Leading Scientists Still Reject God

The popular media balyhoo the fiction that science is supportive of religion. A recent issue of Newsweek (July 20, 1998) featured a cover story "Science finds God" which gave many innocent readers the impression that scientists in droves were finding scientific "evidence" allowing for God and an afterlife and were jumping on the religion bandwagon. Some of these 1998 reports were stimulated by a June 1998 Science and the Spiritual Quest Conference organized by Robert John Russell, and sponsored by The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS) at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Since this is an organization devoted to the reconcilation of science and religion it's no surprise the the speakers were supportive of the idea of the possibility of god and/or an afterlife, though some of the papers were so speculative and abstruse that it's hard to tell whether they were profound philosophy or mere moonshine. One wonders whether some speakers came just for the stipend provided by the John Templeton Foundation. Several Nobel-Prize winning scientists gave papers at this meeting. The papers were mostly philosophical and speculative. No new hard evidence was produced. News reports failed to put these wishful speculations in perspective by pointing out that most scientists are, in fact, not religious. And the percent of "leading" scientists who hold religious beliefs has been declining from around 30% in 1914 to less than 10% in 1998. Wayne Spencer, editor of The Skeptical Intelligencer (a publication of the Association for Skeptical Inquiry) has provided me with this summary of an article in the journal Nature which documents this fact.

[Links to the CTNS are provided above, but this does not mean that I in any way endorse the opinions expressed at those web sites. For a detailed critique of these bogus science rationalizations, see Victor Stenger's excellent Has Science Found God?, a draft of an article for Astronomy magzaine. For a broader perspective on the science/religion questions, see these Religion and Philosophy links and these Science, Religion and Philosophy links. I also highly recommend Michael Koller's Essays on Science, Philosophy, and Religion. Also see the skeptic links on my web page.] — Donald E. Simanek.

[Summary of a paper that appeared in the 23 July 1998 issue of Nature by Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham: "Leading Scientists Still Reject God." Nature, 1998; 394, 313.]

Larson and Witham present the results of a replication of 1913 and 1933 surveys by James H. Leuba. In those surveys, Leuba mailed a questionnaire to leading scientists asking about their belief in "a God in intellectual and affective communication with humankind" and in "personal immortality". Larson and Witham used the same wording [as in the Leuba studies], and sent their questionnaire to 517 members of the [U.S.] National Academy of Sciences from the biological and physical sciences (the latter including mathematicians, physicists and astronomers). The return rate was slightly over 50%.

The results were as follows (figures in %):

     BELIEF IN PERSONAL GOD          1914   1933    1998

     Personal belief                 27.7    15       7.0
     Personal disbelief              52.7    68      72.2
     Doubt or agnosticism            20.9    17      20.8

     BELIEF IN IMMORTALITY           1914    1933    1998

     Personal belief                 35.2    18       7.9
     Personal disbelief              25.4    53      76.7
     Doubt or agnosticism            43.7    29      23.3
Note: The 1998 immortality figures add up to more than 100%. The misprint is in the original. The 76.7% is likely too high.

The authors elaborated on these figures:

Disbelief in God and immortality among NAS biological scientists was 65.2% and 69.0%, respectively, and among NAS physical scientists it was 79.0% and 76.3%. Most of the rest were agnostics on both issues, with few believers. We found the highest percentage of belief among NAS mathematicians (14.3% in God, 15.0% in immortality). Biological scientists had the lowest rate of belief (5.5% in God, 7.1% in immortality), with physicists and astronomers slightly higher (7.5% in God, 7.5% in immortality).
Larson and Witham close their report with the following remarks:

As we compiled our findings, the NAS issued a booklet encouraging the teaching of evolution in public schools.... The booklet assures readers, 'Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral'. NAS president Bruce Alberts said: 'There are many very outstanding members of this academy who are very religious people, people who believe in evolution, many of them biologists.' Our survey suggests otherwise."
There is a review of earlier studies of the religiosity of scientists at pp 180ff of:

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi and Michael Argyle. The Psychology of Religious Behaviour, Belief and Experience. London & New York: Routledge, 1997. ISBN: 0-415-12330-5 (hbk) or 0-415-12331-3 (pbk).
On the subject of eminent scientists, they mention unpublished data collected by one of the co-authors: "Beit-Hallahmi (1988) found that among Nobel Prize laureates in the sciences, as well as those in literature, there was a remarkable degree of irreligiosity, as compared to the populations they came from." The reference is to: Beit-Hallahmi, B. (1988). The religiosity and religious affiliation of Nobel prize winners. Unpublished data.

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