The Religious Beliefs of Scientists

The image of the narrow-minded, fact-denying, religious fundamentalist is often the first image many think of when considering the relationship between faith and reason. It is often claimed that religious belief occurs in spite of intelligence, not because of it. Proponents cite scientific studies that show a negative correlation between I.Q. and religiosity.[i] In particular, data suggesting that academics are less likely to be religious seems to lend credence to the claim that the intelligentsia dismiss the idea of God as ludicrous. By extension, sceptics often use this appeal to authority to claim that God probably does not exist.

Even though the truth of certain beliefs does not depend on the holder of these beliefs, the purpose of this blog post is not to argue the probability of God’s existence against the academic tendency against it. Instead, this blog post aims to show that the current academic climate regarding the question of God is a lot more nuanced than it appears. Scientists, through the actions of New Atheists such as biologist Richard Dawkins, neuroscientist Sam Harris, and physicist Lawrence Krauss, are often associated with atheistic and anti-religious sentiment. Therefore, this particular blog post will examine the religious climate amongst scientists, and whether God truly is dead amongst those who study science.

At first glance, there seems to be no doubt that scientists as a whole affiliate less with religion than the general public. The Pew Research Center for Religious & Public Life released a poll in 2009 measuring the religious beliefs of scientists:

According to the poll, just over half of scientists (51%) believe in some form of deity or higher power; specifically, 33% of scientists say they believe in God, while 18% believe in a universal spirit or higher power. By contrast, 95% of Americans believe in some form of deity or higher power…Finally, the poll of scientists finds that four-in-ten scientists (41%) say they do not believe in God or a higher power, while the poll of the public finds that only 4% of Americans share this view.[ii]

The picture is starker amongst leading scientists. Researchers Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham published a survey in the July 1998 issue of Nature where they asked the members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences about their beliefs in God. They found that 7% believed in a personal God, 72.2% didn’t, and the rest expressed agnosticism at the question.[iii] To unbelievers, the implication is simple – scientists, whose job requires an understanding of how reality operates, do not see God in the picture. By extension, any thinking person ought not to believe in God if there is no empirical evidence for him.

However, one cannot get a full picture of scientific belief by looking at these general statistics. The full Pew survey shows a wide diversity of views amongst different professions and demographics. Chemists are more likely to believe in God (41%) than physicists (29%). Younger scientists 18-34 are more likely to believe in God (42%) than older scientists 65+ (28%),[iv] a reversal of the same distribution in the general public, where millennials are considerably less religious than their older peers.

The proportion of believing scientists is also remarkably stable over time. In 1914, a Swiss-American psychologist James Leuba surveyed about 1,000 scientists in the United States about their views on God. Leuba found the scientific community equally divided, with 42% saying that they believed in a personal God and the same number saying they did not. In 1994, historians at the University of Georgia recreated the exact same survey and gave it to the same number of scientists. The results were almost identical, with 40% of scientists believing in a personal God.[v]

Furthermore, other studies have shown that within variables that indicate committed religiosity, scientists are very similar to the general public. In the Rice University survey “Religious Understandings of Science (RUS),” sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund discovered that 18 percent of scientists attended weekly religious services, compared with 20 percent of the general U.S. population; 15 percent consider themselves very religious (versus 19 percent of the general U.S. population); 13.5 percent read religious texts weekly (compared with 17 percent of the U.S. population); and 19 percent pray several times a day (versus 26 percent of the U.S. population).[vi] The disparity between Rice’s findings of committed religiosity versus Pew’s survey of nominal religiosity implies that while scientists are nominally less religious than the general public, those who are religious within the scientific profession are considerably more committed than their layman counterparts.

There is still the question of the overwhelming percentage of atheists and agnostics among elite scientists. Even here we see that the implications present in Larson and Witham’s survey are a lot more nuanced than it first appears. In an environment where atheism is so prevalent, negative self-selection may occur if religious scientists fear discrimination within the institution. But even granting that there is no self-selection or discrimination, the survey is set up in a way that underrepresents the diversity of religious viewpoints. In Larson and Witham’s survey, scientists were asked which of the following statements best described their own views:

I believe in a God in intellectual and affective communication with humankind, i.e., a God to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer. By “answer” I mean more than the subjective, psychological effect of prayer.

I do not believe in a God as defined above.

I have no definite belief regarding this question.[vii]

It is immediately evident that one can be a theist and still not believe in the definition of God proposed above. In fact, one can be an orthodox Christian and still not believe in the definition of God proposed above. A respondent to Larson and Witham’s survey put it best when he wrote in the margins, “Why such a narrow definition of God? I believe in God, but don’t believe that one can expect an answer for prayer.”[viii] Christianity teaches that while God hears all prayers, he doesn’t answer all of them.[ix] It is a reality accepted by all Christians that God is not a genie arbitrarily granting our wishes, but rather one who answers prayers that are in accordance to his will, a will dedicated to the good and the beautiful.

Many Christians correctly note that the appeal to authority is a logical fallacy, and thus many believers reject the atheist appeal to scientists’ disbelief as evidence against the existence of God. However, even this response concedes too much to the interlocutor. If it is true that to be a scientist means abandoning the idea that God exists, it is a valid question to ask why the study of science leads one away from God rather than towards him. Thus, the appeal to authority is not an argument in itself but rather an aid to point one towards other arguments that can provide a substantial warrant for a claim. Fortunately, the Christian does not have to concede the appeal to authority. Religious practices and beliefs of scientists point to a diversity of positions on the question of God within the scientific community, contrary to the atheistic consensus that many people assume. The fact that the overall scientific community does not adopt a singular position gives one an insight into the nature of science itself – that it only concerns itself with the physical, while the question of God lies within the realm of the metaphysical.

 

[i] Miron Zuckerman, Jordan Silberman, and Judith A. Hall. “The relation between intelligence and religiosity a meta-analysis and some proposed explanations.” Personality and Social Psychology Review (2013): 1088868313497266.

[ii] Pew Research Center. “Scientists and Belief.” Accessed January 31, 2015. http://www.pewforum.org/2009/11/05/scientists-and-belief/

[iii] Edward J. Larson, and Larry Witham. “Leading scientists still reject God.” Nature 394, no. 6691 (1998): 313-313.

[iv] “Scientists and Belief.”

[v] “Scientists and Belief.”

[vi] Rice University. “Misconceptions of science and religion found in new study.” Accessed January 31, 2015. http://news.rice.edu/2014/02/16/misconceptions-of-science-and-religion-found-in-new-study/

[vii] Edward J. Larson, and Larry Witham, “Scientists are still keeping the faith.” Nature 384 (3 April 1997): 435–36.

Note: This source gives the questions for a survey conducted by Leuba in his original 1916 survey. However, since Larson and Witham state that they replicated his survey for their survey of both scientists as a whole and NAS scientists, it is implied that they used these exact same questions for their survey as well.

[viii] “Scientists are still keeping the faith.”

[ix] Several scenarios can cause our prayers to be unanswered, such as (but not limited to) sin (see Psalms 66:18; Isaiah 59:2; Jeremiah 14:10–12), lack of faith (see Hebrews 11:6; James 1:6), and wrong motives (see Matthew 6:5–6; Luke 18:11–14; James 4:3).

 

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