The religious beliefs of scientists-1


Are science and religion compatible? There are two ways to approach this question. The first is a philosophical one where one tries to see if there are any irreconcilable contradictions between the beliefs and practices of science and those of theistic religious beliefs. The second is an empirical one where one surveys scientists to see if a significant number of scientists are also religious.

In the first case, I discussed in an earlier posting that all that being a scientist committed one to was methodological naturalism, while denying the existence of god required a commitment to philosophical naturalism as well. So there seems to be no inherent difficulty with being a god-believing scientists.

What about the empirical results? In a recent post, I speculated on the possibility of a high level of atheism among clerics but said that unfortunately it would be hard to get honest poll results on this question. But scientists are not so hesitant to answer this question and such surveys have been done and the results are extremely interesting.

These surveys were done early in the twentieth century (in 1914 and 1933) by James H. Leuba and repeated at the end of the century by Edward J. Larson
 and Larry Witham who published their findings under the title Leading scientists still reject God in the journal Nature (Vol. 394, No. 6691, p. 313 (1998)).

What the earlier Leuba studies found in his survey of 1,000 scientists in general, selected randomly from the standard reference work, American Men of Science (AMS) was that in 1914, 58% of scientists expressed “doubt or disbelief” in god, with the number rising to 67% in 1933.

Larson and Witham’s repeat of this study in 1996 using the current edition of the same source (now called American Men and Women of Science) to select their sample and found the number to be 60.7%. So these numbers have remained fairly steady.

In fact, the 1996 survey found that about 40% of scientists believe in a personal God as defined by the statement “a God in intellectual and affirmative communication with man … to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer.” This is a sizeable number (close to the figures in the 1914 and 1933 surveys), indicating that, at least empirically, there seems to be little problem with being a scientist and also believing in the existence of even an activist, interventionist god who directly answers individual prayers.

But the really interesting changes have come from the beliefs of a more elite group of scientists. One criticism about the studies quoted so far was that perhaps the selecting of the sample of scientists was not discriminating enough. Larson and Witham quote Oxford University scientist Peter Atkins as criticizing their 1996 study on these grounds saying: “You clearly can be a scientist and have religious beliefs. But I don’t think you can be a real scientist in the deepest sense of the word because they are such alien categories of knowledge.” (my emphasis)

But how does one define a “real” scientist as opposed to, presumably, a run-of-the-mill scientist. It turns out that Leuba had also surveyed the beliefs of “greater” scientists, using as his sample those scientists designated as such by the editors of the AMS. He found the rate of “disbelief or doubt in the existence of God” to be higher that that of the general scientist population, being 70% in 1914 and as much as 85% in 1934. So it seems as if the more eminent one becomes, the less one believes.

In repeating this particular aspect of the study in 1998, Larson and Witham were hampered by the fact that the editors of American Men and Women of Science stopped designating people as “greater scientists.” So Larson and Witham used as their sample source the member list of the highly prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS). What they found was that the number among this group who expressed “disbelief or doubt in the existence of God” was a whopping 93%.

Here are the detailed results:

Belief in personal God 1914 1933 1998
Personal belief 27.7 15 7.0
Personal disbelief 52.7 68 72.2
Doubt or agnosticism 20.9 17 20.8
Belief in immortality 1914 1933 1998
Personal belief 35.2 18 7.9
Personal disbelief 25.4 53 76.7
Doubt or agnosticism 43.7 29 23.3

Some interesting questions arise from these results. Belief in a personal god has dropped by half from 1914 to 1933 and again by half by 1998. The latter drop may have as a contributing factor the fact that the NAS members are probably a more elite group than the “greater scientists” designated by the editors of AMS. But that means that religious beliefs among elite scientists are either decreasing with time and/or with increasing eminence.

In tomorrow’s posting, I will look at this data (and others that give the breakdown according to scientific discipline) more closely and speculate as to the reasons behind these results.

POST SCRIPT: More Iraq war lies surface

The British newspaper The Guardian reports on a yet another memo that reveals that all the talk by Bush and Blair about trying diplomacy was (surprise!) a sham and that they were going into Iraq whatever the UN said.

A memo of a two-hour meeting between the two leaders at the White House on January 31 2003 – nearly two months before the invasion – reveals that Mr Bush made it clear the US intended to invade whether or not there was a second UN resolution and even if UN inspectors found no evidence of a banned Iraqi weapons programme.

What is even more astounding, the memo alleges that Bush was even prepared to try a Gulf of Tonkin-like act of trickery to create a pretext for war. “Mr. Bush told Mr Blair that the US was so worried about the failure to find hard evidence against Saddam that it thought of “flying U2 reconnaissance aircraft planes with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in UN colours”. Mr Bush added: “If Saddam fired on them, he would be in breach [of UN resolutions].”

The British government has not denied the existence of the memo.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat acting leader, said last night: “The fact that consideration was apparently given to using American military aircraft in UN colours in the hope of provoking Saddam Hussein is a graphic illustration of the rush to war. It would also appear to be the case that the diplomatic efforts in New York after the meeting of January 31 were simply going through the motions.

“The prime minister’s offer of February 25 to Saddam Hussein was about as empty as it could get. He has a lot of explaining to do.”

One wonders why this kind of news gets so little coverage, and generates so little outrage, in the US.

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