Elaine Howard Ecklund has a new book out, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think. It’s been touted in certain dark corners of the blogosphere as showing that scientists aren’t nearly as atheistic as everyone thinks. Over at EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse, who’s read the book, takes issue with this claim:
Asked about their beliefs in God, 34% chose “I don’t believe in God,” while 30% chose, “I do not know if there is a God, and there is no way to find out.” That’s 64% who are atheist or agnostic, as compared to just 6% of the general public.
An additional 8% opted for, “I believe in a higher power, but it is not God.” That makes 72% of scientists who are explicitly non-theistic in their religious views (compared to 16% of the public generally.) Pretty stark.
From the other side, it is just 9% of scientists (compared to 63% of the public), who chose, “I have no doubts about God’s existence.” An additional 14% of scientists chose, “I have some doubts, but I believe in God.” Thus, it is just 25% of scientists who will confidently assert their belief in God (80% of the general public.)
For completeness, the final option was “I believe in God sometimes.” That was chosen by 5% of scientists and 4% of the public. Make of it what you will.
Now explain to me, please, how anyone can look at that data and write this:
As we journey from the personal to the public religious lives of scientists, we will meet the nearly 50 percent of elite scientists like Margaret who are religious in a traditional sense…. (p. 6)
This claim, that fifty percent of scientists are traditionally religious, is repeated in the jacket copy. The expression, “religious in a traditional sense” is never precisely defined, but I would have thought that a belief in God is a minimal requirement. With 72% of scientists explicitly nontheistic, and an additional five percent professing to believe in God only sometimes, it looks to me like 23% would be the most generous figure for the fraction of scientists who are traditionally religious.
I’ve ordered the book and will read it and report back. But already I smell trouble. If you look at the book on Amazon, you can read part of Chapter 1, which has a “A Message to Scientists” starting on page 8. What is it? That we scientists at “elite universities” must bear the burden of overcoming, through public outreach, the “indifference or outright hostility” that Americans bear toward science. And to do that, we need to learn a lot more about religion so we can more effectively engage the faithful. I’ll be curious to see if Ecklund’s data say anything about the effectiveness of this strategy.
It was funded by Templeton, of course.