Guest post: Are scientists nonbelievers because of self selection or because science erodes belief?

Bloodhound Sigmund is on the BioLogos case again. Here, stimulated by some artwork and comments at BioLogos, he analyzes the question of why so many scientists in the U.S., compared to the general populace, are nonbelievers. His conclusion is that science actually erodes belief in God.  I find that plausible simply because it’s happened to me, and I’ve also seen it happen to many of my peers. That erosion is also a factor suggested in the Fishman paper about science vs. the supernatural that I cited yesterday.

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Why are there so few Christians in Science?

by Sigmund

BioLogos, whose new slogan appears to be, “Harmonizing Science and Conservative Christianity” (isn’t that the job of Conservapedia?) has recently published a series of posters aimed at the Evangelical Christian community. The most recent, entitled: “Are you there, God? It’s us, SCIENTISTS”, highlights an issue that is clearly troubling the BioLogos team: why are there so few Evangelical scientists?

Here’s that poster; click to enlarge:

BioLogos  President Darrel Falk, explaining the advantage of gaining a better knowledge of the natural world, quotes Christian historian Mark Noll:

 “As described in the Gospels, individuals who wanted to learn the truth about Jesus had to “come and see.” Likewise, to find out what might be true in nature, it is necessary to “come and see.”

While Noll doesn’t view evidential observation quite as valuable as scriptural teaching, he does suggest it has an important role in helping us to understand the world:

“coming and seeing” is still the method that belief in Christ as Savior privileges for learning about all other objects, including nature. This privileging means that scientific results coming from thoughtful, organized, and carefully checked investigations of natural phenomena must, for Christ-centered reasons, be taken seriously.”

In other words, Noll is highlighting a core principle of theistic science: that the ultimate value of using science to learn about the natural world is gaining a better understanding of the workings of God.

Well, if that really is the case, then science itself should pose no problem to Evangelicals.  They should, as BioLogos founder Francis Collins claims: “find the scientific worldview and the spiritual worldview to be entirely complementary”.

And yet the figures for Evangelicals in science suggest something different. As Falk notes:

“In the study reported in the accompanying infographic, evangelical Christians are represented in the sciences at one seventh of the frequency of their representation in American society as a whole. In the nation’s most elite institutions, the situation is even more extreme. Elaine Ecklund’s recent study shows that evangelical Christians are fourteen fold under-represented in the sciences in the nation’s most elite universities.”

In other words, Evangelical Christians, who make up approximately 28% of the US population, constituted only 4% of the scientists in a study of 20 “elite” US universities published by Ecklund and Scheitle in 2007.

On the other hand, atheists and agnostics, who comprise a combined 4% of the US population according to the BioLogos chart, make up 28% of US scientists. In the elite group of scientists studied by Ecklund and Scheitle, the figure is even more dramatic, with just over 62% of scientists being atheist or agnostic: a remarkable 15.5 fold increase compared to the US population at large.

So why the discrepancy?

Two explanations have been suggested. The first is that science has, in the past, been associated with a nonreligious world view and therefore those of an atheistic or agnostic nature may be drawn to science.  In other words, nonbelieving elite scientists are predominantly those who were raised in nonreligious backgrounds.

The alternative explanation is that an increase in scientific knowledge leads many to the conclusion that religion is false and scientists will thus tend to lose the faith in which they were raised and become nonbelievers.

One way to discriminate between these alternatives is to ask the question: “Were you raised in a religious or a nonreligious household?”

In fact a question of this type, in which the authors compared the current religious affiliation of scientists to that of their childhood, was posed in the Ecklund and Scheitle study. The results, shown in Table 4 of their paper (below), revealed that while the majority of elite scientists had no current religious affiliation, 86.6% of scientists were raised in homes which DID have a religious affiliation. This is pretty close to the general US population figure of 91.6%.

So scientists do not predominately come from nonreligious backgrounds. But is it exposure to science that raises the level of nonbelief amongst scientists?

If that was the case, what might we expect to see in the data? One factor that provides some evidence in this regards is the age of the scientist. Science is not a career in which people, for the most part, are free to choose at any age. The vast majority of career scientists go through the standard route of degree, PhD, and then a more permanent position in research, teaching or industry; it is very rare that someone becomes a career scientist in middle or old age. Therefore, the age of a scientist can be seen a good marker of how long they have been working in science.

So what effect does length of time working as a scientist have on religious belief?

As the BioLogos figure demonstrates, there is a clear inverse correlation between the age of scientists and their belief in God. Younger scientists, 18-34 years of age, are far more likely to believe in God (42%) than scientists of over 65 years of age (28%).  Likewise nonbelief in God is much higher in the older group (48%) then the younger (32%).

This result is unlikely to be due to a cohort effect, since belief in God in most populations has decreased rather than increased in recent years with the elderly showing the highest belief in God. It seems that the more experience of science you have, the less willing you are to accept deities.

While not definitive, the data that BioLogos highlights suggests that Evangelical Christians have very good reasons for avoiding science.

70 Comments

  1. gbjames
    Posted June 28, 2012 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    sub

    • jimroberts
      Posted June 28, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      sub

  2. Simon
    Posted June 28, 2012 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    I can see the conspiracy theory now:
    there’s an anti-religion bias in selecting people for science jobs at each stage of the career ladder. (Never mind that there may be a lurking variable in there that explains away the effect.)

  3. gravelinspector
    Posted June 28, 2012 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    My comment on the affiliation table got attached there, when I menat it to go here :
    Looking more closely at those affiliation figures …
    18.5% of scientists identified themselves as having been Jews as children, and 15.3% still identify themselves as Jews. But Protestants go from 39% to (2.9+10.8+1.5=)15.2% and Catholics from 22.6% to (1.7+0.7+6.2+0.1=)8.7%.
    Which begs the questions of what do the Jews do to get so many people into the sciences (I’ll guess the answer already : cultural value of education in general), and to keep them from straying from the fold once they’re in there.
    Actually, Hindus and Buddhists have good recruitment into the sciences too, but aren’t broken out in the childhood statistics.

    • Occam
      Posted June 28, 2012 at 7:19 am | Permalink

      It would be interesting to see the age breakdown by affiliation, and whether any age cohort effect by affiliation is detectable.

      Based on personal observation, I would expect a larger proportion among the children and grandchildren of the Shoah generation to identify themselves as Jewish, event though they are in practice mostly culturally Jewish, not religionwise.

      Have actual beliefs been polled in the study, BTW?

      • Sigmund
        Posted June 28, 2012 at 9:13 am | Permalink

        “Have actual beliefs been polled in the study, BTW?”
        In the Ecklund and Scheitle study there was a question about actual beliefs rather than affiliations. The results are shown here:

        Basically it shows that traditional religious belief (people being certain of the existence of God) is very rare amongst scientists, with less than 10% of scientists falling into this category. This compares with approximately 78% of the US population who are certain that God exists, according to a Gallop poll.

        • Occam
          Posted June 28, 2012 at 9:59 am | Permalink

          Thanks for the data.
          I expected physicists to be a godless bunch of heathen, but biologists are shown to be at least their equals. Darwin at work?

          The most astonishing finding: 65% of economists are agnostics or atheists. Given the reputation of the profession, I’d have expected 80% of them to rely on divine regulation of markets.

      • Sigmund
        Posted June 28, 2012 at 9:19 am | Permalink

        Specifically in reference to the Shoah generation, there is an interesting point of data in the ‘Belief About God Across Time and Countries,’ study (the last link in my article above.) What it shows is that, almost uniquely compared to other societies, it is the oldest generation in Israel that is the least religious.

        • Occam
          Posted June 28, 2012 at 10:12 am | Permalink

          Possibly due to the initially large influx of secular Jews from Europe, now in rapid decline.

          Do you know by any chance whether there is a comparable survey among Israeli scientists?

          • Sigmund
            Posted June 28, 2012 at 10:28 am | Permalink

            I don’t know of any such survey.

    • Erp
      Posted June 28, 2012 at 7:23 am | Permalink

      There is absolutely no requirement for many Jews that one has to believe in God or even observant to be Jewish so many who put down ‘Jewish’ may be non-theistic.

    • Simon Hayward
      Posted June 28, 2012 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      I did wonder, in passing, why 1.8% of the total population is Jewish in the top part of the table and 2.2% in the bottom part. Doesn’t really skew the analysis, just curious

      • Sigmund
        Posted June 28, 2012 at 9:31 am | Permalink

        The top part of Table 4 refers to their current religious affiliation. The bottom figure is their affiliation as a child.

        • Simon Hayward
          Posted June 28, 2012 at 10:47 am | Permalink

          So the US population is now 1.8% jewish but when these people were children it was 2.2%?

    • rlwemm
      Posted July 1, 2012 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

      There are many “secular” Jews who maintain their cultural heritage and traditions but do not believe in gods. They identify as Jewish on surveys so their lack of god belief is not obvious. It is possible that the survey on which these figures are based did not ask them this question once they identified as belonging to a group whom the investigators (wrongly) assumed to have a purely religious basis.

  4. Sajanas
    Posted June 28, 2012 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    I’d be curious to see if Evangelical Christians make up a smaller percentage of university students in general…. its long been my observation that the more excessively religious people are, the more likely they spurn non-religious education entirely, or they teach by not giving children the sort of questioning education that would get people interested in science.

    • Simon Hayward
      Posted June 28, 2012 at 9:26 am | Permalink

      Might depend on how you define “university”

    • gluonspring
      Posted June 28, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

      Indeed. Children from my sect were strongly discouraged from going to any but one of the three universities run by our sect. And even among those, you were regarded as slightly suspect if you went to the one in California, that was known to embrace an imperceptibly more liberal doctrine. It was a real pressure not only from parents but from everyone at the church. I might have caved to the pressure too but, at the time, the approved university didn’t offer the degree I was after. That gave me a ready excuse for not going. It didn’t keep people from reacting to the news like I had a terminal disease, though.

      It is very striking that they were under no illusions about the effect of outside knowledge on one’s faith. They knew that the more you were exposed to uncontrolled information, the less likely you were to stay in the faith. Of course, to a person not infected with the delusion, the inability of a belief to withstand even the slightest exposure to the outside world is evidence of a flaw in that belief. To the believer, though, it was just taken as evidence of how wicked the rest of the world was and how much they needed to double their efforts to shut it out.

      • pjlandis
        Posted June 29, 2012 at 7:21 am | Permalink

        Not to get too personal, but what sect was that? Three universities seems like a lot.

        • gluonspring
          Posted June 29, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

          Sorry, not going to say.

          Three sounds like a lot but the world is large. There are loads more universities (and colleges) than most people will ever hear of. There are, for example, 6900 entries in the DOE database of accredited postsecondary institutions [1]. Elsewhere I’ve seen the figure of 2500 for universities specifically. The Baptists alone boast 48 colleges and universities [2]. A short perusal of a list of colleges by religious affiliation [3] will give some hint as to the diversity of this group, especially as you drill down into the broad categories. Many of the larger denominations, of course, have in their stable large universities whose sectarian character has been diluted by a diverse student body and faculty, so that you can still get a decent education there, in some cases a truly excellent education. Nevertheless, small conformity factories abound. We hear about a few news making examples, Bob Jones University, perhaps, or Oral Roberts University. Most, however, are insignificant institutions that no one notices or cares about. I think a religious sect has to be small indeed not to have their fingers into higher education somehow. After all, I can think of two off the top of my head that are connected with a single preacher (Liberty University and Oral Roberts University).

          This should surprise no one. After all, it is vitally important to provide a haven to protect the fragile beliefs of religious children.

          It is probably worth discussing the cumulative impact of all these little bubbles of indoctrination. If you don’t know they exist, you might be surprised at how many “college educated” people have nonetheless managed to be exposed to nothing that does not conform to their childhood beliefs.

          [1] http://www2.ed.gov/admins/finaid/accred/accreditation_pg4.html#Diploma-Mills

          [2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Baptist_colleges_and_universities_in_the_United_States

          [3] http://www.campuscorner.com/religious-affiliations.htm

  5. peter
    Posted June 28, 2012 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    I suspect the more religious untenured young faculty more often (than the atheist young untenured faculty) fail to ever get tenure. (That would partly explain the younger scientists in general being slightly more religious than the older.) I also suspect, and even seem to recall, that some religiosos assert that this is a conspiracy in tenure committees. However it is far more likely that the former are just that bit less intellectually competent in general, and therefore in their chosen fields, than are the latter. And that (slight?) relative intellectual incompetency already has independent evidence, to my mind, in the very fact that the more religious ones believe in the existence of god.

    Sorry, Jerry, for calling someone slightly stupid, but at least the ad hominem is not in the direction of other responders.

    • raven
      Posted June 28, 2012 at 7:35 am | Permalink

      Peter:

      I suspect the more religious untenured young faculty more often (than the atheist young untenured faculty) fail to ever get tenure.

      I’ve been a scientist for decades.

      In all that time, not once has anyone ever asked me what mey religion was. It’s zero, nada, nein, never.

      We don’t talk about religion. It’s not a sore point, it is irrelevant and boring. We talk mostly about…science.

      In point of fact, I was a xian for most of that time but the sort of moderate xian that normal people are used to and don’t care about. Except the fundies who hate them.

      I’m not going to say Peter is stupid or crazy, but he is about as wrong as it gets.

      PS These days, quite a lot of faculty and graduate students are foreign born, mostly Indians and Chinese. In one of my old departments at a good U., they make up now something like 90% of the grad students. They are often the large majority.

      So what religion are all these brown skinned scientists and grad students? I have no idea. Legally, we aren’t even supposed to ask and we don’t. And no one cares anyway.

      • Simon Hayward
        Posted June 28, 2012 at 9:37 am | Permalink

        Wouldn’t say it’s never been discussed, but certainly not in any formal manner and very clearly not in relation to promotion. I would concur with Raven that it’s irrelevant – at least at mainstream institutions.

        I do know that having attended an essentially secular memorial service for a recently deceased colleague there were mutterings among the some of faculty because of an essentially non-religous eulogy by preacher. Which would suggest the opposite bias to that suggested by Peter.

        • raven
          Posted June 28, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

          I’ve seen that.

          A colleague died (he was very old) and he was a born again Pagan. So we had a Pagan celebration of life, basically a party outdoors around a bonfire.

          His last set of caregivers because he had a terminal debilitating illness, were fundie xians.

          They were shocked and appalled. We thought they were funny.

          This BTW, is the current trend out here. I’ve been to a few xian funerals which were OK I guess. And a lot more secular celebrations of life which made a lot more sense.

        • peter
          Posted June 28, 2012 at 10:32 am | Permalink

          I didn’t suggest any bias whatsoever. I suggested the unwarranted accusation by religiosos of bias. I hope your discipline doesn’t require much reading.

          • Simon Hayward
            Posted June 28, 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink

            Yup – my bad – clearly need more coffee – or at least trying to do more than one thing at a time.

      • peter
        Posted June 28, 2012 at 10:29 am | Permalink

        In what part of what you wrote is there even a discussion, much less a refutation, of the claim that belief in god is evidence for relative intellectual difficulties, which ‘translate’ to less technical competence, which ‘translates’ to tenure committees quite rightly more often giving a negative decision, which itself ‘translates’ to a lower percentage of older academics believing in god?

        • raven
          Posted June 28, 2012 at 10:46 am | Permalink

          I didn’t bother because it was too stupid to address.

          • peter
            Posted June 28, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

            No, I think because you didn’t have anything to say.

            My whole thing is rather conjectural, but:

            “belief in god is evidence for relative intellectual difficulties…”

            In U.S., there’s a noticeably higher percentage of atheists elected to the National Academy, but that evidence would be unimpressive if you regarded failure to get elected there as an intellectual badge of honour.

            “, which ‘translate’ to less technical competence”

            possibly some areas, like theology, in USian institutions, demand less intellect to be a competent intellectual, rather than more, but not science, I think.

            “, which ‘translates’ to tenure committees quite rightly more often giving a negative decision,”

            One would hope that if one could examine the CVs of failed tenure candidates, and compare them to successes, the latter’s papers would be more numerous and/or lengthier and/or in more prestigious journals. That might make you think those committees could be doing a good job. And you?

            ” which itself ‘translates’ to a lower percentage of older academics believing in god?”

            That assumes the tenure successes stay and the failures leave. It does seem to work that way.

            So there’s some reasonable argument that increasing atheism with age among scientists has something to do with ‘turnover’, and isn’t entirely indicating the changing of scientists’ minds in that direction with age.

            But I’m glad you said this argument is stupid and so unworthy of discussion, no need for you to expand, rather than calling its writer stupid, since Jerry has better things to do than rap knuckles.

            On the other weak contention of mine, that (very seldom valid) complaints that tenure committees are sometimes biased in an anti-religious direction, I have only personal bits of confirmation (I can think of 4 instances of such complaints over 43 years as a tenured faculty member, and only one of those where I’m able to be certain the accusations were spurious, being among the accused). But the number of such accusations of bias is something which I imagine could be studied rigorously.

      • gluonspring
        Posted June 28, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

        I think you are addressing something different than Peter. What Peter says has nothing to do with whether someone asks you about your religion or not.

  6. raven
    Posted June 28, 2012 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    It was the fundie xian creationists that drove me out of xianity. A religion that routinely produces such malevolent people and teaches lies probably wasn’t true. It wasn’t.

    I had already been a scientist for a few decades.

    I didn’t even know creationism still existed until I ran into a wild eyed old guy babbling away about it.

  7. Occam
    Posted June 28, 2012 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    Point of order:
    The question “Were you raised in a religious or a nonreligious household?” is misleading, unless accompanied by a more personal one: “What were your beliefs as a child (specify age), and what are your present beliefs?”

    The causality chain ist at stake.
    I have observed that children of a “scientific bent of mind” tend, from an early age onwards, to be skeptical of, and put off by, inculcated beliefs and arguments from authority, independently of the religious bent of the household they were raised in. Such children, when coming from a religious household, have a harder time, that’s all.

    So, until conclusively shown, it is not clear that exposure to science monotonically increases disbelief. It could also be that curious, inquisitive, skeptical children tend to find in science their congenial occupation.

    The true explanation may well lie in a convergence of several factors.

    • eric
      Posted June 28, 2012 at 9:57 am | Permalink

      Occam,
      Your preferred question is probably no better (and may be worse) than the affiliation one. Memory is constructive; what you remember about your past beliefs is partially drawn from your current beliefs. Thus, people typically remember earlier beliefs as being more similar to their current beliefs than they actually were. Many current atheists would tell you that they were never very religious the same way many divorced people will tell you they never really loved their prior spouse. They aren’t lying; they really believe this. They are just remembering their prior beliefs wrong.

      • gbjames
        Posted June 28, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

        I seem to hear more stories from atheists who describe former belief quite well. The ones who were never religious (post childhood) seem to me to be in the minority. All anecdotes, of course.

      • Occam
        Posted June 28, 2012 at 10:30 am | Permalink

        I was about to ask the same question as gbjames:
        A number of participants on this site are routinely referring to their former beliefs. What of them?

        Also, assuming a large part o construction in memory, a thorough investigation could draw upon on material and/or circumstantial evidence: diaries, notebooks, testimonials of religious activities, recollections of familiars and the like. (I’ve worked in oral history projects for a time, where plausibility checks and the weighting of evidence were required and commonplace. Nowadays, such questionnaires would probably be structured to allow for Bayesian analysis.)

        Finally, I’m wondering whether there are studies concerning the veracity and accuracy of scientists’ personal memories, compared to average control groups (obviously, the construction factor would be of particular interest). If you know of any, please weigh in.

        • Sigmund
          Posted June 28, 2012 at 11:41 am | Permalink

          It is certainly a valid question, although perhaps difficult to answer. For example what is the specific age we choose as determining the child as being religious or non religious? Too young and they will believe in all sorts of supernatural stuff that has little bearing on their later religious outlook (Santa, fairies etc). Too late, such as older teenage years, and we won’t be able to rule out the possibility that an increased knowledge of science has led to their nonbelief.

          • gluonspring
            Posted June 28, 2012 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

            There’s nothing for it then but lab-raised experimental children. 😉

            • Occam
              Posted June 29, 2012 at 12:52 am | Permalink

              Why is it that we should find the idea of lab-raised experimental children repugnant, but the practice of massive brainwashing in religious households, religious communities and religious schools acceptable?

              Religious upbringing is a mass experiment in social conditioning — but without a control group. And without the usual ethical safeguards of a controlled experiment.

  8. Newman
    Posted June 28, 2012 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    I grew up evangelical, and science turned me atheist. As a grad student. One too many failed PCRs, I guess. (Not really- actual reason is that science pushed me to adopt an evidence-based worldview. It was all downhill from there.)

    • Greg Fitzgerald
      Posted June 28, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

      When DNA purification fails, it is usually due to Satan’s corrupting interference. Those atheist scientists are waste their time autoclaving when they should be praying.

  9. raven
    Posted June 28, 2012 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    In might not be exposure to science that causes an erosion of belief.

    It might be an exposure to thinking and being objective. Scientists are taught to be objective, as Feynman said, “first you have to not fool yourself, and you can fool yourself very easily.”

    1. This could be tested by looking at belief trends in nonscience faculty fields, humanities, social sciences, and so on. IIRC, they, in fact, do show the same trends.

    2. A lot of this could be due to the simple fact that a lot of “xians” are just census xians, box checkers. Only around 30% of US xians go to church, most of them have no idea what their magic book says or what their doctrines are supposed to be. Half of all US xians can’t even name the four Gospels. There are only 4 of them for Cthulhu’s sake.

    Some people just decide that checking the xian box isn’t really important or a good idea any more.

    • Schenck
      Posted June 28, 2012 at 8:22 am | Permalink

      I don’t think that’s quite true. If a person believes in god, then they’re religious, if they don’t, they’re atheist. The ‘box checkers’ might not live up to some set of conditions for what it is to be a “True Christian”, but so what, they still consider themselves to be Christians.

      • raven
        Posted June 28, 2012 at 8:24 am | Permalink

        That wasn’t the point.

        It should be easier for a box checker to decide to stop checking the box than a wild eyed fundie fanatic to drop their religion.

        It has to do with the level of committment and attachment to the religion which varies widely.

    • peter
      Posted June 28, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

      “In might not be exposure to science that causes an erosion of belief.

      It might be an exposure to thinking and being objective.”

      Is there a difference? Perhaps I construe science in too general a sense, including mathematics of all kinds, and several other things that might be disputed as being science with a small ‘s’ (but not including literary criticism!)

    • gluonspring
      Posted June 28, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

      From my own anecdotal experience, I’d hazard that exposure to any kind of ideas outside the received ideas of your religious community serves to erode belief. As a Protestant taught that the Pope was a servent of the devil it was unnerving to actually meet Catholic boy in school who, if anything, was nicer than me, felt just as firmly that I was the one bound for Hell, who could quote every bit as much Bible as I could, etc. My faith survived this encounter with the other, but it was shaken.

      Two other examples. I can vividly recall being quite disturbed to see a pie chard breaking down world religious beliefs. Seeing that I was in the small minority was unnerving, especially since I was taught that our beliefs were obvious so that no one would have an excuse before God. And on another occasion, I recall listening to a Bach piece and being moved to ecstasy by it. But Lutheran’s, too, were bound for Hell according to my church. When I realized that Bach was Lutheran I was really quite disturbed. It was too much to swallow, that the producer of such wonderful, and Christian themed, music should be consigned to Hell. Almost on it’s own, that pushed me out of fundamentalism.

      So I think every kind of knowledge, every kind of exposure to the wider world, mere travel, weakens faith, especially fundamentalist faith. In the end, it was science that dealt the final blow, and especially evolution, by giving me an alternative story, something affirmative to latch onto in place of the beliefs I had as a child. Maybe it takes science in the end for that reason. I think exposure of any kind can get you a long way down that path, though.

      • gluonspring
        Posted June 28, 2012 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

        Lutherans. Selected wrong thing in spell check.

  10. ReasJack
    Posted June 28, 2012 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    Maybe a little bit of both (is that accomodationist?).

    Really, as a kid I was drawn to science because it was the one thing that had a decent answer to the question “how do you know”. I stopped believing what the Nuns told me because the didn’t have a good answer to that question.

    Later as an adult, I joined some churches to get an answer to the question, “What do these people really think, and am I missing something”. A reasonable skeptic’s stance.

    In the end, it came down to this.
    If they are honest, like Collins obviously is, the faithful really do believe that the world of ideas has two spheres, one in which the truth claims can only be validated by reason, the weight of evidence, and otherwise sound epistemology, and one in which claims and ideas can still be validated in the absence of these things. They might acknowledge a third sphere about which nothing can be said at all.
    The core of the doctrine of Faith is that we somehow posses the ability to tell where most ideas and claims belong in this scheme, and when properly sorted nothing in either sphere contradicts the other.
    It is this idea that science seems to most boldly reject, the ability to just know how to classify ideas this way, instead of seeing all ideas as drawn from the same pool, and tested the same way. If there is one thing my experience in science seems to have taught me, is that I don’t possess this faculty. Perhaps I am the equivalent of a color blind man, but even the color-blind can be shown through sound epistemology and empirical demonstration that there is something really there to be seen. I cannot see infra-red, but I have been given demonstrations of what it might be like to be able to sense that band of the EM spectrum, and I know that such demonstration can be duplicated.
    The common sense of science seems to demand that a demonstration at least of this sorting capacity be demonstrated as something reliable, or failing that, it should be rejected. Since that is the lynchpin of the entire faith enterprise, I side with Weinberg, that science erodes religious faith.

    • Sastra
      Posted June 28, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      A well-written analysis. Religious compartmentalization skills rely on “common sense” intuitions involving pre-scientific mental categories like essences and forces. But science is a hostile environment for the sort of category errors which come out of our instincts.

      The religious mindset loosely groups the concept of “spirit” in with beauty, thoughts, air, and emotion. It’s all quite vague and lovely. A scientific mindset examines that sloppy mess through the application of curiosity, clarity, and consistency — and no, it is NOT lovely. It’s a sloppy mess.

      “Science changes the way you think.” –PZ Myers

      • darrelle
        Posted June 28, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

        “Science changes the way you think.” –PZ Myers

        Indeed it does. And many religious people seem to realize that as shown, for example, by the Texas Republican party platform.

      • ReasJack
        Posted June 29, 2012 at 9:19 am | Permalink

        It is amazing how often I have to explain just how much more science resembles bloodsport than people think. Open mindedness in science translates into…”Why we’d absolutely love the opportunity to cut your probably ridiculous idea to ribbons and leave it twitching and gasping its last on the bloody sand…lets see how long it takes”

        Of course we get annoyed when somebody brings a corpse that was killed ten times over for another go (cough..young earth…cough), especially if it gets smuggled into the arena by clerics.

  11. Schenck
    Posted June 28, 2012 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    “Well, if that really is the case, then science itself should pose no problem to Evangelicals. They should, as BioLogos founder Francis Collins claims: “find the scientific worldview and the spiritual worldview to be entirely complementary”.”

    And since Evangelicals don’t, BioLogos should have no other conclusion than that Evangelicals are not of the “One True Faith”, that they are delusional heretics and their sect is invalid. Thus a main focus of BioLogos should be to convert Evangelicals to atheism, or (given that that’d be extremely unlikely), Lutheranism or somesuch.
    But BioLogos doesn’t do that, because BioLogos isn’t actually concerned with science or the natural world, it’s just a christian apologetics group.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted June 28, 2012 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      A catch is that Francis Collins is a mostly evangelical Christian with what I call “liberal loopholes”- notably not a Biblical literalist (many early Christians were also non-literalist). He also does not seem to think in terms of “one true” form of Christianity anymore than his conversion-mentor CS Lewis did.
      Furthermore, he was a trained scientist
      !*before*! his conversion, and so was unlikely to throw out that element of his background, so on some level I suppose he !*is*! “concerned with the natural world”.

  12. Posted June 28, 2012 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    1. I’m not sure how the study defines “scientist”. This post implies that a Ph.D. and an academic, research, or industry position are required. But there are many “scientists” working in government positions, non-college teaching, and other jobs who have a M.S. or B.S.; some of these have more public influence and/or contact than the Ph.D. types.

    2. When asked to check a religion box, some people will offer a cultural identification rather than a belief-based one. My parents (born in 1930s) would check “mainline Protestant” even though they’re atheists, because they identify culturally as WASPs. I have yet to see one of these science/religion surveys that takes cultural identity into account.

    3. From what I’ve seen, most people are reluctant to discuss their private religious beliefs at work (unless they’re proselytizing). In the U.S., legally it’s usually irrelevant, therefore not work-related.

    4. Why do Evangelicals avoid science? It isn’t just the problem of their beliefs being incompatible with science. It is that Evangelicals (and even some mainline Protestant churches) teach that NATURE STUDY IS EVIL. Accurate depiction of nature (such as traditional scientific illustration) is also evil. I’ve lived in four states and have run into this over and over again. I’ve been surprised not to see it mentioned more here. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky. But I’m convinced that the Evangelical resistance to science goes much deeper than their position on any single scientific question. I think that any attempt to reconcile science with their religion (and probably with any religion) is a waste of time.

    • raven
      Posted June 28, 2012 at 9:37 am | Permalink

      It is that Evangelicals (and even some mainline Protestant churches) teach that NATURE STUDY IS EVIL. Accurate depiction of nature (such as traditional scientific illustration) is also evil. I’ve lived in four states and have run into this over and over again.

      I’ve never seen this.

      I live on the West Coast and there really aren’t that many fundies. In my area, there are more New Agers and Pagans than fundies.

      I do know that a lot of fundies actively discourage their kids from going to college at all or going to anything but the glorified baby sitting services called “bible colleges”. They do fear science and education.

      Science is the basis of our modern Hi Tech 21st century civilization and our lead in science is responsible for US preeminence in the world. The fundies might think science is EVIl but really, they are just COSMICALLY STUPID.

    • raven
      Posted June 28, 2012 at 9:45 am | Permalink

      (and even some mainline Protestant churches) teach that NATURE STUDY IS EVIL.

      Not my old mainline Protestant church. It says right on their website that they are OK with evolution, for example.

      Some of the members are scientists and MD’s.

      It really had nothing in common with fundie-ism. Our big causes were world peace and eliminating poverty, not stoning gays to death and looking for Obama’s birth certificate.

  13. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted June 28, 2012 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    It would be interesting to compare this with different religions. Catholics in science, Buddhists in science, observant Jews in science, etc.

    I wonder if the internal coherence of one’s views would have any impact on how one feels about science. I have often felt that some religions are at least !*internally*! consistent, and I have often felt that Protestant fundamentalism was !*not*! one of these to the point where extreme fundamentalism just plain impairs logical/critical thinking in general.

  14. Sastra
    Posted June 28, 2012 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    A common Christian explanation for why so many scientists are nonbelievers is that studying and understanding science makes a person “arrogant.” Those who learn too much can forget to think of themselves as submissive and humble before the Creator. No, they think they’re so smart; they think they know it all; they think they don’t need God. Why, a three year old child who lisps “Jethus luffth me” is far wiser than these uppity folks with all their test tubes and microscopes and book-learnin’. And so forth and so on.

    They’ve got a ready-made strategy to revert to when the “the more you learn about the universe through science, the more you will recognize and revere the God behind it all” line doesn’t work.

  15. DrDroid
    Posted June 28, 2012 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    I was raised in a very religious evangelical Christian family. What freed me? Reading science fiction and learning about science as a youngster. After that religion seemed boring; there was so much to learn about the world and science was the way to do it.

    • darrelle
      Posted June 28, 2012 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      “After that religion seemed boring;”

      Amen! Deadly boring, sanctimonious and egocentric (or should that be homocentric?).

    • Posted June 29, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

      SF — yes! Asimov, Clarke — their worldview changed mine.

      /@

  16. Hempenstein
    Posted June 28, 2012 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    In other words, Noll is highlighting a core principle of theistic science: that the ultimate value of using science to learn about the natural world is gaining a better understanding of the workings of God.

    Yeah. And if anything scientific leads you in the other direction, I guess it’s incumbent on you to lie about it. Like the wackaloons in Louisiana putting the damn Loch Ness monster into their homeschooling textbook to discredit evolution. Or something like that. All perfectly clear.

    “Accelerated Christian Education”. They’re good at oxymorons, too.

  17. Hempenstein
    Posted June 28, 2012 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    It would be interesting to see stats comparing those who obtained their PhD from the same set of elite institutions and opted into industry vs. those who stayed with academia, too.

  18. MadScientist
    Posted June 28, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Why does god hide from the scientists and talk to the imbeciles and the ignoramuses?

    • gbjames
      Posted June 28, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      Inferiority complex?

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted June 29, 2012 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

      Dr. Coyne will be there in a while; it’s 1 Corinthians 2:17-31, especially verses 25-29. It is what I call an “inoculation,” in this case, against being smart, learned, or educated. There are other such inoculations in the bible, for example Colossians 2:8 against philosophy; and indeed, in anti-intellectual pop culture (think of parodying Spock’s “logical, Captain, perfectly logical” as an inoculation against logic, or “lies, damned lies, and statistics” as an inoculation against statistics and probabilistic thinking). These verses and maxims are among the most destructive in the bible (and the culture at large), as they allow the ignorant to pretend that their ignorance is as good as, or even better than, the learning of others. Loathsome, I know, but I was both a victim and perpetrator of such nonsense for many years. Mea maxima culpa.

  19. Posted June 28, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    There might be an answer in different cognition styles. One is called the need for closure. These types of people need closure to ambiguity or uncertainty; taking any answer instead of no answer. The other cognition style is need for cognition. These people like thinking and contemplating things, and are more comfortable with uncertainty.

    It would be interesting to see how many run of the mill Evangelicals have a need for closure cognition style and how many top scientists have a need for cognition style. I predict that Evangelicals score high on the need for closure scale…

  20. Posted June 29, 2012 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    I seem to be atypical. I earned my science degee as a mature student, but I was an atheist long before that. My objections to christianity were ethical rather than factual. I never believed that the Bible was literally true. Even setting aside the Old Testement, I thought Jesus of Nazareth advocated an impractical philosophy tailored for the simple minded, and his end-times prophesies clearly exposed him as a crank. My judgement of Paul of Tarsus was that he was a mysogynist, an anti-intellectual fanatic and a thoroughly despicable bigot. So from my late teens onward, I wanted to had nothing to do with christianity. Later in life, I had nothing to unlearn when I was studying the evolutionary history of the plant kingdom in the forestry department of the University of Alberta.

  21. Posted July 1, 2012 at 4:17 am | Permalink

    There are scientists and scientists,though. The pure scientists such as the mathematicians,physicists and chemists may not have much knowledge of evolutionary processes and for this reason some of them are believers in god. On the other hand, I do not know of any biologists with a religious faith because they know the evidence for evolution is overwhelming. Geologists too, can see that rocks and fossils are more than 6000 years old.

  22. Posted July 1, 2012 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    My hypothesis is that the effect correlates with how much a person’s religious training emphasized authority. Science makes a habit of overturning past authorities when better evidence or theories come along. That would explain the big drop off among Protestants, even bigger drop off among Catholics, and relatively small drop off among Jews.


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  1. […] are less religious than the public at large…considerably so, isn’t a surprise. But why? Sigmund at the blog Why Evolution is True explores the question. Two important facts: 1. Scientists tend to be raised in the same sorts of households as […]

  2. […] Auch interessant: Are scientists nonbelievers because of self selection or because science erodes belief? […]

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