FAITH Magazine September - October 2007
THE CHILDHOOD OF ATHEISTS (AND THEISTS)
In chapter 3 of his The God Delusion published last September, Richard Dawkins included a rebuttal of ‘The argument [for God] from admired religious scientists,’ in which he pours scorn on the citing of eminent believing scientists (contemporary or historical) as evidence for God’s existence. “The efforts of apologists,” he says, “to find genuinely distinguished modern scientists who are religious have an air of desperation, generating the unmistakably hollow sound of bottoms of barrels being scraped.” And yet...
In the May 2007 issue of the University of California Press journal, Social Problems, the sociologists Elaine Ecklund (University at Buffalo) and Christopher Scheitle (Pennsylvania State University) have presented their findings on ‘Religion among Academic Scientists.’ In the abstract of the May paper, Ecklund & Scheitle open with the incentive for their study: “The religiosity of scientists is a persistent topic of interest and debate among both popular and academic commentators. Researchers look to this population as a case study for understanding the intellectual tensions between religion and science and the possible secularising effects of education. There is little systematic study, however, of religious belief and identity among academic scientists at eliteinstitutions, leaving a lacuna of knowledge in this area. This absence of data exists at a time when the intersection between religion and science is reaching heightened public attention.” Certainly if the evidence of the many publications on faith by leading scientists in the past two years is anything to go by – books by Dawkins, Collins, and others, that have been mentioned many times in the Cutting Edgecolumn in recent issues – Ecklund & Scheitle are absolutely right that people regard as highly significant what scientists think of religion.
The authors carried out their research by surveying 1,646 scientists in various disciplines taken from 21 of the elite U.S. universities, and conducted in-depth interviews with 271 of them. They had a high take-up in response to their survey, which included academics in the social sciences as well as the natural sciences. They compared religious belief and practice between the disciplines, and between the scientists as a whole and the general population. A prior version of the findings of this research was posted in February by Elaine Ecklund on a webpage hosted by the U.S. Social Science Research Council –http://religion.ssrc.org/reforum/Ecklund.pdf– and it is from the text of this that most of the quotations herein are taken.
Their findings showed that some 34\% of their sample of scientists described themselves as atheist, and a further 30\% as agnostic (3\% and 5\%, respectively, in the general population). A large proportion of scientists (52\%) held no religious affiliation, compared to only 14\% of the general population. They found only small differences between members of the different academic disciplines, although natural scientists were somewhat less religious than their social-science counterparts. However, the crucial part of their findings lay in the fact that it was not the study of science in itself that had generally determined their lack of religious affiliation, but other factors. Elaine Ecklund stated, in her (prior) paper:
“What are we to make of this lack of traditional religion? Is knowledge of science somehow in conflict with being religious? Childhood religious background, not exposure to scientific education, seems to be the most powerful predictor of future irreligion. Those scientists raised in almost any faith tradition are more likely to currently be religious than those raised without any tradition. In addition,
scientists who describe religion as important in their families as children are much more likely to practise faith currently. When compared to the general population, a larger proportion of scientists are raised in non-religious homes. When one considers that many more scientists come from non-religious homes or homes that were nominally religious, the distinctions between the general population and the scientific community make more sense. A large part of the difference between scientists and the general population may be due more to religious upbringing, rather than scientific training or university pressure to be irreligious, although these other possibilities should be further explored.”
In summing up the findings of this interesting piece of research, Ecklund says: “There is some truth to the perception that scientists and the academy are ‘godless.’ Yet, to see the academy only from this monolithic view would overlook the significant numbers of scientists who do identify with some form of faith tradition (48 percent) as well as those who are interested in spirituality (about 68 percent).”
Interestingly, the researchers also found that some of the scientists they questioned were often having to tackle, in their classes, religious questions that once they did not touch on. With the rise of the evolution–creationism debate in the U.S., these academics, even if they did not subscribe to a religious faith themselves, were having to become more aware of ways in which faith and science interpenetrate, connect and harmonise. Ecklund adds an important point: “Scientists often rightly lament the scientific illiteracy amongst the U.S. population. Findings from this research also reveal, however, that a portion of academic scientists may be religiously illiterate.” Certainly it would be the contention of many religious readers of Dawkins’s book, The God Delusion,that Ecklund’s point has great validity in the current debate.