Scientists and Atheism.

Something I have wondered about for some time now. Are most scientists atheists?

Let me carefully define the term. I mean smart knowledgeable ones. For the purpose of this question, I am not talking about garden variety doctors for example.

I myself tend to think that there must be SOME higher power. But I don’t believe in much else. It’s an interesting question though. Scientists tend to be on the cutting edge. Consider Galileo (spelling?) for example.


That’s good, because most doctors are not scientists. Some may be, but it’s in addition to them being doctors. Doctors are really just overpaid technicians.

From ten years ago (and only considering American scientists), there was a Pew Research poll which showed that 33% of American scientists (defined as members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science) reported a belief in God; 18% of scientists reported having a belief in some kind of universal spirit or higher power; 41% of scientists reported having no belief in God or any kind of higher power; and 7% didn’t answer. From that poll, the numbers for the general American public were 83% believing in God; 12% believing in some kind of higher power; 4% not believing in either God or any higher power; and 1% with no answer.

From 2017 data, the numbers for the general public in the United States appeared to be 56% believing in the God of the Bible; 33% believing in a higher power or spiritual force (with 23% describing that “higher power /spiritual force” as “God” and 9% saying they don’t believe in God, but do believe in a “higher power” or “spiritual force”); 10% claiming no belief in any God or higher power (and I guess 1% refusing to answer). Note that even though that’s also a Pew Research poll it seems to divide things up differently, and may well have used different language for its questions, which can affect the results you get.

Well scientists deal with proof. When there isn’t proof of god there isn’t a reason to believe in it.

For as long as you’ve been here, I’m surprised you haven’t have ran across this many times here. Scientists in general it’s about half are believers, the other half are not.

With leading scientists, the gap becomes greater, with 93% of them not believing in a person god, with most of them atheists, and some 20% or so agnostic, 7% deists. Among Britain’s leading scientists, it’s generally around 95% non-believers.

Got into a bit of a heated discussion with another some 6 years ago with this, particularly when I was showing how an author named Eckland was wanting to show how scientists are more religious than what others have found. She left out one of the most important studies over the years to help skew her numbers, and it’s important to know who funded her study to try to get these positive results.

There are reasons I give of why her numbers are skewed besides the professions she chose. Not a long read, but it goes into more detail than what I need to go into here, just scroll about halfway on the link.

Because scientists usually worry about how they know what they know, they tend to recognise the limits of their own certainty. While they will be dogmatic about their bat phylogeny or astrophysics or whatever, they tend to accept that outside their own domain they don’t know much more than the average jo(e). Its not surprising that scientists will tend to reflect broad social attitudes and beliefs outside their own specialisation and get a fairly mixed split.

Where your professional area requires you to take a position on whether a deity done it or could everything you observe can be explained through natural and physical processes, then you may tend to align with the evidence more (hint - its no longer 50-50).

Usually this is a misapplied use of the term of believe. Typically belief is not needed for something that can be proven.

Scientist, in their profession, deal with proof using a specific and acceptable standard, which has not much to do with their personal beliefs.

The Pareto principle (80/20 principle) applies to scientists just as well to everyone else. Using the principle, one can empirically say that 80% of good science comes from only 20% of the scientists.

I have seen this in play at many scientific / engineering conferences where if it is a 5 day conference, only the 1st day has majority of attendance and the attendance is sparse on the rest of the 4 days. Same can be said about college professors.
So, I think the OP’s question will be more relevant if atheism is measured for the top 20% of the scientists.

I agree with kanicbird. When there is scientific proof of something, scientists would say they know it.

But there are things, including things that fall within the realm of science but are beyond what science currently knows, which scientists might say they believe, and about which different scientists believe different things.

So many deities to choose from! Which to believe in? We need to run some experiments. Can we get a grant?

Scientists may want to prove things (that’s an oversimplification–they actually cannot prove anything, not in the sense that mathematicians use the word), but they cannot prove either the existence or non-existence of god. I might predict that most scientists are agnostic, whatever they believe. For myself I do not believe there is a god and certainly not a personal one. Curiously, I read somewhere that a higher percentage of mathematicians are believers than of scientists. I have certainly known a number of deeply religious ones, some of them really fine mathematicians. I cannot explain that.

On the same lines, there are so many theories in physics to choose from! Which to believe in? (But there are a lot of physicists who believe in them!!)

Oh and they have gotten a lot of grants. I read somewhere that theories like the string theory will need a particle accelerator the size of a solar system to prove (or disprove).
I think that the popular representation of scientists as rational and objective people is not accurate for a lot of scientists.


There seems to be a lot more interest in the questions of whether scientists should be atheists, or why they might be, than in the statistical question of whether they are. Those being GD questions, let’s move this to GD.

[Not moderating]

One thing to be careful of with these statistics is that there’s no way for a pollster to know whether someone actually believes in God, only whether they say they believe. Personally, I suspect that the rate of theism among scientists is about the same as in the general population, but that scientists are just more honest about it.

Define “scientist” and “atheist”. Isn’t a monotheist just atheistic toward all gods but their own favorite? And do social “sciences” count as science? I’ve read that disciplines containing the word “science” aren’t scienctific - Political Sci, Computer Sci, Christian Sci, etc. Consider who asks the question, and how respondents might expect their answers to be treated. In some times and places, expressing belief or disbelief can have career and life consequences.

I long ago read somewhere (sorry, no cite) that US geologists tend toward religious belief. An upthread post posited mathematicians as more believing. Do any competent polls show differences by discipline?

Right; one might ask whether most plumbers are atheists, or whether most farmers are atheists. What does it have to do with religion? One does not typically become a prophet through science (or farming), but rather via mysticism.

Agreed. But then there is Linus Pauling :

“ A chemist who won the Nobel before he was awarded a high school diploma, Pauling is widely regarded as the grandfather of modern chemistry and molecular biology. Yet he may be better known to most Americans as a peace activist – and more recently as the **prophet **and promoter of the curative powers of vitamin C.”
<Bolding mine>

From :

I think you’re both conflating “belief” with “faith.”

Because knowledge is merely a subset of belief. I both “know” the Earth is roughly spherical (certainly nearer that than a cube) and “believe” the Earth is roughly spherical. Now what exactly constitutes proper “knowledge” is a whole 'nother ball game, but a very old definition of what it seemingly ought to be is “a justified true belief.” But of course that’s a matter for another thread.

I was about to make a similar comment.

And of course religious faith makes a virtue of belief without evidence; religion values knowledge derived from unquestioned authority. These are precisely the values that were overturned in the Enlightenment and in the development of the scientific method. Given modern scientific knowledge, for a scientist to hold true religious belief (something that extends beyond participation in religion as a social ritual) involves significant cognitive dissonance.

Well, no. The obvious reason to ask is because science is based on a post-Enlightenment path to knowledge that is diametrically opposed to the path to knowledge advocated by religion. You seem to be buying into some nonsense like Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria”. But religion has historically made a comprehensive array of claims about the objective nature of reality, virtually all of which have been shown to be false. If the magisteria don’t overlap, it’s because our scientific understanding of the true nature of reality has forced religion to abandon it’s claims to pretty much all its falsifiable truth claims about the universe, leaving religion only with vague unfalsifiable “spiritual” waffle. Even modern ethics and morality left religion behind a long time ago.