Sometimes someone tricks me into reading Jerry Coyne’s blog. He tends to trot out the same bad arguments, sometimes it’s worth pushing back. For instance, he recently set out to demonstrate that science and religion are incompatible, in part because of:
the well known data on the greater prevalence of nonbelief among scientists than among the general public. In the elite U.S. National Academy of Sciences, for example, only 7% of members accept a personal God, with 93% being agnostics and atheists. In the U.S. general population, these figures are almost exactly reversed. And, of course, in our BioLogos post yesterday, president Darrel Falk noted that “Evangelicals are fourteen-fold under-represented among the scientists at the nation’s leading universities.”
For every brilliant scientist who accepts a personal God, there are more than thirteen who reject one. Doesn’t Tallmon wonder why that is?
Set aside that Falk is talking about evangelicals, not theists. That’s amusing, but the errors at hand go far deeper. Coyne’s love for this statistic on the religious beliefs of NAS members does him no favors.
First, for the reasons Jean Kazez has pointed out:
What’s really hard to do, if you’re being fair and logical, is both dismiss religious scientists as any evidence at all for science-religion compatibility and also use formerly religious scientists as some evidence for science-religion incompatibility.
If he wants to say that Francis Collins doesn’t prove anything about the compatibility of science and religion, then neither do atheist scientists. And if atheist scientists prove something, then so do theistic ones.
Second, because the questions Larson and Witham used to get those stats on the religiosity of National Academy of Sciences members are weird (not their fault!, they were repeating questions used in the teens and ’30s). The scientists were asked which of these best described their own views:
I believe in a God in intellectual and affective communication with humankind, i.e., a God to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer. By “answer” I mean more than the subjective, psychological effect of prayer.
I do not believe in a God as defined above.
I have no definite belief regarding this question.
Someone can be a theist and still not believe in a God as defined there. Such a person would show up as an atheist in Coyne’s interpretation of Larson and Witham’s study, but would not be an atheist. Larson and Witham even point this out in their 1996 paper, noting a respondent who wrote in the margin: “Why such a narrow definition of God? I believe in God, but don’t believe that one can expect an answer for prayer.” This is far from the standard way to identify atheists, and I don’t know of any surveys that use a directly comparable question. When the General Social Survey asks people whether they believe “There is a God who concerns Himself with every human being personally,” 14% disagree and 14% neither agree nor disagree. That’s far more than the mere 7% who said they “don’t believe” in God or say there is “no way to find out” if God exists, or the 9% who say they believe in a higher power but not God.
This doesn’t erase the difference between scientists and the public, but it does complicate the use of these data. That all but 7% of scientists reject a rather narrow sort of God doesn’t mean they’re all atheists, and we don’t know how many would assert a belief in some more standard definition of God.
There is, another, deeper, flaw in using these statistics about how many National Academy of Sciences members in 1998 rejected belief in this kind of God. Until quite recently, about 90% or more of NAS members were men. I can’t locate statistics on the racial and ethnic breakdown of the NAS, but I’d bet large sums of money that African Americans are under-represented, as are Latinos.
If the under-representation of theists in the NAS were proof of the incompatibility of science and religion, what do these other demographic divides tell us? If Coyne pointed to those trends and claimed that women are worse at science than men, I think he’d have a serious problem, just as he’d have a problem in pointing to the NAS membership to claim that African Americans are worse at science. So why does anyone think this is a good argument when applied to religion?
P.S.: The first round of Larson and Witham’s surveys were conducted while Larson was a fellow of the Discovery Institute, while Witham and Disco’ are old friends. Given Coyne’s usual guilt-by-association approach to the Templeton Foundation, I find his endorsement of Disco.-backed research intriguing.