How religious are scientists?

In response to my post on whether an atheist could be elected president, reader Jeff points to a Pew poll surveying the level of religiosity shown be members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  This study showed that these scientists were about an order of magnitude less religious than the general American public:

[T]he poll of scientists finds that four-in-ten scientists (41%) say they do not believe in God or a higher power, while the poll of the public finds that only 4% of Americans share this view.

The writeup of the poll mentions that this study more or less agrees with the results of similar polls:

The recent survey of scientists tracks fairly closely with earlier polls that gauged scientists’ views on religion. The first of these was conducted in 1914 by Swiss-American psychologist James Leuba, who surveyed about 1,000 scientists in the United States to ask them about their views on God. Leuba found the scientific community equally divided, with 42% saying that they believed in a personal God and the same number saying they did not.

More than 80 years later, Edward Larson, a historian of science then teaching at the University of Georgia, recreated Leuba’s survey, asking the same number of scientists the exact same questions. To the surprise of many, Larson’s 1996 poll came up with similar results, finding that 40% of scientists believed in a personal God, while 45% said they did not. Other surveys of scientists have yielded roughly similar results.

The writeup doesn’t mention that Leuba did another study in 1914 of the level of belief of “greater scientists,” identified as such in the publication American Men of Science.  For these guys, the level of disbelief was somewhat higher — about 53%.  He replicated the study in 1933, at which point disbelief had risen to 68%.  In 1998 Larson tried to replicate these studies by sending a questionnaire to members of the National Academy of Sciences, which is an elected body of distinguished scientists; the authors believe this sample was probably more selective than Leuba’s samples.  For NAS members in 1998, the rate of disbelief was 72%.  The level of actual personal belief had declined from 27% to 7% (the remainder are agnostics).  The authors write:

As we compiled our findings, the NAS issued a booklet encouraging the teaching of evolution in public schools, an ongoing source of friction between the scientific community and some conservative Christians in the United States. The booklet assures readers, “Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral”. NAS president Bruce Alberts said: “There are many very outstanding members of this academy who are very religious people, people who believe in evolution, many of them biologists.” Our survey suggests otherwise.

So, let’s consider samples of 500 people:

1 out of 500 members of Congress doesn’t believe in God.

20 out of 500 people in the general American public don’t believe.

205 out of 500 regular ol’ scientists don’t believe.

360 out of 500 distinguished scientists don’t believe.

I don’t have anything deep to say here; I just wanted to point out the gap between the religious beliefs of elite scientists and those of the general public — and the chasm between their beliefs and those of members of Congress.


One thought on “How religious are scientists?

  1. Questions, questions. Is it better that Congress be in pretty good accord with the general public, or should they be more in accord with a subset of the public–i.e., scientists? (Earlier, you called Congress people “outliers.” But they’re not at all, when compared to their constituency. Only when compared to scientists.) And what does it mean that “elite” scientists have, statistically, different views from “regular” scientists? Are they smarter and more perspicacious about the life, the universe, and everything? Or are they just really, really smart in their own narrow realm? Just asking.

    I might quibble with your assertion that the Pew study shows scientists “an order of magnitude less religious than the American public.” If you view the numbers from the positive side, rather than the negative side, scientists are about half as religious as the general public. Not nearly an order of magnitude difference. Who’s distorting, you or me? I dunno. Lies, damn lies, and etc.


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