That science and religion thing again

In a recent study coming out, a conclusion is being made that most scientists do not abandon their faith. Professor Ecklund, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Rice University surveyed 300 scientists over 3 years and found:

Less than 5% of scientists have no faith at all. 35% claim to be “spiritual atheists” which they define as having a belief in something larger than themselves. This group has rather eclectic views, using a bit of Eastern religious thought integrated with scientific thought as foundation for that belief. 68% of scientists on the whole have some sort of compatibility in their beliefs with science and religion. 50% of them are committed to their religious faith.

This contrasts with previous surveys of the National Academy of Science members, where:

The authors report “near universal rejection” of the transcendent by NAS natural scientists. Overall, 93 percent of NAS scientists do not profess a belief in God (72.2 percent disbelief, 20.8 agnostic), and 92.1 percent do not profess a belief in immortality (76.7 percent disbelief, 23.3 percent agnostic). Disbelief in God and immortality among NAS biological scientists was 65.2 percent and 69.0 percent respectively, and among NAS physical scientists it was 79 percent and 76.3 percent respectively.

(from Nature).

It is not said what type of scientists Ecklund interviewed, but I do not that a lot of social scientists are religious. I suppose if one were going to churches to find scientists to interview, you would find some bias towards religious belief. I suspect her sampling was better than that though, but I would be surprised if she interviewed very many natural scientists.

In any case, from my point of view it doesn’t matter very much. I have known a few religious scientists who were quite good, even excellent, in the scientific area of expertise. Ken Miller, of Brown University, is a good example. But when it comes to religion, the rigor that they bring to scientific investigations, they check at the door. Compartmentalization. The beliefs go without the thorough examination that characterizes their professional lives. Perhaps it is the sense of community and tradition that they don’t feel the need to probe too deeply. If these beliefs are not being used to justify controlling others or harmful behaviors (as is too often the case with the religious minded), than it is not really a problem. As the article states, many of the scientists recognize the validity of evolution and maintaining high science standards. I presume they (of the Christian persuasion anyway) see the creation myth as metaphor or something. This begs the question of when does one stop unraveling biblical metaphors before the whole thing becomes undone?

But if religious scientists were to apply the same exacting standards to religious beliefs that they do to their professional work, what would they find? That if a God did or occasionally does intervene in the workings of the universe, the scientific tools they have for their work are perfectly capable of investigating such. Scientific method and secular reasoning totally dismantle (well, to 99% certainty anyway, if I were given to throwing out numbers) any such supernatural notion. What about a noninterventionist Deistic God? Not only do we have no reason to guess such a being exists, what use would it be?

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One Response to “That science and religion thing again”

  1. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    I suspect that how the questions are phrased can have a lot of impact on this sort of thing. Do I for example believe in something greater than me? I don’t know. Does mathematics count? Does the overwhelming feeling of the numinous when contemplating large sets? What about the numinous feeling when contemplating how life on this planet evolved from a small set of common ancestors? These are concepts which transcend me. So do they make me spiritual?

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