What explains differences in levels of belief?

This post explored the wide ranges of unbelief in America, ranging from members of Congress (almost no nonbelievers) to elite scientists (very few believers).  Jeff wonders what explains the difference:

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’d offer a different (or maybe an additional) explanation: insensitivity to the social stigma of atheism.  As we talked about here, atheists are considered about as trustworthy as rapists.  For most politicians, it would be political suicide to admit that you don’t believe in God.  It probably takes some courage to admit it even to yourself, even to someone else in a confidential survey.  But elite scientists can afford to have the courage of their convictions.  They probably have tenure; they work in areas where atheism won’t get them fired, won’t cause them to be shunned by their associates.  They’re not involved in popularity contests.  There’s little downside to saying what they believe.

For most of them.  I don’t know much about Neil deGrasse Tyson, except that he’s a pretty well-known science popularizer.  Here he is trying to explain his religious beliefs:

Clearly the whole atheist/agnostic thing bugs him.  He obviously doesn’t want to be seen as one of those strident, rabid, shrill, baby-eating atheists.  So he insists on the safe, uncontroversial agnostic designation.  Jerry Coyne, naturally, is not impressed.

It only takes two seconds to call yourself an atheist (you don’t have to write a book on it!), and it would do so much to help disbelief become respectable. His distinction between atheism and agnosticism (the former are “in-your-face”; the latter are not) is completely disingenuous: one can be a Republican and not be an “in-your-face” Republican, and so it is with atheists.

Just as one can be a Christian and not be a Bible-thumping come-to-Jesus you’re-going-to-hell-if-you-don’t-believe Christian.

Of course, Tyson may actually and sincerely be an agnostic.  But the video sure makes it seem like it’s more about how he is perceived than what he believes.

3 thoughts on “What explains differences in levels of belief?

  1. So you’re saying that scientists of all levels of stature are really atheists, but only the elite ones with tenure have the courage to admit it? And that elite scientists are “not involved in popularity contests,” but others are? Wow. That’s quite a stretch of credulity, I think.

    On the other hand, I agree that among politicians, there’s *probably* more disbelief than they’re willing to acknowledge, because of the political suicide thing.

    Have you considered that, among scientists, it might actually take more courage to admit to religious belief than to deny it?


    • I wouldn’t say that; I’d just say that the stigma of being an atheist probably keeps some scientists from admitting their unbelief, and that this stigma has less effect on elite scientists.  Purely a theory, though.  I suppose there might be some "reverse stigma" as well.  But that too would likely dissipate among elite scientists, don’t you think?  For the same reason that the stigma against atheism wouldn’t affect them as strongly: They don’t have anything to prove to anyone.  Francis Collins and Kenneth Miller believe what they believe.  


  2. Pingback: Are the New Atheists moving the Overton Window? | richard bowker

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