So how religious are scientists in the UK compared to those in the US? I would have thought “a lot less”. A recent study by Elisabeth R. Cornwell and Michael Stirrat (reference and online link below) shows that’s close to being the case, but the differences are small. Michael Stirrat is a research fellow in psychology at the University of Stirling, while Elisabeth Cornwell is the director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation.
The link below (which used to give the entire dataset and some analysis) now has only the abstract, but I have permission to reproduce the original data, some of which I think has already been published in Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion.
Cornwell and Stirrat inquired about religious beliefs of every member of the Royal Society of London having an active email address. That is the UK equivalent of the National Academy of Sciences, as it includes distinguished scientists throughout the United Kingdom. Requests were sent to 1074 members, who were asked to fill out an online survey. 253 of them responded (10 females, 243 males, which is proportional, sadly, to the gender ratio of members). About half the responses came from physical sciences (including physics, astronomy chemistry, computer science, and math) and the other half from biology (including medicine).
The four queries were these (taken from the survey); members had to agree of disagree with each of the statements below:
- I believe that there is a strong likelihood that a supernatural being such as God exists or has existed.
- I believe in a personal God, that is one who takes interests in individuals, hears and answers prayers, is concerned with sin and transgressions, and passes judgement.
- I believe that science and religion occupy non-overlapping domains of discourse and can peacefully co-exist. (NOMA)
- I believe that when we physically die, our subjective consciousness, or some part of it, survives.
Members were asked to indicate how much they agreed with each statement on a 1 to 7 point scale, with 1 indicating “strongly disagree” and 7 indicating “strongly agree”. Thus lower numbers include higher disbelief.
And here are the results, given in Table 1 of the original website:
If you look at the “personal god” category, and lump 1 and 2 together as “nonbelief” and 6 and 7 together as “belief,” then 5.3% of the UK’s distinguished scientists believe in a personal god and 86.6% disbelieve, as compared to 7% and 72% of US distinguished scientists, respectively. Doing the same for immortality (the only other item surveyed in the US and the UK), we find that 85% of UK scientists don’t buy it, compared to 76.7% of US scientists. 8.2% of the UK scientists, however, believe that some part of them lives on after death; the comparable igure for US scientists is 7.9%.
Biologists tended to be significantly less religious than physical scientists: here’s the plot of their answers to the “God exists” question:
In general, then, the level of atheism among distinguished scientists in the UK is on par with that of the US, despite the fact that the U.S. is immensely more religious than the UK. This fact, however, doesn’t answer the question of whether the high degree of atheism among accomplished scientists reflects the conversion of scientists to nonbelief, the fact that nonbelievers are drawn to careers in science or, probably, a mixture of both. (As one reader suggested, this might reflect scientists’ higher level of education in general, though that doesn’t accountfor the difference in religiosity among “elite” versus “regular” scientists in the U.S.
One fact points to the first explanation (my favorite): religious upbringing appeared to play no significant role in the scientists’ current attitudes toward religion. 42.7% of UK scientists were, for instance, brought up Anglicans, and only 20.2% as nonbelievers.
Finally, if you look at responses to how UK scientists feel about the compatibility of science and religion through NOMA, they’re pretty even across all the numbers. That surprises me a bit; I would have thought that more atheistic scientists would be less willing to accept the “NOMA solution.”
I believe the authors are preparing this work for publication, so I’d be indebted to readers if they’d ask questions, make suggestions, and give feedback designed to improve the future paper.
Cornwell, E. R., and M. Stirrat. 2013. Eminent scientists reject the supernatural: A survey of the Fellows of the Royal Society. Social Science Research Network