it's an all-or-nothing proposition, I think percentages are meaningless. But on balance, I think the odds are against rather than for (despite my theism!); hence I picked 33% out of thin air.

(2) Catholicism: 0.5%. No denomination has it right — systematic theology is way too speculative.

(3) Protestantism: 0.5%. See above.

(4) Judaism: 5%. Jews at least avoid some of the more speculative elements of Christianity. And now you're talking about a religion, not a denomination.

(5) some other major or minor religion: 5%. Next to the Judeo-Christian tradition, I'd vote for Buddhism.

(6) Deism: 50%.

Jewish Atheist said...


Coward. :-) I guess I'll let you get away with it because you don't post or comment on the question of God's existence much.

LT said...

I agree with Stephen's criticism here... this is kinda an all-or-nothing proposition that makes attempts at quantification impossible.

There's also the question of how you define a personal God as one who interacts with the world. Was creating the world an interaction with it? What if a person doesn't believe God does anything to the physical world, but interacts on a different spiritual plane (that may include an afterlife). Does that qualify as a personal God who interacts with the world? If so, there can (by definition) be zero evidence either for or against it. That doesn't make it likely (per se), but it makes the notion of quantitative analysis ridiculous. All that's left is subjective abstract reasoning.

Further, the percentages themselves might not be very relevant. What if a person thinks that there's an extremely small likelihood that there is an afterlife, but they still decide to live their life under the assumption that there is an afterlife based on Pascal's Wager? If you're doing a cost-benefit analysis and you multiply eternity by a small percentage, you still come up with infinity.

Bah... I'm being such a poop. I guess I should try to play along despite the caveats:

1) Depends entirely on what definition of "A personal God" we're going with". If it doesn't involve breaking any observable laws of the known universe, I'll put it at around 25% (and I consider myself an agnostic at worst, *not* an atheist).

2) <1%
3) <1%
4) 10%
5) 5%
6) 20%, depending on definitions

Baal Habos said...

LT, how can you have <1% belief in God but 10% on Judaism?

That makes no sense????

Baal Habos said...

OOPS! Sorry I misread that.!!

Jack's Shack said...

Atheism is a belief, like a belief that elves and werewolves don't exist.

I am an Elf who was bitten by a werewolf, which actually means I am an Elf werewolf. Lycanthropy is so complicated.

Anonymous said...

What do you mean tha you estimate pantheism to have a 10% chance of being true? What does it mean for pantheism to be true or false?

beepbeepitsme said...

How does anyone quantify this with a %?

What information are they using that allows them to say 5% or 10%? I don't get it...

Are we deciding a % on a purely arbitrary basis?

I won't make up a %, instead I will just say that I think the probability of a mind (which is essentially what the god concept is) - that the probability of an incorporeal mind existing (a mind without matter, shape of form) - is VERY low.

I basically think that we have a love affair with our minds and emotions, and that we interpret our own thoughts as the thoughts or desires (revelations) of a god.

Jewish Atheist said...


What do you mean tha you estimate pantheism to have a 10% chance of being true? What does it mean for pantheism to be true or false?

Actually, I was referring to Deism, by which I mean that there is some sort of Creator who has been hands-off since creation.

michael vassar said...

Jewish background, Singularitarian

Depends on the definitions of the terms but

(1) <1% unless solopsism and radical libertarianism count. 5% each for those.
(2) 65% Maimonides and Aquinas (and probably Averroes too, but I don't know enough to say) were competent philosophers. Interpreted generously, they didn't disagree on anything substantive, or at least their philosophies can be cleaned up enough not to. For any belief held by >.1% of Catholics or 2% of Jews though, .00001% sounds about right (yes I counted the zeros)
(3) Can't be distinguished from zero. OK, at a best guess .00000000000000000000000001%
Comparable to Scientology and well under that of Biblical Miracles occurring naturally
(4) See 2
(5) Some forms of Westernized Buddhism appear trivially true, but probably don't count as religions. Singularitarianism is closer to being a religion, slightly, and seems about 20-80% likely to be true, depending on how it's defined.
Some forms of Hinduism and Continental Philosophy may contain important ethical insights which are difficult to reach rationally. I would give them about a 30% and 25% chance of this respectively, with a large overlap such that the total probability is about 40%.
I suppose that I give about a .5% probability to some form of traditional shamanism being true in roughest outline, e.g. reason doesn't really work or drugs/dreams portray something more "real" in some meaningful sense
(6) About a 85% chance that metaphysics is possible and can produce meaningful truth. Deism and Pantheism seem like popular terms which both might be used to label this belief, but not very well.

dbs said...

Agnostic (former orthodox Jewish)

(1) 0 if based on a deity who is reading your mind. 30% if based on our conciousness having some spiritual form.
(2) 0
(3) 0
(4) 0
(5) 0 (not counting the beliefs which view spirituality as being human or nature based)
(6) 0 if based on any conventional deity. 30% if based on the existance of a spiritual force.

Stephen said...

It must be very comforting to hold to one's worldview with absolute certainty. Completely unscientific, of course, since science by definition always holds out the possibility of further information coming in which will disprove our present theories. It's an atheist variant of fundamentalism, in my view. But very comforting, I'm sure.

As I commented above, it's impossible to attach much significance to the exact percentages in this exercise. But I found I could assign weight to one belief over against another by taking an arbitrary starting point. Deism seems at least as likely as naturalism to me; either is more likely than a personal God; a personal God more likely than any specific religion; a religion more likely than any specific denomination within that religion.

CyberKitten said...

stephen said: It must be very comforting to hold to one's worldview with absolute certainty.

Many religious people certainly think so.

stephen said: Completely unscientific, of course, since science by definition always holds out the possibility of further information coming in which will disprove our present theories.

Very true. But many beliefs are not scientific, nor do they pretend to be.

stephen said: It's an atheist variant of fundamentalism, in my view. But very comforting, I'm sure.

Oh, right... You're talking about *atheism*....

I can only speak for myself on this point but I am not absolutley certain that God does not exist. For that I would need perfect knowledge and would, in effect *be* God. [grin].

As far as I know there is insuffient evidence (none actually that I'm aware of) to support the existence of God. Therefore I do not believe He exists. That is not to say that I believe that He does *not* exist. That's a whole other belief.

Anonymous said...

Asimov wrote an interesting (though I suspect incorrect) story called "the last answer" arguing that even god can't know whether some other god exists and just hasn't told him.

asher said...

C'mon, let's do something really interesting...what are the odds that any specific atom can decide if wants to be a part of a human nose, a blade of grass or a stone and how it can make that decision.

Hey, it's all chance isn't it?

beepbeepitsme said...

Asher confuses chance with randomness and randomness with probability. So what else is new?

Anonymous said...

1) 0%
2) >1% as this is the only religion that has accepted and embraced evolution and science
3) <.1%
4) <.1%
5) <.1%
6) >2%

godma said...

Thanks for the post. I'd like to correct one point, though.

"Atheism is a belief"

Not true, by my reckoning. Atheism is lack of one specific belief. Literally, atheism means "non-theism".

Keep the doubt.

jewish philosopher said...

I think if you can say "I believe beyond a reasonable doubt that nature is all there is." then you are an atheist. If you say "I really don't know if supernatural things exist or not" you're an agnostic.

Jewish Atheist said...


Can't you ever tell us what you believe instead of just mocking my beliefs?


That might be the most reasonable thing I've ever seen you write.

michael vassar said...

What if you can say "I believe beyond reasonable doubt that 'nature', 'math', and 'awareness' are the only things that might 'exist', and am extremely dubious about 'nature' 'existing' and about 'exist' being a natural type"

asher said...


God doesn't exist. He told me so.

There is no afterlife: Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler both go to the same place.

If there is no God there is still some ultimate reason for our being....I can't think of anything off hand but you should be able to supply me with something.

The odds of a single cell creating itself would require it to amass about 14 random protiens. The odds of those 14 protiens coming together is 10 to the 10,000,000,000,000 power of so.
But this COULD happen and in fact it did....the proof is our world.

Better arguments I never heard.

beepbeepitsme said...

Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics,
and Probability of Abiogenesis Calculations

Problems with the creationists' "it's so improbable" calculations.

They calculate the probability of the formation of a "modern" protein, or even a complete bacterium with all "modern" proteins, by random events.

Ezzie said...

JA - I believe I *never* have posted about it. :)