We often hear claims that science and religious belief are compatible because they are concerned about different questions and different ways to know. Even the NSCE (National Center for Science Education) supports this canard. There is also a general consensus that many scientists themselves are often as religious as the general public, so we are left with a sense that those who suggest that science and religion are incompatible say as much probably because of some assumed bias. Thankfully from Elaine Howard Ecklund’s new book Science vs. Relgion: What Scientists Really Think brought to us by Jason Rosenhouse we now have a much better idea of what percentage of various scientists actually believe about central religious claims about the veracity of god compared directly to the public percentage:
Asked about their beliefs in God, 34% chose “I don’t believe in God,” while 30% chose, “I do not know if there is a God, and there is no way to find out.” That’s 64% who are atheist or agnostic, as compared to just 6% of the general public.
An additional 8% opted for, “I believe in a higher power, but it is not God.” That makes 72% of scientists who are explicitly non-theistic in their religious views (compared to 16% of the public generally.) Pretty stark.
From the other side, it is just 9% of scientists (compared to 63% of the public), who chose, “I have no doubts about God’s existence.” An additional 14% of scientists chose, “I have some doubts, but I believe in God.” Thus, it is just 25% of scientists who will confidently assert their belief in God (80% of the general public.)
For completeness, the final option was “I believe in God sometimes.” That was chosen by 5% of scientists and 4% of the public. Make of it what you will.
Also stark is the data on religious affiliations. Here we find that 53% of scientists claim no religious affiliation at all. I was very surprised by that number, since religious affiliation is as much about cultural identity as it is about specific beliefs. For example, when asked for my religious affiliation I always say that I am Jewish even though I am also an atheist. (Apparently I have this attitude in common with a lot of Jewish scientists, fully 75% of whom are atheists according to Ecklund’s data.) This tells me that for more than half of scienitsts none of the traditional religions play any role at all in their identity. It was only 16% of the public that claims no religious affiliation.
From the other side, Evangelical Protestantism is the religion of 28% of the public, but only 2% of scientists.
Again, pretty stark. Religion is poorly represented among scientists, and where it appears it is of a vastly more liberal sort than among of the public generally. It is beyond me how anyone can look at all of these numbers and persist in denying that there is a conflict between science and religion. Of course there is a conflict.
How can Jason reach this conclusion? Because the numbers – regardless of whether or not they are slightly higher or lower – are so starkly and dramatically different. The interesting question is why? I think it is because the theological assertions that back up religious truth claims are highly suspect so the answers they provide are necessarily poorly informed by anything more than the assertions themselves. In comparison, most people who work in a scientific field must inform their conclusions with something significantly more substantive than “because I believe it to be true” so they recognize what a weak conclusion looks like and have come across no compelling reasons or evidence to think of these religious answers are worth believing.