Thursday, April 4, 2013

How Many Scientists Believe in God?

The question "Do you believe in God?" has a different meaning for each individual. God can be a personal God, a God of a specific religion, a God who created the universe and its laws but who did nothing after that, and so on. Let’s begin with statistics asking the question, "Do you believe in a personal God?"

The US psychologist James H. Leuba in his survey of 1914 found that 58% of 1,000 randomly selected US scientists expressed disbelief or doubt in the existence of a personal God. This figure rose to nearly 70% among the 400 "greater" scientists within his sample (1). Leuba repeated his survey 20 years later and found that these percentages among “greater” scientists had increased to 85%. (2). In 1998 Larson and Witham repeated Leuba’s study, using the term “greater” scientists to mean those who are members of the National Academy of Science. The results are shown in
the table below.

Comparison of survey answers among "greater" scientists

Belief in personal God 1914 1933 1998
Personal belief  27.7 15.0 7.0
Personal disbelief  52.7 68.0 72.2
Doubt or agnosticism  20.9 17.0 20.8
Belief in human immortality 1914 1933 1998
Personal belief  35.2 18.0 7.9
Personal disbelief  25.4 53.0 76.7
Doubt or agnosticism  43.7 29.0 23.3

These results can be misleading, however. The question was asked in terms of a personal God. The distinction is vital in understanding where science is going today. Einstein, himself, did not believe in a personal God who is involved in the daily activities of humans, but in Spinoza’s God, one of intelligence and order.

"I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings." (4)

If you ask the question in this more subtle way, the results are different. In a 2009 Pew survey USNEWS the results are as follows:

Religious Belief of Scientists

Believe in God               33%

Believe in higher power 18%

Don’t believe in either    41%

As the numbers show, those scientists who believe in God (33%) added to those who believe in a higher power (18%) results in 51%, a slight majority. Or if you just take the total percent of scientists who don’t believe in either it is 41% (taking into account, I assume, those who had no opinion).

In another study (5) they broke down academic scientists by “hard” disciplines and “soft” disciplines: 

Disbelief in God by Academics

Discipline            %

Physics               40.8

Chemistry           26.6

Biology               41.0
Overall                37.6

Sociology            34.0

Economics          31.7

Political Science 27.0

Psychology         33.0

Overall               31.2

The numbers show that overall disbelief in God among “hard” scientists is 37.6%, a minority. Disbelief in God among “soft” scientists is 31.2%. So both recent studies show a belief in God, on some level, by a majority of scientists.

What is the distinction that scientists make between a personal God and a higher power? Einstein expressed this view beautifully:

"I'm not an atheist and I don't think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangements of the books, but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God."(6)

In the next post I will explore the views held by physicists specializing in quantum physics regarding their views on the nature of God, consciousness, and a higher power. As I think we will see, the question of consciousness has become a vital issue in the thinking of who or what God may be.

1. Leuba, J. H. The Belief in God and Immortality: A Psychological, Anthropological and Statistical Study (Sherman, French & Co., Boston, 1916).
2. Leuba, J. H. Harper's Magazine 169, 291-300 (1934).
3. Edward J. Larson1 & Larry Witham Nature 394, 313 (23 July 1998) | doi:10.1038/28478
4. Cable reply to Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein's (Institutional Synagogue in New York) question to Einstein, "Do you believe in God?"
5. Ecklund, E. H. and C. P. Scheitle. 2007. Religion among Academic Scientists: Distinctions, Disciplines, and Demographics. Social Problems 54: 289–307.
6. G. S. Viereck, Glimpses of the Great (Macauley, New York, 1930), quoted by D. Brian, Einstein: A Life , p. 186.

1 comment:

  1. This very topic was the subject of my dinner conversation last night. Two scientists (and professed atheists) immovable in their beliefs, butting heads against a skeptic and an agnostic. As difficult as it may be to accept the existence of a higher being, it's equally difficult to deny. Like all beliefs, the danger comes when you are unable to even acknowledge the possibility of another perspective. It is a loaded question, with many rational and irrational angles, making Einstein's quote all the more beautiful in it's grace and simplicity.


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