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What Do Scientists Believe?

I attended an extremely interesting discussion last night, sponsored by the Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER) group within AAAS, entitled "What Do Scientists Believe?" The discussion was led by Elaine Howard Ecklund of Rice University, author of the recent book "Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think," and Barbara Bradley Hagerty of NPR, author of last year's NYT's bestseller, "Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality," which I reviewed last year.

Ecklund, a sociologist, presented the results of her recent study of the spiritual and religious beliefs of scientists. The complete results can be found in her book, published earlier this year by Oxford University Press, but she shared with us some of her very interesting data. The study ran from 2005-2008 and she surveyed 2200 US university scientists at what she referred to as "leading" universities (such as Harvard, Stanford, etc.) Her survey produced an astonishing 75% return rate for her questionnaires and she followed up with 275 in-depth interviews.

The basic results show that an astounding 70% of those surveyed considered themselves either religious (50%) or spiritual (20%) while only 30% of these scientists consider themselves secularists. This latter group includes atheists, agnostics and a large number of scientists who say they know nothing about religion and don't think about it much.

Ecklund used diverse indicators for religious and spiritual beliefs and activities and surveyed both religious and non-religious scientists. She believes the group who self-identify as "spiritual" is an interesting new demographic, often finding their spiritual experience to be centered in nature rather than an abstract concept of God.

Her book contains more complete data and analysis (and I have it on order already!) but here are a few tidbits I scribbled into my notebook as she talked:
  * Among the 30% of scientists who call themselves secularists, many say they felt religion had "let them down" as young people when they asked hard questions, so they felt they had to leave in order to pursue the truth.
  * 13% of these secularists were raised in households where religious activity was not important; Ecklund found that scientists are three times more likely to be raised in homes where religion did not play a large role.
  * Only 2% of scientists in the 50% "religious" group say they are evangelical Christians; this contrasts starkly with the rate in the general US population, where 28% self-identify as evangelicals.
  * Similar disparities are found for Catholics: only 9% of scientists say they are Catholic vs. 27% of the general population.
  * The percentage of religious scientists who identify with mainline protestant views is almost identical to the percentage in the general population.
  * The Jewish faith is well-represented among scientists: 16% of those surveyed say they practice the Jewish faith, whereas only 2% of the general population does.

There were many more interesting results, but things really got going when Hagerty joined in the discussion and the floor was opened up for questions. We learned, among other things, that the percentage of religious journalists is almost identical to that of scientists, so the two groups are a lot alike. Hagerty pointed out that her profession of journalism may be largely responsible for the perception that science and religion are "at war" since journalists love a story with controversy and help inflame this war by focusing on statements of the four leading atheist writers, who she amusingly kept referring to as "The Four Horsemen."

The results from Ecklund's in-depth interviews were especially poignant. She found that scientists who are members of religious communities almost never discuss science in those communities. They have difficult experiences struggling with certain tenets of their faiths and often practice a "secret science," as she referred to it. Hagerty and Ecklund both agreed that this produces a perception that there are no religious scientists, a perception that this new data obviously refutes.

A common sentiment voiced by those interviewed was "To say I am religious might mean other scientists will question my work." There are, though, a few scientists that Ecklund has dubbed "Boundary Pioneers" who are open about their beliefs; Francis Collins was widely cited as one of these "boundary pioneer" scientists who is admired by both non-religious scientists and those who are religious and/or spiritual.

Collins is open enough, in fact, that we know he is an evangelical Christian and, therefore, in a small minority group (2%) of religious scientists. I wonder what it would be like if some thought leaders among scientists who are more like their peers were to begin speaking out about their beliefs.

I'm still processing my own feelings about this data, but the overarching one I walked away with was one of extreme excitement that I was actually much more ordinary than I had ever thought. For years and years I assumed I was the only scientist among all my colleagues who had a deeply-satisfying religious and spiritual life and I still, to this day, find it extremely difficult to say, out loud, specifically what I believe. For one thing, what I believe seems to be constantly changing, and my identification with and participation in religious activities also shifts over time. I have, in short, been looking for a spiritual home--but maybe, now that I've heard these data, I'm finding that I've always been home, among my own kind, and never even knew it since most of us scientists never talk with each other about our beliefs.

Years ago, I attended a life-changing workshop session at a faculty retreat entitled something like "On Becoming Whole in the Academy." The session was led by my now very-dear friend, Holly Stocking, who I did not know at the time. Holly, at the time a professor of journalism, skillfully led us into an intimate discussion and we were soon sharing with each other truths about our lives that we felt we had not been able to reveal to any of our colleagues.

I will never forget the story shared by one group member, a woman who, like me, was a Chemistry professor at one of the regional campuses in our large university system. She was also, it turned out, a nun and had been a live-in member of a religious community, in other words a convent, for all the decades she'd been a faculty member--and yet none of her colleagues knew this.

Her story was devastating to many of us. How awful it must have been for her to hide such a hugely significant aspect of her life. How awful it must be for all those scientists, that huge 70% majority of us, who think we are the only ones who have a religious or spiritual life. How awful it is for the world that so many scientists don't share their faith and passion, in all its manifestations, with others.

And how wonderful it is, thanks to science itself through Ecklund's sociological research, many of us will now know that we are not alone. We have each other and, as it turns out, there are lots and lots of us.


  1. Fascinating stuff! This is extremely useful for those of us who were not there. Thanks!

    Was there discussion of the hard-core atheist types in science, like the people who went after Collins when he was nominated to be NIH Director? It was pretty scary to see ostensibly "liberal" minded people openly calling for someone to be rejected for a high-profile government appointment on the basis of his religious beliefs.

  2. Yes, there was discussion about the ones who write a lot and are cited frequently (Dawkins and etc). These are the ones Barbara kept referring to as "The Four Horsemen." Elaine pointed out that there are less than 5 people writing about this and they get a lot of press, making it sound like there are more than there are.

    The other point made (I forgot to include this, but my post was pretty long anyway!) was that people who write blog comments and etc are often not themselves scientists and don't even seem to know much science. This was very distressing to many in the audience, who thought the views of the scientific community were being mis-represented.

    Thanks for dropping by!

  3. Raima, I am not a scientist, but I ::heart:: science. Neither am I a theologian, but I ::heart:: God. Honestly, I don't understand the struggle. It seems to me that a few in each circle make it difficult for the rest of us. Years ago when I heard that electrons disappear, and later with M theory, string theory, & parellel universes could actually be a reality, for my faith I jumped up and down and thought perhaps this is the answer to "Where is Heaven?". Religious folk whe want to claim the Devil buried Dinosaur bones to lead us into sin and Scientist & journalist who say that bacteria that utilize arsenic instead of phosophorus means that there isn't a God both make me very very sad. If in the end I'm wrong about God, then I'll return to the stuff of stars. If I'm right about God, well, just how wonderful will that be. Keep up your work, Keep exploring and questioning. You do good work.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Pam, and for the encouragement! I certainly agree with you that there is no real conflict between religious belief, spiritual practice and scientific study and many of us are comfortable having all of these hold a high position in our lives and work. I think the results that Elaine found will dispel the common notion that scientists are all atheists. This is the impression you get from media coverage, but the data don't seem to support that view at all. I find her results very encouraging!

    BTW, whoever drew the conclusion that, because some bacteria can seemingly use arsenic instead of phosphorus, there is no God is seriously over-stepping the usual and normally-accepted limits of drawing scientific conclusions! Such a small view of God...and such a misrepresentation of science! I agree with you: very sad to hear this claim.

  5. I enjoyed your post thoroughly, Raima!

    Your account reminded me of our dear friend, Jon Barwise. Jon was a distinguished professor at IU, one of our Super Professors with joint appointments in philosophy and cognitive science and a worldwide following. Jon was intuitive in a way that allowed us to easily bond, but when he developed the cancer that would kill him,he began to wake up in a more conscious way to non-academic ways of knowing. As his illness progressed, he found it very sad that it had taken a grave illness to alert him to realities that few of his professional colleagues talked about. There are lots of labels for these "other" realities -- spiritual, religious, intuitive...but whatever the name, they point beyond the material world that mesmerizes so many of us.

    Personally, I believe science will one day catch up with some of these realities. In the meantime, I hope that studies like this one will prompt many more people in the academic world to share their personal experiences and beliefs in ways that both Jon and the nun who told us that devastating tale of silence, would have deeply appreciated.

    Thanks so much for sharing what you have learned. What a joy to discover you are not alone!

  6. OK, here's another question: was there any discussion about the new research on "retro-causation"? I haven't been following this at all, but suddenly there is buzz about a paper coming out by Daryl Bem in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology on "Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect." Oh, I just found the entire article in pdf format online: In the conclusion of the article, Bem says that anyone who rejects the results he is reporting on is acting like the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland, who snorted, "One can't believe impossible things." This could get interesting .....

  7. No, that topic didn't come up, but thanks for the pointer (and the article) - I'll take a look. Sounds very interesting! I don't know if all meetings of this AAAS group are like this, but the discussion the night I went to this talk did not get into anything resembling a debate. It was almost totally focused on the people involved and their experiences. A nice change of tone, IMHO!

  8. Oh, and I forgot to respond to Holly! Thanks for recounting that story about your friend, Jon. So sad and poignant, but I'm happy that you were there for him at the end of his days. I think it is often the case that illness is what forces us to look deeper into the truth about our own lives. Sad but so, so true!

  9. I agree. There are time for debate, but then there are times for people to share ideas and experiences without being on the defensive (or the offensive). Debates mostly harden people's positions, unfortunately.

  10. OMG Raima, what an amazing and interesting post. Thank you so much for sharing what you learned! This strikes a particular nerve for me, since through my entire life I have REALLY struggled with my spiritual beliefs. I can honestly say that during my early years (and tears) of chemistry studies in graduate school, I was thoroughly driven by the fact that the answers to life and God were rooted in science. I was determined to find a path to figure them out. But then graduate school “got in the way” for me and I was distracted by life, career, etc.
    Being brought up in a very staunch Catholic environment, without the freedom to question the “teachings”, in my adult life I have journeyed deeply in and out of my Catholic religious/spiritual faith (more than once) and explored numerous other religious and spiritual doctrines over the years. I have simply come to terms with the fact that there is no *one* perfect view of this topic that works for me, personally.

    I believe that what humans refer to as the characteristics of God can be captured through biblical stories, that can help demonstrate ideal human behavior (i.e Jesus, as the ideal example of love). However, in my own heart, I believe there is an underlying mysterious and very powerful force that exists all around us. To me, this is what we can refer to as God, if we want (and admittedly, I do myself for ease of discussion), and that this force drives the very source of action or inactivity in this world. Both in human behaviors and non-human life processes. And, I believe that all the processes that occur (or not), and the scientific answers we seek to understand are driven by that force (of “God”).

    As I see it, scientists are constantly working to leverage and understand that force for the greater good of our entire universe [well, the non-evil ones ;-)]. As my ”unrealistic optimism” seeps into this post, I still believe that discoveries in science will continue to enlighten us in this regard….and can’t come soon enough in my book!

    Finally, a 75% responses rate?? Holy mackerel!!!!! My best ever has been a mere 45% response rate. ☺ Thanks again for your awesome post.


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