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Feb 09 2006

The religious beliefs of scientists-2

In yesterday’s post, we saw that the degree of belief in a personal god or in immortality among scientists had not changed much over time, staying at roughly around 40% for nearly a century, as long as one used a broad definition of scientist.

But the picture changed quite dramatically when one looked at more elite groups of scientists, those who were acknowledged by their peers as having done superior work. For this group, the figure started lower (around 30% in 1914) and dropped dramatically (to less than 10%) by 1998. The results of this research by Larson and Witham become even more interesting when disaggregated by academic discipline.

As the authors say:

Our survey found near universal rejection of the transcendent by NAS natural scientists. Disbelief in God and immortality among NAS biological scientists was 65.2% and 69.0%, respectively, and among NAS physical scientists it was 79.0% and 76.3%. Most of the rest were agnostics on both issues, with few believers. We found the highest percentage of belief among NAS mathematicians (14.3% in God, 15.0% in immortality). Biological scientists had the lowest rate of belief (5.5% in God, 7.1% in immortality), with physicists and astronomers slightly higher (7.5% in God, 7.5% in immortality). (my emphasis)

What could be the reasons for all this? The fact that biologists have the lowest rate of belief suggests that Darwin is the bad boy mainly responsible for this decline, since as Theodosius Dobzhansky famously observed: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution… without that light [of evolution] [biology] becomes a pile of sundry facts some of them interesting or curious but making no meaningful picture as a whole.”

This higher rate of disbelief among biologists is probably not caused by na├»ve opposition to Darwin’s idea that humans and apes have common ancestors and that thus we have not been designed in the image of god. Most sophisticated religious believers have no trouble accepting this basic message of natural selection and still retaining their beliefs.

The reason why Darwin’s theory results in a greater degree of disbelief is more sophisticated, which may be why only elite scientists and particularly biologists, who presumably have looked into the theory more closely, see it.

As I said in an earlier post, Darwin’s theory of natural selection finally allowed for the full realization that one did not need a god in order to explain the diversity of life. Darwin showed us how it could be possible that life can bootstrap itself from primitive forms to increasingly complex and sophisticated ones. It reveals how you can have the appearance of design without any need for a designer. Thus the most intuitive argument for the existence of a higher being has been removed.

Richard Dawkins says in The Blind Watchmaker (p. 6): “An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: “I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn’t a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one.” I can’t help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”

But this important message is buried deep in the theory and is not immediately apparent to those concerned about the more superficial question of whether we are really related to monkeys.

The fact that mathematicians have comparatively the highest rate of belief (although still low) may also follow from Dawkins’ comment. Despite Darwin, one is not logically forced to reject the existence of god, and mathematicians who tend to work more with proofs, may feel that since there is no proof for the non-existence of god, there is no reason why they should not believe in one.

But natural scientists have a different approach. They know that you cannot prove with 100% certainty any of their theories. As a result, they are more prone to looking at the whole picture and making judgments about what is reasonable to believe and what is not. And the more eminent scientists in the NAS are probably older and have spent more time thinking about these questions than the general population of scientists.

I have also argued that when one tries to create a coherent unified philosophy that reconciles all the different elements of one’s belief structures, religion has a tendency to lose out. It is just hard to make it fit.

In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Daniel Dennett, author of that excellent book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea explains what needs to be done by any scientist seeking to remain religious:

SPIEGEL: How is it, then, that many natural scientists are religious? How does that go together with their work?

Daniel Dennett: It goes together by not looking too closely at how it goes together. It’s a trick we can all do. We all have our ways of compartmentalizing our lives so that we confront contradictions as seldom as possible.

So back to the original question posed yesterday of whether science and religion are compatible, the answer seems to be that the more deeply one goes into science and the more science advances, the harder it becomes to prevent the use of methodological naturalism that is a necessary part of scientific practice from converting its users to philosophical naturalism, not by force of logic but by familiarity.

POST SCRIPT: Minimum wage

I wrote sometime ago about the minimum wage and tipping and said that the current federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour was too low. I had assumed that all states had to follow this federal law for all workers. I was mistaken. It turns out that states have some flexibility on this for certain categories of workers. Eighteen states have minimum wage laws set at above the federal level. As for the rest:

Federal law requires that all workers covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act are paid at least $5.15 an hour. Two states – Kansas and Ohio – set a minimum rate below the federal $5.15 mark for some workers who aren’t covered under the federal law, such as waitresses. Six states have no minimum wage law at all, while 24 have formally adopted the federal rate as the state minimum.

The six states that have no minimum wage laws at all are Arizona, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana Alabama, and South Carolina.

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