Over at Scot McKnight’s blog, The Jesus Creed, RJS is doing a series of posts on Elaine Howard Ecklund’s book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (latest post here, http://blog.beliefnet.com/jesuscreed/2010/05/god-on-the-quad-rjs.html). These posts are generating a lively discussion on the blog, and hopefully will do the same in the labs and hallways in which communication occurs in academia.
In this book, Ecklund, a sociologist at Rice University, summarizes and synthesizes for the reader the results of surveys (1,700) and personal interviews (275) that she conducted with natural and physical scientists, sociologists, economists, and political scientists employed by 21 of the “elite” research universities in the U.S. A main theme of the book is that it is not easy to characterize the religious beliefs of these academicians and that popular thoughts of science and religion warfare in academic circles are oversimplified. While it is true that university-level scientists are “less religious” overall as indicated by most measures, there is much more going on under the surface. I am not going to go into any more details on this blog, but for those interested here is a link to the book (http://amzn.to/9NBWTv) and Dr. Ecklund’s website (http://www.ehecklund.rice.edu). Again, I hope that this book will encourage communication and discussion within the sciences although the pessimist in me is unfortunately, quite skeptical that it will.
This book and the posts by RJS got me to thinking about the oft-publicized data that “leading” scientists are less likely to believe in God. These “leading” scientists correspond to those that are members of the National Academy of Sciences. In a 1998 survey, it was found that 7% expressed a “personal belief” in God, 72% expressed a “personal disbelief in God”, and 21% were agnostic. These numbers, of course, are in stark contrast with the general public (and in fact, are probably exactly reversed). As we see by Ecklund’s book, the “nonleading” or I shall call them, “average” scientists fall somewhere in the middle, overall. Why are the “leading” scientists percentages so different? The reason is important as many atheists use this data as part of the argument for atheism. “See, the leading scientists believe such, and they’re obviously very smart, so that’s what the smart person should think and everyone else is deluded” (I’m clearly paraphrasing). Hey, if smart people believe something then this blogger thinks that it’s probably worth exploring, no matter what my preconceptions. It doesn’t mean that they’re right, it just means that it’s a plausible position.
So why do I think that the data on “leading” scientists is the way that it is? There are a number of possible reasons and RJS (and commenters in the discussion) have hit on a number of them. Lately, I’ve been thinking about another reason though, so here goes. To get to the position of being a National Academy Member requires a special and highly dedicated scientist. This person has likely spent decades of hard work on their specific research focus which has required very long hours and an impressive ability to focus on and continually reduce and brainstorm the scientific problem of interest. In my experience, you eat, sleep, and breathe the particular scientific area that you’re interested in. It’s not a 9-5 job where you can “turn off” as a scientist when you leave the lab and then turn it back on when you go in the morning. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to unplug from the job. So, you’re constantly thinking about the research in your lab and spend very little time thinking about anything else. I believe that this continual focus, coupled with the reductionistic mindset that is required for and works so well in research, is highly likely to lead to atheism when completed in a science vacuum. The question of God is reduced and made more simple that it should and the scientist is left with nothing but atheism. The scientific method works so well on science, that scientists naturally apply it to other matters. And then, without the time to read up on and become knowledgeable in these other areas, there is simply no reason to believe in God. And science alone, I think, will rarely lead anyone to belief in God. I know that many believe that it confirms their belief in God, but I do not see it as a great apologetic no matter what the many Creationist/Intelligent Design groups lead you to believe. In comparison with the “leading” scientists, perhaps the “average” scientists spend a little more time out of the lab mentally? I’m obviously unsure about this but think the idea at least deserves some discussion.
Before atheists come at me because they think I am saying that one becomes an atheist by lack of thinking and researching on God, please don’t misunderstand me. I believe that the above is a potential reason to explain the particular data mentioned above regarding National Academy Members. This in no way applies to all atheists and, in fact, is likely wrong or at least not sufficient even if restricted to this particular case.
I will end with a final thought and a quote (paraphrased) from an obituary of Ernst Mayr who passed away in 2005. For those that are not aware of his work, Dr. Mayr was a prolific writer and leading evolutionary biologist. His book, What Evolution Is, is on my bookshelf and is a classic in the field. The writer of Dr. Mayr’s obituary was commenting on how prolific a writer he was even up into the last decade of his life (Mayr died at the age of 100). The author writes (again, a paraphrase), “Long after most scientists have moved on to reconciling faith and science, Mayr was still…”. The writer is suggesting that there is a time to think of science and religion and that, in fact, it might need to be an attempt at reconciliation. This reconciliation is suggested to normally occur at the end of life after the scientist’s career is over. Perhaps there is now time available and even, a sense of urgency to visit/revisit the question of God? Who knows. However, although an anecdote, it does suggest that there may be something to the idea I posited above. If so, I would argue that the time to think about matters of science and religion should occur now, not later, because the scientific mindset when left alone has the potential to close and even lock doors that deserve to be opened.