Do scientists get less religious as they get older?


In a comment to the earlier post on Einstein’s view of god, reader M. Nieuweboer pointed out that as Einstein got older, he seemed to dissociate himself more and more from religion and the idea of a god, and became more explicit in rejecting attempts to make him seem religious.

This comment piqued my interest and I began to wonder if there was a correlation between the age of scientists and their levels of disbelief. As a personal aside, I myself started out in life quite religious, being at one time a lay preacher in the Methodist Church, but as I got older and my depth of understanding of science increased, belief in god increasingly seemed utterly preposterous.

I tried to find any literature on this topic but could not. There is indirect support for the idea that level of disbelief correlates with age. Studies have consistently shown over a period of a century that the more eminent the scientist is, the higher the level of disbelief. For example, the percentage of scientists in National Academy of Sciences who believe in a personal god is in the single digits. Since eminence increases with age, one would thus expect to see a correlation of age with disbelief. But this does not tell us whether it was the increasing depth of knowledge of science that comes with age that causes disbelief or whether young scientists with low levels of belief were more likely to have the kinds of minds that enabled them to become eminent later in life.

What would be required to distinguish between the two possibilities is a longitudinal study that followed scientists over their lifetimes. While the result would be interesting, I don’t think the question is important enough to warrant that much expenditure of resources.

I cannot think of any eminent scientist who went from disbelief to belief later in life but that may be due to my ignorance. Physicist John Polkinghorne became an Anglican priest late in life, but he seemed to have been always religious.

If readers know of any well-known scientists whose religious belief increased with age, I would be grateful for the names.

Comments

  1. slc1 says

    NIH director Francis Collins was an atheist who eventually converted to evangelical Christianity, although I don’t know how old he was when the conversion took place. It seems to me that he has become rather more religious with advancing age.

  2. maryb says

    There is a high level of atheism in the community of scientists whether eminent or not. There is also a high level of scientists who don’t think much about it at all but give a dodge on the question saying that the question of deity is outside the realm. I think the numbers of weak atheists is fairly high in that a lot of people only mouth belief because they don’t want to think or talk about it at all and it is easier to say you believe and not have to defend yourself. There is also a community of bad scientists out there who usually use volume to support their stances rather than evidence and reason.

    A mind that relies on reason is more likely to come to the conclusion of the absence of gods only if it thinks about it and cares to learn about religion. It is like peeling an onion – each layer of nonsense gets disproved until there is nothing left. But if you don’t care, you never learn that there is nothing real to support the beliefs and so your mind just goes along with the lies you’ve been told all your life.

    I’ve long thought that the religious tendency is an emotional thing. Becoming a good scientist requires learning to compensate for human biases and think in a way to be aware of them and counter it with reason, logic, and evidence. There are way too many people out there who seem to be incapable of using these tools.

  3. Mano Singham says

    In his book The Language of God, Collins says he started out as an agnostic, became an atheist for a short while in college, and became an evangelical Christian at the age of 28.

  4. says

    Speaking as an American, I suspect that almost all of us would have said we were religious as young people, but left faith behind as we grew older — so this doesn’t just apply to scientists.

    And in the case of scientists, if being an “out” atheist might be a detriment to one’s career, perhaps they keep it under wraps until they have a good job and tenure? That might be why it appears that scientists become more outspoken about their atheism as they grow older.

  5. says

    Such a study would confound age with being a parent; I think parenting applies strong social pressure towards observing religion.

    For a totally cynical example: some of the better schools in England — where I grew up — are explicitly religious, and a letter of recommendation from the parish priest is considered a necessary step to applying for them. This happened to me, since the local Catholic state-run middle school was much better academically than the alternatives.

  6. Henry Gale says

    Any study would have to account for all the scientists who are believers but profess to be atheists due to professional pressures.

    I personally had a graduate adviser who was a devote Christian but was an atheist at school due to ‘the environment.’ His field was a branch of physiology.

  7. jamessweet says

    Antony Flew immediately came to mind as an academic who converted away from atheism late in life, but he’s a philosopher, not a scientist per se.

    The funny part of all this, though, is that I couldn’t recall Flew’s name off the top of my head. So I googled for “atheist converted to deism old”, and what do you know, the very first link is the Wikipedia article on Flew. Hah!

  8. James says

    There’s another possibility: it could be that the societies in which scientists age are themselves changing. Society may be becoming less religious (or more accepting of people expressing non-religious views) in general. Thus the scientist who appears to become less-religious as she ages is simply taking advantage of the less oppressive atmosphere to make more accurate public statements about her (pre-existing) lack of belief.

  9. Uri says

    late in life, galileo, under the influence of religion, abandoned his heliocentric model of the universe in favor of the geocentric model that was favored by the catholic church but less consistent with scientific evidence. he even went so far as to abjure, curse and detest his former opinions.

  10. Tony Faber says

    Hi there,

    There are quite a few. Off the top of my head: Evolutionary biologists George Price and Theodore Dobzhansky both become reportedly devoutly religious towards the end of their career. Physicist George Ellis (Quaker), Frank Tipler (devout atheist turned Christian), Novel laureate Chemist Christian Anfinsen (convert to Judaism), Allan Sandage, perhaps the eminent Astronomer of the late 20th century, became a believer later in his career, based on what he perceived to be strong scientific evidence of a Creator.

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