Bloodhound Sigmund is on the BioLogos case again. Here, stimulated by some artwork and comments at BioLogos, he analyzes the question of why so many scientists in the U.S., compared to the general populace, are nonbelievers. His conclusion is that science actually erodes belief in God. I find that plausible simply because it’s happened to me, and I’ve also seen it happen to many of my peers. That erosion is also a factor suggested in the Fishman paper about science vs. the supernatural that I cited yesterday.
Why are there so few Christians in Science?
BioLogos, whose new slogan appears to be, “Harmonizing Science and Conservative Christianity” (isn’t that the job of Conservapedia?) has recently published a series of posters aimed at the Evangelical Christian community. The most recent, entitled: “Are you there, God? It’s us, SCIENTISTS”, highlights an issue that is clearly troubling the BioLogos team: why are there so few Evangelical scientists?
Here’s that poster; click to enlarge:
BioLogos President Darrel Falk, explaining the advantage of gaining a better knowledge of the natural world, quotes Christian historian Mark Noll:
“As described in the Gospels, individuals who wanted to learn the truth about Jesus had to “come and see.” Likewise, to find out what might be true in nature, it is necessary to “come and see.”
While Noll doesn’t view evidential observation quite as valuable as scriptural teaching, he does suggest it has an important role in helping us to understand the world:
“coming and seeing” is still the method that belief in Christ as Savior privileges for learning about all other objects, including nature. This privileging means that scientific results coming from thoughtful, organized, and carefully checked investigations of natural phenomena must, for Christ-centered reasons, be taken seriously.”
In other words, Noll is highlighting a core principle of theistic science: that the ultimate value of using science to learn about the natural world is gaining a better understanding of the workings of God.
Well, if that really is the case, then science itself should pose no problem to Evangelicals. They should, as BioLogos founder Francis Collins claims: “find the scientific worldview and the spiritual worldview to be entirely complementary”.
And yet the figures for Evangelicals in science suggest something different. As Falk notes:
“In the study reported in the accompanying infographic, evangelical Christians are represented in the sciences at one seventh of the frequency of their representation in American society as a whole. In the nation’s most elite institutions, the situation is even more extreme. Elaine Ecklund’s recent study shows that evangelical Christians are fourteen fold under-represented in the sciences in the nation’s most elite universities.”
In other words, Evangelical Christians, who make up approximately 28% of the US population, constituted only 4% of the scientists in a study of 20 “elite” US universities published by Ecklund and Scheitle in 2007.
On the other hand, atheists and agnostics, who comprise a combined 4% of the US population according to the BioLogos chart, make up 28% of US scientists. In the elite group of scientists studied by Ecklund and Scheitle, the figure is even more dramatic, with just over 62% of scientists being atheist or agnostic: a remarkable 15.5 fold increase compared to the US population at large.
So why the discrepancy?
Two explanations have been suggested. The first is that science has, in the past, been associated with a nonreligious world view and therefore those of an atheistic or agnostic nature may be drawn to science. In other words, nonbelieving elite scientists are predominantly those who were raised in nonreligious backgrounds.
The alternative explanation is that an increase in scientific knowledge leads many to the conclusion that religion is false and scientists will thus tend to lose the faith in which they were raised and become nonbelievers.
One way to discriminate between these alternatives is to ask the question: “Were you raised in a religious or a nonreligious household?”
In fact a question of this type, in which the authors compared the current religious affiliation of scientists to that of their childhood, was posed in the Ecklund and Scheitle study. The results, shown in Table 4 of their paper (below), revealed that while the majority of elite scientists had no current religious affiliation, 86.6% of scientists were raised in homes which DID have a religious affiliation. This is pretty close to the general US population figure of 91.6%.
So scientists do not predominately come from nonreligious backgrounds. But is it exposure to science that raises the level of nonbelief amongst scientists?
If that was the case, what might we expect to see in the data? One factor that provides some evidence in this regards is the age of the scientist. Science is not a career in which people, for the most part, are free to choose at any age. The vast majority of career scientists go through the standard route of degree, PhD, and then a more permanent position in research, teaching or industry; it is very rare that someone becomes a career scientist in middle or old age. Therefore, the age of a scientist can be seen a good marker of how long they have been working in science.
So what effect does length of time working as a scientist have on religious belief?
As the BioLogos figure demonstrates, there is a clear inverse correlation between the age of scientists and their belief in God. Younger scientists, 18-34 years of age, are far more likely to believe in God (42%) than scientists of over 65 years of age (28%). Likewise nonbelief in God is much higher in the older group (48%) then the younger (32%).
This result is unlikely to be due to a cohort effect, since belief in God in most populations has decreased rather than increased in recent years with the elderly showing the highest belief in God. It seems that the more experience of science you have, the less willing you are to accept deities.
While not definitive, the data that BioLogos highlights suggests that Evangelical Christians have very good reasons for avoiding science.