Religiosity and atheism: American scientists versus American public

December 2, 2018 • 1:45 pm

There’s one sociologist who has made her name solely on accommodationism—funded by Templeton, of course. That’s Elaine Ecklund of Rice University, whose 2010 book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, is a masterpiece of spinning one’s data to fit one’s ideology (and pecuniary master), namely, that scientists are more religious than one thinks. On top of that is a bunch of tut-tutting that Ecklund does about how scientists are so nastyand if we’d just be nice to the faithful, and respect their beliefs, Americans wouldn’t be so suspicious of evolution and science in general.

I’ve written a lot about Ecklund’s work and how she spins it to fit an agenda (go here and note that there are several pages of posts), and I’d largely forgotten about her until I was recently asked to write something about science and religion. More about that later, but I went to Ecklund’s book to look up the data on the religiosity of the American public versus that of scientists from 21 “elite” research universities (the University of Chicago is one). The book is pretty short on data and long on anecdote and tut-tutting, but here’s Table 2.2 (p. 16 in the book) comparing belief in God amongst the public vs. “elite” scientists:

The disparity is blindingly clear. If you use the first two rows as denoting “atheism and agnosticism,” then 64% of the scientists fit in that class versus just 6% of the public—a tenfold difference. If you add the third row (I won’t) to denote “theism” versus “nontheism”, then 72% of scientists are nontheists versus just 16% of the public.

If you add the last three rows as an indication of “sometimes or always believes in God” versus “never believes in God”, you come up with 28% of scientists versus 84% of the public.

This is a staggering difference, but no surprise to anyone who’s been around scientists. I’ve discussed it before, and will say only that it could mean two things: either nonbelievers are preferentially attracted to science, or that doing science erodes people’s religious belief. I suspect that both factors are at work, but will leave it there. The main lesson is that regardless of the reason for this disparity, it denotes some incompatibility between science and religion.

It’s interesting how Ecklund gets around this data in her book, and in fact distorts it, as Jason Rosenhouse (peace be upon that retired blogger) wrote in a review of Science vs. Religion. I’ll quote Jason from his review on ScienceBlogs:

Asked about their beliefs in God, 34% chose “I don’t believe in God,” while 30% chose, “I do not know if there is a God, and there is no way to find out.” That’s 64% who are atheist or agnostic, as compared to just 6% of the general public.

An additional 8% opted for, “I believe in a higher power, but it is not God.” That makes 72% of scientists who are explicitly non-theistic in their religious views (compared to 16% of the public generally.) Pretty stark.

From the other side, it is just 9% of scientists (compared to 63% of the public), who chose, “I have no doubts about God’s existence.” An additional 14% of scientists chose, “I have some doubts, but I believe in God.” Thus, it is just 25% of scientists who will confidently assert their belief in God (80% of the general public.)

For completeness, the final option was “I believe in God sometimes.” That was chosen by 5% of scientists and 4% of the public. Make of it what you will.

Now explain to me, please, how anyone can look at that data and write this:

As we journey from the personal to the public religious lives of scientists, we will meet the nearly 50 percent of elite scientists like Margaret who are religious in a traditional sense…. (p. 6)

This claim, that fifty percent of scientists are traditionally religious, is repeated in the jacket copy. The expression, “religious in a traditional sense” is never precisely defined, but I would have thought that a belief in God is a minimal requirement. With 72% of scientists explicitly nontheistic, and an additional five percent professing to believe in God only sometimes, it looks to me like 23% would be the most generous figure for the fraction of scientists who are traditionally religious.

Ecklund has also made a huge deal about some scientists being “spiritual” (see here), for of course Ecklund and Templeton like to lump “spirituality” together with “religion” to make it seem that “spiritual” scientists are essentially religious. Here’s what Jason said about that:

Another one of Ecklund’s findings is that 22% of atheists describe themselves as spiritual. In his jacket endorsement for the book, Ron Numbers cites this as the book’s most surprising finding. Personally I find this neither surprising nor interesting. “Spiritual” is not at all the same thing as “religious.” The term is often used as a way of describing awe and wonder at the mysteries of nature, and does not necessarily connote any supernatural belief at all. Atheists are as capable of such strong emotions as anyone else. Typically, using a term like spiritual is specifically a way to distance oneself from traditional religion.

Ron Numbers, a historian of science, has also devoted a substantial part of his career to touting the harmony between science and faith. But Jason’s right here. Even Richard Dawkins has described himself as a “spiritual” person, meaning that he harbors an Einsteinian awe and wonder before the universe. And so it is to many of us. We have awe and wonder, but no belief in the supernatural or in gods. But people like Ecklund and Numbers willfully ignore this difference in their headlong rush to make scientists seem religious.

If there’s a take-home lesson, it’s the figure above. Ponder the difference between scientists and the American public and think about what that means.

Jason hasn’t been blogging for four years, as he’s doing book projects and other stuff, and tells me he doesn’t plan to blog again, but might some day. It’s a shame, and I appreciate that he has larger fish to fry, but he put out a good site, and I miss it.

59 thoughts on “Religiosity and atheism: American scientists versus American public

    1. My higher power is Mother Nature. She even came to earth once in a margarine commercial to deliver her message: “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” Alas, climate change deniers have been trying to fool her for a few decades now.

      1. She possessed Feynman while he was writing that Challenger report.

        ‘”For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.” -Feynman’ -Mother Nature


  1. Typically, using a term like spiritual is specifically a way to distance oneself from traditional religion.

    More specifically, it’s a way to distance oneself from traditional religion while trying to retain the respect of the traditionally religious.

  2. I like her (Ecklund’s) subtitle: What Scientists Really Think. That phrase is a time saving red flag. Of all people to stereotype, scientists are more diverse than most groups of professionals. If I want to know what PCC(E) Coyne thinks about something, I’ll check around on this site. If I want to know what some reality deniers that spew out creationist garbage are up to, I’ll slither into AIG or some similar fantasyland (briefly as possible).

  3. This might be mere nitpicking, but it seems to me that the phrase “I have no doubts about God’s existence” includes both of the following positions:

    1. I have no doubt that God exists.
    2. I have no doubt that God does not exist.

    Some atheists, blowing quickly through this survey, might think opinion #2 above (as subset of “I have no doubts about God’s existence”) better states their view than “I do not believe in God.”

    If so, then a portion of “no doubts about God’s existence” responses would have to be reallocated to the atheist side of the ledger.

    Questions and statements with unintentional multiple interpretations are – IMHO – common in questionnaires like this.

    1. “Are you worried about the direction the country is going in?”

      This statement, common in political surveys, will easily garner “yes” votes from people at both ends of the political spectrum. Righties worry that we’re free-falling into a snowflake nannystate; lefties worry that we’re rushing headlong towards fascist authoritarianism.

    2. Questions and statements with unintentional multiple interpretations are – IMHO – common in questionnaires like this.

      It’s a variant on the “When will you stop beating your wife?” gambit.

  4. I try to avoid the use of spiritual because many people automatically take that to mean religious. In the scientist world it would be interesting to know the percentage who became atheist as a result of the career. I would guess it is quite high.

    I started out atheist here in the public world but seldom find others who have always been.

  5. The expression, “religious in a traditional sense” is never precisely defined, but I would have thought that a belief in God is a minimal requirement.

    There is at least one Archbishop of Canterbury (who’s probably a DD too, not that that means much) who would not agree that “belief in God” is a necessary part of being religious. But that’s probably “sophisticated theology”, not traditional (thunderbolts, spurting blood and screaming victims on altars) religion.

  6. The third option — “I believe in a higher power, but it is not God” — probably includes, especially in the case of the scientists surveyed, those who accept the metaphysics of “Spinoza’s god” (or “Einstein’s god,” as it’s sometimes referred to), viz., “Nature in Action.” I consider those folks functional non-believers (agnostics at least, if not outright atheists).

  7. “… 22% of atheists describe themselves as spiritual.”

    A sense of spirituality without a spirit world, numinousness without numina, “soul” without souls — seems to me something a lot of us non-believers can get down with.

    Reason being, there’s really no other language that’s adequate to the task.

    1. A recurring thought I have from time to time is that a nifty ice-breaking, conversation -starting logo (in bold white letters on a bright red ball cap) is “NOTATHEIST”–with the embroidered letters spaced ambiguously so folks might ask, “Which are you, not a theist?, or not atheist?

  8. I don’t understand those who answer “I do not know if there is a God and there is no way to find out” (when they actually don’t believe in God). Couldn’t that be said of any idea (flying spaghetti monsters and such)?

    It strikes me as some kind of BS philosophical logic that shed’s no light on a person’s attitudes, and couldn’t such logic be taken to the next absurd level? — I do not know if tables are real since my perceptions and those of others could be mistaken or dreams or…

    Some of these people don’t like the word “believe” but it just means “opinion.” My opinion is that tables are real and God is not.

    1. It seems you posted this as I was pulling my teeth out trying to say the same thing in a more cock-eyed way below. I shoulda stood in bed and let you do the talking.

    2. If God is defined specifically, like Yahweh or the equally probable Spaghetti Monster, I will certainly say I know that God doesn’t exist. But if God is left undefined as some imponderable, I will go with the agnostic response. We are just smart chimpanzees, so I accept there could be something incomprehensible to us.

      1. In my lexicon,”Incomprehensible” does not descend to a default position that entails something supernatural, though to religionists, the “mysteries” of existence are precisely proof of god or some supernatural agent.

        In this vein, I also disagree with Ken Kukec’s plea to “get down with” the term “spiritiual” and “numinous” “Reason being, there’s really no other language that’s adequate to the task.” And I love the word “numinous.” I must eschew them both when applied to my person.

      2. “I accept there could be something incomprehensible to us.”

        But, the next question is, is there any evidence?
        The second question is, could there be fairies?
        And the third question is, how much time should we spend considering these questions?

        1. There is no evidence. If there were, I couldn’t be agnostic (without knowledge). But if chimpanzees cannot understand calculus, I have to accept the possibility that there may be things beyond human comprehension.

        2. How can I not accept that there may be something incomprehensible to us? I’d go further–I’m as sure as I can be that there are some things that are (at least) incomprehensible to us now (the gaps in physics for starters) and they might always remain so.
          Its not the incomprehensible bits that are the bother. It is the humans strutting about so cock-sure of what the creator of universe really wants (they seem to know this) and their willingness to enforce it on pain of, well, pain. And their explanations of why this universe creator, all 15 billion years and 10^26 metres of it, is so darned interested in what a bunch of monkeys do with their genitalia (I find it tough not to laugh at this openly, I’m afraid).

  9. Maybe I’m being nitpicky here, as well, and perhaps someone can help me think this through better, but I get bothered by the second choice: “I do not know if there is a God and there is no way to find out.” The fact that it’s a compound sentence doesn’t help: The first part of the sentence admits ignorance while the second asserts knowledge. I think it is possible to imagine either believers or non-believers affirming the “I don’t know part” while scratching their heads in answer to the “way to find out” part (they could simply acknowledge an inability to imagine such a way while remaining very skeptical — or, for some believers, relatively confident — about its possibility).
    In any event, this choice of response seems to dodge the issue of belief, which is the real matter here. The choice looks likes it’s trying to reach some epistemically safe position (nodding toward knowledge as justifed true belief) but it just strikes me as muddled and somewhat weak-kneed.
    Possibly the second choice appeals to those who wish to suspend belief one way or the other until they have knowledge, but the “no way to find out” position derails their believing that could ever happen.
    I don’t want to begrudge anyone their sincere response; I’d prefer to better understand it. Personally, I’ll stick with the first choice on the list for my response.

    1. I think the “no way to find out” part depends entirely on what characteristics a god (or gods) is supposed to possess. It’s certainly knowable whether they reside on the highest peak of Mount Olympus, for example.

    2. I think the second choice simply means there are proposed definitions for God for which it is not possible to gather evidence for or againts. For example, a deistic god who triggered the big bang and then “exeunt stage left”.

      1. I think this gets at why number two as a response about belief (as opposed to knowledge) puzzles me. Wouldn’t the deist give one of the theist responses instead? And just saying “well, deism is a possibility so I’ll go with response number two” doesn’t say much about one’s belief. Couldn’t one contrive a lot of mystical possibilities (reincarnation; the dead are constantly communicating with us; there is a ghost living in Cincinnati; etc.) for which “don’t know; can’t find out” is a safe, honest-enough response but which dodge the issue of belief (and for which suspension of belief seems ludicrous)? Suspension of belief may be a real possibility for some claims, but it nonetheless raises the question of why one suspends some beliefs and not others.

          1. Thanks for referring me to this. The notion that knowledge is not required for belief that Dillahunty (the guy in the yellow shirt?) makes is also what I’m about here. And since what this survey deals with is belief, the second response’s concentration on knowledge is problematic (a polite way of saying irrelevant). That caller, though, could drive anyone crazy; maybe he was just over anxious.
            I am more used to thinking of the relation as that of belief as a condition of knowledge, but I think the “subset” description amounts to the same thing.
            I remembered after I blundered into this discussion that Martin Gardner took a position similar to mine regarding agnosticism as not knowing. And though Gardner personally came down on the side of theism, he thought agnosticism was just a weak position that missed the point of what believe/non-believe is about.

            1. Belief includes acceptance of statements or propositions that are not known to be true. Knowledge, on the other hand, are only those statements that correspond with reality. So the set of known facts as truths that are believed fits within all beliefs, which may include many instances of statements accepted as true which are not.

              1. Might be about time to wrap this up. There is another condition of knowledge, however, and it is the toughest to come to grips with. That is that the knowledge claim is justified: one can believe a true statement for illegitimate reasons and this belief would not constitute knowledge.
                Leaving that aside, the link you sent has me thinking of what it said this way. A Venn diagram with a big circle for the set (B) of one’s beliefs including an entirely contained circle for the set (K) of one’s [presumed] known propositions. The non-believer in God who does not claim knowledge of God’s non-existence is in the region of B not in K. That term of “agnostic atheist” for this position, however, seems too accurate for its own good what with the various connotations of these terms already out there.

              2. I like to think with pictures like the Venn diagram. I’m glad you suggested that. Good analysis.

  10. Sounds like a simple case of lying for Jesus. They must feel that deceitful research analysis is excusable when the goal is to bring more souls to the God’s temple. What crap!

  11. It would be really interesting to find out how many people lose their faith after going into science. From my anecdotal evidence, I would day that is more common for people who don’t have faith to get into science.

    1. I know a young man who was home schooled and is now in college. He is attending a christian college. I’m interested in following him as he matures to see if exposure to more advanced studies – he wants to be a missionary doctor – has an effect on his religious sense. I’ve had discussions with him about my skepticism and his belief and I’m curious to see, as time goes on, if his closeted self doesn’t begin to consider agnosticism or worse.

  12. A 2012 poll by Win-Gallup International found that 48% of Australians claimed no religion; 37% were religious; 10% declared themselves “convinced atheists”. Australia placed in the bottom 14 for religiosity and in the top 11 for atheism.

    I don’t think Australians are any smarter than Americans … any more scientific. It may be a scepticism and distrust of authority borne of our convict origins – but it would be interesting to know why there is such a disparity between the two nations on this issue.

    Our gun laws are a bit different too.

    1. It isn’t that Australia is particularly stand out different from the rest of the developed world – it is the USA that fits that role:


      Highest ‘defence’ expenditure in the world

      High % [compared to most equitable nations] of people living below median income

      Highest incarceration rate in the world

      Can’t succeed in politics without professing gawd

      If you are poor or genuinely disadvantaged [mental health, physical disability] then most anywhere in the developed world is a better provider to the vulnerable than the USA.

      10 year old Human Poverty Index [low number good]

      Below 9: Sweden [6.3], Norway, Finland, Netherlands, Denmark
      Below 12: Germany, Switzerland, Canada, Luxembourg, Austria, France, Japan
      Below 15: Australia [12.1], Belgium, Spain, UK
      15 or more: USA [15.4], Eire [16.0], Italy [29.8]

      % of pop. below median income: Oz 12.2, USA 17.0

  13. Thank you for bringing my attention to this author. I found it quite interesting. Regarding the claim that nearly half of “elite” scientists are religious in the traditional sense is explained in Table 2.1, p 16 & Figure 3.1 on p 33. Simply put 48% of scientists surveyed reported they were raised in a traditionally religious household as compared to 84% of the general population. When the book publisher’s summary/jacket states nearly 50% are religious, this is what they mean. Misleading for sure. The two largest traditional religious identities were: Jewish (16%) & mainline Prostestant (14%). Compared to the general population there are twice as many Buddhists and three times as many Hindus & Muslims. Of these “religious” scientists, 18% attend services once a month or more and 29% less than once a month. Important to keep in mind that 1/3 of these elite scientists are either nonresidents or first generation accountanting for fact youngest scientists being most religious. Incredibly she states 30% of biologists surveyed have a “firm belief in God”! Ch. 8, p. 138. How is this possible? I wish she would have spent more time exploring this fact.

  14. 1. I’d like to see how ALL disciplines relate to religion. Put another way – to ask how religious views vary with field of study, and not just science. Humanities, art, philosophy, business, anything.

    2. There’s a persistent trend to call the false dilemma of “science vs. religion” a “debate”. Oxford Union keeps doing this, last week in fact, an interesting debate was put up. But there is no debate. There remains a problem though, and I think it has less do with science but more to do with things like language, susceptibility to illusion, persuasion, etc. but that’s just me. I know lots of writers have discussed things like that.

    I imagine a large panel of speakers must have discussed this, and I expect after the ideas get out, there will be the religionists who fall for faith and everyone else who sees the magic trick.

    I apologize but I couldn’t research this big comment too much, and rushed it. Just at least wanted to get it out.

    1. You could argue that ‘proper’ scientists rely on methodological naturalism (which might correlate with philosophical naturalism) because once you let the supernatural into the lab no results are reliable. Plus, so far, the supernatural isn’t required to explain those results.

      Other activities *may* avoid the use of the supernatural because they are ideologically driven, not god driven.

    2. To add a couple -ists to the list, to attempt to make this clear:

      Linguist – critical
      Psychiatrist – critical
      Feel free to add to this list.

      … it really shouldn’t matter because at the end of it all I’d expect it to be clearly shown that it’s a bug in the system. And those bugs produce Frank Tipler, Francis Collins, that mathematician who debated Dawkins,…

      By all means, scientists and philosophers must keep it up, but for larger gaps to be opened up in the “amorphous blob” (A.C. Grayling?), fresh viewpoints are going to be invaluable. It would also help when, apparently, scientists/philosophers/mathematicians apparently score points for faith or one religion. No – they’re just deluded, like anyone else can be.

  15. It would be interesting to know whether people were atheists before they became scientists or whether science education helped them lose religion. I was raised in a traditional protestant family (Presbyterian) and in high school thought I’d be a minister because I liked the one who advised the youth fellowship. I spent the summer before my senior year at the shore and was elected president of our youth group (probably because I wasn’t there!) But I also read the King James version of the bible end to end, (something I’m sure many Christians haven’t done), and that convinced me there were so many contradictions in it I probably didn’t want to be a minister.

    I went to a Lutheran undergraduate school and learned in the required religion courses that nearly all of the supposed “historical” events in the bible were, to put it mildly, legends. By the time I went to graduate school, I considered myself an agnostic.

    One of the people in the laboratory where I was a post-doc said “Why do you say you’re an agnostic? If someone comes up to you and claims there’s a golden unicorn dancing in the air between you and you can find no evidence of it, you’re perfectly entitled to say ‘I don’t believe you’.” I’ve been an atheist ever since, and while the emphasis on evidence that science taught me for my career certainly helped that decision, science wasn’t my only reason for deciding there are no gods (or unicorns for that matter).

  16. If I were asked whether I were “spiritual” I would respond with “define spiritual,” because I have yet to see any consistent definition of the term. I was in a community in which that term was used by people who I suspected wanted to be included in social groups that would not respond to people who said “no.”

    I also am suspect of polls that use such amorphous terms. The most amorphous is “god” or rather “God.” Even people who claim to believe in the “god of the Bible” differ from one another (substantially).

  17. Because of this popularity of creationism among US public, creationist sites are popular and come at top positions almost every time when I launch a Google search on some evolutionary topic. It is crazy!

    1. That shouldn’t happen normally with Google search especially as you are in Europe. Google must have noticed recent searches re creationism/ID by you – test this by clearing your search history:

      Do a random search > Click “Settings” [in the row menu at the top left] > Click “History” in the drop down menu > Look in left sidebar & select “Delete by” > choose the date option & delete everything before today’s date by clicking “delete” at the bottom

      Or use DuckDuckGo ~ it is privacy hardened & doesn’t keep a history

      The only time I’ve had creationism/ID at the top was in 2017 when the Discovery Institute paid Google to put up sponsored links for a couple of weeks. Annoying!

  18. As one proceeds to the NAS the level of religious belief very clearly drops (see below link, I am currently too busy to provide additional links, which also exist). There is also an unmistakable inverse correlation between education and religious beliefs, particularly among Jews. Note that the below Pew survey link is measuring the self-reported church attendance rates and then equating that with “religion” (whatever that is) while assuming that the self- reported rates are actually accurate. Peer pressure in religious circles often results in gross exaggerations to questions like these.

    Of course religious apologists try to down play those trends at every possible turn.

    One way to downplay the association is to claim that many now dead scientists believed in “God” (capital G), even when these claims avoid pointing out very strong cultural pressures at the time (claiming to disbelieve in the current popular god could result in academic expulsion or even premature death), and even when provably false. Einstein is brought up a lot in such claims yet Einstein made it very clear that he did not endorse common Christian or Jewish theism:

    “I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls.”


    “I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

    One of the worst problems with such religion surveys is that they often decline to clearly define their terms. e.g. “Do you believe in God” is often assumed to mean one of the many theistic Christian gods, but a deist or even a non-Christian religionist could answer “yes”, providing yet more ammunition for specific religious sects.

    The question should clearly define which god, in which case the argument that “everyone believes in God” (capital G) would quickly evaporate since there are so many gods. e.g. “the ground of being” for example of “sophisticated theology” (more accurately titled “sophisticated obscurantism”).

    “Are you religious” also has a large degree of vagueness inbuilt. Some time ago a couple of Catholic priests were making fun of a couple of “atheists” in our state’s largest newspaper because the “atheists” also claimed to “believe in God”. Of course the dim bulb priests totally failed to see the irony of a pair of uninformed theists claiming to be “atheists” because they did not go to church.

    Religion apologists are invariably intentionally vague about terms like “spirituality”, “god”, and “religion” to capture the largest possible numbers for their arguments. “god” is almost always printed with a capital G, implying a specifically Christian god but without explicitly stating which one. Believers in Shiva would naturally fall into the “god believers” side, as would believers in Quatzequatel, or pagan or even alien gods.

    And likewise “spiritual” is an exceedingly vague term with potentially thousands of different meanings largely depending on the respondent.

    The greater the vagueness the greater the numbers that the surveyors can clump together to make it look like they all answered the same way to the intentionally ill phrased question.

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