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In a recent article, I was comparing the atheism of Joseph Stalin, Ayn Rand, and Christopher Hitchens. Which of the following sentences would have been appropriate to describe them?

  1. All three believe that there is no deity.
  2. All three believed that there is no deity.
  3. All three would agree that there is no deity.
  4. All three would have agreed that there is no deity.
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13  
Dang, I thought this was a question about zombies. –  Callithumpian May 7 '11 at 23:33
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All three of those are dead now. –  Mechanical snail Aug 13 '12 at 4:34
    
@Mechanicalsnail He is missed. –  Cruncher Mar 11 at 15:56
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4 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I would go with #4:

All three would have agreed that there is no deity.

This kind of conditional is the only satisfactory way to group together the beliefs of the living and the dead.

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what's wrong with the second one? they had their beliefs and those beliefs affected nothing in the earth! even if they are still alive. –  Gigili May 7 '11 at 20:20
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What's wrong with is that Christopher Hitchens is still alive and still holds those beliefs. Putting that in the past tense for him might imply he had recanted his atheism, which he most certainly has not. –  Robusto May 7 '11 at 20:22
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you could make a similar argument about #4. If Hitchens "would have agreed" then doesn't that imply that in the present, he might not? Or, perhaps, that he has passed on? –  Caleb May 8 '11 at 5:38
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@Caleb: No, the conditional implies that, were all to have been brought together as a group, they would have agreed. –  Robusto May 8 '11 at 12:47
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Surely “were all to have been brought together, they would have agreed” implies “were all to be brought together, they would agree”. Conditionals already admit hypotheticals, so the shift of tense is unnecessary and awkward. –  Jon Purdy Feb 5 '12 at 3:50
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None of the above. Most of the time, the best option is probably to choose one, use it consistently, and trust your readers to have a smidgen of sense. If you feel that you have to be crystal clear, then you need to be specific:

All three believe (or believed, in the cases of Stalin and Rand, who are dead) that there is no deity.

or

All three believed (or believe, in the case of Hitchens, who remains alive) that there is no deity.

It's better to go with the present tense since a person's influence reaches beyond the grave, but it's unflattering to speak of a living person as though they're dead.

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With due regard to @Robusto's answer (which I don't totally disagree with), @palooka's comment thereon, and @Caleb's unassailable assertion that strictly speaking you can't use a single tense for past and ongoing actions simultaneously...

If you have to choose the best of these four, go for the third.

  • 3 All three would agree that there is no deity.

The conditional "would" implies they'd only agree on this matter if they were asked. It's of no great consequence that in practice we can't retrospectively ask the dead ones. The whole statement is phrased as a conditional anyway, so it's all hypothetical, and needn't happen/have happened at all.

I'd be inclined to think this very sentence illustrates how casually we ignore the implications of the conditional tense in some constructions. The 'd there stands for "would", but I imagine many people hardly noticed it. Obviously I must have meant "am", not "would be". By the same token, we don't notice the conditional in OP's example - we just assume some kind of "present" tense.

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Interesting point in your last paragraph. I read "I'd be inclined to think..." as more tentative or less dogmatic than "I'm inclined to think..." Maybe there's a Question there? –  TimLymington Aug 24 '11 at 10:44
    
@TimLymington: Exactly! You interpret it as "present tense" tempered by slight diffidence (not as future tense for how I would think if asked for my opinion, which hasn't yet happened). One of our wiser contributors covered this whole would/should/could issue brilliantly several weeks ago, but the limitations of our haphazard question titling & indexing mean I simply can't find it. Any relevant word(s) you search for on this old chestnut give you thousands of trivial questions. The good stuff just lies buried forever, so people keep asking the same questions over and over. –  FumbleFingers Aug 24 '11 at 15:42
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All three believe there is no deity, because in the case of Hitchens, technically, there is still time for contrary evidence.

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This can't be technically correct: if the other two currently have an opinion, it must be that there is a Deity. –  TimLymington Aug 24 '11 at 10:37
    
please elaborate –  pat Aug 25 '11 at 12:58
    
If there is no deity (and hence no life after death), dead people currently have no opinion. For Stalin to have an opinion on anything (as opposed to have had) requires that he lived on after death, and so renounced atheism because of new evidence. –  TimLymington Aug 25 '11 at 15:14
    
How about "'All three believed there is no deity', because two of them no longer hold beliefs, and all we know about Hitchens is that he didn't believe when he last wrote an article"? Not my answer, but the logical result of @Pat's point (I'd have edited if I were a little more sure what was meant.) –  TimLymington Aug 28 '11 at 15:27
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