Are Top Scientists Overwhelmingly Atheists?
This is another guest post from my friend J. Steve Miller. You can visit Steve online at his website: www.jstevemiller.com
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Abstract: Writers often cite surveys as evidence that the vast majority of America’s elite scientists are atheists. Since surveys find the majority of America’s general population believing in God, many infer that the study of science typically leads to rejection of faith in God. This paper examines the studies, compares them with related studies, and concludes that most American scientists probably believe in God, and that the majority of elite scientists see no conflict between science and belief in God.
The assured results have been proclaimed from the housetops. Larson and Witham claimed that their survey of elite scientists “found near universal rejection of the transcendent.”1 Atheist Richard Dawkins relied upon this study in The God Delusion.2 More recently, philosopher Alex Rosenberg cited this study as finding “95 percent of the most distinguished scientists in America (along with their foreign associate members) don’t believe in God.” Rosenberg’s conclusion? “An unblinking scientific worldview requires atheism.”3
That’s quite a claim! But frankly, it appeared rather sensational, so much so that I took drastic measures. I dug up the primary documents. Harvard scientist Stephen Jay Gould suggested these drastic measures as “the primary rule of intellectual life”:
“when puzzled, it never hurts to read the primary documents—a rather simple and self-evident principle that has, nonetheless, completely disappeared from large sectors of the American experience.”4
The Survey Versus the Reports
What I found was quite enlightening.
- The study never asked about belief in God in general, but about belief in a very personal God who answers prayers and communicates actively and effectively with people. In other words, respondents didn’t comment on God in general, just this specific formulation of a very personal God. The questions would likely put many deists, as well as theists who tend to doubt people’s reports of God communicating directly with them, in the category of unbeliever.5
- The figure was 72 percent (hardly “near universal rejection”) who said they rejected this specific view of God.
- The questions were worded poorly.6 So much so, that Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, examined the study and concluded that the questions were so poorly worded that that the survey was “not well designed for investigating the religious views of scientists (or anyone else).”7
A Clearer Study Begs to Differ
A more straightforward, recent study of a much larger number of elite scientists found 40 percent of the respondents saying that they believed that God guided the evolutionary process (theistic evolution). Another 5 percent believed in a “special creation” by God, which brings us to 45 percent whose belief in origins includes an active God.8 But don’t conclude that the remaining 55 percent were atheists. The rest simply said that they didn’t believe God was guiding evolution. So even among those remaining 55% are surely many who believe, like many deists, that God jumpstarted the universe with its precise settings and natural laws, then let it develop on its own without interference. (About 25 percent of Americans believe in an impersonal God.)9 If this observation were controlled for, this survey would likely indicate that most of these elite scientists believed in God.
Comparing Apples to Kiwis
Dawkins and Rosenberg believe that the preponderance of atheism among American scientists (which we question above), when compared with the preponderance of theism among the general American population, demonstrates that scientific enlightenment inexorably leads to atheism. But this type of comparison requires an apples to apples comparison. Do the elite scientists surveyed differ from the general American population in ways other than their scientific prowess?
Many surveys of the American population find women expressing stronger spiritual beliefs than men. Since the membership in the National Academy of Sciences (the survey pool for the Larson and Witham survey) appears to be 95% men,10 this should be factored into any comparisons. And so should the seemingly large percentage of scientists who may be first generation Americans, since people’s religious beliefs are often impacted by their parent’s beliefs, and the beliefs prevalent in their cultures of origin. One study of elite scientists (teaching at our top research universities) found only 59 percent of them to be non-immigrant, US citizens. Twelve percent of the natural scientists were Asian.11 Obviously, we must control for this when comparing their religiosity with the general US population.
Attending my brother’s graduation from Georgia Tech, I noticed an intriguing phenomenon. Comparing undergrads to Masters students to PhD recipients, students began to look more Asian the further they advanced in their education. Surely we wouldn’t argue that scientific study changes our appearance! Rather, we know that Asians represent a significant proportion of our science programs and become much more prominent in our Masters and PhD programs. Among Georgia Tech undergraduates, Caucasians outnumber Asians two to one; but in the PhD programs, Asians outnumber Caucasians.12
Since a significantly greater proportion of Asians tend to choose “no religion” on surveys,13 as opposed to those born in America, I’d assume that a survey of Georgia Tech students would find their more advanced students to be less religious than undergraduates. If so, this might be due more to the influx of Asian students than from religious students losing their spirituality as they go along. Eight thousand Purdue students are Asian. This is a significant factor that surveys must consider.
A Study of Elite Scientists Born in America
A study of 642 elite scientists limited their survey to only those born in America. Only 1.4% “listed themselves as atheists or agnostics.” But don’t conclude that the rest were avid church attenders. While over three fourths indicated affiliation with a religious body and over one half attended services two or more times per month, 38.5 % of the total number of scientists answered “no” to the question: “Do you believe in life after death?” Of course, many people who believe in God don’t believe in life after death.
Of those who indicated disbelief in life after death, should we assume that their reason is because they feel their science leads them inexorably to this conclusion? While many writers took the earlier-mentioned surveys to indicate that scientists typically reject religion because they believe that science and religion are inherently contradictory, this survey actually asked the scientists. 86.4 percent of the 642 saw no conflict.14
Surveys that use vague questions or fail to appropriately control for relevant demographics skew results and draw unwarranted conclusions. I see no evidence that top American scientists almost universally reject belief in God. Nor do I see evidence that most scientists see science and religion as mutually exclusive. In fact, I see evidence that most top American scientists indeed believe in God. I certainly see no indication from these surveys that “An unblinking scientific worldview requires atheism.”
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1. Larson and Witham, Leading Scientists Still Reject God, Nature, Vol. 394, No. 6691, p. 313 (1998). 2. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006),pp. 126,127. 3. Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011), p. vii. 4. Stephen Jay Gould. 1997. “Nonoverlapping Magisteria.” Natural History (March): 16–
22, 60–62. 5. Here’s the statement the scientists were asked to take a position on: “I believe in a God in intellectual and effective communication with humankind, i.e., a God to whom one might pray in expectation of receiving an answer. By “answer”, I mean more than the subjective psychological effects of prayer.” Albert Einstein, for example, although he often insisted that he believed in God and that he wasn’t an atheist, would have to answer “no” to this question, since he believed in an impersonal God who didn’t answer prayer. He was a strict determinist. 6. Referring to the above statement, the scientists were asked true or false on this statement: ”I have no definite belief regarding this question.” So let’s say a scientist believes in God and believes that God might communicate with a fellow human, but he isn’t definite in this belief because God has never communicated in such a way with him. He’d likely answer “true”, indicating that he had “no definite belief regarding this question.” Yet, Larson and Witham took this answer to mean they were agnostic or atheist.
7. Eugenie C. Scott, Do Scientists Really Reject God?: New Poll Contradicts Earlier Ones, Reports of the National Center for Science Education, Volume 18, Issue 2, March-April, 1997, pp. 24,25.
8. Larry Witham, Many Scientists See God’s Hand in Evolution, Reports of the National Center for Science Education, Volume: 17 Issue: 6, 1997, November–December, p. 33.
11. Elaine Howard Ecklund, Jerry Z. Park, Conflict Between Religion and Science Among Academic Scientists? Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion (2009) 48(2). 276-292.