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Ryan Peter
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Do real scientists struggle to believe in God?

28 February 2014, 07:16
There's a popular idea that I often see that says that the majority of “real” scientists in the world do not believe in God and scientists who are theists are in the minority. I thought it would be an interesting topic to bring up after seeing some of the conversation going down at the blog entitled How to make Religion and Science Agree Debunked Part 1, where Gmitch takes Xfactor to task for trying to make science and religion 'agree'.

Despite the fact that saying that the majority of scientists do not believe in God is one massive appeal to authority, it's not exactly how things are right now – or, at least according to the info I could find on the net.

In 2009 the respected research organisation the Pew Forum conducted a poll to find out how many scientists in America believed in God, or a higher power, and how many didn't believe in either. It's findings – found here – were that 51% of scientists believed in some form of deity while 41% did not. (The rest either didn't know or refused to answer.) In the details, here's what it looked like:

33% of scientists believe in God
18% don't believe in God but do believe in a universal spirit or higher power
41% don't believe either
7% don't know / refused

(These are obviously rounded-off numbers as there is a missing 1%)

Interestingly, when Pew polled the public it was a very different story. 83% said they believed in God, 12% in a universal spirit and higher power, 4% in neither.

What I found more interesting with regards to the scientists is that it doesn't seem like much has changed. In 1914 another poll found similar results – 42% said they believed in a personal God while the “same number [said] they did not.”

In 1996, a similar poll revealed that 40% of scientists believed in a personal God and 45 percent not. Pew says other similar surveys reveal the same results.

That's 100 years and there isn't too much of a change amongst practicing scientists and their beliefs – except for a new category of 'higher power' in the mix. I'll get to that later.

What scientists?

In the article the scientists polled included those in the disciplines of “Biological and medical”, “Chemistry”, “Geosciences” and “Physics and astronomy”. The highest that said they believed in God were in chemistry, the highest that said they don't believe in either a God or a higher power were in the Geosciences. That also had the most of all the scientists that believed in a “higher power”.

Key take-aways from the data

Here's what I see reading this:

1. Many practicing scientists seem to have no problem correlating some kind of theist belief with their scientific work.

This doesn't prove that theism is true any more than the number of atheist scientists prove that atheism is true. It does go to show, however, that science isn't everything and that theistic beliefs and science can work together in practice (unlike what is popularly thought). Effectively, it means that the popular idea that science and theism are at odds is simply not true in practice.

2. Only slightly more scientists in America believe in some form of a God than those who don't (51%) therefore it's not true that theists are the minority. It's actually about equal.

Admittedly, this is America – maybe it looks different worldwide, I can't say. Note that this doesn't make theism true any more than if the numbers were the other way around it would make atheism true. Using the numbers to prove one belief as true over the other is just an appeal to authority and nothing more. It really is more equal than anything else – 51 percent isn't much. (Let's hope that's all the ANC get in the next elections!)

But it leads to my next point(s):

3. Despite what's going in the academia in America, it seems to be having very little effect.

Interestingly, the biggest age group of scientists to believe in God are the youngsters (18 – 34) – 42% believing in God with 24% believing in a higher power. One would expect that the older scientists would be the stauncher theists, because technically speaking the old academia was (supposedly) filled with more theists. I can't know that for sure, it is a guess. But academia is arguably more atheistic than ever these days, yet those coming through those ranks seem to not be affected by that.

4. This may say more about culture than anything else

Given that in almost 100 years the surveys are showing more or less the same thing it may say more about how culture influences scientists instead of science and 'cold, hard facts'. I think the category that's actually going to grow, if American culture continues to go like it's going right now, is going to be that small category who don't believe in God but believe in some kind of higher power. That's because American culture is still a very spiritual one, but people tend to believe in a personal, non-systematic spirituality. Pop-culture reflects this and the rise of the 'nones' as a religious affiliation. It doesn't mean more people are becoming unbelievers, it means more people are becoming “un-affiliators” of a specific system of belief, choosing to create their own personal, individualistic spirituality.

On the public sphere, while a higher percentage claimed they believed in “God” in the survey, I don't believe that means they believe in a Judeo-Christian God. Oprah, for instance, says she believes in “God” but when it comes down to it she believes in something she calls God that really looks much like her own, personal god, that's a bit of a mix between the Judeo-Christian God and Buddhism and Eckhart Tolle's stuff, plus other ideas.

Therefore, for most people, scientists included, science in itself is not really as big as an influence as they may claim – what influences them is culture, and that culture influences their interpretation of scientific data. Of course I'm making unsubstantiated claims, but this is just my thought on the matter based on casual observation, no one has to agree with it. But this is partly why looking at science in itself, for me, isn't going to get one anywhere in deciding on God's existence – you have to also include what philosophy and theology have to offer.
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