Guest post: America’s scientists reluctant to admit they’re nonbelievers

July 6, 2012 • 3:28 am

Elaine Ecklund continues to squeeze every drop of publishable data out of her Templeton-funded survey on religiosity among America’s scientists. As guest poster Sigmund notes below, she’s parlayed a single questionnaire into six academic papers as well as one book—a remarkable achievement in data-mining, and reason enough for Templeton to give her another $1,080,000 to continue proving that America’s scientists aren’t nearly as atheistic as everyone thinks. (Note: the conclusions of Ecklund’s work are always preordained, since she spins her data to conform to Templeton’s accommodationist line.)

In today’s guest post, Sigmund describes how Ecklund and her collaborators have squeezed the last drop of juice from her Templeton grant, publishing a paper on the reluctance of America’s scientists to answer questions relating to religion.


Elaine Ecklund finds scientists are reluctant to admit being non-religious

by Sigmund

It’s that time of the year again. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and Elaine Howard Ecklund has returned to take another stab at the data from her 2007 Templeton -funded survey, Religion among Academic Scientists (RAAS). In the sociological equivalent to the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Ecklund has now managed to produce one academic book and, remarkably, six peer-reviewed papers from this single survey, a questionnaire designed to gauge the levels of religiosity amongst scientists at the top twenty universities in the US.

As you might guess, by this point there isn’t really much data left to mine, but the digging continues, with ever-decreasing amounts of ore.

In the new paper, ‘Missing Data in Sociological Research: An Overview of Recent Trends and an Illustration for Controversial Questions, Active Nonrespondents and Targeted Samples’, published in the journal  The American Sociologist, Ecklund and her co-author, Jeremy R. Porter from the City University of New York, approach the questionnaire from another angle. They examine the reasons why scientists may have been reluctant to answer particular questions.

In any detailed sociological survey, there will be questions left unanswered by a proportion of the participants. Sometimes the unanswered questions will be random. Other times, however, specific questions will be left unanswered at a higher frequency than chance. Termed ‘missing not at random’ (MNAR), such questions may indicate subjects of a controversial nature for the participants. Thus the non-random absence of an answer may provide a means for the researcher to gain knowledge about the views of the study participants.

The RAAS study contained questions on several subjects shown in previous studies to produce a MNAR response from some groups. These included questions about race, income, marital status and aspects of religiosity. Porter and Ecklund’s analysis reveal, however, that only questions about religiosity had answers missing at a rate higher than chance.

The questions, shown in Table 3 of the paper, included “Which of the following comes closest to your views about truth in religion?”, and “Which of the following statement comes closest to expressing what you believe about God?”, both of which had several options that could be chosen by the participant and which were unanswered by just over 10% of survey participants. Here are the data from the paper:

The question that resulted in the greatest number of missing answers was the final one shown in Table 3: “Compared to Most Americans, where would you place your RELIGIOUS views on a seven point scale?” – with answers running from ‘Extremely Liberal’ which is scored 1, to ‘Extremely Conservative’, scoring 7

Over 34% of scientists failed to answer this question, a figure that Porter and Ecklund found surprisingly high (although it should be noted that the initial paper revealed that over 62% of scientists were either atheists or agnostics and less than 10% said they had no doubts about God’s existence—figures that may explain the reluctance of many to answer this question.)

A well designed sociological survey should contain some degree of redundancy between questions so that the failure to answer one question can be counteracted by taking other answers into account. It was therefore possible with the RAAS survey to determine the religiosity of participants using other answered questions and compare that to the MNAR response. This technique allowed the authors to determine whether those avoiding answering the questions were religious or non-religious.

Considering that universities are amongst the least religious environments in the US, and the scientific profession is often accused of being hostile to the religious, the results were surprising.

According to Porter and Ecklund:

In terms of religiosity measures, scientists who were the least religious were the most likely to have missing data for questions on belief about God and on the comparison of their religious views to those of other Americans.

In fact it was the non-religious scientists who behaved as though their lack of religiosity was something they preferred, or needed, to keep secret. Religious scientists, on the other hand, were found to be far more likely to answer all questions related to religious beliefs and views of the bible, confounding the notion (promulgated by Ecklund her previous writings) that religious scientists are particularly worried about negative consequences from revealing their faith.

The authors speculated that the anti-atheist bigotry found in US society at large may make scientists reluctant to identify as non-religious, even within a supposedly confidential survey, due to a fear of possible negative repercussions.

Researchers find that atheists and the nonreligious are somewhat marginalized in the general population (Edgell et al. 2006). This means that scientists who are not religious may be especially unlikely to answer questions about religion for fear that the larger public might use such results against them.

 One final point worth noting is the description of exactly how Ecklund gathered the 2194 participants for the initial RAAS survey.

“The scientists included in the study were randomly selected from seven natural and social science disciplines at universities that appear on the University of Florida’s annual report of the “Top American Research Universities.“

They continue:

“Initially, the study’s PI wrote a personalized letter to each potential participant in the study that contained a $15.00 cash pre-incentive, to keep regardless of decision to participate in the survey.”

In other words, the entire study began with Ecklund stuffing 33 thousand dollars of Templeton cash into envelopes addressed to the top scientists in the US, hoping they would cooperate.

Then again, isn’t that the Templeton modus operandi—the only difference being the size of the bribe?

72 thoughts on “Guest post: America’s scientists reluctant to admit they’re nonbelievers

    1. I’m not sure I got mine either, though I participated in the original survey. I probably did but forgot. But had I known it was Templeton money, I would have sent it back!

        1. Because religion is a sin against the human spirit. (The christian gods at least, acting like slave owners and all.)

      1. Why? So they could do something worse with it?

        Keep it – that’s $15 that isn’t doing damage somewhere else.

        1. Or, I suppose, donate it to the NCSE if you feel guilty about keeping Templeton money.

          Or to the ACLU. Or the FFRF. Or any number of other groups suitable for mildly annoying the Templeton Foundation.

          1. One is tempted to ask the researchers and/or Templeton if it is OK to donate the $15 to one of those organizations. Would that be “mean”?

            I wonder if there was at least one respondent who made a donation to Templeton.

  1. How do they know WHY the questions weren’t answered?

    Perhaps the non-religious respondents just thought those questions were silly or irrelevant.

      1. Me, too. I could not answer that last question because it makes absolutely no sense to me. I do not HAVE religous beliefs, either liberal or conservative. It surprises me that about half of the atheists/agnostics actually answered it. Perhaps they were in the agnostic (not sure) camp.

    1. Or incoherent. What exactly do the terms “liberal” and “conservative” mean in the context of religious views? Especially if, like the vast majority of scientists, you don’t have any religious views.

      1. +1
        I think “liberal” and “conservative” in a religious context would be hard to understand outside the USA, and terribly loaded within it.

    2. This question has no meaning if you don’t have a religion, which would be why many of the non-religious scientists didn’t answer it.

  2. If 62% identify as atheist or agnostic, the only surprise is of course why there weren’t more than 34% who didn’t answer what sort of religious views they had.

    1. My thought exactly. Has Sigmund perhaps misread the paper? Or is Elaine Ecklund really so stupid that she can’t figure out that the non-religious scientists shoudn’t want to answer that question? It would make more sense, and perhaps be somewhat surprising, if 34% of those scientists who did identify as religious failed to answer that question. In that case, it would even be easy, though dishonest, to interpret the result in a way that would comport with the Christian persecution complex (e.g. “Scientists who are religious are hesitant to characterise their religious beliefs for fear of being mocked by those vile New Atheists!1!”)

      1. I don’t think I have misread the paper. The figure of 62% being non believers is not actually mentioned in this paper. I went back to the original study to get that piece of data because it is clearly relevant- as I indicated, and as several readers have noticed. The best explanation I can come up with is that she prepared the original questions under the assumption that scientists were similar in religiosity to the US population at large. The fact that they are not therefore has a significant effect on the overall result.

        1. Misread or not (and I side with “not”), the question as asked is easily ignored by non-believing scientists as “poorly worded, irrelevant, and not worthy of an answer.”

          If I say I have no religious beliefs, asking me to classify them on a 7 point scale between liberal and conservative is asinine. Where is the “N/A” option?

          1. This. Even if I had religious beliefs (I don’t), how do I place them from “Liberal” to “Conservative”? What is a “Liberal” belief? If I think religion is a private matter and entirely up to one’s own decision-making, is that “Liberal” or is that “Anti-authoritarian”? Are Catholics and Mormons, with a large organization at the heart of their religions, more likely to say their beliefs are “Conservative” than, say, a small-church Episcopalian, regardless of which person spent last weekend picketing an abortion clinic? The scale makes no sense.

            1. The question is very badly written: “liberal religious beliefs” make me think of New Age (as opposed to conservative fundamentalism.) I can certainly understand why a scientist might want to avoid choosing between those options.

            2. Asking a religious person to assess themselves on such a scale is disingenuous, at best. People will define their beliefs in relation to the emotional reaction they have to words like “liberal” or “conservative”, not on how they might be defined by objective outsiders.
              In other words, this reasearcher is, to put it quite bluntly, a dick head.

          2. I think we probably all agree that it’s a terrible question to pose to non-Christians (not just non believers.)

            1. It’s a terrible question to pose even to Christians. I just tried it by email on German Lutherans and French Catholics, earning only digital head-shaking.
              Unisono reaction, echoing my own feeling: the wording of the question shows just how politicised religion has become in America. (Leaving aside the question of how the meanings of ‘Liberal’ and ‘Conservative’ have been perverted in the American political discourse, to begin with.)

              A question regarding the subjective level of adhesion to the faith’s teachings, followed by one about the self-perceived level of compliance with the religion’s mainstream practices, would have been more illuminating. Perhaps also easier to answer, for a scientist.

        2. Thanks for the answer, Sigmund. Sounds like you’ve looked at the papers as carefully as possible, so I trust you got it right. Your thoughts on Ecklund’s possible reasons for the wording of that question might be right as well. But I have to say, it would really baffle me that if she could think that way. I’m from Denmark and even compared to Danes in general I have few religious contacts, so my perspective is sure to severely biased in this regard; but I simply don’t get how anyone could suspect that top scientists in America were just as religious as the general population. Oh, and I want to add; that although I mostly lurk here, I enjoy your posts! Keep up the good work!

  3. It amazes me that over 60% of scientists could answer that question. “Liberal” might mean Anglican or Reform Jewish or Agnostic … or something. Why was the question not clearer? As an atheist I’d leave it blank. “Liberal” smacks of laissez-faire and accommodationism.

    1. Exactly. At various times in the past I’ve held religious views best characterized as conservative, and I’ve held religious views best characterized as liberal. While some forms of “spiritual” atheism might be reasonably termed “extreme liberal”, I’m simply non-religious, and no longer on that spectrum at all.

  4. I once received a $1 bill from some polling outfit.

    We live in the Land of the Fee and the Home of the Craven.

    1. I receive free address labels from organizations which mistakenly think i may send them money.

  5. I watched a video of Harold Kroto’s talk at Beyond Belief 2.0 (2007). I wonder if Shermer would like to change his statements regarding the intent of the Templeton Foundation when “funding” scientists in their works.

  6. The questions (as already noted) are ambiguous.
    The Dawkins scale of “spectrum of theistic probability” ( is a far far better classification than what is here.

    Q1: Truth in religion. Does Confucianism count? What if the source of truth comes from outside the religion? What if I think there is truth in (some) religion but I would not characterize it as “basic”?? (For example, I largely agree with Roman Catholic just war theory, but it’s neither basic and they largely got it from Cicero!!!!!)

    What if I think something like the inverse of option 3: There is the most !*lies*! in only one religion?!?!?!? (A certain Republican Prez candidate comes to mind here!!!!)

    Q2: Although I can answer this one somewhat straightforwardly:(Choice 2- There is no way to find out if there is a God) this is completely consistent with BOTH Choice 1 (I don’t believe) AND with choices 4 & 5, and choices 4&5 seem to be just two different ways of phrasing the same thing.

    Q3: Liberal could mean either Reform Jew or atheist. (Maybe Reform Jew is 6, but atheist is 7- or is atheist just off the scale.)

    I guess this gal puts the “Temple” in Templeton.

  7. Doesn’t she consider that the questions and the answers to choose from are poorly written as a reason they were not answered?

    Question 1: I could choose any of those answers. I would be looking for one that said “Some religions might have more truth than others, but nothing that couldn’t be learned outside of religion.”

    Question 2: Where’s the option for “I don’t believe in nebulously ill-defined concepts”?

    Question 3: Where is the response that includes “The Old Testament is a book created by a process of ancient political spin that was halted by the Babylonians, while the New Testament was created by people without political power, but both include fables and possibly a few books written by women”?

    Question 4: How can someone rate something they don’t have? Compared to Most Fish, where would you place your ability to extract oxygen from seawater on a seven point scale? (1) Must swim continuously >>>> (7) Can remain stationary in still water for long periods

    1. Slightly off topic: I didn’t think there was historical evidence for judaism and/or christianity back to the babylonian days. Isn’t that just part of the fairy tales?

      1. I think the general opinion is that Jewishness in the modern sense was in many ways formed during the captivity and the return from Babylon to Israel.

    2. “Question 4: How can someone rate something they don’t have? Compared to Most Fish, where would you place your ability to extract oxygen from seawater on a seven point scale? (1) Must swim continuously >>>> (7) Can remain stationary in still water for long periods”

      That’s not a valid analogy. A better one would be “Compared to Most Fish, where would you place your ability to extract oxygen from seawater on a seven point scale? (1) Cartilage >>>>>>> (7) Bone “

  8. “Compared to Most Americans, where would you place your RELIGIOUS views on a seven point scale?” – with answers running from ‘Extremely Liberal’ which is scored 1, to ‘Extremely Conservative’, scoring 7

    I think all y’all know that I’m as anti-religious as they come, and I’d leave that one blank. She might as well have put 1 as “fishy bicycle” and 7 as “one-handed lightbulb” for all the sense she’s making.

    Indeed, a question like that would make me think that the poll is poorly designed and created by a godbot, and possibly even a push poll of some sort. Much more of those types of bullshit questions and I’d be terminating the survey.


  9. Not surprisingly atheists have problems answering those questions, because they presuppose religion.

    Here are my problems, for example:


    – Asks for “view” instead of analysis or opinion.

    – No alternative “there is no fact” or even the weaker “there is no truth”.

    # Can’t answer.


    – Presupposes “belief” instead of analysis or opinion.

    # Can’t answer.


    – Asks for “feelings” instead of analysis or opinion.

    – Implicates an internal religious text as having importance.

    # Won’t answer.


    – Presupposes religious belief: “religious views” instead of “views on religion” (in which case Q1 applies).

    # Can’t and won’t answer.

    1. Exactly.

      And you’re leaving out an even more glaring problem: she keeps privileging this one particular god confusingly enough named, “God,” as if that’s the only god worth discussing. What about all the other gods? Do a global search-and-replace of “God” with “Quetzalcoatl” or “Mitra” or “Ahura-Mazda” and the survey would sound pretty silly, no? It’s no less silly with YHWH taking center stage.

      If she had bothered to have an atheist or three poorfeed her quiz for her, it would have been similarly ripped to shreds.

      Hell, I’m left wondering how it made it past the peer-review process in order to get published. And she’s done that how many times, now? This does not speak well of the journals which have accepted this dreck.


      1. Agreed, one could probably rip the questionnaire to pieces without looking at the practice of statistics or even “Ecklund statistics”. Godbots can’t ask neutral questions, they don’t know what it is.

        As for publication, I thought we agreed sociology can’t be a science? (P: Ecklund. C: Ecklund. QED)

        1. Agreed, one could probably rip the questionnaire to pieces

          “One” probably should, thereby ripping the rug out from underneath Ecklund and all the bullshit she’s spewed from it. I have no experience in such matters, nor time in my schedule even if I did…any takers?

          As for publication, I thought we agreed sociology can’t be a science?

          Well, I think it could and certainly should be a real science. I certainly won’t argue with you that there’s damned little evidence that it actually is. Hell, even Ecklund’s pet topic, the religiosity of scientists, is a topic worthy of study. I just don’t see any reason to expect that it’s something that those drawn to the field are likely to be capable of attempting to study without turning it into an exercise in proselytization of one form or another.


          1. As there is a considerable divergence in methodology in sociology and no straightforward way of resolution between different models, I would say sociology is at best an inexact “science”, albeit possibly converging on better methods.

            A class I audited in the 1970s (at University of Pennsylvania) compared a wide variety of sociological “interpretations” of the Protestant Reformation, from a Marxist viewpoint, Weberian viewpoint, functionalist standpoint, etc. etc.

            Without any clear resolution as to which framework is best, sociology becomes a bit like literary criticism.

            Not quite the completely chaotic Babel of modern liberal theology but not the clearly focused research methods of astronomy, biology, or chemistry, either.

            1. I guess you’re correct with regards to the contradictions within the science(s?) of sociology as a whole, but, as far as I can tell, that’s not really what’s the matter with Ecklund’s studies. It appears to me that she’s using pretty standard positivist, quantitative methodology and that her screwed up results are just an outcome of doing those methods really poorly.

              I’m not sure if that contradicts anything you were saying… Just popped into my head is all…

    2. … and if not before, at Q4 I would probably react much like Ben Goren.

      It is a question that humiliates an atheist, negating the whole reason to participate in a poll clarifying the social status of religion and non-religion, at the very least.

      So “godbot”, certainly. Dunno if I would reach for “Templeton godbot” and other sinister motives.

      1. I think humiliate might be the wrong word. A question like that might irritate me, perhaps even piss me off. But humiliate me? Not a chance that I could be humiliated by any question regarding my religious beliefs that any believer or accommodationist could come up with.

        And from what little I know of you from seeing your comments over the past couple of years I can’t believe that you would ever feel humiliated in such circumstances either. You appear to be too learned and too comfortable with reality for that.

        1. English isn’t Torbjörn’s first language, though his is good enough that it’s not too hard to forget the fact. If he were a native speaker, I suspect he would have written something more along the lines of, “It is a question intended to humiliate an atheist,” and I’d guess that the construction he used is more idiomatic in Svenska.


          1. You are right of course. I even knew that. My anti-authoritarian, anti-religious personality traits caused my blood temperature to start going up just imagining anyone feeling humiliated by a sycophantic cretin like Ecklund questioning their religious beliefs (directed at Ecklund of course). I couldn’t not say something.

            It has been claimed by at least one family member that the final “chorus” in the song “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against The Machine is a good illustration of my position vs authority. I don’t think I’m that bad really though. Unfortunately my daughter seems to take after me in that respect.

            1. “Unfortunately my daughter seems to take after me in that respect.”

              Which is to say, “unfortunately” for you – but not(she would say)for her, eh? 😉

              1. Exactly! Even I would say that, for her, it is probably a good thing. For me it sucks though. My mom thinks it’s hilarious.

              2. “My mom thinks it’s hilarious.”

                Yes she would, in a retributive sort of way.

                Find on Youtube a good quality video of comedienne-mom, Anita Renfroe, singing her own very artfully creative lyrics entitled, “The Mom Song,” set to Rossini’s “William Tell Overture.” There’s a line in it where “Mom” tells her offspring words to the effect that she can’t wait until they themselves have little kids of their own.

  10. If one believes religion is a complete crock and/or irrelevant, would that be a conservative or a liberal view? Very confusing. In the truest sense of the word, you would say it is a conservative view, as an opinion in science demands a certain austeriity with the interpretation of fact, but that doesn’t really comport with the common use of the word.

    One unavoidable conclusion is that this survey is intentionally designed to be vague and useless. Sad.

    1. And so poorly designed that they let misspellings like our/out slip through to the final product.

      If you can’t put enough effort into this thing that you are going to base an academic book and a half dozen peer reviewed papers on, what does that have to say about your abilities to successfully apply proper methodologies during the analysis of the data? That is, after all, much more involved than successfully proof reading the questionnaire. How much money was spent on composing the questionnaire? Glad it was Templeton money.

  11. Sigmund,

    the link to the Ecklund/Porter in your main post is broken; it leads only to a WordPress error message that says “Page not found.”

    (Unless this is a brilliant, intentional non sequitur, in order to demonstrate the vacuity of the Ecklund paper…)

    1. Sorry, but I’m away from my computer at the moment but if you type “Ecklund EH” 2012′ into google scholar you should find a direct link to the paper. If you need the original paper send me an email to cancercentrum@ gmail. com (minus the space) and I’ll send it to you tomorrow.

  12. The question that resulted in the greatest number of missing answers was the final one shown in Table 3: “Compared to Most Americans, where would you place your RELIGIOUS views on a seven point scale?” – with answers running from ‘Extremely Liberal’ which is scored 1, to ‘Extremely Conservative’, scoring 7.

    It seems to me that a nonbeliever would have trouble answering that question. If I don’t have religious beliefs, what does it mean to describe my religious beliefs on a scale of extremely liberal to extremely conservative?

    1. It ain’t just nonbelievers.

      Let’s say you’re a Jew, and you religiously attend a Conservative temple. Hell, maybe you’re even the rabbi. Can’t get any more Conservative than that, right?

      So…where does that leave the Orthodox Jews?.

      Even worse, Jews have historically been overwhelmingly been politically liberal (though there may be shifts of late). If you’re a Lubavitcher who’s voted Democratic your whole life, what’s the right answer?

      Well…the answer is obvious: Ecklund is incompetent. Only an idiot would think that question made sense. Add in her source of funding, and it becomes obvious that it’s really a ham-fisted attempt at asking when respondents stopped beating their wives.


    2. Compared to Most Americans, where would you place your GEOCENTRISM views on a seven point scale? 1). Extremely Liberal to 7). Extremely Conservative.

  13. I am scratching my head wondering how this paper even passed muster. Is it a scientifically sound practice to squeeze so many conclusions out of a single set of data? I thought that, at most, this would serve only as a preliminary data for formulating a new hypothesis (namely, scientists are reticent about their lack of religious beliefs); and, that a new set of data would be needed to test this hypothesis.

    To my layman’s eyes, this looks awfully like Texas Sharpshooter fallacy. Am I wrong?

    1. Hell, look at the crap people claim is “in the bible” – it makes the KJB look like coffee table material.

  14. That’s hilarious and disgusting all at once. Ecklund is rolling in money for whoring herself to the Templeton Foundation and writing crap which, in an ideal world, would never be published in academic literature.

  15. “Compared to Most Americans, where would you place your RELIGIOUS views on a seven point scale?” – with answers running from ‘Extremely Liberal’ which is scored 1, to ‘Extremely Conservative’, scoring 7.”

    An utterly meaningless question if you don’t believe in god. How do you answer if you have no religious view? Is it any wonder this question was ignored?

    1. If I ever run into Ecklund in person, I’m going to say: Hi Dr. Ecklund, let me ask you something: Compared to other Americans, how would you describe your approach to tee shots on long, straight par fives when there’s a slight breeze gusting left-to-right across the fairway—would you say it’s “fearlessly liberal” or “ultra conservative”? It’s my standard ice-breaker when I meet new people, and it always goes over well since, as everyone knows, there’s no such thing as an American who is not a golfer.

      1. Compared to Most Americans, where would you place your GEOCENTRISM views on a seven point scale? 1). Extremely Liberal to 7). Extremely Conservative.

  16. Perhaps scientists aren’t so much reluctant to reveal their atheism, as reluctant to provide further ammunition to the charge that science is dominated by atheists, and/or concerned about the suggestion that the religious views of scientists is an important issue?

  17. If you quizzed me on these questions I might reflexively give you the answers I thought you were looking for.

    Or I might eat the exam paper.

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