Religious belief among scientists

Here are some results of a PEW Research Center study on the religious and political beliefs of scientists:

Statistic #1
42% — Scientists ages 18-34 who say they believe in God.
28% — Scientists 65 and older who say this.

What does this mean? Does it mean that an increasing number of scientists believe in God? Or does it mean that young scientists give up their faith as they grow older? Unfortunately, this study is just a snapshot in time. It would be helpful to see the results of similar surveys done over time, or the results of studies that follow the same scientists throughout their careers.

Statistic #2
3% — Percentage of scientists who are “white evangelicals”.
19% — Percentage of Americans who are “white evangelicals”.

What does this mean? Either we evangelicals are doing a pitiful job of preparing and motivating our young people to enter the sciences, or they fall away from faith once they do enter the sciences. I place part of the blame for both of these possibilities on the dominance of young-Earth creationism in our Christian educational system, whether in our private schools, home schools, or churches. Students are either scared away from the sciences because of the perceived warfare between science and faith, or they are ill-equipped to see God’s world as it is, especially in terms of Earth history. There are likely to be a number of other factors as well.

Statistic #3
Field Believe in God
Believe in higher power
Believe in neither
Biology and medicine 32 19 41
Chemistry 41 14 39
Geosciences 30 20 47
Physics and astronomy 29 14 46

There is not as much of a difference between the different fields of science as I had been led to believe by some other studies. I had thought that astronomers were more likely to believe in God or some sort of a higher power than other scientists, but according to this study this isn’t the case.

In the geosciences, 47% of scientists are in the “believe in neither” category: atheists and agnostics. But at 30%, we theists are not all that far behind, and I find this encouraging.

One more item from the study that I found interesting, though it related to politics rather than religious beliefs:

Statistic #4 — Party affiliation among scientists

All scientists 6 55 32

Some questions:

  • Is there a trend towards increasing faith among scientists, as indicated by statistic #1, or will these young scientists lose faith as they grow older?
  • Why are only 3% of scientists evangelical Christians? What can we evangelicals do about it?
  • Is there any significance to the differences between the various fields of science? Are chemists most likely to believe in God because their science doesn’t have as direct of a relationship to the issue of origins?
  • Why do only 6% of scientists identify themselves as Republican? What can be done about it?

HT: Christianity Today

Grace and Peace

2 thoughts on “Religious belief among scientists

  1. particleman

    Chemist here (PhD, Environmental Chemistry). Some of your explanations sound right, but I think there are some alternative explanations as well. On statistic #2, the influence of the young earth world view is probably more complex. I attended a private Christian school K-12 and was taught the young earth view. In my case, I have to credit the young earth scientists with convincing me I could be a scientist. I saw the Morrises, Ham, and Vardiman give weeklong seminars during high school and it was then I could major in chemistry. However, among parents and teachers one thing that has always stuck with me is that kids who were science/tech-oriented in my Christian high school were encouraged more to go into Computer Science or Engineering programs in college than the natural sciences. Don’t know if that is the result of a young earth influence or simply a monetary influence since they would be pushing kids into the higher paying areas. I would wonder whether some of the evangelical numbers are higher in those areas.

    On Statistic #3 there definitely have been some other surveys that show that Chemistry, Physics, and Astronomy have higher levels of belief than Biology and Geology but most of those are not available for public consumption. I know as a member and a previous chapter officer of Sigma Xi that I saw a survey that said that of our membership sometime in the last decade.

    On Statistic #4, I would also add that I think the numbers are somewhat skewed due to how the survey was conducted. Pew says the survey was conducted online with ~2000 AAAS members. Let me tell you, I’ve held a university faculty position and I am now in a government scientist position, and I’ve met a number of scientists who were republicans of extremely partisan bent. And in every case without exception, they despise AAAS and would never be a member because they see it as a liberal political organization rather than a scientific society. Kind of like those recent reports of conservative seniors cancelling their AARP memberships. Just because you survey the largest scientific organization doesn’t mean it’s a representative sample of all scientists. Mind you, the Republican numbers will still be small, but I would bet the real number is between 15 or 20 rather than 5. I would think that a sample of a wider range of societies (e.g. ACS, AGU, ASM and others) might give a more representative sample.


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