Signs of a Culture Change? Younger Scientists More Likely to Believe in God


One of the overlooked findings of the Pew survey of U.S.-based scientists is that roughly 51% say that they either believe in God (33%) or a higher power (18%) and roughly 30% self-identify as Protestant (20%) or Catholic (10%). The findings cut against a commonly voiced claim by many outspoken atheists that scientists are overwhelmingly non-religious and that a scientific worldview is incompatible with religious belief.

In addition, among the sample of AAAS members surveyed, roughly 2/3 of scientists ages 18-34 say that they believe in God (42%) or a higher power (24%). This is in sharp comparison to their senior counterparts age 50-64 (50% belief) and age 65 or older (46% belief). It's hard to say what accounts for this difference and there are a number of factors probably at play, including wider generational and societal influences. It's also never a good idea to leap to conclusions based on a single survey finding.

One possible influence, that deserves further study, is that within the professional culture of U.S. science (specifically AAAS members), it is now more acceptable to be religious than thirty years ago. This possible increase in tolerance and acceptance of religious faith may be an impact of programs such as the AAAS Dialogue on Science and Faith and the visible example set by scientists such as Francis Collins.

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It seems that another possibility is that the 'New Atheist' claim about compatibility is correct and the young scientists haven't been in the game long enough to discover it.

The findings cut against a commonly voiced claim by many outspoken atheists that scientists are overwhelmingly non-religious and that a scientific worldview is incompatible with religious belief.

Atheist don't deny the capacity of the human mind for compartmentalization. The number of scientists who are religious no more shows a compatibility of religion with science, than the number of scientists who are superstitious or who use homeopathic remedies shows the compatibility of the beliefs behind that with science. Such beliefs are compatible, only so long as they are not examined in the fashion that science requires. Anyone, including a scientist, can hold some beliefs back from such examination. Or at least, shield their own eyes from the consequence. It doesn't change the result when others examine those beliefs.

Matthew, you say "it is more acceptable to be religious than thirty years ago" based on the figure of 42% of young scientists saying they believed in God, yet you haven't indicated the actual figure from that time.
Can you tell us the percentage of young scientists who professed a belief in God thirty years ago?
What about the figures from 15 years ago, before the Templeton funded Dialogue on Science and Faith had begun?
I would also caution against equating a belief in 'God' with being religious. One can certainly have a belief in a non interventionist God that is compatible with a scientific worldview, although this deistic philosophical position is somewhat uncommon.

I'm interested that the lowest age bracket for 'scientists' is 18 to 34: In the UK only a prodigy would earn their PhD before the age of 24 (start university level education at 18, 3 years of undergrad to get their batchelors at 21 and then three years of postgrad for a PhD at 24) and most would be significantly older. Masters degrees are now standard prerequisites for PhDs, many will take a gap year at some point, some will earn their PhDs part-time or later in life, and I'm given to understand that American PhDs commonly last more than 4 years.

All in all, given that some of the 'scientists' surveyed look to have been in their first year of undergrad education (please correct me if I'm wrong here, I haven't seen the actual data or methodology) I'd guess a lot of this trend could be explained by the long observed positive correlation between higher levels of education and religious scepticism.

By Longtime Lurker (not verified) on 04 Aug 2009 #permalink


If that data were available with similar question wording and sample properties, those would be the right comparisons to dig deeper into. As I write the question deserves further study.


Matthew, there are, of course, other possible interpretations to that data point.
Anybody who works in academic science knows the biggest problem faced by anyone entering the field is to achieve long term employment - tenure. At the moment the figures show that only 7% of PhDs will attain this and thus 93% will ultimately fail - or move to another career line. I think this is a critically important point since it provides one important difference between the young scientists and their older colleagues - the older ones have survived the culling process. Belief in religion may not prevent you from entering academic science but it may, ultimately, be disadvantageous to remaining there (one cannot help but be reminded of the survey of religious beliefs of the top scientist of the National Academy of Science).

Looking at the poll's methodology, they found their "scientists" by polling members of the AAAS. While I think it's fair to say anyone who is an AAAS member/Science subscriber is interested in science, not every AAAS member is a "scientist", as most people understand the term (the only members they disqualified were the non-US based and K-12 educators).

I think to draw any meaningful conclusions, the numbers would have to be broken down by category (students vs. PhDs, working research scientists vs. administrators vs educators, etc.)

"The findings cut against a commonly voiced claim by many outspoken atheists that scientists are overwhelmingly non-religious"

Those outspoken atheists you are likely referring to don't claim that scientists are overwhelmingly non-religious, they claim that ELITE scientists are overwhelmingly non-religious. Scientists are people, and everyone agrees that MOST people are religious.

The non-believer group tends to tilt young and male -according to 2001 data for the categories, "no religion" is 58% male, atheist is 70% male, and agnostic is 75% male and the 18-34 group is represented well above it's general pop level in all 3 categories. The age distribution of non-belief in the general population cuts against the "washout" theory, as does the differences in the >34 age groups. Perhaps the driver for the decline in non-belief is due to more even gender representation in the sciences. It's certainly something that's been changing in the relevant time period and the gender distrubtion of atheist/agnostics who would more likely be in the neither column than "no religion" which doesn't perclude a vague belief in a higher power is quite different than the general population. It would be interesting to see the data broken down by gender.

(Reference for stats…)

I'd rather hang out with the geologists, physicists and astronomers than with MD's. Sorry but I've run across a number of MD's who are Jesus freaks and it puts me off immensely.

... or maybe we are prepping for a dumber generation of scientists.

The young are always the most impressionable. They grow up. The survey results don't surprise me, but I'd very much like to see the same youngsters re-polled in ten or twenty years.

By Leslie Haber (not verified) on 04 Aug 2009 #permalink


The gender influence is a great observation, and something worth examining closely. Though in the total sample there is no real difference based on gender, so it would have to be an interaction between age cohort and gender on belief. Again, worth looking at more closely.


I would be interested in knowing how many Quantum Physicists believe in "God" or a "Higher Power" or "Unifying Consciousness" as compared to scientists in other fields.

Wow, what a huge effort to deny the results of this study: They studied people too young to be smart about this. They studied people too female to be smart about this. They didn't distinguish between practicers of religion and mere believers. They didn't ask if people believed in an interfering God or a mere intelligence of the universe. Are these folks protesting too much because they might have to acknowledge an awesome power revealed in study of the cosmos?

People when they are younger tend to share the beliefs and culture of their parents and peers. How many 20 year olds change from Catholic to Protestant, much less to other religions altogether? I suspect a fraction of a percent at most. So it's not surprising that younger scientists are more closely aligned with the larger society and their peers, and as they grow older and more independent they develop their own set of beliefs and identity.

One can believe in a higher power without believing in what is traditioanlly viewed as God, and certainly without being religious. There are many forces in life that we have not recognized much less understood; I willingly assign the unknown to the providence of "God" without believing that God is in any way human-like or that we were created in his image. I find it absurd to follow blindly the beliefs of those who came thousands of years before us when societies were much more primitive and less enlightened, or to believe that certain persons were chosen by an unseen God to be their messenger. So I may not belive in Moses, Jesus or Mohammaed as having been uniquely in touch with God or begat by him, yet I can still find truth and strength in their message.

Julie, I wonder what would happen if we realized that there was "an awesome power revealed in the cosmos". What if this awesome power turned out to be an interstallar species with intellect and capabilites that eclipsed even our understanding, would they still be considered Gods by you, or would youn recognize that we were the equivaent of a protozoa as relates to humans here on Earth? In the billions of years that the universe has existed, it's hard to believe that the brief period of evolution on this planet that has brought us to this point would make us the most advanced beings in the cosmos.