Religion and Scientists

A friend of mine posted this Slashdot brief on Facebook, which also links to this summary. The articles both imply a much stronger religiosity among scientists than is traditionally assumed, quoting the work of Elaine Ecklund. Some key quotes from these two short summaries are:

  • “Fully half of these top scientists are religious. Only five of the 275 interviewees actively oppose religion”
  • Even among the third who are atheists, many consider themselves “spiritual.”
  • The study reveals that scientists often practice a closeted faith, worrying about how their peers would react to learning about their religious views.
  • The ‘”insurmountable hostility” between science and religion is a caricature, a thought-cliche, perhaps useful as a satire on groupthink, but hardly representative of reality,’ writes Ecklund.

So, when I read this, I thought “Wow! Half of these scientists are religious? Spiritual atheists? Closeted faith? That’s amazing stuff!”. So, as a scientist myself, I decided to look at the study itself. I confirmed what another blogger stated: essentially the conclusions come from some “new math”, and vague statements.

The study included these results:

  • 34% chose “I don’t believe in God,”
  • 30% chose “I do not know if there is a God, and there is no way to find out.”

which equals 64%. So “fully half” must mean “less than 36%”. That’s some good arithmetic! Oh, and

  • 8% chose “I believe in a higher power, but it is not God.”

So I guess religious doesn’t imply belief in God, so it goes in the very vague category. If religious includes a belief in God (and I guess in her book she uses “traditionally religious”), then “fully half” must mean “less than 28%”.

So about 25% of all scientists profess a belief in God, compared to a public of about 80%. That’s a pretty stark contrast! I’d wager that there must be something (or somethings) that makes this negative correlation between science and religion. I think it is difficult to argue that there is not some inherent conflict between the two given this contrast. What about the closeted religious scientists? Those shouldn’t appear in these anonymous polls, and thus do not affect any of these numbers. If a scientist doesn’t want to bring up their religion with their peers, then 1) what does that say about the strength of their beliefs and 2) perhaps the religious aspects of their life are irrelevant to their scientific work. The closeted religious were not mentioned at all in the study, by the way.

Spirituality

In another monograph, Ecklund discusses her work. In it she states:

For many of the natural scientists, in particular,
knowledge of the spiritual comes directly from their work. For example, according to one physicist,

When I travel to observatories…and when I finally just have enough time to try to
think of my place in the world and the universe and its vastness, it’s then that I feel
the connection to the world more than I do, say, sitting here in my office. And so that
for me, that’s the closest I can come to a spiritual experience.

This excerpt and the many others like it show that, for some scientists, rather than science
replacing religion, spirituality may be replacing religion.

In this way, it is possible for atheists to be “spiritual”. To me, I think this is really bad terminology and easily misused. For most people, “spiritual” implies some some “spirit”, or an existence separate from the body. These scientists are making no claim like that, they simply mean a feeling still bound to the biology of our bodies. Unfortunately, by using the term “spiritual” it can be used (as here) to enhance the notion that these scientists are religious, or leaning toward religion, which is misleading at best. A religious friend of mine once recently said that she thought I was spiritual. I thought the term was basically meaningless and ill-defined, and still do.

Religious Scientists

Is it surprising that there are religious scientists? Not at all. Because most of the public is religious, most scientists are raised with some religion. It is also human nature to separate different, conflicting, modes of thinking in different contexts. It is very easy for someone to study superconductivity and not have it interfere or conflict with any of their views of the divine. I’ve written about religion in other posts, and will only add that I believe that much of religion comes from the skills we have to help our survival: it is better to see a tiger when there isn’t one than to not see a tiger when there is one. From there, combine with cultural structures, it is easy to see how religious ideas propagate. The great thing about science is that its methods allow us to transcend these false-positives, and arrive at ways to discern truth from fiction. Because we’re human, it doesn’t work 100% of the time, but in the long run it has been our most successful human creation.

It is no surprise to me that some scientists are religious. It would have been a surprise to me to hear that “fully half” are religious, and as it turns out that isn’t true.

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About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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One Response to Religion and Scientists

  1. Fran says:

    Hi, Interesting blog! On the God/Science topic I like to suggest that if people could escape from the indoctrination of nearly 2000 years of Catholicism and realize that maybe God did not invent all the religions in the world but actually mankind did, we might be able to comprehend a God who is, in fact, his/her own being and not a fabrication of people's imaginations. To do this would mean looking beyond the inhibitions placed on us by world religion and look inside of us because, if we are supposed to be children of a higher being, then we would be vested in qualities of that being. A puppy will always grow up to be a dog, unless it dies in the process of course. Just as we discover truths through our comprehensive investigation of what we know inside and it is like we always knew it, then why not do the same experiment in the God factor. We need to place God on a different level than religion – we make religion, God is God no matter what else we imagine him/her to be, truth is truth, and a million people denying this does not make it untrue.
    I will recommend your blog, it is intelligent (refreshingly so) and topical. Thanks. Fran

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