It's official. Scientists really are less religious than most folks are. In fact, close to 52 percent of American scientists claim no religious affiliation at all, as opposed to 14 percent of the general population. Should we be surprised?
Probably not. But a new study conducted by University of Buffalo sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund at least sheds some helpful light on why so many scientists got to be that way.
The biggest revelation, it turns out, is that it wasn't all those hours in the lab that led white-frocked chemists and biologists down the road to godlessness. Nor was it because they read Darwin or Einstein and concluded that the whole grand scheme of things required no supreme creator. It wasn't even, in the case of the social scientists, that they converted to those ideologies of disenchantment formulated by Marx or Weber.
No, science didn't make them do it. The simple truth is that they were already unbelievers when they went into science. "It appears that those [scientists] from nonreligious backgrounds disproportionately self-select into scientific professions," says Ecklund. So their upbringings made them doubters? It looks that way.
Beyond that, the most interesting findings in Ecklund's study lie—like the devil—in the details. Take the breakdown of religious affiliation according to faith or tendencies within a faith. While it's unremarkable that only 2 percent of scientists are evangelicals (compared with 14 percent of the general population, and that's using a strict definition of evangelical), it's perhaps noteworthy that there is a higher percentage of liberal Protestants in the scientific set (10.8) than among us nonscientists (9.9). Jews are an interesting case unto themselves. An impressive 15.3 percent of all scientists claim Jewish affiliation. That compares with 1.8 percent of the general population. Of course, there are more Jews than that in the general population, but it's revealing that Jewish scientists are more inclined to claim their religious affiliation than American Jews in general are. As for Muslim identification, the percentage of scientists claiming it (.5) is the same among Americans overall.
What about the differences between foreign-born and native American scientists? Turns out that the former are less likely to attend church but just as likely as native-born scientists to believe in God.
One hoary myth is also busted in this study: Social scientists are not, as was long believed, significantly more skeptical than natural scientists. So if social scientists continue to get a bad rap for not being "real" scientists, at least nobody can now say that they are less religious than the hard-science types. Among natural scientists themselves, incidentally, it seems that biologists are slightly more unreligious than physicists. The possible reason, Ecklund and coauthor Christopher Scheitle conjecture, is that so many conflicts between science and religion erupt over issues relating to the science of life.
But the winds of change are a-blowin'. Younger scientists are more likely to believe in God and attend religious services than their elders are. "If this finding holds throughout the career life-course for this cohort of academic scientists," Ecklund and Scheitle note, "such differences could indicate an overall shift in attitudes toward religion among those in the academy."
Scientists as vanguards of religious revival in the groves of academe? Now that would be a surprise.