Atheism among Anglophone scientists. II. The UK

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:

Picture 1

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:

Picture 2I’m not sure whether this difference reflects the same trend in the U.S.: that is, that chemists are more religious than biologists and physicists.

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


  1. Posted June 4, 2013 at 11:50 am | Permalink


  2. Posted June 4, 2013 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Thanks Jerry for putting this up.

    I would be very interested in any comments on the study… I am writing it up for proper publication and would like the write up to be as good as it can be.

    You can direct comments to me directly on Twitter: @Exp_Behaviour

  3. Alex Shuffell
    Posted June 4, 2013 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Is there a discussion of age? Is it more likely for the older scientists to be believers in some sort of godiness?

    • Alex Shuffell
      Posted June 4, 2013 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      In the linked abstract: “We also found that while (surprisingly) childhood religious upbringing and age were not significantly related to current attitudes toward religion…”

    • Posted June 4, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      The only question age had any relationship with was the NOMA question and it was marginal. The younger fellows were marginally more likely to say there was a conflict.

  4. Posted June 4, 2013 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Thanks for posting this Jerry.

    I would appreciate any comments on this as I’d like to get the write up as clearly argued as I can.

    You can directly comment to me on twitter as well: @Exp_Behaviour

    Michael Stirrat

  5. Posted June 4, 2013 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    JAC writes: “.. 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 agree, but I rather suspect that it is because people with even a little more learning and intelligence than the average, also tend to be more disinclined to “division” and “debate” around issues such as these. Especially in the UK they regard it as “impolite” to state your views too strongly.

    They are, alas, making a big mistake because it will only be used by the NOMA activists to argue their case even more stridently – even to the point of impoliteness.

    Clear, strong and unequivocal rejection of the NOMA notion is the only answer. Keep it up, JAC!


    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted June 4, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

      I wondered if the NOMA acceptance was more to do with a more atheistic society in general where perhaps science is less threatened by these bad ideas and so are more become more accommodating.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted June 4, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

        …and I meant to stutter like a drunk person. Sigh. No it should read “and so are more accomodating”

        • prieten49
          Posted June 4, 2013 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

          “accommodating” was correct

    • Babs G
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

      Second this re NOMA. Someone asked some Brits if they wanted to peacefully co-exist or not, leading perhaps to a degree of confusion regarding the answer. I would have thought this was not a great poll question as the response is not free of judgment.

  6. Diana MacPherson
    Posted June 4, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    It would be good to find out if the respondents lost their belief in a god and if so when this occurred to try to separate out if they are the type of people who tend toward godlessness or if their studies themselves influenced them.

    I’d like to see a similar contrast across all university disciplines to see how godless other areas are — for instance I suspect the Humanities may be more godless than we think….but there would have to be some teasing out of individual disciplines there as well since universities with divinity studies might skew the results.

    • Marcoli
      Posted June 4, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      That was what I was wondering. I suspect that many of the educated godless gradually lost their belief as their education showed they ‘had no need for that hypothesis’.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted June 4, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

        It’s funny because I think there will be a higher proportion who already had godless tendencies and those same tendencies also led them to work in the sciences and probably to higher education as well. I’d be very curious about what the answers would show.

        • CJG
          Posted June 5, 2013 at 7:15 am | Permalink

          This is what I think. I’ve wanted to be a scientist since I was a girl. I can also tell you the only time I ever failed a science class was 5th grade when my catholic school hired a creationist as a teacher (she was promptly fired once they found out). I also remember having a lot of talks with priests and nuns about my “crisis of faith), all in grade school.

          I’m no genius, just a low level biologist (BS), but I’d hypothesize that people who tend to have analytical minds tend towards the sciences and atheism.

          I’d like to see the same questions asked to engineers, mathematicians, etc.

  7. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted June 4, 2013 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    This may be a quibble, but “Immortality” seems a poor label for the question about survival of subjective consciousness after physical death. Or perhaps survival of subjective consciousness is a poor proxy for whatever it is the question is trying to probe.

    One can certainly imagine a religion or fantasy world in which immaterial souls survive death but are not immortal and can be destroyed by supernatural means.

    At the other extreme are transhumanists, who consider themselves hardcore rationalists and materialists, but who would agree with the proposition that brain states can in principle be read out in microscopic detail and emulated on other physical substrates, enabling subjective consciousness to survive physical death by technological means. But again there’s no immortality implied here; such brain dumps aren’t indestructible, and a big enough catastrophe could wipe out all copies of a given individual.

    If the goal was to probe belief in a supernatural afterlife such as the Christian heaven, it might have been better to say so plainly in those terms.

    • Posted June 4, 2013 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      Transhumanism can be seen as an attempt to combine a “commitment” to science with a psychological need for certain “religious” concepts/believes.

      Many people have some kind of religious feelings, but do not reject science. There different ways to solve the psychological conflict, some people choose to believe in ideas such as pandeism (e.g. Bernard Haisch). Transhumanism is another “solution”.

  8. Posted June 4, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    I would like to share a personal experience, as a child growing up in Mexico I attended Catholic Schools in which Science an Religion were taught as part of the curriculum, evolution was explained and accepted fully , while religion was or at least as I understood ,the means from which bible stories were used to teach moral values. There was never an insinuation coming from science teachers that it would be against religion believing in evolution. It was not until I came to the USA almost twenty years ago that I realized this archaic debate was going on, I believe a similar situation happens in other parts of the globe, children have no pressure to choose between the two, that happens much later in life as a part of knowing more and growing up.

  9. Posted June 4, 2013 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    It can probably be assumed that many people don’t really think the NOMA issue entirely through, and others may lean over backward to mollify otherwise kind and pleasant believers.

  10. Kiwi Dave
    Posted June 4, 2013 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Under 25 percent of those asked responded to the survey. How representative are they? Perhaps the non-respondents are uninterested in these issues, but whether that’s true or not, I don’t know.

    • Posted June 4, 2013 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      It’s not an unusual response rate. The pew 2009 study I mention below had a similar rate for scientists polled. There are obviously problems with this but if you check there aren’t obvious skews to the data you can have some confidence in the results.

      Did you think the data looked unrepresentative in dome particular direction?

      • Kiwi Dave
        Posted June 4, 2013 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

        No – only the entirely unsubstantiated speculation that possibly those who didn’t reply might be somewhat apathetic or uncertain and more likely to choose 3, 4 or 5 in their responses.

  11. Posted June 4, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    JAC: “I’m not sure whether this difference reflects the same trend in the U.S.: that is, that chemists are more religious than biologists and physicists.”

    The PEW 2009 seemed to find that chemists > Biologists > physicists. I suspect this was confounded by the fact that when they asked for self-report the category for biologists was actually “biology and medical”. Although the Biology stream of the FRS includes medical I think it’s at a reduced rate and of a different kind… Does anyone else know?

  12. Bruce Martin
    Posted June 4, 2013 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    As a US PhD chemist, I’d say that any chemist could maintain mental compartmentalization and avoid cognitive dissonance with any religious beliefs. But that’s a little harder for biology,and a lot harder for astro- or particle physicists. But medical people can avoid noticing anything even easier than can chemists.

    On NOMA, many people still respect SJ Gould highly (as do I), or might want to show moderation on at least one part of a survey, for balance. But I thought Gould’s NOMA definitions unclear. See instead Aron Ra’s blog tag line. He says science doesn’t know everything, but religion doesn’t know anything.
    So to me, the NOMA idea is useless. But I’d still be willing to agree with it if they would agree that the god talkers only get to talk to and about things that don’t exist. Gould should have said that you can’t answer a why question with a non-fact either.

    • Posted June 4, 2013 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

      I’m really interested in why you think it’s easier for a biologist to compartmentalise than a particle physicist? It strikes me that the endless suffering of natural selection is in more conflict with god belief than the strange of the standard model?

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted June 4, 2013 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

        I’m curious to understand how you came to rate all of the various sciences vis a vis god belief especially around chemistry being easier to compartmentalize since there seems to be talk about their higher religiosity.

        • Buzz
          Posted June 4, 2013 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

          It’s not surprising to me that chemists tend to be more religious than biologists or physicists. Many biologists have to confront the phenomenon of evolution frequently. Many physicists have to confront questions about the origin, structure, and fate of the universe. I don’t know which of these topics is more likely to draw people toward atheism; what I do know is there are not the same kinds of question in chemistry—commonplace questions which go to the heart of what religions claim to teach about the ultimate nature of life and reality.

          • Hempenstein
            Posted June 4, 2013 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

            If the religious were to start telling chemists that they were wrong, the stats would shift.

    • neil
      Posted June 4, 2013 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

      To me NOMA is the equivalent of political bipartisanism. That is, a compromise to attain an end. If one side believes it is right and has evidence on its side, there is no reason to accommodate the other side, other than for political reasons. If NOMA is simply a political stance to win over the “wet” faithists to evolution, then let us recognize it as such, and be done with it. But I do think NOMA contains an internal contradiction.

      • Posted June 5, 2013 at 1:59 am | Permalink

        You’re right, Neil, but the problem still remains that some of the “believers” then still maintain that science does not have the right to ask questions such as “Why are we here” besides “how did it happen”. And then they expect us to accept the answers that they devise to the “why” question.

        That is, of course. totally unacceptable and right there the divide opens up again.

  13. Brian Chandler
    Posted June 4, 2013 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    I really wonder how meaningful these “surveys” are? What on earth does it mean to “slightly disagree” with anything, actually? The existence of a total of 7^4 possible responses lends a totally spurious air of precision, and I would guess that these surveys must select for innumerate respondents. (Personally, I will not waste time on them.)

    A certain proportion of the questions are always incoherent in one way or another, yet typically you are required to have a “strength of belief” in them. In this case there are only four questions: one is decidedly odd — since pretty much a defining characteristic of the supernatural is that it is eternal, how can some “God” have ceased to exist? (And if this question is trying to catch the “life force/woo” crowd, who does it mean by “God”? But the biggest problem is No. 3 (NOMA): obviously in some sense Religion and Science can coexist if they don’t interfere with each other, as I think they largely did when I was growing up in England in the 1960s. Equally obviously, there is a logical problem in thinking simultaneously that life arose by a natural process and it didn’t. (So how many should I score out of 7?)

    I live in Japan, which is an interesting case. Here are some numbers:

    Buddhism: 70-85% [1]
    Christianity: ~1% [2]
    Shinto: “above 50%” [3]
    Atheism: 30-39% [4]

    A total range of 151-175% of the population, not including the “don’t knows”!

    [1] “State of Religion atlas” O’Brien and Palmer, 1993
    [2] General knowledge
    [3] Peters Atlas, Longman 1989
    [4] WIN/Gallup International poll (RDFRS)

    So what is the maximum possible proportion of the population who can think straight, _or_ should we take any of this seriously?

    • DavidIsaac
      Posted June 5, 2013 at 7:34 am | Permalink

      The reason for the sum over 150 percent is that Buddhism does not see itself as being exclusive of other religious beliefs. Many Western teachers of Buddhism are Jewish, many Buddhists are atheists or agnostic, and some Christians may consider themselves Buddhist because the have adopted Buddhist meditation techniques but still believe in Jesus as the son of God.

      Apparently, Buddha was accidently canonized by the Catholic church as St. Josaphat around the 11th or 12th Century (see the Wikipedia entry on “Barlaam and Josaphat.”)

  14. Posted June 4, 2013 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

    That’s an interesting result, Jerry, but as an atheist myself, I wonder why the remaining 821 scientists did not respond? Won’t the religious lobby merely claim that they these scientists didn’t want to to state their belief in a god in a public forum? How do we respond to such a claim?

    • Posted June 5, 2013 at 2:04 am | Permalink

      Good question, but I would like to add that the format of the questionnaire was not exactly user-friendly. The minute you start using a sliding scale on questions such as these, people get tensed up. Rather use only four possibilities to each question: Yes, NO, Maybe and Don’t Know. I could agree to a fifth namely “Couldn’t Care Less”!

      • Susan Ingram
        Posted June 5, 2013 at 7:08 am | Permalink

        If we put the 821 scientist who didn’t bother to respond into the “Couldn’t Care Less” bin doesn’t it blow the whole survey out of the water?

        • Posted June 5, 2013 at 11:51 am | Permalink

          Probably yes, but as it is now, it is going to be clobbered by the “believers”.

          Sorry! But I am on your side – just give us better figures and facts.

  15. Jim Sweeney
    Posted June 4, 2013 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

    The judge in Kitzmiller found it highly significant that a scientist could accept evolution and still be religious. In the U.S., the state must be neutral on religious issues, which implies that teaching science would be impermissible if it was inherently incompatible with religion. Hence NOMA and the proclamations from the NAS and AAAS.

    The fact that really good scientists are almost always atheists isn’t really surprising, since they’re demonstrably original thinkers. If you haven’t managed to free yourself from traditional dogma, you’re unlikely to remain unblinkered by conventional wisdom.

  16. mistertricker
    Posted June 4, 2013 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

    I would have to say that having only 25% of respondents runs the risk of making any analysis worthless. Perhaps those who did respond are, in fact, wildly unrepresentative of the whole? I say this with no axe to grind as an Atheist myself but it does seem to me an unsatisfactory way to gather data for analysis.

  17. mistertricker
    Posted June 5, 2013 at 12:12 am | Permalink

    I wonder how many of the 75% of the Non-Respondants are Apatheists and don’t give a shit? I myself am tending that way due to the utter futility of arguing with the Religious.

  18. Colin Campbell
    Posted June 5, 2013 at 2:13 am | Permalink

    My summary would be as follows: highly capable people will tend to be high achievers and will also tend to be critical thinkers. Those in fields (e.g. biology, cosmology) in which there is direct conflict with religious beliefs or claims will be forced into making an explicit choice by honestly and critically following the evidence whereas those in fields where no direct conflict arises with religious belief are more likely to be able to maintain religious belief for whatever sociological reasons may be important to them. In this sense, I suppose, science is causing atheism (but the effect is modified by the degree of conflict in a particular field) and it should be possible to construct a testable hypothesis such as; the number of claims within a field that contradict religious claims is inversely proportional to the proportion of scientists in that field who hold religious beliefs (controlled for prior beliefs).

  19. TJR
    Posted June 5, 2013 at 2:25 am | Permalink

    Does your analysis only look at one or two variables (e.g. age and subject) at a time, or have you done a full regression-type analysis?

    If you only look at a few variables at a time then it is even more difficult to assess which variables are really having an effect.

    If you’ve not already done so, I suggest a regression analysis, first using standard multiple regression to get an order of magnitude guess at what is going on, then a more accurate ordinal regression analysis, e.g. using the R package “ordinal”.

    • Posted June 5, 2013 at 2:45 am | Permalink

      Yes, this is what we did. We couldn’t ask many questions so the analysis is very limited but FRS are streamed into A Physical Sciences and B Biological. This simple category was the only significant predictor with biological scientists beiong less likely to believe (but very small effect for NOMA).

    • Posted June 5, 2013 at 2:45 am | Permalink

      Yes, this is what we did. We couldn’t ask many questions so the analysis is very limited but FRS are streamed into A Physical Sciences and B Biological. This simple category was the only significant predictor with biological scientists beiong less likely to believe (but very small effect for NOMA).

      • TJR
        Posted June 5, 2013 at 3:38 am | Permalink

        Thanks, good to know.

        Its amazing how often people don’t do this, hence my question.

  20. Posted June 5, 2013 at 2:52 am | Permalink

    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.”

    No puzzle. The US is more religious on average because of the large number of uneducated religious folks, but this is a class of people who rarely if ever become scientists, so their effect on scientists is small or non-existent.

    Probably (even allowing for the larger population) more people play tennis in the US than in Germany, but the number of world-class players is about the same (even though Germany’s population is much smaller). Probably the same effect: there is a group of amateurs in the US which don’t exist in Germany (perhaps the corresponding people are playing soccer in Germany).

  21. Peter Mayhew
    Posted June 5, 2013 at 4:45 am | Permalink

    The third question is actually two questions, which may have affected responses:
    “I believe that science and religion occupy non-overlapping domains of discourse and can peacefully co-exist. (NOMA)”.
    Many scientists, I would include myself in this, may think that science and religion overlap but also think that they can peacefully co-exist. You could get a range of responses depending on how the first and second parts are weighted in the person’s mind. Also the word “can” is leading. Is it possible? It’s hard to totally refute the possibility.

  22. Jack
    Posted June 5, 2013 at 5:38 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure the NOMA one is asking what you think it is asking. I believe that science and religion can peacefully co-exist; I do not believe that “science and religion occupy non-overlapping domains of discourse” accordingly I’d be unlikely to give a ‘1’ to that statement even though I think NOMA is utter tosh.

  23. Katy
    Posted June 5, 2013 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    Re the NOMA questions, I’d imagine the responses are as much to do with most UK residents not really having any concept of conflict between the two things and therefore not ever having considered the question before? We really are far vaguer on religion than the US, until recently we didn’t have your creationist problem and our climate change deniers do not usually come from religion. I would imagine the question meant far less to UK scientists than it would to US ones.

    As for those that do see a problem compared with those that don’t, it would be interesting to have more detail. Younger scientists or those from the US would have come across things like creationism or problems with Islamic creationists whereas older ones wouldn’t. Biologists clearly would have come across it more than others. Without that information it is difficult to tell. But I would imagine that would have more to do with age differences than religious upbringing.

    In general it is difficult to make any comparisons with the US as religion and belief are very different in both countries – and that extends to scientists. We tend to shy away far more from the sorts of extremism you suffer from. Our established churches (both Anglican and RC) tend to be far more middle class, educated and affluent in make up than yours, which to be honest do look to be composed of morons or the disadvantaged. And religion or lack of are considered private things which we assume nobody else is interested in. Hence we do have far less antipathy to religion than elsewhere which might account for the across the board results for NOMA.

    Christianity has declined here through sheer apathy more than anything else. Most of our atheists are atheists due to apathy rather than considered decisions and as long as religion leaves us alone in general we tend to ignore it. Even those claiming to believe tend to avoid letting it have any impact on their lives. So it may well be that the UK survey is as representative of the population as a whole as it is of scientists, whereas in the US it clearly isn’t?

    So I’d be wary of too many comparisons without more detail.

  24. Jason Mead
    Posted June 5, 2013 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    This is extremely interesting.

    I must admit that I am surprised at the even spread of results for the last few questions.

    This strongly indicates an intellectual inconsistency – ideas and principles that have not been thoroughly thought-through showing the type of pattern one normally finds when students give random answers in an examination.

    I imagine that is because many scientists, like most people, compartmentalise.

    There is the well known problem of specialisation in science and, similarly, scientists may not consider the full implications of the work they do in their particular fields might have on other areas of life.

    The crisis of specialisation can be over come when scientists are able to extrapolate what they know beyond their immediate area of expertise and great discoveries can be made on the back of that – if anyone wants an example then I would recommend reading Chaos: making a new science by James Gleick:

  25. Ralf
    Posted September 29, 2013 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    and here is the christian POV about such statistics … (facepalm!) –>

    i am truely baffeled people still believe in a “higher entity” or power … mumbo-jumbo

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