I’ll put up two posts today about the atheism of scientists. The first—this one—is old news, but I’ve separated it from one I’ll put up a bit later, which is a new survey of atheism among scientists in the UK.
It’s been known for a long time that American scientists are far more likely to be atheists than are members of the general populace, and that the more distinguished the scientist, the higher the probability of atheism. About 90% of Americans believe in God, and the proportion of nonbelievers varies between 3% to 10%, depending on how one asks the question. But among all scientists in America, roughly 40% are atheists, a big difference. (Curiously, chemists are more religious than either biologists or physicists.) But the degree of nonbelief skyrockets among more accomplished scientists.
As Edward Larson and Larry Witham noted in a well-known pair of papers (references and links below), surveys of scientists who carry some imprimatur of “accomplished” show a higher degree of atheism than that of “regular” (i.e., less distinguished) scientists. For example, the 1996 survey asked about the beliefs of scientists listed in American Men and Women of Science, replicating a survey done by James Leuba in 1916. Larson and Witham found that about 39% of notable scientists believed in a personal god, 45% were disbelievers, and 14% were doubters or agnostics. That’s a rate of atheism at least five times higher than that of average Americans. I don’t think there’s much of a response bias here, at least in the two-survey comparison, since the scientists in L&W’s paper were selected randomly from the book (although choosing a predetermined mixture of half biologists, a quarter mathematicians, and a quarter physicists/astronomers; this is the same mixture as Leuba used. Leuba got a 70% response rate, and Larson and Whitham got 60%.
Here’s the full chart from their 1997 paper. Religious belief either held steady or declined over the 80 years spanning the two surveys:
In 1998, Larson and Witham took a new survey of members of the U.S.’s most prestigious scientific organization, The National Academy of Sciences (several of our readers are members). They compared their results to a subset of scientists surveyed by Leuba: those he deemed “greater”. Leuba reported data on the “greater scientist” group in both 1914 and 1933. The response rate in this second L&W survey was 50%. The data, below, again show two things: religious belief among scientists is much lower than that of the general public, and religious belief among more accomplished scientists is far less than among less accomplished but still notable scientists. Look for example, at the belief in a personal god: it was 39.3% in L&W’s 1996 survey of people in American Men and Women of Science, but only 7% among National Academy members:
Now the higher proportion of atheists among scientists, which is yet higher among more notable scientists, could be explained by two things: either science turns people into atheists, and the better scientist you are the more atheistic you become; or atheists are drawn to science in the first place, and the more atheistic ones tend to be higher achievers. I think both factors are in play, but I suspect the former hypothesis explains most of the variance. That, of course, is just a guess based on my own experience and observation.
At any rate, L&W’s second paper quotes a “militant” atheist, chemist Peter Atkins, who seems to support the second hypothesis:
Oxford University scientist Peter Atkins commented on our 1996 survey, “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.”
Yay for anti-accommodationism! The last seven words express a trenchant view of the incompatibility of science and faith.
At the end, L&W question the NAS’s pro-accommodationist stand reflected in several of the organization’s public statements:
As we compiled our findings, the NAS issued a booklet encouraging the teaching of evolution in public schools, an ongoing source of friction between the scientific community and some conservative Christians in the United States. The booklet
assures readers, “Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral”. NAS president Bruce Alberts said: “There are many very outstanding members of this academy who are very religious people, people who believe in evolution, many of them biologists.” Our survey suggests otherwise.
And you NAS members who are reading this, can you please do something about the accommodationist distortions still being promulgated by your organization? It smacks of hypocrisy to issue statements like the one above, or about the comity of science and faith, when so many of you have rejected that faith—presumably for good reason. Can’t you just refrain from mentioning religion at all?