Are scientists believers?

Along with the modern claim, so widespread in society, that ‘Science has disproved God,’ comes a complementary assertion that ‘Scientists don’t believe in God.’ Is this true? Well, that’s what this book, Secularity and Science, sets out to answer, in a thorough-going 8-year academic study of 20,000 scientists from the world over. Previous studies of the religious beliefs of scientists have tended to concentrate on those working in Western nations. This study specifically aims to provide a corrective to that inbuilt bias, by focussing on eight countries, four in the West (US, UK, France and Italy) and four in the East (Turkey, India, Hong Kong and Taiwan).

The bulk of the book consists of chapters — one for each of the eight countries (though Hong Kong and Taiwan are treated in one chapter) — giving an extensive discussion of the study’s results in each country, highlighting its individual religious demographic and culture, and presenting the relationship of scientists to religious faith. The authors are interested not only in the personal faith of these scientists, but also in how and if that faith, or lack of it, affects their work, how they present themselves at work, and their career prospects within the scientific field. Also, they examine what is the most commonly perceived interrelation between religion and science (e.g. ‘conflict,’ ‘co-operation,’ ‘independence’). The prose of this book, whilst readable enough, is necessarily academic in its tone, presenting the study’s results, topic by topic, country by country. And although the specifics of the survey design and data analysis are confined to lengthy appendices, this book is unlikely to be a cover-to-cover read except for those researching in this field.

Four claims

However, the introductory chapter gives a clear overview of the main conclusions of this extensive project. There are four “big claims” (pp. 8–10) made by the authors as the key findings of their research:

1. Around the world, there are more religious scientists than we might think:

“When we examine the religious characteristics of the scientific community on a global scale, we find that a significant proportion of scientists can be characterized as having religious identities, practices, or beliefs.”

2. Scientists — even some atheist scientists — see spirituality in science:

“This spirituality [is] sometimes described in their own terms through notions like awe, beauty, and wonder, found in the experience of discovery in science.”

3. The conflict perspective on science and religion is an invention of the West:

“When we talk with scientists around the world, we see most have a different view [i.e. not ‘conflict’] of the relationship between science and religion that has an impact on how religion interacts with their scientific work.”

4. Religion is not kept out of the scientific workplace:

“... you’ll meet scientists who talk about religion, accommodate religion, make arguments in support of religion and its collaboration with science, or strongly and resolutely call for the separation of science and religion.”

Elaborating on that a bit, a ‘snapshot’ conclusion, quoted from the final chapter (ch. 10) of the book tells us, for example that:

[S]cientists, globally, are more religious than many people are led to believe. We found that in Italy, Turkey, India, and Taiwan a majority of scientists identify with a religious tradition, and more than half of scientists identify as at least “slightly religious.” In the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Hong Kong, approximately a third of scientists are religiously affiliated. A substantial proportion of scientists across the regions we studied pray frequently and attend religious services regularly. Two-thirds of scientists in Turkey, one-quarter of scientists in India, and 10 percent of scientists in the United States and the United Kingdom say they have “no doubt” about God’s existence. (p. 199)

Conflict vs. Collaboration

The authors of the survey identify an East–West divide in their findings, namely that in the four countries of the East there is stronger adherence to the ‘collaborative’ view of science–faith relations, whilst in the West there is higher evidence for the ‘conflict’ view, even though in every nation studied the ‘independence’ of faith and science is the most popular answer. Their assessment is that “non-Western religious traditions seem to possess doctrinal and theological ideas that are more conducive to a collaboration view” and that “non-Western religious traditions might have a special relationship with science that leads adherents to see ways that science and religion can support one another” (p. 200). However, this is partly because there are
strong elements of pantheism in e.g. Hinduism, so that those adherents would see their ideas of ‘god(s)’ and nature/science as in fact somewhat overlapping. The study’s authors admit that there are “groups of Christians who think science and religion can, under certain conditions, collaborate in some way” (p. 200), but they do not elaborate this point — it is a shame that they do not pursue this discussion, because this is the very root of the issue.

A long way to go

Perhaps of particular interest to readers of Faith magazine is the chapter on Italy’s scientists, since this is the most-Catholic country studied, where the vast majority not only of the population, but of scientists too, adhere to Catholic patterns of thought, even if often more culturally than evangelically. But whilst in the authors’ study of Italy they found a fairly low incidence (22%) of the ‘conflict’ mentality re faith and science, yet they also found very little evidence for an integral ‘collaborative’ outlook either (16%). So, sadly, in common with most of the rest of the nations studied, an ‘independence’ of faith and science is the dominant key here too. This just goes to prove, perhaps, that the Church still has such a long way to go to disseminate its important and orthodox doctrine that science and faith are inherently interlinked in God’s Wisdom and Reason personified — the very source of rationality, order, and law in the material universe — the Logos who is Jesus Christ, “through whom all things were made.”


University Press
£18.99 (Hardback)
£16.66 (Kindle)

Faith Magazine

September - October 2021 2021