Remember a few months back when Kevin Padian was all “The two kinds people who believe that religion and evolution can not coexist are extreme atheists and extreme religious fundamentalists”? Then a buncha people said that Padian (an atheist) was making cracks about atheists, “othering” atheists, &c? Good times.
One of the arguments that emerged from that was just how many atheists really do claim some sort of broad incompatibility between science and religion. In the context of the current fighting over science’s relationship to religion, this is actually not that interesting a question. The same people who insist that all or most atheists reject compatibility of science and religion are the ones who insist that it tells us nothing to look at how many scientists are religious. They argue that what matters is not what people think, but the abstract philosophical merits of their basis for believing what they do. So even if all atheists thought religion was incompatible with science (by whatever definitions of “science,” “religion,” and “incompatible”), they could still be wrong! But still, there was the question of whether calling this group of atheists “extreme” could be considered an insult, or just a description of the current state of public opinion.
At the time, there didn’t really seem to be any data on how common anti-religion atheism was in general, but a new book that’s coming soon from Oxford Press offers some insights. My copy of Elaine Ecklund’s Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, like Chris’s, just arrived, so I’ve only skimmed it for the juicy bits, but the cover promises that it’ll show “[o]nly a small minority” of scientists at elite institutions “are actively hostile to religion.”
And the contents of the book seem to deliver. Ecklund surveyed nearly 1700 scientists at top research schools, and conducted followup interviews with 275 of them. She writes that “a small proportion of the scientists I interviewed who claimed no religion saw it as a threat to science. … only a small percentage (15 percent) of the 275 scientists I interviewed” adopt a “conflict paradigm,” and only “a few scientists…flatly declared that there is no hope for achieving a common ground of dialogue between scientists and religious believers.” For what it’s worth, 34% of scientists were atheists (agreeing with the statement “I do not believe in God”), meaning that even if all the people adopting a conflict model were also atheists, it’d leave more than half of the atheists as not in favor of the conflict model. Then there are the 30% of scientists who said they were agnostics (agreeing that “I do not know if there is a God, and there is no way to find out”).
That most atheist scientists are not anti-religion is borne out later in the book. Indeed, “the majority of atheist scientists and agnostic scientists I talked with were not hostile to religion. Indeed, only five (!) of the atheist scientists I talked with [of 275] were so hostile that they were actively working against religion.” Five out of 275 counts as extreme. Sorry.
I discovered many spiritual atheists, those who think that key mysteries about the world can best be understood spiritually. Other atheists and agnostics were parts of houses of worship, completely comfortable with religion as moral training for their children and for alternative forms of community.
Again, this is not the portrait of atheism generally presented by the Affirmative Atheists (which seems now to be the preferred term to “New Atheist”). It presents a broad middle ground, even among atheists, that accepts religion as a valid part of their intellectual life. And yes, it shows that those who regard it as necessary to attack religion or set it in opposition to science represent an extreme set of views even within the rarefied community of scientists who are atheists.
Like I say, I’m getting this by gleaning bits and pieces from a quick skim. I think I recognize Jerry Coyne as an unnamed “biologist who teaches at a private school (in a state where the majority of citizens go to church more than once per month)” interviewed on p. 129-130, but I could be wrong. Ecklund notes that this biologist “is right that when compared to those in the general population, more of his fellow biologists at top research universities are atheists and are not regular parts of religious communities. He is mistaken, however, that there are almost no theists among his colleagues. (Over 30 percent of biologists at top universities actually have a firm belief in God.)”
A fuller review will follow when I’ve had a chance to go through this and pick through her analysis. It’s very nice to finally have a way to empirically ground at least some of the discussion going on about science and religion. Especially interesting will be her discussion of “spiritual atheists,” a surprisingly large group among scientists that is nearly absent from the non-scientist population.
I suppose it’s unfair to use a book that isn’t widely available to stir this particular pot, but go to Amazon and pre-order your copy! Then we can all fight about it, but with actual data!