Why are so many scientists atheists?

By Robin Schumacher

Oftentimes atheists claim that the overwhelming majority of scientists are unbelievers, and attempt to support their position by pointing to a number of polls that query the religious temperature of scientists which have been conducted over the past decade or so. By offering such data, atheists try and argue that immersion in science dispels the supposed superstitious and fictitious beliefs of those who believe in God.

Is this really the case? Let's take a look and see if this line of argumentation holds up once things are more closely examined.

Polling the Unbelievers

In the recently released movie, The Unbelievers [1], atheists Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss state how science is "beautiful" while religion is "not beautiful," with the pair doing little to hide their contempt for any person who believes there is more to reality than just the material universe. Do the vast majority of Dawkin's and Krauss' colleagues share their opinion?

Members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science were polled by the Pew Research Center a number of years ago, with the results showing that 51 percent of those scientists believed in God or something beyond the natural.[2] While the majority of scientists polled did express a belief in something outside the material universe, the number of unbelievers among scientists was indeed much larger than the population as a whole (41 percent vs. 4 percent).

The survey highlighted another very interesting fact along the lines of scientists and unbelief. While atheists often argue that advances in science throughout the last century are eroding religious faith, the data in the Pew Research survey showed that that the percentages of believers/unbelievers among scientists was actually unchanged from about 100 years ago.[3]

Of course, this is just one survey; others done with different groups of scientists have shown higher percentage of unbelievers, while others are on par with what the Pew Research group found. While debates over numbers in different surveys can certainly be had, the more interesting question is why are some of these scientists atheists?

The Motives Behind the Numbers

Atheists point to statistics such as those in the Pew Research survey and argue that more scientists are unbelievers because their scientific education has caused them to dismiss any belief in God. But can that correlation be proven?

Rice University sociologist Dr. Elaine Ecklund conducted research from 2005-2008 in order to answer this very question, with her investigation resulting in the 2012 book Science vs. Religion — What Scientists Really Think. While Ecklund notes that some scientists do not believe because of their scientific studies, she sums up her overall findings this way:
"In fact, for the majority of scientists I interviewed, it is not the engagement with science itself that leads them away from religion. Rather their reasons for unbelief mirror the circumstances in which other Americans find themselves: they were not raised in a religious home; they have had bad experience with religion; they disapprove of God or see God as too changeable."[4]
Ecklund's conclusions show that when atheists posit that the majority of scientists become unbelievers because of their science, they commit the logical fallacy of post hoc propter hoc, which is Latin for "after this, therefore because of this". According to Ecklund, most scientists do not, in fact, reject God because of some scientific awakening. Rather, they are unbelievers for reasons that are common to other atheists who are not scientists.

An Interesting Conversation

Seeing Ecklund describe some scientist-atheists as not believing because "they disapprove of God" reminded me of an interesting conversation one of my seminary professors had over lunch with a biologist who was an atheist. As the lunch progressed, my professor respectfully confronted his lunch mate with the flaws and fallacies of atheism where God is concerned.

Surprisingly, the atheistic professor said at the end of their lunch, "I think you're right. I do think the evidence you've presented is correct with respect to God. That said, I'm still going to teach evolution and remain an atheist." Baffled, my professor asked why. "Because I want to sleep with who I want and keep living how I'm living," came the reply.

I bring this up not to say that atheists are immoral while Christians are more ethical, but instead to argue that there are motivations beyond pure rational and evidential arguments as to why people reject God. For example, in addressing the Christianity's influence in society, Aldous Huxley wrote, "We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom."[5]

Various scientists have not been shy in admitting that it isn't science that brought them to atheism nor is it science that keeps them there. Atheist George Klein wrote: "I am an atheist. My attitude is not based on science, but rather on faith...The absence of a Creator, the non-existence of God is my childhood faith, my adult belief, unshakable and holy."[6]

Or listen to atheist Thomas Nagel admit: "I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope that there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that."[7]

Two Errors

In the end, we see atheists make two errors in their implied argument of science causing people to become unbelievers. First, they offer a false dichotomy of either embracing science or faith in God. Accepting both is certainly possible, with history and our present day showcasing numerous examples of brilliant scientists who are believers.

Second, atheists build on a false assumption of believing that scientific education causes faith in God to disappear and in doing so they commit the post hoc propter hoc logical fallacy of assuming the scientist's current unbelieving state was caused by their scientific training.[8]

So why are so many scientists atheists? The truth is, the majority of scientists are atheists for the same reasons that cause other unbelievers to reject God, and most times, it has nothing to do with a scientific education, a supposed lack of evidence or anything similar.

1. The Unbelievers
2. Pew Research: "Scientists and Belief"
3. Ibid.
4. Elaine Howard Eklund; Science Vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, my emphasis
5. Aldus Huxley; Ends and Means, pg. 273
6. George Klein; The Atheist and the Holy City: Encounters and Reflections
7. Thomas Nagel; The Last Word
8. The same could be said of the study entitled "Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief"; see: Marina Krakovsky's "Losing Your Religion: Analytic Thinking Can Undermine Belief"

Image Credit: Kersley Fitzgerald; Shove Chapel, Colorado Springs

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Published 6-25-13