Five Surprising Facts About the Religious Beliefs of Scientists Around the World
Scientists tend to be less religious than the general public. But that doesn’t mean they are hostile to religious faith.
There has long been a prevailing narrative in Western culture that science and religion are in fundamental conflict with each other. As the story often goes, scientists are leading the way into an increasingly secularized era, with science acting as the final arbiter of what is true about the world. But what do scientists themselves have to say about this? A recent study led by sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund seeks to answer just this question. Researchers collected data on scientists from eight different regions around the world—France, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Taiwan, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The study analyzes not only scientists’ personal religious orientations, but also their perceptions of the relationship between science and religion. The results may surprise you.
1. Most scientists worldwide do not think that science inherently conflicts with religion.
As mentioned above, scientists are often seen as champions of secularization and anti-religious attitudes. Ecklund’s study reveals that this caricature is largely unfounded. Indeed, the majority of scientists polled in each of the eight regional contexts did not view science and religion as necessarily in conflict. The ‘conflict narrative’ is most prevalent among scientists in the United Kingdom, with 35% of scientists affirming that science conflicts with, and undermines, the legitimacy of religion. Note that this leaves 65% who do not adhere to the conflict view—and this is in the regional context most prone to the conflict narrative. As the study authors write, “the perception of intrinsic conflict between science and religion, which is conveyed publicly in most of these regional contexts, is only minimally reflective of the perceptions that scientists themselves—often thought to be leading the charge of secularization—have of the science-faith interface.”1 While there may indeed be a secularizing trend in the various regions polled, most scientists are not advocating for rejection of religion on the basis of scientific knowledge or methodologies.
2. Most scientists across the world affirm an ‘independence’ model for science and religion.
When asked how they perceive the relationship between science and religion, the majority of the scientists polled affirmed an independence model—a model in which science and religion deal with different aspects of reality. Stephen Jay Gould termed this sort of relationship “nonoverlapping magisteria”, believing that both science and religion are “an autonomous domain of authority—one dealing with empirical observation of the natural world and the other with meaning—whose boundaries should not overlap.”2 In other words, many scientists respect the independence and authority of religion within its own sphere, while still reserving authority over scientific matters. Perhaps most striking is just how prevalent this view is among scientists; despite the drastic differences in culture, geography, and religious traditions of those polled, the independence model garnered the most support in every region—trumping the conflict view and the position that science and religion should collaborate. This is true even among scientists who do not themselves hold religious beliefs.
3. In some regional contexts, scientists are actually more likely to be religious than the general population.
It is true that in several of the regions polled, scientists were less likely to identify as religious than the general population. For example, only 30% of scientists in the US consider themselves religious, compared to over 60% of the wider population. But this correlation is not universal, and the personal beliefs of scientists vary greatly across cultural contexts. In fact, scientists in both Hong Kong and Taiwan are actually much more likely than the general population to identify as religious. Moreover, over 50% of scientists in half the areas polled (India, Italy, Taiwan, and Turkey) say that they are at least slightly religious—and an even higher percentage in each of these four contexts identifies with a religious affiliation. Again, it is true that the majority of scientists in the Western contexts polled do not consider themselves religious. But when the conflict narrative is so prevalent in cultural perceptions of science and religion, it is important to recognize the major differences among sciences in differing cultural, geographical, and socio-political contexts.
4. Scientists generally do not think science has made them much less religious.
While scientists (particularly in Western countries) are often less likely than the general population to be religious, they themselves do not attribute their personal views to science. For example, the US has the highest percentage of scientists crediting science for making them less religious—but this percentage is only 22%. Indeed, “no more than one-fifth of scientists in any region affirmed the position that science has made them ‘much less religious.’”3 This is especially striking when considering that about half (and often more than half) of scientists in each context had a religious affiliation at age 16—“an age at which adolescents are often first exposed to science.”4 In other words, a great many scientists had at one time identified as religious, and strikingly few of them attributed their decline in religiosity with knowledge of science. This study thus highlights a fascinating feature of secularization—both personal and societal. While the prevalent conflict narrative would suggest a correlation between secularization of societies and secular beliefs of scientists, this is simply not the case. Similarly, one might think that in countries with a particularly large difference in religiosity between scientists and the general population, these scientists’ lack of religiosity would “translate into rejection of and hostility to religion.”5 But again, this is not the case—even in the US, where there is a large gap between the religiosity of scientists and the general public, only a third of scientists believe that science and religion are in conflict. Of course, this raises questions about why scientists are often (but not always) less likely to be religious than non-scientists, if not because of science itself. While future research may shed light on this, the salient point here is noted by the study authors: “it is important to acknowledge that at the individual level and from the perspective of scientists themselves, science does not appear to have a secularizing effect on scientists.”6 Scientists’ lack of personal belief does not necessarily indicate hostility to, or rejection of, religion as a whole.
5. Evolution debates do not tell the whole story.
Overall, this study goes a long way in dispelling the myth that scientists themselves are hostile toward religion or are not religious. This may be particularly surprising in contexts where the public narrative surrounding science and religion has often been focused on ‘hot topic’ issues like evolution. As the study authors note, “although not new, debates about the relationship between science and religion have recently taken center stage…in the United States (US), these debates have taken shape in the controversies surrounding issues such as human embryonic stem cell research and the teaching of evolution.”7 And when a country’s public discourse surrounding science and religion consistently depicts evolution-affirming scientists as being at war with evolution-denying religious individuals or groups, it is easy for public perception to become skewed in a way that does not reflect the facts. In other words, scientists’ affirmation of evolution does not indicate a rejection of religion—contrary to the popular narrative. In sum: “A narrow focus on debates related to human embryonic stem cells and the teaching of evolution may therefore be a poor proxy for how scientists themselves think about the science-faith interface and thus, a potential detriment to public perceptions of science among religious communities.”8 Not only are many scientists religious, but even those who are not religious generally affirm the independent validity of both science and religion in their respective spheres.
This research undermines both the conflict narrative surrounding science and religion, and the assumption that scientists themselves are not religious. At the same time, intriguing questions remain. For example, the global variations in scientists’ personal religious beliefs are striking. Why, exactly, are scientists in non-Western countries more likely to be personally religious and to reject the conflict narrative than their Western counterparts? Surely the answer to this would involve a complex mix of factors including cultural norms, specific religious traditions, and sociopolitical history; at the very least, though, this study suggests that the conflict view is not a necessary one for scientists. Might Christians use awareness of these regional differences to challenge misconceptions about the science-religion interface in Western culture? A further question involves the stark contrast between the prevailing conflict narrative in Western cultures, and the reality of scientists’ beliefs about the science-religion interface. The science-religion relationship is often characterized by strident antipathy, but this is incongruent with scientists’ actual beliefs. Is it possible that science is acting as a secularizing force in spite of the scientists’ own perspectives on the issue? Or, is it also possible that the dominant debates about science and religion (often surrounding evolution) have created an unnecessary and misleading cultural conversation? At the very least, these sorts of questions need to be asked, particularly as the science-religion conversation has been so erroneously characterized.
About the author
Sarah Lane Ritchie
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