Surprising Attitudes Toward Religion Among Scientists

on June 5, 2010

Washington Post: “‘Science vs. Religion’ Discovers What Scientists Really Think about ReligionAn extensive new study of scientists reveals some surprising attitudes toward religion among scientists.

We’ve all heard various perspectives on the science “vs.” religion debate: Are the two incompatible? Can a scientist be religious? Can a religious individual travel by airplane without implicitly declaring faith “irrational”?

Scientists are more religious or open to religion and less anti-religious than is generally caricatured.

What has been missing, however, is comprehensive data on what scientists themselves think. Until now, that is. Rice University sociologist Elaine Ecklund has just published the results of a survey of 1,700 research scientists, a survey she followed up with 275 personal interviews with scientists. Together, the data reveal some surprising results.

Contrary to the expectations set by Richard Dawkins and other anti-religion activists, scientists are more religious or open to religion and less anti-religious than is generally caricatured. For example, of Ecklund’s 275 interviewees, only 5 consider themselves anti-religion. Ecklund explained further:

According to the scientists I interviewed, the academy seems to have a “strong culture” that suppresses discussion about religion in many areas. . . . Some religious scientists did talk about other scientists saying negative things about religion and religious people (i.e., that religion is to blame for low science education among the general public). I found, however, that atheist scientists were generally much more moderate than I had thought they would be. Many do want to be in dialogue with religious scientists. But there are several extraordinarily outspoken atheist scientists who have changed the climate to make it seem as if all atheist scientists are rabid religion-haters.

(More of Ecklund’s findings are discussed at beliefnet). Disappointingly, some religious scientists still harbor animosity toward other religious scientists—e.g., creationists, who were singled out by one scientist who said that we have “polarized the public opinion such that you’re either religious or you’re a scientist.” That’s a strange perspective, given that we’ve been as clear as we can be that creationists love science—but simply have concerns about some interpretations of scientific work.

But that scientist’s complaint reminds us that “religious” is a vague word, and that many religious scientists are not even Christians, let alone biblical creationists. For this reason, we must be cautious about interpreting this study. Scientists who believe in a recent, supernatural creation are still a distinct minority, although that doesn’t mean there aren’t many of them. Nonetheless, the study reveals something Richard Dawkins, et al., would like to obscure: that being a scientist doesn’t require die-hard atheism/agnosticism, and that faith and science can be complementary.

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