Science in Christian Perspective
Religious Beliefs of Scientists
Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania 15010
From: JASA 23 (March 1971): 10-11.
The question of what kind of religious beliefs are held by men of science has had a long history. While passing through the intellectual scene, observers of all persuasions tip their hats to this perennial topic. It was inevitable, therefore, that the social scientist would direct his questionnaires at the scientific community. This has been done in rather relentless fashion within the past 5 years, with the result that some rather significant light, blessed with an empirical glow, has been shed on the problem.
The path-breaking work, however, was done by James Leuba some 35 years ago.1 Sending a questionnaire to scientists chosen from Cattell's American Men of Science in 1933, Leuba sought to understand the attitudes of several hundred of these scientists toward a God influenced by worship and immortality. He found that 30% of this group believed in a God moved to action by worship while 33% believed in immortality. The fact he considers to be of greater importance was that 41% did not believe in immortality while 56% did not believe in God. His general conclusion was that while scientists are not as irreligious as one might think, they do not tend to support traditional belief systems. His explanation for these findings was based on the belief that scientists share unique patterns of knowledge and personality characteristics.
A thoroughgoing study of this question was presented five years ago by a sociologist. Patterning his work on that of Leuba's, Rodney Stark addresses himself more precisely to the question of whether religion and science are in conflict.2 Studying data collected in 1958 for 2,462 students from 25 universities, he concludes that religion and science are not in clear conflict. Contrary to his assumption, scientists will not be exclusively scientific or religious. While religious values did weaken with increased scientific training, as he predicted, they did not completely disappear. He finds the self-image held by the scientist to be the critical factor in determining whether the value system of science will replace that of religion. Thus, he typifies the graduate student of science as uninvolved in religion, lowly involved, and highly involved.
In a more recent study, several sociologists concluded that scientists are relatively neutral to religion.3 Basing their findings on 642 questionnaires which were mailed to scientists selected from American Men of Science, these researchers claim that religion and science have arranged for an accommodation of their differences. This conclusion is based on the fact that 61% of their respondents stated that religion and science are in separate realms, but not in conflict. Of this total group, 17% saw religion and science as complementary and only 14% considered them to be in conflict.
Finally, we refer to a study completed last year by two sociologists.4 The contention suggested in this study is that religion and science are not in clear conflict because scientists are not less religious than nonscientists. The scientist does not necessarily reject religion, a conclusion which was found by Stark to have validity. Rather, these researchers claim, what is important is the scholarly distance of the scientist from religion. Thus, one finds that those researchers who approach religion from a traditional scholarly perspective, meaning a discipline with low scholarly distance such as psychology or sociology, will demonstrate less religious involvement than those with a higher scholarly distance such as is found in physics.
Once the question of intervening variables which may be causal in nature is raised, the question develops an interesting complexity. This matter of scientific field was dealt with in three of these studies. Leuba categorizes four groups of scientists; physicists, biologists, sociologists and psychologists. He finds that physicists had the greatest proportion of believers (38%) while psychologists had the smallest (10%).5
Following the same approach, Vaughan, Smith, and Sjoberg believe that scientists in applied areas may have a stronger religious commitment than other scientists.6 Both of these claims tend to support the validity of the scholarly distance variable and further suggest that religion and science are more likely to come into conflict as the area of specialization is unable to be kept separate from a religious belief system.
Another variable which is claimed in three studies to be a causal factor influencing religious belief is scientific eminence. Leuba notes, for example, that the more eminent the scientist in each discipline, the weaker the belief in God or immortality.7 Stark concurs with this finding. He notes that students with a high quality graduate and undergraduate training tend to have a weaker religious involvement.8 Such students, he claims, trade religious ties for a scholarly and scientific self-image, thus suggesting that the two sets of values are not completely compatible. The influence of the large and prestigious university was also noted in the 1966 study. It was found that scientists in such universities were less inclined to attend church or to believe in life after death than scientists in business, government, or smaller schools.9
A final variable which was considered in three of these studies is religious tradition of the scientist. Lehman and Shriver suggest that parental religiosity is related to faculty religiosity.10 They note, however, that scientific discipline appears to be an intervening variable. Scientists with a more religious background may choose fields with higher scholarly distance, thereby supporting their religious perspectives. Vaughan, Smith, and Sjoberg emphasize the movement of scientists away from the religion of their parents. They found that 54% of their group had religious affiliations different from those of their parents.11 From this finding, they imply that scientists, while still desiring a place for religious expression, shift to churches which are more liberal and with a higher socio-economic status. Stark also provides data which underscore a drift on the part of graduate students away from their religious traditions. He sees this erosion as a process which increases as the student moves to higher levels of education.12 What he notes, in contrast to the previous studies, is that graduate students tend to lose religious beliefs while established scientists are more inclined to shift their religious affiliation rather than lose it.
Interpretation of Studies
These data, of course, would allow speculation to move into many directions. One gets the impression that scientists, like most persons, may use religion as a symbol of their increasing status through the process of changing church membership. The graduate student, being less concerned with such status, would be more willing to give up any claim to religious affiliation. Apparently, the scientist may not he different from the nonscientist in his religious beliefs.
Yet, the findings on eminence and field of discipline suggest that the scientist does experience influences which would not be operative on the nonscientist. The extent to which these influences are the result of the scientist's membership in a learned community or his role as an independent seeker for truth is not clearly dealt with in these studies. Indeed, one might also suggest that the relatively stronger belief in immortality merely shows that the scientist is influenced by his humanity, devoid of any social or scientific overtones.
What does appear to be firmly established by these studies is that there is no clear conflict between religion and science. The problem that remains, however, is whether the removal of this conflict has resulted in a form of compromise between the two spheres of knowledge. If such should be the case, it is quite likely that religion is being absorbed by science, The implications of such a possibility are critical. Stark recognizes the increasing influence of the scientist in our society and concludes that "we much suspect that future American society will either become increasingly irreligious, or that religion will be extensively modified. In the latter case, the historical conflict between re ligion and science may be finally resolved."13
1Leuba, James, "Religious Beliefs of American Scientists", Harpers, 169 (August, 1934), 291-300
2Stark, Rodney, "On the Incompatability of Religion and Science. A Survey of American Graduate Students", Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, III (Fall, 1963), 3-20
3Vaughan, Ted, Smith, Douglas, and Siobere, Gideon, "The Religious Orientations of American Natural Scientists", Social Forces, XLIV (June, 1966), 519-526
4Lehman, Edward, and Shriver, Donald, "Academic Discipline as Predictive of Faculty Religiosity", Social Forces, XLVII (December, 1968), 171-182
5op. cit. 294
6Op. cit. 525
70p. cit. 296-297
8Op. cit. 8-12
9Vaoghan, Smith, and Sjobert, op. cit. 525
100p. cit. 180-181
110p. cit. 522-523
120p. cit. 8-10
13Op. cit. 14
The results of a survey of over 60,000 faculty members were recently published in The Chronicle of
Higher Education, (April 6, 1970). Some of the data were based on the question, "In what religion were you raised and what is your present religion?" The results tended to validate the conclusions already suggested. Some of the results selected for illustration are as follows:
Field Per cent not raised in any religion | Per cent with no religious beliefs now
Anthropology 8.7 56.1
Psychology 5.4 44.1
Philosophy 6.0 40.8
Biology 4.4 30.0
Mathematics 5.0 30.3
Chemistry 4.0 25.3
Geology 5.4 31.4
Physics 7.5 34.9
Engineering 4.5 16.8
Nursing 1.7 7.8
Agriculture 2.3 7.3
These data suggest the validity of the claim that persons in social sciences and humanities tend to lose their religious beliefs more completely than persons in natural and physical sciences. It is in the applied and technical fields, however, that the least amount of loss of religious belief is experienced.