This is the title of a new book (not yet available in the UK) by Elaine Howard Ecklund. It reports the results of a survey of nearly 1700 leading American academic scientists. The questionnaire survey (with an impressive response rate of 75%) was followed up by 275 interviews.
Many will find the findings surprising. Although it is clear that elite American scientists are significantly less religious than the American general public, it is equally clear that religion continues to be important for many scientists. And a further proportion of scientists regard themselves as ‘spiritual’ even if not ‘religious’.
Of the scientists surveyed, 34% declared themselves to be atheist, and 30% agnostic. Curiously, the proportion of scientists having religious affiliation (48%) is higher than the proportion declaring belief in God (36%).
About two-thirds considered themselves to be ‘spiritual’ persons, including 39% of those without a current religious affiliation.
Scientists often identified ‘strong unspoken barriers’ against discussing religion in academic settings, even in informal settings outside the classroom.
Scientists who declared themselves to be religious generally avoided evangelical or fundamentalist positions compared with the general population. They tended to be strongly pro-evolution and anti-Intelligent Design.
Very few scientists – even among the atheists – identified themselves with the strident atheism represented by Richard Dawkins (only 5 of the 275 interviewees described themselves as actively opposed to religion). There is, rather, a significant population of scientists who are sufficiently interested in religion and spirituality to contribute to public debate and dialogue about the science/faith interface.
It goes without saying that the situation here in the UK is somewhat different, and we would expect similar research carried out in this country to come up with different statistics, even if it identified some similar issues.
One doesn’t have to travel very far round the blogosphere to find would-be rationalists making irrational comments about this research: ‘it’s only social research, not real research’; ‘it was funded by the Templeton Foundation (so of course it can’t be trusted)’ and so on.