Magazine article The Humanist

Scientists and Religion

Magazine article The Humanist

Scientists and Religion

Article excerpt

Nature magazine reported on a new study of the religious beliefs of scientists in its April 3,1997, issue. The study, conducted by University of Georgia historian Edward J. Larson and Washington journalist Larry Witham, replicated as closely as possible a study done in 1914 by psychologist and humanist James H. Leuba.

Larson and Witham found that the percentage of scientists who believe in a personal deity has remained rather stable while belief in personal immortality has declined considerably and the desire for personal immortality even more. The authors recognized that opinion polling about religion is tricky but chose to replicate Leuba's original study for the sake of comparing similar samples over an eighty-two-year span. The questions used were kept simple and dealt only with belief in a personal, prayer-answering God, personal immortality, and, for those who do not believe in personal immortality, whether "desire" for such was intense, moderate, or nonexistent.

Leuba repeated his study in 1933; but because he changed his sampling method, his 1933 results cannot be compared too closely with the 1914 and 1996 results. The findings for all three studies, however, are represented in the table.

In 1914, Leuba divided his sample into "greater" and "lesser" scientists--as defined by American Men and Women of Science, the source of his sample--and found that the "greaters" were less likely to be believers than the "lessers." Although the 1996 survey sample came from the same source, the same comparison could not be made because there no longer is a differentiation made between "greater" and "lesser" scientists.

Some would quarrel with the use of the personal, prayer-answering deity question as being too simplistic, but it has the virtue of using an easily understood, traditional (in Western terms) idea and avoiding the ambiguity of such definitions of God as"the ground of being," "higher consciousness," a "natural process," the "sum total of the laws of the universe," and the like. …

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