I have now had a chance to read Elaine Howard Ecklund’s new book Science vs. Relgion: What Scientists Really Think. It is worth reading, despite her annoying decision to include social scientists, but not mathematicians, in her definition of “scienitst.” I also did not care for her obvious preference for those scientists willing to talk sweetly about religion, but what can you do?
Most interesting to me were the statistics she gathered regarding the religious beliefs of scientists at major American research universities. The picture I had prior to reading this book was that scientists were vastly more likely than the public generally to be nonreligious, and that where you did find religion it would be mostly of the theologically liberal sort. That picture is overwhelmingly confirmed by Ecklund’s data.
Asked about their beliefs in God, 34% chose “I don’t believe in God,” while 30% chose, “I do not know if there is a God, and there is no way to find out.” That’s 64% who are atheist or agnostic, as compared to just 6% of the general public.
An additional 8% opted for, “I believe in a higher power, but it is not God.” That makes 72% of scientists who are explicitly non-theistic in their religious views (compared to 16% of the public generally.) Pretty stark.
From the other side, it is just 9% of scientists (compared to 63% of the public), who chose, “I have no doubts about God’s existence.” An additional 14% of scientists chose, “I have some doubts, but I believe in God.” Thus, it is just 25% of scientists who will confidently assert their belief in God (80% of the general public.)
For completeness, the final option was “I believe in God sometimes.” That was chosen by 5% of scientists and 4% of the public. Make of it what you will.
Now explain to me, please, how anyone can look at that data and write this:
As we journey from the personal to the public religious lives of scientists, we will meet the nearly 50 percent of elite scientists like Margaret who are religious in a traditional sense…. (p. 6)
This claim, that fifty percent of scientists are traditionally religious, is repeated in the jacket copy. The expression, “religious in a traditional sense” is never precisely defined, but I would have thought that a belief in God is a minimal requirement. With 72% of scientists explicitly nontheistic, and an additional five percent professing to believe in God only sometimes, it looks to me like 23% would be the most generous figure for the fraction of scientists who are traditionally religious.
Also stark is the data on religious affiliations. Here we find that 53% of scientists claim no religious affiliation at all. I was very surprised by that number, since religious affiliation is as much about cultural identity as it is about specific beliefs. For example, when asked for my religious affiliation I always say that I am Jewish even though I am also an atheist. (Apparently I have this attitude in common with a lot of Jewish scientists, fully 75% of whom are atheists according to Ecklund’s data.) This tells me that for more than half of scienitsts none of the traditional religions play any role at all in their identity. It was only 16% of the public that claims no religious affiliation.
From the other side, Evangelical Protestantism is the religion of 28% of the public, but only 2% of scientists.
Here’s another interesting finding:
On the whole, scientists tend to view themselves as religiously liberal. For example, when asked to compare themselves to other Americans along a continuum of religion from liberal to conservative, a seven-point scale on which 1 represents extremely liberal religious beliefs and 7 represents extremely conservative, most of the scientists I interviewed saw themselves as measuring around 2. This means that when they are religious, scientists tend to see themselves as religious liberals. (p. 35)
Again, pretty stark. Religion is poorly represented among scientists, and where it appears it is of a vastly more liberal sort than among of the public generally. It is beyond me how anyone can look at all of these numbers and persist in denying that there is a conflict between science and religion. Of course there is a conflict.
As I have written here before, I am all in favor of religious scientists speaking out about their beliefs. I do not like religion in any form, but if I am stuck with it then it is far better that it be Ken Miller’s sort of religion than Ken Ham’s. If they can have some success moving people to more moderate forms of religion then I am all for letting them try.
But don’t be surprised when so many people reject what they are selling, and don’t blame Richard Dawkins for their lack of success. Evolution poses problems for religion that go well beyond conflicts with the Bible. A thorough appreciation of the scientific method makes it very hard to accept faith and revelation as reliable routes to knowledge. A simplistic notion like NOMA, in which we are expected to segregate our best understanding of nature from our religious beliefs, is not workable for most people. These are just a few issues. Very clever people constrained only by their imaginations can concoct ways around such objections. But there is a big difference between showing that science does not rule out religion, and claiming that there is no conflict between them.
Another one of Ecklund’s findings is that 22% of atheists describe themselves as spiritual. In his jacket endorsement for the book, Ron Numbers cites this as the book’s most surprising finding. Personally I find this neither surprising nor interesting. “Spiritual” is not at all the same thing as “religious.” The term is often used as a way of describing awe and wonder at the mysteries of nature, and does not necessarily connote any supernatural belief at all. Atheists are as capable of such strong emotions as anyone else. Typically, using a term like spiritual is specifically a way to distance oneself from traditional religion.
There is much more to Ecklund’s book than just these numbers, and I recommend it even though I think her attempts to minimize the extent of the conflict between science and religion fall flat. The data alone is very valuable, and I enjoyed reading her accounts of what different scientists had to say about this topic.