Atheism among Anglophone scientists. I. The U.S.

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:

Picture 2

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:

Picture 1

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?

___________
Larson, E. J., and L. Witham. 1997. Scientists are still keeping the faith. Nature 386:435-436.
Larson, E. J., and L. Witham. 1998. Leading scientists still reject God. Nature:313.

59 Comments

  1. Posted June 4, 2013 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    ..

  2. Posted June 4, 2013 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Being a scientist requires to be able to think critically. Therefore it is no surprise that people who are well trained to systematic critical thinking, also rejected dogmatic religious believes. Most religious doctrines are illogical are contradicting each other.

    • eric
      Posted June 4, 2013 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      Yes, JAC has ommitted (at least) one explanation for the correlation. Rather than “science turns people into atheists,” it could be that “advanced education and critical thinking turns people into atheists,” and scientists are just a subset of people who have education and critical thinking. IOW, instead of ‘S->A,’ its ‘E->S and E->A.’

      I don’t have it handy, but I believe there was a survey a few years ago looking at religiosity, educational level, and discipline. IIRC the correlation was much stronger between education and religion than it was between discipline and religion.* Whether your Ph.D was in Biology vs. Basket weaving didn’t matter any where near as much as whether you had a B.S. or a Ph.D in something.

      While it might be a bit perturbing to us scientists to think that our scientific training per se is not what’s doing it, such a result really should be considered a good thing. It means simply encouraging greater and better education will make society more temperate, more secular.

      *With the obvious exeception of divinity degrees.

      • Posted June 4, 2013 at 10:24 am | Permalink

        I fully agree with you.

      • Posted June 4, 2013 at 10:45 am | Permalink

        Yes, this is worth thinking about, but I’m not sure it can explain the fact that distinguished scientists are much more atheistic than run-of-the-mill scientists. Do the former have more degrees? I don’t think so. I’m not sure about whether there’s a difference in the degree of criticality, either—-accomplishment may rest more on creativity, the ability to pick important problems, and the like.

        • eric
          Posted June 4, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

          Well, the obvious thing to do is look at comparably distinguished academics in other fields (as best you can; I think we all understand that ‘distinguished’ is a bit squishy). If it’s just education, they should be as atheistic as the distinguished scientists. If science per se has an affect on belief, the distinguished scientist should be more atheistic than the distinguished academic nonscientists.

          • eric
            Posted June 4, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

            Errr…that should read “if it’s just accomplishment…”

            I think you get my point. Let’s figure out whether being a very accomplished scientist is doing it or whether being a very accomplished scientist is doing it.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted June 4, 2013 at 10:54 am | Permalink

        I’d put advanced education in the “effects” column rather than the “causes” column. The common cause, I suspect, is some underlying quality of mind or habit of inquisitiveness that leads one to advanced education and professional excellence as well as a mature, thoughtful atheism.

  3. Posted June 4, 2013 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    In the second chart, second question, final column (1998), you will see that the numbers total to 107.9% In 2004, I send an inquiry to Edward Larson about this. He replied that the final number, 23.3, should be 15.3. Of course, this would mean that the new total would be 99.9%, which is perfectly acceptable due to rounding.

  4. Posted June 4, 2013 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    Jerry, I will send you a copy of the correspondence if you like.

  5. Posted June 4, 2013 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    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 you are the more atheist you become; or atheists are drawn to science in the first place, and the more atheistic ones tend to achieve more.

    I’ll say “none of the above”.

    It’s not the science; it’s the skepticism of unevidenced claims. That makes for good science and it makes for skepticism about religion.

    Being a good scientist, and being an atheist are correlated. But not because either of those causes the other. They are correlated because both have a common basis in skepticism.

    • Hempenstein
      Posted June 4, 2013 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      I’d add a third thing: religion turns scientists into atheists. I’d be perfectly happy to ignore religion, but for the religious telling me, or making statements that I can take as directed to me and people like me, that my professional understandings are wrong, and wrong because of unsubstantiated writings and interpretations dating ~150-1800 yrs ago.

      And then, as we all know, if you try to explain anything to them, they just come back with the same damn thing.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted June 4, 2013 at 10:32 am | Permalink

      I suspect this is what Atkins means by “a real scientist in the deepest sense”.

  6. Diana MacPherson
    Posted June 4, 2013 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    I think you can flip Atkins’s perspective around as well – you can’t be a real believer either so just take the next step already!

    I tend to think those who are atheistic have the approach and personality that draws them to the sciences. I’m sure it’s a mixture of both but what makes you a good scientist probably makes you a lousy religious believer.

    I don’t understand the “desire for mortality” stats. I’m an atheist but I’ve always wanted immortality — like Highlander! :D

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted June 4, 2013 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      It would be depressing

      What would you do when your head is full & still an eternity of being immortal to go?

      What is it like to love someone & watch them grow old & decrepit?

      Going down the pub & bullshitting with your mates would stop being fun even if [especially if?] they were immortal too

      • Posted June 4, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

        At what point would one’s head become full?

        /@

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted June 4, 2013 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

          I know it’s not like a HDD & there’ll always be room for more at the expense of old stuff

          Max long-term memory capacity of 2.5 petabytes was the figure I heard yesterday on the radio ~ the equivalent of 300 years of continuous TV. Now what radio programme was that? I can’t quite recall…

          • Posted June 4, 2013 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

            Your memory would become a palimpsest over the centuries. What would be the persistent memories, I wonder. Would you always be able to recall your childhood? Loosing those memories would be the worst, I think.

            /@

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted June 4, 2013 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

              You’d move with the times like in The Man from Earth and not even recognize how language was evolving: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Man_from_Earth

              People always think it would be boring but I think the only down side is everyone around you would die…but I’ll probably go through that anyway if I get to outlive everyone – might as well be in good health and be able to make new friends instead of decrepit.

              • Posted June 4, 2013 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

                Ooh, I shall check that out. I’d forgotten the Star Trek episode.

                /@

  7. David Hillis
    Posted June 4, 2013 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    Sorry, Jerry, but I have no desire to change the NAS stance on these issues. I guess you’d call be an accommodationist; I can live with that. I don’t think science should be in the business of telling people what religious or philosophical views they should or shouldn’t have. Nor should religious people look to science to try to support those personal viewpoints. People believe in all kinds of things that have no scientific support. As long as they don’t try to force those viewpoints on me, or use them to prevent people from learning about science, I frankly don’t care. For example, some people ascribe human-based motivations or emotions to their pet cats, without any scientific evidence or support. Who cares? If it makes them happy to think their cats love them, why does that hurt me? As long as they don’t try to force their cat worship on me, or use it to change the science curriculum in schools, I guess I’m a cat-worship accommodationist. I think scientists should stick to explaining science, without any reference to religion one way or the other.

    • David Hillis
      Posted June 4, 2013 at 9:37 am | Permalink

      I guess I should add the obvious…I also expect people to treat everyone else’s personal views with the same degree of respect. So, I do object when people use their religious or other subjective personal views as justification to treat others unfairly, or differentially, just because they have different personal viewpoints. There are plenty of people who use their religious views to do good in the world, and plenty of people who use their religious views to do evil things. You could say the same thing if you substituted “personal world view” for “religious views”.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted June 4, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

        The problem with this is that we have human rights and freedoms, among them the freedom of religion.

        Which means that religion, because it is contentious, is especially protected as being a private world view, and not as a personal world view.

        Hence it is tolerated in private and criticized as any other common world view in public. Say, as political parties are.

        Respect must be earned, and religion has fought hard for millenniums to trash its reputation. I don’t think there is anything in it that I would find worthy of respect or even respectable.

        Does that mean I would treat someone that mumbles his magic mantra to me unfairly? No.

        Would I treat that person differently? Obviously, I would take it as an offensive act, plus I have don’t suffer foolish magic beliefs gladly.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted June 4, 2013 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      But the NAS statement does make reference to religion — it specifically says that religion is OK — and that’s why Jerry objects to it.

      • David Hillis
        Posted June 4, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

        Where does the NAS statement say that “religion is OK”? It says that science has nothing to say about religion, and it says that some scientists are religious. I think that is truthful and I have no objection to it.

    • Notagod
      Posted June 4, 2013 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      The booklet assures readers, “Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral”

      That is not a true statement regarding the god-ideas that are most common in the United States. At a minimum in order for the statement to be practicably correct the statement would either need to specify a deistic god or would need to state that science does not support the attributes of the gods commonly imagined in the United States.

      As it stands the statement quoted above isn’t neutral with regard to the current understandings of scientific study, that statement is prejudiced in favor of religion and specifically christianity when put in context of a national organization based in the United States.

      • David Hillis
        Posted June 4, 2013 at 11:30 am | Permalink

        I think it is unrealistic and unproductive to parse these statements too much. I don’t think the NAS says anything that isn’t true. It is true that “many members” of NAS do understand the fact of evolution but also hold religious viewpoints (“many” doesn’t mean “most”; 7% of about 2,000 members is still about 140 people, which I think is indeed “many”). I just don’t think it is my business what any NAS member thinks about such things as long as it doesn’t affect how they conduct or teach science. I’m comfortable saying that science simply doesn’t address things that are not part of the natural world, which is basically all that the NAS statement says. Science also doesn’t tell people how they “should” act toward others, which it seems to be the intended purpose of most religions (whether they succeed or not). If people choose to believe in the supernatural, then they are on their own; science isn’t going to have anything to say about it. Just don’t use those beliefs as an excuse to avoid teaching kids (and others) what we’ve learned about the natural world through science. Seems simple enough, and if having an open attitude makes more people comfortable about learning about science, I’m all for it.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted June 4, 2013 at 11:49 am | Permalink

          But science isn’t just a collection of facts about the natural world. It’s a process for gaining and validating knowledge, and as such it requires that all knowledge claims be subject to critical scrutiny.

          To say that “Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral” is to say that there are some claims that are exempt from critical scrutiny. Substitute “leprechauns” or “Bigfoot” for “God” and you can see the absurdity of it. God is getting a free pass from the NAS for political reasons, not for scientific reasons.

          • David Hillis
            Posted June 4, 2013 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

            I guess we’ll just have to disagree on this. Bigfoot is claimed to be a part of the natural world, so its purported existence is indeed subject to scientific investigation (and no credible evidence has been found to support it). But most people who think there is a Bigfoot do not argue that it is a supernatural being that is not part of the natural world; they just are not scientific about considering the existing lack of evidence. But I would be convinced that there IS a Bigfoot if someone collected credible evidence for it (like a specimen), so I’d say that it is theoretically subject to scientific investigation. On the other hand, people who hold religious beliefs argue for something beyond the natural world. Science can’t do anything with that; it certainly can’t support such claims, and it can’t refute them either. It is a reasonable personal viewpoint to say that you reject anything that can’t be supported by scientific observation and testing. But many people hold a different viewpoint, and argue for something that is beyond the natural world. Science simply can’t address these claims. I personally don’t understand why many people believe in the supernatural, but as long as they don’t force those views on others or use them in harmful ways, it isn’t hurting me. In some cases, I think it helps people cope with the world and to do good things for other people (I also recognize that some people use religion as an excuse to do horrible things to others). In the end, I think scientists should stick to science and understanding the natural world. But as a scientist, I don’t think it is reasonable for me to tell anyone else what they should think about issues outside of science.

            • Notagod
              Posted June 4, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

              If you were true to the words you have expressed in your comments you would need to advocate for the removal of statements referencing gods. Whether you realize it or not your statements are supportive of supernaturalism, for the science does indicate that gods do not interact in the sphere that we live in. I’m also a bit disappointed that you dismiss the statements I made in my prior comment as if they are inconvenient fact and all I can do is hope (pray to god?) that you don’t dismiss, as inconvenient, fact while practicing science.

              Your statements address what you would like to happen but lack clarity on what is actually happening. As an example, and this is just one example (I am assuming that you are capable of further analysis concerning the ways in which supernaturalism as practice makes claims about the workings in the universe), you are concerned with christianity not hurting you specifically yet you are silent about the ways it might inhibit a student that is internally struggling with the prevalence of supernaturalism contrasted with a cognitive intuition that wants to know the truth, which is the basis of science. If you are unwilling to lend support to that person in favor of what has stood the test of the scientific endeavor, where will that person find support and of what good is your advocacy of science?

              • David Hillis
                Posted June 4, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

                Obviously we have different world views on these things. I support your right to hold your viewpoints. My are different, and I have no doubt that we’re both making our best effort to promote understanding of science in the world. We just disagree about the best way to accomplish that goal. I’m not saying that you have to agree with me. I guess I’m even an accommodationist to anti-accommodationists. I’m not out to force my views on untestable ideas on others. I’m just saying that I stick to talking and teaching about things that science can address, and leave people alone about the rest. I hope they do the same for me.

              • Posted June 4, 2013 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

                With respect, David, I don’t think you’ve made that case that “God” is a topic that science cannot address. Science might not be the final arbiter on the existence or non-existence of a God of some kind, but there are numerous truth claims that theistic religions make about their Gods that are plainly falsified by science. Ergo, science can address the issue, and, indeed, shows that such Gods, with those particular attributes, do not exist.

                /@

                PS. You really ought to read the naturalism v. supernaturalism discussions we’ve had on this blog, too. The consensus here seems to be that no supernatural agency that interacts with the natural world is beyond the purview of science.

    • Steve
      Posted June 4, 2013 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      Isn’t the point, however, that the particular phrasing of the NAS statement (and statements of other organizations) are (deliberately?) distorting the degree to which scientists *actually* believe in a harmonious relationship between science and religion simply because it’ll make true believers (the nonscience population) feel a little more secure? I, like you, don’t particularly care what anyone believes exists insofar as those beliefs don’t affect me or my classroom, but it seems to me the statements of NAS are simply there to get more religious on board with evolution, and in doing so, they get on board with a brand of evolution that professional scientists do not subscribe to. Obviously, I could be wrong.

      • Posted June 4, 2013 at 10:58 am | Permalink

        Perhaps the statement is a “loss leader” to get religious people to consider science at all.

    • eric
      Posted June 4, 2013 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      For example, some people ascribe human-based motivations or emotions to their pet cats, without any scientific evidence or support. Who cares? If it makes them happy to think their cats love them, why does that hurt me?

      If they voted for a cat for president, you would care. And in fact some religious people do vote for critically important government executives based on religious belief (the voter’s or the candidate’s), which you should care about too, because it means less competent and more biased people making policy that effects you, making laws that effects you, and so on. The gay rights fight going on now is (IMO) one example of why you should care.

      There’s a difference between secularism and acommodationism. Secularism is when religious and nonreligious people agree not to base public policy on sectarian principles, because not everyone shares the same sect. Accommodationism is trying to say that ones’ sectarian principles are just peachy fine because they are not in conflict with science. Well, the latter is not a point NAS needs to make. The NAS should not care whether some sectarian principle is consistent or inconsistent with science. What they should care about and what they should message is the idea of science policy and science education policy being developed based on secular principles. The NAS has entirely the wrong focus. They should not be in the business of saying A and B are consistent. They should be in the business of saying that A is not a sound basis for policy, whether it agrees with B or not.

      • David Hillis
        Posted June 4, 2013 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

        I think I made it clear that I didn’t care what anyone thought as long as they didn’t force those ideas on me, or use those thoughts to treat others inappropriately or do evil. If someone wants to try to get their cat, or their god, elected President, I’d certainly object to that. So yes, I obviously object to some particular ways that people use their religion as an excuse to treat others poorly. That issue is irrelevant to any of my remarks above.

        • David Hillis
          Posted June 4, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

          And the NAS has never said that science and religion are consistent; they have just said that science has nothing to say about supernatural viewpoints. I don’t want anyone forcing their religious views on me, so I don’t think it is reasonable for me to force my views about religion on them. That seems pretty simple.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted June 4, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      I have no desire to change the NAS stance on these issues. … I don’t think science should be in the business of telling people what religious or philosophical views they should or shouldn’t have.

      This is the claim that always throw me into a hissy fit, and I’m not even a cat.

      The reason I get mad is that it is blatantly not true, and equally blatantly accommodationists are unable to see it. Here is for example what NAS says, from this very article:

      “The [NAS] booklet assures readers, “Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral”.”

      That is a theological claim, telling people what religious or philosophical views they should or shouldn’t have.

      This is a, blatant, theological claim. Anyone can test that by exchanging the specially privileged religion with any other area:

      “The [NAS] booklet assures readers, “Whether homeopathic mechanisms exists or not is a question about which science is neutral”.”

      “The [NAS] booklet assures readers, “Whether astrological mechanisms exists or not is a question about which science is neutral”.”

      Et cetera, et cetera.

      The correct skeptical, non-theological claim is of course:

      “Science is neither neutral towards nor privileging such areas as homeopathy, astrology, religion, HIV denial, et cetera. They are equally criticized for their empirical claims and their effects on social health and education.”

      Why accommodationists commonly rely on theology to defend religion is not a mystery. Most accommodationists seems to have a belief in belief.

      Why accommodationists are commonly unable to observe and test their use of religion is somewhat of a mystery.

      Sure, all beliefs are maintained in the presence of cognitive dissonance. But why would the same mechanism that mushes the brain of believers remain in, presumably, non-believing [let us call religious belief for belief type 1] believers in belief [let us call belief in religious belief for belief type 2]? Why would such a belief type 2, belief by proxy, need protection from common skepticism?

      Is it because type 2 is transitory from (or to) type 1, and type 1 enjoys special privilege? Then it is a vicious circle: “I specially privilege special privilege”. Eceilingcats!

      • David Hillis
        Posted June 4, 2013 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

        See above.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted June 4, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

          I did, and I can’t see that you respond to the claim that NAS makes a theological claim about the supernatural, as you define it. Both I and Notagod have twice observed that you break your own (and every skeptics) rules.

          Instead you reformulate the theological claim: “science has nothing to say about supernatural viewpoints”.

          Science has said a lot on the claims and existence of mechanisms in astrology, homeopathy, other magic and especially many religions (say, no floods).

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted June 4, 2013 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

            And if you say that global floods are not supermagical claims (which would be empirically curious, but you could say it), we have prayer studies.

      • Posted June 4, 2013 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

        +1

    • Posted June 4, 2013 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

      But, Professor Hillis, for the NAS to say that science is compatible with religion IS taking a stand on religion: it’s saying that fundamentalist who see an incompatiblity have the “wrong faith”. There are plenty of religious people in this country that find deep and profound incompatibilities, and I think you can see that the NAS, by pushing compatibility, is not only taking a theological point of view, but telling people that their faith is wrong and they should be believing something else–something more liberal. Don’t you agree?

      My point of view has always been that science organizations shouldn’t say ANYTHING about religion because that’s not our brief. Let the faithful sort out whether science is compatible with religion. I like the SSE’s stand, which is simply that evolution should be taught because it’s true. The official SSE statement says NOTHING about religion, and that’s the way it should be.

      So, you see, the NAS is engaging in theology. They also say that the supernatural can’t be tested, which is bogus, because some aspects can be (faith healing, the efficacy of prayer,etc.) So my plea to you is simply get ALL mention of the compatibility of religion and science, or or religion per se, out of official NAS statements, and stick to the science, as you say you should be doing!

      • David Hillis
        Posted June 4, 2013 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

        I agree that when someone claims that a supernatural power has a particular effect on the natural world (like faith healing, for example), that can indeed be tested by scientific methods. I think I made that point clear above. That is different from noting that that purely supernatural beliefs are untestable, since (by definition) they make no predictions about the natural world. Once someone claims that a supernatural power has a specific effect on the natural world, then that claim is back in the realm of science.

        • Posted June 4, 2013 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

          Per my comment above, most religions do claim that God has any number of specific effects on the natural world, thus putting the existence of such an intercessionary God within the purview of science!

          /@

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted June 4, 2013 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

          All religions make at least one claim about the natural world: they claim that their knowledge of the supernatural world is accurate. How did they acquire this knowledge, if not by the transmission of information from the supernatural to the natural world?

          The sort of “purely supernatural” belief you postulate doesn’t exist, because the only claim it could coherently make is that the supernatural is inherently unknowable.

  8. Greg Esres
    Posted June 4, 2013 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    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.”

    This probably needs to be qualified with the phrase “in the modern world”; otherwise, it invites trotting out Isaac Newton, who would have to be considered a “real scientist”.

    • Notagod
      Posted June 4, 2013 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      But not a can be “real scientist” in the deepest sense. Isaac Newton won’t qualify due to the “you” and “can be” constraints.

  9. Posted June 4, 2013 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    I guess the discovery institute would say that the reason for the correlations is that dogmatic scientists are scheming against religion, and systematically favour atheists. This could explain the correlation as well (say, NAS prefers atheists over the religious when having similar scientific accomplishments). This is not plausible, but it would be nice if it could be rebutted… we should have an independent measure of scientific status to test this.

    • David Hillis
      Posted June 4, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      It is pretty easy to refute, since there is absolutely no information on religious beliefs presented to members at any point of the NAS election cycle. And, of course, there are indeed religious members of the NAS. So, this would be a completely vacuous argument.

  10. Posted June 4, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    What this article says loud and clear: American geoscience teachers and professional organizations need to get to work and educate their fellow scientists and the public.

    And a lot of us are atheists, though I’ve known a few exceptions. It’s hard to remain impressed by religion (or to believe in immortality!) when you are introduced to plate tectonics, geologic time, and a thousand beautiful transformations of rocks, landscape, and atmosphere, as well as such mundane wonders as gasoline, diamonds, and copper wire.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted June 4, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

      Yes! While I read your comment on one browser tab I saw the following on another:

      astrobiologists have solved the phosphorus problem of early Earth.

      “The scientists documented the phosphorus in early Archean limestone, showing it was abundant some 3.5 billion years ago.”

      This was the missing observation in the CHNOPS chemistry.

      Whether or not hydrothermal systems can free phosphorous (which would free cell formation of the time constraint), clearing the remains of the protoplanetary disk which would deliver the CHNOPS volatiles for sure now is an early generic mechanism on terrestrials.

      Beautiful!

    • derekw
      Posted June 5, 2013 at 8:41 am | Permalink

      It’s hard to remain impressed by religion (or to believe in immortality!) when you are introduced to plate tectonics, geologic time, and a thousand beautiful transformations of rocks, landscape, and atmosphere, as well as such mundane wonders as gasoline, diamonds, and copper wire.
      Well the faithful WOULD be impressed because of the God who orchestrated it all (ie fine tuning argument; anthropic principle etc.)

      • Notagod
        Posted June 5, 2013 at 9:46 am | Permalink

        However that would make their gods tricksters and not worthy of worship.

  11. aljones909
    Posted June 4, 2013 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    A 1996 U.S. survey found “39% of notable scientists believed in a personal god”. If this hasn’t changed in a couple of decades the situation in the U.S. is much worse than I thought. 39% of notable U.S. scientists believe in some kind of sky fairy. Jeez. Peter Atkins has the proper robust attitude to all this nonsense. An inspiring essay of his is read in this youtube clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xlu98jypPg0

  12. Posted June 4, 2013 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    “(Curiously, chemists are more religious than either biologists or physicists.)”

    I don’t find that curious at all.

    What is there in chemistry that clashes with religious claims in the same way that evolution and cosmology do?

    /@

    • Posted June 5, 2013 at 2:46 am | Permalink

      Indeed; I was going to make the same comment.

      BTW, for some reason, sometimes my name when commenting on WordPress blogs is philliphelbig, other times it is Phillip Helbig. On other blogs, I am given the opportunity to change from one to the other, but not here. Does anyone know why?

  13. arizonajones
    Posted June 4, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    In my opinion, anyone can “do” science, but in order to be a “real” honest to dog card carrying scientist one must have intellectual integrity,the fundamental bedrock of all science, the willingness to walk away from one’s most sacredly held position when the evidence doesn’t support it,no matter what that position is.


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  1. […] each other that demonstrated the difficulties with Coyne’s approach to these issues, IMHO.  In one post, Coyne reviewed survey data that revealed the relative overabundance of atheism among America’s […]

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