February 08, 2006

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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"...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..."

Perhaps not hesitant to answer, but might they also be hesitant to answer truthfully? More than one scientist has said they felt (or would have felt) a certain stigma attached to them when/if they did profess a belief in God.

Let's assume for the moment that scientists are as human as clerics ;). Might it be that scientists are only saying what is (or what they think is) expected of them, just as you propose clerics do?

I was recently involved in a discussion regarding the ethics of stem cell research. One person asked an interesting question: isn't it much easier for a scientist to do their work if they don't believe in God? If there is a God, then that God may hold you accountable for immoral work, even if that work is ostensibly intended to help others.

So perhaps scientists are more likely to be (or profess to be) athiests/agnostics simply because it a) makes them feel more acceptable to their peers and b) means that they never have to ask themselves the 'tough questions' (or at least have to ask fewer of them).

Posted by Mike on February 8, 2006 03:59 PM

Could it be that both high-level clerics and high-level scientists tend to be fairly self-selecting groups? Perhaps the more committed to finding truth by studying the natural world a person is, the more successful of a scientist they are; similarly, the more committed to finding truth by studying God's word a person is, the more successful of a cleric they are. If this were the case, then it would make sense that any priests who end up rejecting their beliefs and turning to atheism would not advance very far in their church's hierarchy (and in reference to an earlier post, the Pope would be nothing remotely close to an atheist).

On a side note, to steal an idea that Mano had in an unrelated post a while ago, I wouldn't be surprised if being a world-renowned scientist or the Pope causes an effect similar to that of being a Supreme Court justice; people in such positions of trust take their responsibilities very seriously and thus will raise themselves to the high standard of whatever position they assumed.

Posted by Paul on February 8, 2006 07:51 PM


The parallel is not quite exact. For clerics, belief in religion is central and denying god would be going completely counter to a fundamental element of their community. For scientists, religious beliefs are at best peripheral. No real stigma is attached to being a believer or not. In my own life I have been a religious scientist and an atheist scientist and no one cared or even noticed. I don't know the religious beliefs of almost any of the number of scientists I have worked with over time unless it came up incidentally. Maybe in the hallowed halls of the NAS there may be some teasing if you said you are religious, but I doubt it. Religion is not really an issue for most scientists in their professional lives. They neither hide it, nor flaunt it.

As to the issue of whether morality and ethics are less constraining if one is an atheist, this was addressed earlier. Basically there is no evidence that I know of that suggests that atheists are any less moral or ethical than religious people.

Posted by Mano Singham on February 9, 2006 09:50 AM

First of all, I must say that this is quite an excellent blog considering the topic of scientific and religious compatibility. I can’t wait to read Mano’s Quest of Truth.

In response to Paul’s comments concerning science and religion being self-selecting groups I would have to agree. However, I would tend to disagree with the notion that a cleric could not advance very far within a religious organizations hierarchy simply because of personal doubt. In fact, many religions often favor these attitudes of doubt and in fact draw strength by convincing these individuals that their ‘faith’ is simply being challenged by god. This has in fact been the case with many of the clerics I have had the opportunity to debate both philosophical and theological issues with. Having attended religiously defined educational institutions from elementary school to high school and through college, I have had the opportunity to interact with many clerical as well as religious lay people. However, being scientific-minded I have tended to stay well within the boundaries of agnosticism – that is to say that I believe that there is simply not enough empirical evidence to decide one way or the other. However, I do tend toward the side of atheism.

With that said, I was curious to find out what the current views of the international scientific community were on this topic. Since the majority of these studies seemed to have been biased toward western culture as evidenced by polling of the “American Men (and Women) of Science” communities, I decided to start a poll on a message board for which I moderate called Scientist Solutions – This website is The International Life Science Forum and is run By Scientists… For Scientists. It has also become the fastest growing life science website on the internet since its inception in 2004. Scientist Solutions has a unique contingency of international scientist registrants. Scientists who frequent our board come from a wide variety of countries including the United States, India, China, Canada, Brazil, United Kingdom, Israel, Iran, Japan, Pakistan, Turkey, France, Germany, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, Congo, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Ukraine, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Philippines, Australia, Vietnam, Ireland, Pakistan, Sudan, Italy, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and many more countries.

I noted one particularly interesting issue with each of these previous studies mentioned with Mano’s present blog post. They all seemed to be simply asking only about a scientist’s belief, disbelief, or doubt in a god. This question seemed to bias their choice toward monotheism, however, since there is a large contingency of international scientists which practice polytheism, I felt it was important to make a distinction between these beliefs. Therefore, within the poll I have posted at Scientist Solutions - – you will notice that I have given the following choices:

I have a personal belief in a God (monotheism)
I have a personal belief in many Gods (polytheism)
I have a personal disbelief in God(s) (atheist)
I believe it is impossible to know if there is a God (agnosticism)

Please take the opportunity to visit the poll, cast your vote, and leave your comments on this issue.

Tony Rook

Posted by Tony Rook on September 7, 2007 09:30 PM

Both Isaac Newton and Leonardo Da Vinci (scientist and artist) were religious.

Posted by Babardondon Nagudi on September 19, 2007 11:22 PM

History shows that most of our greatest scientists are also religious. Only as of late that the perception of antagonism between science and religion has become strong. This brought the conflict thesis where it is thought that Christianity would at times be hostile to new scientific theories, (i.e. “cloning”). But at times they also encourage and support numerous scientific researches

I guess it boils down to what area of science a scientist is into.

Posted by alex malelo on September 26, 2007 10:50 PM

My question is: if you correct for equivalent levels of education in non-scientific fields, much much more likely (if any) are scientists to be non-religious? This is an apples to oranges comparison, without context - it could very well be that being a scientist is entirely unrelated to whether or not you hold the beliefs outlined in the survey, and that another socio-economic factor (such as educational achievement) is the controlling one.

Posted by Thomas Leavitt on December 24, 2008 04:34 AM

scientist claim they don't believe god because they know everything and they can explain it. im very sure that not all can be explained by science. so how about that? is there still no god?

Posted by maynard hines on September 2, 2010 07:13 AM

i don't see why religion and science needs to be mutually exclusive. everyone has the right to pursue both their moral compass and scientific exploration

Posted by Brenda Lynn on March 3, 2011 02:45 PM

there is nothing wrong with believing in a god, or entity. there is also nothing wrong with believing science explains all life's mysteries right down to the molecular level.

either way, there will be issues with both parties but it is your right to do whatever you want

Posted by Amber Von Storch on March 4, 2011 04:01 PM

somethings on earth either are unexplainable by science or just haven't been explained yet. does that mean there is a god? no it just means we havn't figured it out yet

Posted by Callihan Bright on March 4, 2011 04:58 PM

I think that science is something you work through more by thinking while religious faith is more through feeling. As for God, or gods, they will never prove or disprove the existence of a deity/deities. What is known is that belief in gods and other religious things is innate in human beings. It is part of how our mind works.

Posted by Fireheart on March 31, 2011 01:39 AM

It is very wrong not to believe God. We all know that GOd is the creature and most powerful. He made the world that science could not do or even experiment. Anyway, thanks for sharing your topics. Interesting!

Posted by Michael R. Thomas on May 11, 2011 04:46 AM

This all belong with mindset of Richard Dawkins.His explosion in a forest creates a library line of logic is doomed.

Posted by jeb on November 13, 2011 12:08 PM