Monday, June 22, 2015

Science Collides with Atheism

Scientists are less religious
The lack of religious beliefs in the scientific world has disturbed many of the faithful.  They are particularly troubled by a recent national study by the Pew Institute that found that 93 percent of the members of the National Academy of Sciences do not believe in God. 

However, that only represents part of the story.

After all, the NAS constitutes less than 1 percent of all scientists in this country.  A previous 2009 study by the Pew Institute revealed that “51 percent of scientists believe that God or some higher power exists, while 41 percent of scientists reject both of those concepts. In addition, while only 2 percent of the general population identifies as atheist, 17 percent of scientists identify themselves with that term.”

Further studies have found scientists didn’t necessarily leave their faith because of their research.  Many nonreligious scientists “reject religion for personal reasons prior to becoming scientists,” according to Dr.  Elaine Ecklund,  a Rice University sociology professor who is director of the Religion and Public Life Program in the Social Sciences Research Institute and a Rice Scholar at the Baker Institute for Public Policy. Her recent book, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, shows that scientists are less religious than the rest of the population, but more than people tend to believe.

Nobel Prize for physics
Steven Weinberg, who won a Nobel Prize for his work in particle physics, added, "The experience of being a scientist makes religion seem fairly irrelevant. Most scientists I know simply don't think about it very much. They don't think about religion enough to qualify as practicing atheists."

Besides, many scientists have retained their religious beliefs regardless of the field of study.  Nobel Prizes overwhelmingly have been dominated by scientists who identify themselves as Christian: Between 1900 and 2000, Christians won a total of 72.5 percent of the prizes in chemistry, 65.3 percent in physics, 62 percent in medicine while scientists who identified themselves as Jewish won 17.3 percent of the prizes in chemistry, 26.2 percent in medicine, and 25.9 percent in physics.

In contrast, atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers won just 7.1 percent of the prizes in chemistry, 8.9 percent in medicine, and 4.7 percent in physics;

Nevertheless, there are plenty of atheistic, world-renown scientists, including:  physicists Neils Bohr, Richard Feynman, Alfred Ernst Mach, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Erwin Schrödinger; DNA co-discover Francis Crick; inventor Thomas Edison; mathematicians Paul Erdős, Joseph Lagrange and Alan Turing; psychiatry founder Sigmund Freud; astronomers Edmond Halley, Peter Higgs and Carl Sagan; chemist Linus Pauling; sex research Alfred Kinsey; and Alan Turing, the "father of computer science."

Recent letters by Albert Einstein reveal that the world-renown physicist also firmly rejected religious concepts of God, but hesitated to call himself an atheist.

The lack of faith in such prominent scientists actually mirrors what’s happening among the rest of society.   Americans are losing interest in religion.  A recent study of religious beliefs in this country found that 70 percent of Americans identify as Christian, compared with 78 percent just eight years earlier.

The 2015 Pew Religious Landscape survey reported that as of 2014, 22.8 percent of the American population is religiously unaffiliated.  Atheists comprised 3.1 percent of them, while agnostics represented 4 percent of the US population.

The Pew Institute researchers wrote: “These changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups. While the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among Americans of all ages. The same trends are seen among whites, blacks and Latinos; among both college graduates and adults with only a high school education; and among women as well as men.”

Empty church
Moreover, former Christians leaving churches aren’t joining other faiths.  They are dropping religion altogether.  That’s also true worldwide. A massive poll of 57 countries last year found that “on average 59 percent of the world said that they think of themselves as religious, whereas 23 percent think of themselves as not religious, and 13 percent think of themselves as convinced atheists.”

China led the way: 47 percent of residents identified themselves as atheists.  The Chinese were followed by Japan (31 percent), Czech Republic (30 percent), France (29 percent), South Korea (15 percent), Germany (15 percent), Netherlands (14 percent), Austria (10 percent), Iceland (10 percent), Australia (10 percent) and Ireland (10 percent).

Belief in God stayed strong in poorer countries.  For example, 99 percent of poverty-stricken residents in most sub-Saharan lands identified themselves as believers.  In developed, affluent Europe, however, the numbers of nonbelievers were much higher: Sweden (64 percent nonbelievers), Denmark (48 percent), France (44 percent) and Germany (42 percent).

Irish sociologist Nigel Barber said his research suggested that one reason may be that “people turn to religion as a salve for the difficulties and uncertainties of their lives. In social democracies, there is less fear and uncertainty about the future because social welfare programs provide a safety net, and better health care means that fewer people can expect to die young. People who are less vulnerable to the hostile forces of nature feel more in control of their lives and less in need of religion.”

He continued, “At the same time many alternative products are being offered, such as psychotropic medicines and electronic entertainment, that have fewer strings attached and that do not require slavish conformity to unscientific beliefs.”

Nor are morals compromised in the process.  A recent study of Americans titled Ways Religion Impacts Your Life suggests that “religious people aren't more likely to do good than their nonreligious counterparts. And while they may vehemently disagree with one another at times, liberals and conservatives also tend to be on par when it comes to behaving morally,” according to Dan Wisneski, a professor of psychology at Saint Peter's (New Jersey) University, who helped conduct the study during his tenure at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In fact, separate studies of behavior found that “publicly religious people are no more ethical in their conduct and actually fall short in several areas according to research. They are more likely than atheists to cheat on exams, for example, possibly reflecting more fear of negative evaluations by others.”  At the same time, a study found, “despite espousing family values, religious conservatives spend more on online pornography.”

They also wield lots of weapons to impose their views, whether in the Islamic world or in Israel where Orthodox Jews attacked worshipers after reading ads inviting women to pray at the Wailing Wall.  As a result, more people now recognize other limitations of today’s religions, enhanced by scientific information that undermines age-old beliefs.  

However, based on the numbers, nonbelievers are not willing to commit themselves to atheism.  They wander like shades in Hades.  They are not going back to any church.  As their numbers increase, they continue looking for a new home to park their changing beliefs.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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