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According to PhilPapers Survey 2020, 66.95% of philosophers accept or lean towards atheism and 7.18% are agnostic or undecided, whereas only a 18.93% accepts or leans towards theism. In sharp contrast, according to this source, only 15.6% of the world population is not affiliated with any particular religion, meaning that the vast majority of the world population is theist or at least adheres to some non-naturalist / non-physicalist view of the world:

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What is the explanation for this sharp contrast between philosophers and the general public?

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    Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Philosophy Meta, or in Philosophy Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Mar 27 at 11:34
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    Have you looked at the demographics page from that report? The premise of your question seems to depend a lot on whether that's a representative sample of 'philosophers'.
    – JimmyJames
    Mar 28 at 15:46
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    Why do you assume there is a reason? Correlation does not imply causation, so mere coincidence is still on the table here. Mar 29 at 17:04
  • @RBarryYoung This might help: plato.stanford.edu/entries/sufficient-reason
    – Mark
    Mar 29 at 17:05
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    Since my answer was deleted, moved to a comment, and then dumped to a chat thread... There is probably a reason why one particular group of Western European and Anglosphere PhDs has a similar political and religious affiliation to almost every other group of Western European and Anglosphere PhDs. That reason probably has very little to do with one particular group of Western European and Anglosphere PhDs having Philosopher on their job description.
    – g s
    Mar 30 at 5:10

10 Answers 10

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This is partly a sociological question, and therefore an empirical question, however, this sort of question is very much an open question in philosophy that explores the relationship between Religion and Science (SEP). From the article:

The relationship between religion and science is the subject of continued debate in philosophy and theology. To what extent are religion and science compatible? Are religious beliefs sometimes conducive to science, or do they inevitably pose obstacles to scientific inquiry? The interdisciplinary field of “science and religion”, also called “theology and science”, aims to answer these and other questions. It studies historical and contemporary interactions between these fields, and provides philosophical analyses of how they interrelate.

Going back to Asia Minor before Socrates, the division between the physiki and theologi became evident. Since then, methodological naturalism has grown to be a very popular tool of dealing with the world so much in fact, that it has impacted religion over the centuries. Consider the growth of natural theology and how the Catholic church today is highly supportive of science. (The Pope is a chemist by training, in fact!) Today, at least for contemporary Western philosophers who are heavily materialist in their view (for instance the entire logical positivist movement were practicing scientists), the terms 'God' and 'soul' have no material basis and therefore tend to be treated in such communities as a historical topic. Add to that the movement to separate church and state in Western Europe, and the ample opportunity for believers to find theological communities which support their faith, and it seems quite natural for a divergence to occur.

Today, philosophers of science have a very large body of work that simply doesn't require metaphysical naturalism, but seems to encourage its adoption, alongside methodological naturalism. Men like Popper, Hempel, Feyerabend, Kuhn, Gross, van Fraassen and others, while they may disagree radically in their approach (it's systematic, it's anarchic, it's sociological, it's confirmatory, it's about falsification, it's rhetorical, etc.) all rely heavily on methodological naturalism. Such an approach requires peer review, physical measurements, integration into major theories (such as gravitation, atomic theory, and evolution), and operationalism. Such a consistent worldview, whatever its metaphysical merits, produces real-world results that are hard to ignore: the fusion bomb, the self-landing rocket, vaccines, supercomputers, heart transplants, etc.

Why? Perhaps because methodological naturalism strongly encourages a way of thinking about the world that encourages challenges to authority, denial of that which cannot be directly observed or measured, independence from political and religious authority, a strong tie to logic and mathematics, etc. And unlike religion which generally carries the imperative to believe in the God as the religion promotes he/she/it/them, scientific communities make no demands on your emotional, faith-driven, and personal beliefs that don't bear on theory. If you want to study quantum physics and be a Hindu, as long as Hinduism doesn't try to dictate how to run experiments or what the standard particle model is, more power to you.

This scientific-mindset which is now heavily part of philosophical discourse since the emergence of science from the natural philosophy of the Renaissance (SEP) means that the most brilliant philosophers tend to be highly versed in the philosophy of mathematics, logic, and science. And this may have a lot to do with the emergence and structure of the European university system which is a central thesis in The Rise of Early Modern Science (GB) by Toby Huff.

The business of exporting materialism, naturalism, and liberalism is now a global industry with contemporary universities being heavily influenced by the works of many great philosophers: Marx, the positivists and logical positivists, the Skeptics, the Classical Empiricists and Rationalists, and 20th century thinkers like Quine, Husserl, Russell, Sartre, Camus, Wittgenstein, critical theorists, and others. Too many to list, in fact. The result of these social forces is that modern universities turn out philosophers and scientists who embrace this materialism, naturalism, and liberalism in their thinking.

Lastly, it is rather evident that religions and theologians, with some notable exceptions in the world, have also become less violent and authoritarian which is a traditional mechanism to enforce belief in God and religious doctrine. The Catholic church no longer goes on Crusades or conducts Inquisitions. In line with Gould's thinking, mainstream religions and the secular societies that rely on universities have entered into a truce, much in line with Gould's notion of non-overlapping magisteria. There are cults and religious extremists in the world who use violence, but the vast number of the billions of humans who believe in God tend to eschew violence as a solution to conflict. As universities and education spreads (it was once the provenance of a small minority in society), materialism, naturalism, and liberalism also spread resulting in an increasingly pluralistic and multicultural society whose Internet undermines traditional religious techniques for enforcing belief in religious doctrine. In the Western world, a person often chooses a god or denomination, instead of vice versa.

Even in the US, which is atypically religious for a developed nation, the number of non-religious people almost doubled in less than 20 years according to Pew. And where are philosophers drawn from? The general population, of course. So, professional philosophers are on the average very well read and educated, and intelligent (as a major, they score at the top of the LSAT roughly neck to neck with mathematicians), and go through the university system and a programme of materialism, naturalism, and liberalism. They generally show an interest in mathematics, logic, and science. And they are inevitably exposed to a strong tradition of freethinkers, agnosticism, and atheism in a formal curriculum. Should it be so surprising, that they manifest doubts and disbelief about the supernatural and faith-driven belief? To resurrect the Laplacian apocrypha, God is simply a hypothesis that many professional philosophers find increasingly unnecessary.

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    "The unreasonable effectiveness of Science in... lots of things" (emphasis mine)
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 27 at 13:36
  • @ScottRowe And what about the mind-numbing uselessness of science in all the most pressing things? See list at end?
    – Rushi
    Mar 29 at 13:39
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    @Rushi Science answers all of those questions. Me thinks you don't like the answers.
    – J D
    Mar 29 at 15:38
  • Your question is asked by another member directly under that answer and is answered at some length JD. But if you want something more "authoritative" than some guy on the net start with The Hard Problem of Consciousness. Is it not hard for you? If you agree it's hard we have no disagreement. If not you've seen further than some of the most notable philosophers of our age!! I'd encourage getting off SE and start publishing 😁.
    – Rushi
    Mar 30 at 2:17
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One possible explanation could be that the "philosophy" category is too narrow. For those who consider a God or other religious view to be reasonable in this world, then the equivalent intellectual pursuit to philosophy is theology -- to understand how an integrated God/religion/world could work. But for those convinced that religion is not valid, the only avenue to explore ultimate questions is philosophy.

Combine the population of theologians with philosophers, and the ratio of atheists vs theists will be much lower for this combined collection of thinkers.

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    It is possible that humans can pose questions which do not have answers.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 27 at 13:29
  • @ScottRowe A certain holy-man I know says: You can solve resolve or dissolve a problem I must confess to a partiality to the 3rd option. You may know the programmers maxim : The best code is no code
    – Rushi
    Mar 29 at 16:24
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    @Rushi I spent a good hour not writing code this morning, I discovered that it was already there. But that was because previously I had written it to simplify and remove lots of other code. Sometimes it is too simple for me to understand!
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 29 at 17:01
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I think the most effective answers in this thread, and the ones that should be marked as correct, are the ones that are very neutral about the truthfulness of religions/theism or non-theism/atheism - that being said, I think there's space for more speculative and one-sided answers in this thread as well, which shouldn't be marked as true, but which could potentially be worth thinking about anyway.

I'm going to offer such a one-sided answer now, so fair warning: what you're about to read is not favorable to religion, and you might call it "biased" (whether that bias is unfair is going to be debatable).

Imagine a very thoughtful person, born into a Western country, to Christian parents, in a neighborhood where most of his peers and elders are Christian. This person will soon find himself accepting Christianity, but, if he's particularly thoughtful, when he's maybe a pre-teen, maybe a teen, it will occur to him: If Christianity is true, how did I get so lucky to be born to parents who happen to believe the right religion?

I look around the world, and I see - people in the Middle East are born to Muslim parents in a Muslim culture, and they grow up Muslim. People in India are born to Hindu parents in a Hindu culture, and they grow up Hindu. If Christianity is right, I am lucky and they are unlucky.

And I don't accept that. I don't accept that my salvation is just based on pure luck. I don't accept that their damnation is based on pure un-luck. So the question is, do I have any better reason for believing the religion my parents taught me, than those Muslims or Hindus have for believing the religion their parents taught them?

Some percent of these thoughtful people will go on to conclude that they ARE justified, that they DO have a better reason than luck to believe what their parents taught them, that they DO have a reason to think Christianity is correct and Islam or Hinduism are incorrect.

And some percent of these thoughtful people will not conclude that. They will follow their curiosity into investigating these questions, and conclude that the factual and evidential basis for Christianity is not significantly stronger than the basis for Islam or Hinduism. And some percent of these people will thus stop believing the religion their parents taught them.

If philosophers are supposed to be more thoughtful than the average of the general population - and I think they probably are - then it makes sense that some of those thoughtful people described above will become philosophers, and they'll do so more frequently than the people who aren't thoughtful, and who don't ask themselves those kinds of questions.

And once you leave the religion of your birth, the probability that you end up accepting no religion, and rejecting theism entirely, naturally shoots up drastically. Most people who conclude "there's no good reason to believe the religion I was born into" also end up concluding "there's no good reason to believe these other religions either", and that naturally leads to the question, "What reason do I have to believe in a god at all?"

That being said, I am NOT saying all religious people are not thoughtful, I'm instead just speculating about why thoughtful people tend to not be religious. You can of course be religious and thoughtful.

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    Is it 'biased' if a sound argument yields a correct conclusion? I'm wondering how I was so fortunate as to stop uncritically believing things people told me and start thinking it through for myself? A nation of one.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 27 at 11:14
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    Yes — Religion is, or should be, or started out to be about the Transcendental. It invariably becomes hopelessly parochial. One key difference between Christianity and Hinduism is that while Jesus is "a singleton" Krishna promises that he keeps coming back. The words typically used are When righteousness wanes... But we could as well say When the Transcendent becomes parochial...
    – Rushi
    Mar 28 at 2:50
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    There is a stage of development of the ID (I think, and this is opinion) called the "formative years" or "impressionable stage"... when the biases implanted will be fairly fundamental in a persona/identity/character. Not carved in stone. But say, maybe cement that is half-set. Still changeable, but headed towards not being so. I think stuff we pick up later is more susecptible to change/update. Perhaps. Mar 28 at 13:14
  • @TKoL Can you provide an argument or source for the proposition that "most people" who reject their parents' religion also end up rejecting all religions? The data quoted by the OP seems to indicate that most people tend toward theism instead of atheism. I would assume that most people who leave one religion gravitate toward another religion.
    – Pred
    Mar 29 at 19:36
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I was going to write about how the worldwide correlation between atheism and income would be a far more instructive metric to explain the incidence and beliefs of philosophers than aggregate religiosity. And it is. But, instead, I'll examine the PhilPaper Survey 2020's first sentence wherein it says it only surveyed English speakers. More than 3/4 of the world's native English speakers are from the United States and the UK. Comparing the statistics from a survey of English speakers (who are predominantly WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic)) to the statistics for the world at large is statistical malpractice.

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    Ha Ha Ha WEIRD Ah luv it 😂
    – Rushi
    Mar 27 at 17:51
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    Additionally, you are only a philosopher in the survey if you are a faculty member in a philosophy department. So asking "why do philosophy departments disproportionately hire atheists" is just as valid a response to these statistics. There isn't enough data here to justify the premise of the question.
    – AVee
    Mar 28 at 1:12
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    @AVee Atheists make up an outsized proportion of people with advanced degrees, so chalking it up to hiring decisions is sort of like blaming engineering companies for not hiring women. The end of the pipeline may play a role, but it's a pipeline with leaks from beginning to end. Additionally, atheism correlates strongly with income just like advanced degrees in things like philosophy.
    – user121330
    Mar 28 at 16:39
  • @user121330 I'm not sure it really follows. The survey does say English speaking but certainly doesn't say English native. I suppose "English speaking" only means here that the survey itself was compiled in English, so only people understanding it could participate, regardless of their actual location in the world.
    – Gábor
    Mar 28 at 21:18
  • @Gábor English is the world's most common second language which may undermine the thesis a bit. That said, second languages are also more available to WEIRD people.
    – user121330
    Mar 28 at 22:48
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Why are most philosophers non-theists and most non-philosophers theists?

Atheism has some extreme consequences depending on where you live.

Atheists and religious skeptics can be executed in at least thirteen nations: Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Libya, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discrimination_against_atheists#:~:text=Atheists%20and%20religious%20skeptics%20can,United%20Arab%20Emirates%20and%20Yemen.

There are punishments for atheistic beliefs in many countries that have a strong fundamental religious beliefs.

Philosophical studies thrive in a liberal, tolerant environment where atheism is discussed and debated in a safe environment. No death or imprisonment.

This leads to a skewed distribution when looking at an academic population compared with other populations.

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    An answer to everything could help with that particular situation. Mar 28 at 13:19
  • @AlistairRiddoch I think I am not understanding. Usually it is the people who think they have answers to everything who have the swords.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 29 at 17:05
  • If an answer to everything is found that disproves the existence of any creator deities, and also explains why everything (including the human form and feature set), and happens to be simple enough that any average elementary school can learn and grasp and understand it... then we quickly end up with a globally secular and informed population that will be much less tolerant to the religiously-driven-with-swords. They will be outed as misguided to the view of all. Mar 29 at 17:29
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Generally speaking, if there's a statistically significant difference in acceptance of a belief between two groups (i.e. one groups accepts a belief more often than the other), this suggests there may be some cognitive biases or discrepancy in knowledge associated with being in those groups.

For philosophers versus the general public, philosophers would be more familiar with various arguments for and against the existence of a god, and would have a better understanding of principles of logical reasoning and logical fallacies (some of which relate to cognitive biases, which means they're more likely to avoid those biases in their own thinking).

For someone who doesn't believe that God exists, this leads to a fairly intuitive conclusion: belief in God is irrational, and philosophers are more likely to identify the biases that would lead to accepting that irrational belief, and they have more knowledge, which means they're more likely to believe what's true (i.e. that God doesn't exist).

There are a number of possible biases that can apply (this obviously depends on what you believe, but most of these apply to prominent religious beliefs). Wanting to have explanations for things, rather than saying "I don't know". Fearing death. Wanting justice. Wanting a stronger grounding for morality. Not wanting there to be needless suffering. Wanting a protector. Wanting purpose and meaning in life. Fearing hell (an odd one - you may need to face your fear of hell to conclude that hell doesn't exist). A tendency to stick to our beliefs and wanting social acceptance (which can partially explain the continuation of a religion, but not its origin). Much more severe human-inflicted consequences for non-belief, up to and including death (not that applicable in the modern western world, although there are still places in the US where atheists don't want to come out as atheists for fear of their safety, if not "just" fear of losing their job, being ostracised by their community, losing their partner, or being kicked out of their house).

Philosophers may also know more about science, which I argue presents theological problems for prominent religious beliefs.

As another answer points out, philosophers may also be more likely to question whether God exists. I suppose this could be argued from either the atheist or theist perspective: A theist might say such people "lean on their own understanding", rather than trusting God. While an atheist would say we don't have good reason to believe that God exists, so those who question that would naturally be more likely to end up concluding that it's false (and our own understanding is all we've got, and telling people to not trust their own understanding is generally something cults do, to stop them from questioning the false things they've been told - I'm not saying religion is a cult, at least not generally, just that "don't trust your own understanding" is bad advice, Solomon*).

* Proverbs, which I quoted above, is traditionally ascribed to King Solomon. Addressing Solomon is intended to highlight the distinction between the human authors of the Bible and any deity that may or may not have inspired those words.


Note that the issue at hand is not so much "most philosophers don't believe X and most non-philosophers believe X", but rather the issue is that more philosophers don't believe X. As in being a philosopher is correlated with not believing X. The same would apply if you have, for example, 80% of non-philosophers believing X, and 60% of philosophers not believing X. But obviously if you go from "most believe" to "most don't believe", that's a stronger effect.

I'll also point out that philosophy can get fairly subjective and speculative, and the concrete and reliable parts of philosophy has split off into science and maths. So, while any correlations between philosophers and certain beliefs may be worth investigating, I wouldn't put too much weight into the consensus of philosophers in itself.

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I think some of it may have to do with the environment. If you're in an environment that is very controlled and comfortable, it's very easy to not realize how much you need just to survive because you already have it. If you're in a very chaotic environment where you're extremely dependent on things you can't rationally count on just to survive, you might start to think that miracles are real and are a product of the divine.

Someone who has much time available for study, like a noted philosopher, has at least some level stability in their environment. Particularly if they attended Ivy League schools.

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Short answer: modern (last 3 to 5 centuries) philosophy is a theology substitute that rejects theology's basis of religious dogma, or put another way, theology is philosophy within the bounds of religious doctrine. Modern philosophy is typically heretical to strict religious people and theology is practically worthless to atheists.

Theology is ultimately rooted in divine revelations and is constrained by them, the (non-heretical) theologian uses logic and reason to answer questions much like the philosopher, but with a strict unchanging basis of scripture and tradition. The modern philosopher on the other hand is unbound, there's no point at which his conclusions could officially be deemed erroneous, while he may build from the work of other philosophers there's ultimately no limit to where his thinking might lead him.

To atheists (but also to the more "free-thinking" theists like many Protestants), modern philosophy represents liberation from oppressive, limiting and worthless religious thought, in a very literal way since philosophy is what drove all the profound changes that atheists cherish. To atheists, philosophy is what slew religious dogma and opened the door to more rational forms of thinking.

To theists with a strict adherence to unchanging religious dogma, modern philosophy is dangerously adrift, it represents heresy built on top of heresy, it's an unbounded and unchecked way of thinking that can lead to any possible conclusion, no matter how insane. Modern philosophers, by being unconstrained by anything unchanging, can use bad logic on top of bad logic and unsound premises to reach deeply heretical conclusions, and they lack a mechanism to realise their errors. Philosophers value their own sense of confusion as a virtue, which to a religious believer only shows how truly lost they are.

So philosophy is mainly for those who don't mind challenging strict religious thought, and it's mostly unpalatable to those who wish to adhere to it.

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  • I would argue that the bounds of philosophy is reality. Although some philosophers seem to go off towards absurdity, but theologians definitely do that as well. Also, tradition and interpretations of scripture has certainly changed, even if theists like to paint their religion as unchanging (what's ironic is that one theist says scripture is unchanging and inerrant, while another theist is saying that we should disregard certain verses since they're the result of cultural context or human error, sometimes it's the same theist, and there are so many interpretations of scripture).
    – NotThatGuy
    Mar 31 at 6:47
  • No one said philosophy is a theology, read the word that immediately follows. Mar 31 at 12:19
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Derrida argues that Western philosophers attempt to hide the self-love that is taking place in our minds. Philosophers think they are finding the truth, the indubitable, the self-present, but really they are hiding the sin: the fact that we do what we hate. Philosophers have good reason for wanting to make it all seem clean, crisp and logical: two different layers, a phoneme and an idea. In fact there is only différance, sending our other self differed messages, which are sexual, homo-erotic, self-loving like the post cards in En Vois. The truth is a hidden masturbatory fantasy, and philosophy is one way of hiding it.

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  • "which are sexual, homo-erotic, self-loving" - ??????????. You know this is a philosophy question relating to whether God exists, right? I assume whatever this post is is the "atheists just want to sin" argument, which is really offensively bad and lazy. It probably wouldn't be offensive if it weren't so bad. It's directly contradicted by many atheists who continue to live much the same lives as when they were still theists, and many end up showing more love and kindness to others (or would you say love and kindness goes against God?).
    – NotThatGuy
    Mar 28 at 23:18
  • Derrida's argument is that there is no such thing as monologue. If we talk we are always talking to someone. I think that the homoerotic post cards (one is shown on the cover of his book, "The Post Card") indicate one aspect of why we find it difficult to cognise our partner in crime, imaginary friend, "Other," "Invisible Hand," "Impartial Spectator." Kitaro Nishida claims that to have a self one need make a devil in your mind.
    – timtak
    Mar 31 at 22:47
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The fact that Islam or Christianity is a faith that can be learned through intuition already involves methods that do not require adherence to logical reasons. But for the philosophy of religion, of course, they need rationality.

If it is clear that a predominant proportion of the world's population is Theist, it is an issue that does not seem to have much to do with the fact that philosophers mostly choose atheism. Because if we interpret why philosophers are at odds with the sociopolitical situation of the world, it will be necessary to discuss why philosophers are generally atheists.

This shows that atheism is not generally accepted at the academic level, which leads to the question of why academic research is contrary to the idea of the dominant majority. Over time, science has become esoteric, and academic research, including among theistic non-believers, has made the academic competence of the mainstream public open to question.

This situation, which is a factor in the inability of societies to provide cultural competition in parallel, can be defined as an academic level where atheists, who play an effective role in mass management, generally create a dominance of faith over the Islamic and Christian masses, and there is a chain of information theft.

It's better than lying.

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    One issue I have is that if something is true, then it will have effects that can be seen, so people will tend to converge in their beliefs about it. Why multiple religions after all this time?
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 27 at 13:22
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    "The fact that Islam or Christianity is a faith that can be learned through intuition" is not a fact and gets a downvote from me. There is no way for anyone to intuit the existence of an organised religion without being told about it. A person can come to believe in the existence of god(s) as a way of explaining things they don't understand, but not everybody feels the need.
    – Paul Smith
    Mar 27 at 14:23
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    @PaulSmith All spiritualist dogmas are. For example, there is no evidence of going to church on Sunday or praying 5 times a day. But they don't see any harm in making it a ritual. But with the development of personal religion, the individual can behave very consistently. They don't have to be fundamentalist for that.
    – fkybrd
    Mar 27 at 15:46
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    @ScottRowe Just like the presence of colors or the inevitability of dynamism. Neither black, nor white, nor entities that are not in the same coordinates can be blamed. It is the darkness that is to blame. If there are more religions, there are more syntheses in faith.
    – fkybrd
    Mar 27 at 15:58

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