Religious Beliefs of Scientists: A Survey of the Research

By Bergman, Gerald R. | Free Inquiry, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Religious Beliefs of Scientists: A Survey of the Research


Bergman, Gerald R., Free Inquiry


The number of practicing scientists that hold a religious worldview has been the subject of debate for well over a century. Both atheists and theists have tried to bolster the credibility of their worldview by quoting both surveys and the writings of eminent scientists to argue for the validity of their beliefs (Margenau and Varghese 1993; Lightman and Brawen 1990; Trabrum 1910; Varghese 1984). The argument usually runs as follows: Professor Jones, a great scientist and eminent thinker, held the Christian faith (or rejected Christianity), thus Christianity should be looked into (or rejected).

Numerous surveys of varying quality have been completed specifically on the religious beliefs of scientists, and even more surveys have focused on studying the beliefs and values of scientists in general. I have here reviewed all of the studies that I have been able to locate and, although not exhaustive, in view of the consistency found it is apparent that it provides a reasonably accurate summary of the general religious views of eminent scientists. The existing literature consistently concludes that very few eminent scientists today are devoutly religious, and most do not hold to any conventional theistic religious beliefs (Beckwith 1981). In Goss's words, "The religious scientist is an Oxymoron" (1994: 105) and in the scientific community, it is the

religious holdout who is on the defensive. The scientific atheist, confident of her convictions, feels little need to defend them or to preach to the converted. She can afford to ignore the conflict between science and religion as irrelevant. . . . Not until militant religionists step on scientific toes in political issues, such as . . . teaching creationism along with evolution, do the atheists need to rise up in righteous indignation. [1994: 105-106]

This view has been common among critics of religion for decades now. In the words of McCabe, "Those who are preeminently regarded as our thinkers, the philosophers, are very rarely Christians, and a majority do not believe in a personal god or personal immorality" (1927:6). He adds that "science is directly hostile" to the theistic view of origins and that "the whole of the modern science, without a single living exception, is opposed to [the theistic account of origins]. . . . The controversy is closed for any sensible man" (1927:7). McCabe concludes that "the authentic teaching of science" is at least very hostile, and likely "fatal to the teaching of religion" (1927:10). This trend is so strong that Goss concludes the few religious scientists left are a "riddle" which he tries to answer as follows:

"There's just got to be something," my physician friend replied when I asked him if he believed in God. "We need to acknowledge something outside ourselves," said the Brown University math professor during a faculty debate on whether or not Commencement prayers were appropriate. . . . By neglecting to question their own deep-seated impressions, the habits of a lifetime persist unchallenged even by minds trained otherwise to the rigors of scientific inquiry. What is it . . . that impels some scientists to sustain their religious beliefs learned in childhood, beliefs that contradict so much of what they learned in university or medical school courses? Is there some innate need to cling to superstitious relics throughout life? Are religious scientists the victims of early conditioning too basic to deny? [1994:105]

Arguing on the other side, Drawbridge concludes that the various anti-theistic societies, "in their attack upon every form of theism, base their arguments very largely upon the confident assumption that natural science has completely discredited the belief in God, and, indeed, all of the fundamental tenets of theists" (1923:10).

When theists produce a catalogue of scientifically trained believers, the non-theist responds as follows:

Their scientific work gives them no particular fitness to judge historical or philosophical questions.

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