Those pesky atheist scientists: wrong about God, wrong about global warming

September 28, 2015 • 8:30 am

Before I show you a political cartoon sent by a reader, let’s remind ourselves how much more atheistic American scientists are than their fellow citizens. Below is an excerpt from a piece I wrote last March for the New Republic:

Surveying American scientists as a whole, regardless of status, a different Pew poll showed that only 33% admitted belief in God, with 41% of scientists being atheists or agnostics. (The rest either didn’t answer, didn’t know, or believed in a “universal spirit or a higher power.”) Among the general public, on the other hand, belief in God ran at 83% and nonbelief at a mere 4%. In other words, the average scientist is ten times as likely to be an atheist or an agnostic than is the average American.

The degree of scientists’ nonbelief goes up with their professional status. [Elaine] Ecklund’s earlier work found that 62% of scientists working at “elite” universities were atheists or agnostics, with only 33% professing belief in God. And, considering members of America’s most elite scientific body, the National Academy of Sciences, we find that only 7% believe in a personal God while 93% are atheists or agnostics about a personal God. (In contrast, 68% of Americans—nearly ten times the percentage of scientists—believe in a personal God.)

I won’t belabor this correlation, but I suspect it involves not only nonbelievers being preferentially attracted to science, but also the practice of science itself eroding belief in gods. For example, older scientists tend to be less religious, while their non-scientist cohorts tend to become more religious as they age.

Now to a political cartoon referring to scientists’ nonbelief—in a strange way. It’s by Michael Ramirez (b. 1961), a two-time Pulitzer-Prize-winning artist of a decidedly conservative bent, who has been involved in quite a few controversies (the L.A. Times stopped carrying his cartoons in 2005). Reader Ollie sent a cartoon by Ramirez with this note:

Ramirez is a conservative political cartoonist and I almost never agree with him on anything.  But he got this one right…albeit not in the way that he intended. You might find this cartoon amusing.


There are of course two ways to interpret this cartoon. This would be my read if I didn’t know who drew it:

  1. The Pope notes that scientists overwhelmingly accept that global warming is caused by human activity.
  2. Scientists tend to be right about such issues.
  3. Therefore, scientists are probably also right in claiming that there is no God.

But of course it’s Ramirez, and what he really means is this: scientists are fallible, and are clearly wrong about both global warming and God. In that sense it’s a bad political cartoon, for its meaning reverses itself depending on your view of science.

Just to show you what I think he means, here’s another one of his cartoons (the “stick head” in the last panel is his rendition of Obama):


And some of Ramierz’s other conservative panels:



This one is particularly nasty. Given Ramirez’s global-warming denialism, I’d put his head up there instead of Hillary’s:


65 thoughts on “Those pesky atheist scientists: wrong about God, wrong about global warming

  1. I think the first comic could also have another interpretation, which is both consistent with Ramirez’ views and is nonetheless accurate: That the Pope cherry picks which views of science he will accept, depending on whether they reconcile with the religious positions he is required to promote.

        1. Ramirez has a wonderful style, but his ideas are full color illustrations of how the Reich Wing looks at the world. If you don’t goose step in lockstep then you are an evil thing needed to be killed. The latest fad is by drones in LRK scenarios. It has been tested in other countries sooner or late it will be implemented here. Enjoy the new HOG aka Hand of God.

          1. With nightgaunt49 (who does a yeomanly job of defending reason and rationality at gocomics) here. Ramirez is a right wing crazy, who never lets facts get in the way of his presenting the right’s take on everything. When the cartoon came out, I posted this: “Hey, for once I agree with Ramirez—ignorance and religion go hand-in-hand.”

            I think Ollie nailed it: “But he got this one right…albeit not in the way that he intended.”

  2. I’ve always thought that more scientists are atheists because they’re allowed to be. In most other sectors of the economy, the absence of faith is suspect.

        1. We aren’t talking about engineers.

          Even so, I suspect engineers are less likely than the average population to be religious.

              1. Come on you are smart enough to pick up on it. We got no break down as to where the beliefs resided in the world of science. More, less, equal amounts per biology, chemistry, physics etc..? I don’t think I was talking over your head or anyone else’s.

          1. Find a list of the most productive research universities and see how far down you have to go to find one that’s church-affiliated.

  3. The use of the word, “believe,” in the cartoon is also out of place. The Pope might believe in global warming, but most scientists who have examined the evidence will have reached the conclusion that human activities have increased atmospheric CO2 levels which, in turn, is causing more heat to be retained by the atmosphere and, especially, the oceans.



    1. Agreed. We don’t “believe there is no god”. We don’t believe there is a god. Atheism is not a belief but a lack of belief.

          1. I understand your meaning, but if someone asked, I’d say I do believe in evolution since I’d assume they didn’t have your nuanced interpretation in mind. Then, I’d go on to explain that belief isn’t quit the right word for scientific confidence in supporting data.

            1. When I am asked do I believe in…?
              I tell them I accept the evidence that has been given and proven, “believe” is the incorrect word in their question. Concerning the sciences they like to bring up and archeology etc.

              If there is no evidence or poor evidence I let them know too. However I don’t usually trumpet my Atheism. Though it is easier on the Internet.

  4. I actually find it a little discomforting that 33% of scientists (in the U.S., of course) believe in god, and some more admit to spirituality. I want it to be lower.

    1. The disconnect is fantastic. There are multiple reasons I have discovered for this but the one that is dominant is lack of introspection. A lot of scientists are not really interested in uncovering truths about nature. They are more like engineers or chemists who are mechanical about their practical knowledge, but leave a wide gap between what they want to be true, i.e., their faith based beliefs, and what they do.

      1. Compartmentalization is an excellent means of keeping “6 imaginary and contradictory things” in their mind at the same time. Interestingly brain washing uses it.

  5. The juvenility of the last three cartoons is more than sufficient to explain the blinding lack of self-awareness shown in the first.

  6. I saw somewhere (can’t remember where) a breakdown by scientific fields. As a biologist, I was pleased to see that biologists are among the least likely to think sky fairies are real.

    1. This article sorely needed a break down by discipline as to which groups had more/less or was it more equally distributed. Nice to see you have me some more information.

  7. I have never seen Ramirez’s stuff. He is the antithesis of Hebdo. He attacks people and not ideas. Abusive and insecure. I am curious what mistreatments to his own life led him to such vitriol.

      1. That’s sort of the point. I’m sure there are many on the far right who think that many of these are both funny and well-reasoned.

  8. These cartoons reveal a weak and shallow mind. Esp. the donkey putting party before the US because of the Iran deal. Has he ever heard of the tea party shutting down the government, because, you know, health care…and wanting to do it again because, you know, abortions.

    I will admit he is a good artist, too bad his talents are wasted on flagrant foolishness.

  9. I would think that the pressure that many feel when asked a questions about religious belief would tend to be in favor of answering in a safety zone of answers. 26% did not know! Really? So I suspect there are many more atheists and nonbelievers than surveys can show! The questions could give a whole more choices to be more accurate also, but people are cautious and do not trust that they will not suffer for ‘wrong answer’!

  10. Id like to ask the commenting public. How would you curtail or reverse warming/climate change/etc?

    is everyone ready to go back to pre-industrial era society in order to limit carbon offset produced by manufacturing, transportation and pollution from a 7 billion and counting human population?

    1. in the 1970s. acid rain was a huge problem

      regulation of business put scrubbers and we solved it

      stop this clinging to industrial era mindset

      we need to shift the energy security, to multiple sources with a better distribution, because as it is, a solar flare could knock out the grid

      the Quebec ice storm a few years back showed how antiquated our systems are

      business needs to be smaller than government amd governments need to be more cooprative

      frankly one world government makes more sense

      sadly, too many nations are actual pre-unindustrial and we need to leap frog them, not make them go through the same development

      we need solutions and I think copyright is in the way

      1. The USA is among the top First Tier countries that waste large amounts of food, resources, energy. Just making it more efficient would go a long way to help mitigate against the coming Hot House Earth. But we have to move not as a society, but as a species.

        1. More efficiency is good, but it’s a bandaid on a compound fracture. We don’t need to shave a few percent here or there; we need to cut back by at least an order of magnitude.


          1. By efficient I mean going from 34% to 90%. And it is just one of many things we need to be doing if we want to keep Hot House Earth not too different from the Permian Extinction even kind of world in a 100 years or less.

            No bandaids need apply.

            1. Sorry…that kind of efficiency simply isn’t possible. You’re not going to get a passenger vehicle to go from ~30 MPG to 300 MPG, which would be your 90% increased efficiency. Nor are you going to increase crop yields by a comparable ratio, or anything else.

              Not even close.

              So “not even close” that your “34%” figure is already beyond-the-pale absurd. We long ago shaved those sorts of inefficiencies out of the system.


              1. 34 mpg is awfully poor and common today. I think the absurdity is than anyone can say cold sober we have “shaved those efficiencies long ago”! Not the case. They had no reason to so they didn’t spend the money for such improvements. And we need to get away from our energy being generated by fossil fuels.

                Fully electric certainly can go over 100 mpg. Most people still only travel an average 25 mile radius from where they live daily.

              2. And yet a 90% improvement on even your “awfully poor” 34 MPG would be 340 MPG. And the real benefit of electric vehicles isn’t their increased efficiency; it’s that they have the potential to use something other than fossil fuels in the first place.

                Also curious is the fact that you’re confusing miles per gallon and daily range — and, even then, not realizing that a 25-mile radius would still represent more than 50 miles of travel. And in the midst of all that, not realizing that cutting miles traveled from 50 / day to 5 / day would get you your 90% reduction…and that that’s something very doable for all white-collar workers through telecommuting.

                We’re not going to solve our problems with mindless handwaving about improving efficiency by 90%. Frankly, we’re probably not going to solve our problems at all; much more likely is a collapse of civilization. But, if we do solve them…it’ll be by radically changing the very fabric of society and industry. Which is why we’re probably not going to solve them.


    2. The problem won’t be solved as long as the human population is billions and growing. Hundreds of millions and shrinking and it becomes a lot more tractable. Tens of millions and stable and it’s not at all a problem.


      1. We are due for one or two global plagues as it is. The continuing climate change will kill many more. Not counting mass exodus overrunning countries and starting wars of slaughter to survive. The Somali pirates came about due to unusual long term droughts. They were farmers.

  11. For example, older scientists tend to be less religious, while their non-scientist cohorts tend to become more religious as they age.

    This certainly holds true with just about everyone in my family. In fact, my Mom’s reasoning skills in the face of deranged faith have shut down to the point that my wife took a “selfie” in front of our TV during the Papal Mass, sent it to my mom as a joke that we waited and got front row seats. In one shot, you could see part of the scrolling headline at the bottom of the TV, yet my mom ate it up, asking when they’d be posted on Facebook for everyone to see. The same person can think critically and think religiously, but it sure seems to be a zero sum game–the more you do of one, the less you do of the other.

      1. Haha, fair enough. But I don’t see any other signs of it…perhaps a sign of failing eyesight as well? Then again, when one thinks invisible saints run around doing favors for people, it may be hard to objectively draw the line between dementia and delusion, sans testing.

  12. The Des Moines Register serves me a weekly or bi-weekly Ramirez sample of pure hatred and loathing for all things Democratic – and Obama in particular. So he can hate Hillary, but he really loathes Obama. The Register apparently feels that his “cartoons” fulfill their need to be “fair and balanced.” But any supposedly liberal or pro-Democratic cartoon is pretty wimpy by comparison. Strangely enough the cartoon section runs Non Sequitor and Dilbert, as well as Trudeau. But the editorial page (usually showing a liberal bent in their lead editorials) has a Foxian behavior with the “fair and balanced” act in the op-ed. Extreme right wing nut jobs are often “balanced” by people who are hardly well known and articulate liberals.

    I don’t know the cartoons for which Ramirez received the Pulitzers but the Pulitzer Awards are not particularly reliable in their rewards for “excellence”. Perhaps a Ramirez “cartoon” should have a “trigger warning” (very strange phrase).

    1. George Will (Atheist?) got 2 Pulitzers too. Though I have read many an article where he should have had them taken back. Or giving Anti-Pulitzers.

      It helps to have a spectrum. Because you know that they will think the same thing of Non Sequitur and others of a more Liberal bend.

  13. I’ve always held Ramirez in low esteem; I remember him from the LA Times. Conservative cartoonists rely much more on slander, since they rarely have any substance to work with.

  14. A very obvious aspect of the Pope cartoon just struck me and I’m surprised no one has mentioned it in the comments yet. The implication seems to be that scientists are wrong on AGW, therefore they’re also wrong on God, or vice versa.

    This is a more than subtle nod to the authoritarian nature of the arguments we see on both sides of the aisle. One’s view on global warming simply has no bearing on the question of whether God exists, and we too often try to paint a politician’s view on one matter as wrong because it is wrong (or perceived to be wrong) elsewhere. Ideas, not the people holding them, are what is important and failure to recognize that just may be the root cause of our anti-intellectual problem in America.

    1. No bearing? It seems to me that a belief system that tells you that God is in charge and that the earth is your’s to exploit without worry has some bearing on a person’s denial of anthropogenic climate change.

      1. I meant it in the academic sense that whether AGW is true or not has no bearing on the facts (or lack thereof) pertaining to the existence of deities. That is, we could in principle all end up being wrong about AGW and that has no bearing on the question of God’s existence, except for perhaps evidence arising that shows we’re wrong that AGW exists because a deity just corrected it for us.

        Viewed from another angle–there’s plenty of theists who accept AGW and (a much smaller percentage) of atheists who don’t accept it. Of course, I realize a great deal of the denialism is driven by people’s specific beliefs about God, but I’m talking about the actual objective truth about the two topics. The truth of God’s existence has nothing to do with the truth about global warming and even less to do with any individual’s opinion on either of the topics.

        1. The problem is democracy. People think their unsupported fantasies are on equal par with informed, science backed factual comments. From this the well spring of the still prevalent anti-intellectual sentiment that is still rampant in the USA moves to shout down by sheer numbers the facts they refuse to accept.

          1. Of course, ill informed electorates historically have a way of making democracies no longer function as democracies.

            I think this trend plays out in the way we tend to put a lot of stock in debates as well. It’s as if how well someone uses debate tactics actually determines the objective facts of the matter. Nature isn’t a democracy.

    2. A very obvious aspect of the Pope cartoon just struck me and I’m surprised no one has mentioned it in the comments yet. The implication seems to be that scientists are wrong on AGW, therefore they’re also wrong on God, or vice versa.

      Silly me, I thought that was Ramirez’s intended point all along. 😉 (Probably in the vice versa way.)

  15. A bit late to this game, but felt I needed to add something not touched on. I see a simple joke that is true no matter which side of the argument one is on. That is, “the pope backs science but science doesn’t back the pope”. How one feels about that irony will swing according to where one sits on the theist/atheist and human-caused change/denier fences. But the humour of the situation is the same for all.

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