Scientists and Religious Belief

Exactly how religious are scientists? The typical assumption is that they aren’t terribly religious at all. Further I think most people assume this is a relatively recent change – say around the time of the second world war. It’s always a difficult question since there’s debate about who is or isn’t a scientist. Are doctors? Are people with computer science degrees? Are people with degrees in science but not practicing in the field? There’s also the question of significance. For instance I’m almost certainly insignificant and especially compared with a Nobel Prize winner. When making these studies do you give more weight to people who’ve published significant articles or who are in academia versus private facilities?

It gets complex fast. Any study attempting to answer these questions should be taken with an eye of skepticism. It is interesting though that 100 years ago a survey was sent to 1000 scientists asking them about their belief in God. Around 30% of “greater” scientists believed in a personal god and about 48% of “lesser” scientists did. The numbers were remarkably close to what a 2006 Pew study found with 33% of scientists believing in God.
Now of course there is a certain apples to oranges nature to that comparison. It is interesting though that things don’t appear to have changed that much.

Back at my old personal blog (now sadly neglected) I’d discussed a few issues of the religiosity of scientists. I was primarily discussing a survey released in 2014 about the religious beliefs of scientists. About 1.7% of scientists self-identified as Mormon. That’s slightly higher than what ARIS finds for national Mormon self-identification but about on par with past Pew numbers. Unsurprisingly Jews, atheists, and eastern religions were represented at higher rates.[1]

The more interesting question of course is about how religiosity is manifest. Only 15% of the scientists surveyed considered themselves very religious. Also only 18% attended religious services regularly. That’s a bit more in keeping with what I suspect most people expect from the religious practices of scientists. Yet quite surprisingly a full 36% of scientists said they know God exists and have no doubts. That’s pretty high.

As I mentioned before figuring out who to include in these surveys is tricky. A different study by Elaine Ecklund polled only “elite scientists” and included both natural scientists and social scientists. To my surprise she found relatively little difference between the two groups. Their numbers were much lower though. 14% believed in God but had doubts and only 9% believed in God without doubts.

Of course believing or disbelieving in something simply because a significant number of scientists believe in something isn’t a good idea. Science inherently is pretty opposed to that sort of authoritarianism. It is still pretty interesting seeing these trends though.

[1] I think Jews and Asians are over-represented partially because of the strong academic push of these communities as well as immigration of scientists from Asia. For atheists it of course fits the stereotype but also there is a distinct move away from religious beliefs by professional academics.

10 comments for “Scientists and Religious Belief

  1. The same researcher has also looked at religious views of scientists internationally, which makes an interesting picture:

    “The study’s results challenge longstanding assumptions about the science-faith interface. …. The researchers did find that scientists are generally less religious than a given general population. However, there were exceptions to this: 39 percent of scientists in Hong Kong identify as religious compared with 20 percent of the general population of Hong Kong, and 54 percent of scientists in Taiwan identify as religious compared with 44 percent of the general population of Taiwan. Ecklund noted that such patterns challenge longstanding assumptions about the irreligious character of scientists around the world. …. “Science is a global endeavor,” Ecklund said. “And as long as science is global, then we need to recognize that the borders between science and religion are more permeable than most people think.” ”

  2. Sorry, final comment, I’m not being very organised. From this report:

    “• Belief in a Higher Power is especially high among scientists in Turkey, India and Taiwan. (The category “at least some belief in a Higher Power” combines several groups, including those with and without doubt about the existence of God, those who believe in one or many gods, and belief in a Higher Power.)
    • A majority of scientists in Turkey, India, Taiwan, Italy, and Hong Kong believe in one God, many gods, or a Higher Power.
    • Only in France do a majority of scientists identify as atheist.
    • Agnosticism among scientists is highest in the U.S. at 29 percent, followed by the U.K. at 25 percent.
    • A majority of scientists consider themselves either religious or spiritual, or both, in all regions except the U.S., U.K., and France.
    • More than 50 percent of scientists in the U.S., U.K., and France consider themselves neither religious nor spiritual, with French scientists scoring highest on this measure.
    • India and Turkey show the highest prevalence of scientists who consider themselves “religious, but not spiritual.” Follow-up interviews revealed that discourse surrounding the term “spirituality” is less elaborate and not always tied to religion among scientists in India and Turkey, relative to other regional contexts. Taiwan is the only country in which the most common identification among scientists was “spiritual, but not religious.” ”

    There is also data on attendance at religious services, and prayer practices.

    From the conclusions of that report:
    “In the United States—which has a high level of Christian faith as well as religious diversity—we find more conflict between science and religion than in the other countries studied because there is a culture of passive secularism and greater leeway for the display of religion (particularly among evangelicals and Catholics). Some groups of evangelical Christians, in particular, have been vocal in their opposition of human embryonic stem cell research and the teaching of evolution in public schools. U.S. scientists are much less religious than the general population, and the difference in religiosity is more pronounced here than in other countries, such as the U.K. and India, leading potentially to more of a conflict framing for the relationship between religion and science.”
    As I recall this was the point I was trying to make to another commenter on a post here a few years back just as this study was in it’s infancy. It’s nice to see the data back up my anecdotal experience.

  3. It would be interesting to compare PhD scientists against PhDs in other disciplines. I imagine that religious belief and/or observance decreases with education (generally – certainly not in all cases). A potential problem with these surveys is that you’re comparing apples and oranges – PhD scientists vs. the general public (who may not have a bachelors degree). To isolate the impact of “science” on religion, you need to control for the level of education, and potentially other variables (e.g., race, income)

  4. Thanks Hedgehog, I’d not seen those international figures. Brian, some of that is in the data I linked to. Don’t have time right now to pull out the details abut a lot of it is there. Controlling for race and nation of origin (to deal with immigrant scientists) would be interesting and I don’t know if that’s done.

  5. There is a culture among all trades, and it is always difficult to kick against it. It seems the pressure to deny a creator is less among the culture of scientists in Taiwan – perhaps there is more of a language gap?

  6. I am not really surprised to see that there are scientists who are religious.

    I am just disappointed that notwithstanding scientifically informed folks who are religious (and find that there is nothing that conflicts between the two), there are strains of religions that eschew scientific understanding due to the perception of that conflict.

  7. It seems that scientists generally tend to be less religious than the population in their surroundings. Even in very religious places like Turkey and India, the number of scientists who are religious is about 10-15 percentage points less than the surrounding population As for data from Hong Kong and Taiwan showing scientists there to be more religious than the surrounding population, I question the measures for irreligiosity.

    According to 2015 Gallup data, Hong Kong’s population was 34% atheist. I’m not sure how many are agnostic or non-practicing.

    The Hong Kong Government Affairs Bureau claims that there is over 1 million Buddhists, over 1 million Daoists, 500K Protestants, 400K Catholics, and 300K Muslims. Additionally many follow Confucian traditions. Right there that is over half the population of Hong Kong. Demographers sometimes group practitioners Chinese traditional religion with irreligious, which is highly misleading. The fact of the matter is that many of the Asian religions are not focused around belief in specific deities, but are more about being in tune with the cosmos and leading a balanced lifestyle. One who deeply reveres the philosophies of Confucius could be considered both atheist and religious at the same time.

  8. Recently I read an excellent book: The Great Partnership, by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. It is a calm and confident discussion of the roles of religion and science. Highly recommended.

  9. Brian, this paper by Ecklund does a good job breaking down belief in God by discipline. While the total sample size is quite large (almost 2200) the sample size per discipline is much smaller. So one has to beware a little. Again the way one makes divisions also matters a great deal. As I mentioned in the OP there’s always a certain arbitrariness to ones critieria in these studies. Still the numbers are interesting. About 2/3 to ¾ are full professors with a negligible number not professors. So there’s a bias there especially in fields with large numbers in private enterprise (like microbiology or chemistry).

    The first question is about religion in general. “There is little truth in any religion — there are basic truths in all religions — there is most truth in only one religion” For physics the number was 33/64/3. Chemistry 23/74/3. Biology 28/69/3. Sociology 22/26/2. Economics 30/67/3. Political science 15/77/9. Psychology 25/75/1. (Note I rounded to the nearest percent. The number of significant digits used in the paper seems non-sensical)

    The next question was about God. There were lots of answers. I’ll just list the numbers for atheism, belief in God with doubts, and knowing there is a God. The agnostic numbers as one might expect are higher. Physics 41/13/6. Chemistry 27/18/11. Biology 41/10/7. Sociology 34/12/9. Economics 32/15/10. Political science 27/22/9. Psychology 33/13/11.

    I think this shows that in the hard sciences while there’s some loose religious belief at higher numbers than one might suspect a strong commitment to a particular religion is uncommon. You can see this in the religious attendance figures for instance. You have around 15% who regularly attend services (once a month or more) Again this isn’t representative of PhDs but professors.

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