What Scientists Think About Religion

Almost a quarter of Americans think scientists are hostile to religion. But what do we really know about how scientists think about morality, spirituality and faith?
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Almost a quarter of Americans think scientists are hostile to religion. But what do we really know about how scientists think about morality, spirituality and faith?

From 2005 to 2008, I surveyed nearly 1,700 natural and social scientists on their views about religion, spirituality and ethics and spoke with 275 of them in depth in their offices and laboratories. It turns out that nearly 50 percent of scientists identify with a religious label, and nearly one in five is actively involved in a house of worship, attending services more than once a month. While many scientists are completely secular, my survey results show that elite scientists are also sitting in the pews of our nation's churches, temples and mosques.

Of the atheist and agnostic scientists I had in-depth conversations with, more than 30 percent considered themselves atheists; however, less than six percent of these were actively working against religion. Many atheist and agnostic scientists even think key mysteries about the world can be best understood spiritually, and some attend houses of worship, completely comfortable with religion as moral training for their children and an alternative form of community. If religious people better understood the full range of atheistic practice -- and the way that it interfaces with religion for some -- they might be less likely to hold negative attitudes toward nonreligious scientists. The truth is that many atheist scientists have no desire to denigrate religion or religious people.

In fact, about one-fifth of the atheist scientists I spoke with say they consider themselves "spiritual atheists." Perhaps their stories are the most interesting. One chemist I talked with does not believe in God, yet she says she craves a sense of something beyond herself that provides a feeling of purpose and meaning and a moral compass. She sees herself as having an engaged spirituality, one that motivates her to live differently. For example, spiritual reasons keep her from accepting money from the Department of Defense, she says; for her, it's too linked to the military.

Given the presence of religion in the scientific community, why do Americans still think scientists are hostile to religion? Within their scientific communities, religious scientists tend to practice what I call a "secret spirituality." They are reluctant to talk about religious or spiritual ideas with their colleagues. I spoke with one physicist who said that he thinks universities are not always very accepting environments for scientists of faith. He believes that if he openly said he is religious, others would question the validity of his scientific work; it is his sense of things that at his elite school, he can be a scientist or be religious, but not both.

And within their faith communities, religious scientists often practice a "secret science." Sitting in the pews, they are often hesitant to discuss scientific ideas because they are afraid of offending those next to them. The result of this reticence is that people of faith are not aware of the religious scientists in their midst. More than that, these scientists fail to serve as role models for religious youth who might want to study science but fear science might lead them away from faith. As a result, these children lose out.

Research shows that the experiences students have with science in elementary and secondary school, and how well their science abilities evolve from there, help predict both whether they'll attend college and whether they'll enter into high-status professional fields. Other research has shown that those with stronger science skills and a better scientific understanding tend to have greater socioeconomic stability and overall success. So if religious folks want their children to succeed (as a scholar of American religion, I have every reason to believe they do) and if scientists want more children to consider a career in the field (as a scholar of the American scientific community, I know they do), there needs to be a better dialogue between people of faith and the scientists among them.

We need real, radical dialogue -- not just friendly co-existence between religion and science, but the kind of discussion where each side genuinely tries to understand why the other thinks the way it does and where common ground is sought. This dialogue should reach the rank-and-file in religious communities with the message of how to maintain faith while fully pursuing science. And it needs to reach the rank-and-file in the scientific community as well, providing them with better ways to connect with religious people.

Religious people need to remember that not all atheist scientists are hostile to religion. They need to know that even the most secular scientists struggle with the moral and ethical implications of their work. And scientists need to do a better job of communicating the importance of science to religious people -- especially in those areas in which religion might actually motivate them to care about science (like environmentalism, or "creation care"). Because if people of faith believe they have to become antireligious or completely secular to be a successful scientist -- when this is not a full reflection of the scientific community -- it would be a disaster.

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