But For the Grace of Genes
Science may consider fundamentalism a threat, but our study shows that most scientists are spiritual—suggesting both sides may have more in common than they think.
When President Barack Obama appointed Francis Collins, a geneticist and evangelical Christian, to head the National Institutes of Health in 2009, a cry went up. The problem? Collins is a theist. A religious believer, the critics said, was not the right choice for the public face of science.1
While the majority of scientists are not evangelicals, there are several well-known scientists—like Ken Miller, John Polkinghorne, and Freeman Dyson—who are engaged in public efforts to persuade believers that they do not have to choose between their faith and science.
What do the country’s leading scientists really think about religion? Scientists have investigated the question, but have asked only a small number of narrow survey questions about religion.
To get a more definitive answer, we reviewed responses from 744 tenured and tenure-track scientists (chemists, biologists, and physicists) working and teaching at the top 21 US research universities, according to the University of Florida’s “Top American Research Universities” report. The data were collected between 2005 and 2007 as part of the Religion Among Academic Scientists study (RAAS), which uses extensive state-of-the-art measures of religious identity, practice, spirituality, and belief, and can compare the answers to those given by the general public.
Not surprisingly, scientists differed from the general public in several key ways. Compared with 34% of all Americans, only two of the natural scientists we surveyed agreed that “the Bible is the actual word of God and it should be interpreted literally.” When it comes to belief in God, 63% of the general public agrees with the statement, “I know that God exists.” Yet only 5% of physicists, 7% of biologists, and 10% of chemists say the same. On the flip side, 39% of biologists, 36% of physicists, and 24% of chemists say they do not believe in God, while only 2% of the general population identifies as atheist.
But our findings also uncover surprising areas of common ground. Eighty percent of scientists who teach and do research at top US research universities were raised in a religious home and 55% were raised in a home where religion was important. Scientists show the most overlap with the general public in the realm of spirituality, with 62% of scientists considering themselves spiritual. A surprising 38% of atheist scientists say they are somewhat spiritual, as do 61% of agnostic scientists. Nearly half of all surveyed scientists say they attended religious services at least once in the last year.
Although scientists who work at elite universities are less religiously conservative—and less committed to organized religion generally—than the public at large, most scientists think religion has some degree of truth. Many individual scientists have a positive attitude toward the idea of religious truth and think their colleagues have a positive or neutral attitude toward religion. Only a minority believes there is an irreconcilable conflict between religious knowledge and scientific knowledge. Since a majority of scientists are interested in spirituality, this may be an area where they will find fruitful terrain for talking about issues of science and faith with the public.
Awareness that many scientists are not hostile to religion and emphasizing areas of overlap between scientists and the general religious population might help to advance constructive engagement between science and faith, lessening the threat factors on both sides.
Ecklund is a faculty member in the sociology department at Rice University, where she is also associate director of the Center on Race, Religion and Urban Life.
Hackett is a National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin.