Study explores why scientists are not religious

Several studies have noted that scientists, as a group, are much less religious than the general public. Now a survey published in the journal Social Problems finds that this is not the result of scientific training–those who choose science as a career are already less religious before their education.

LiveScience offers a good summary. Here are highlights:

Scientists are less religious than the general population, a new study shows, but the reason has little to do with their study of science or academic pressures.

The findings challenge notions that science is responsible for a lack of faith among researchers, indicating that household upbringing carries the biggest weight in determining religiousness.

“Our study data do not strongly support the idea that scientists simply drop their religious identities upon professional training, due to an inherent conflict between science and faith, or to institutional pressure to conform,” said Elaine Howard Ecklund, a sociologist at the University at Buffalo and co-author of the study.

. . .

Detailed in the latest issue of the journal Social Problems, the study is based on a survey of 1,646 scientists at 21 elite research universities and in-depth interviews with 271 of the scientists. Specifically, the survey contacted researchers specializing in physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, economics, political science, psychology and other fields.

Ecklund said nearly 75 percent of the subjects responded, which she said is extremely high for a faculty survey.

So why are scientists less religious? The data indicate that being raised in a religious home is the best predictor of how religious someone will be—scientist or member of the general population.

For general population information, Ecklund used data from the 1998 and 2004 General Social Survey (GSS), which is a national survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Ecklund then compared the data to the scientists’ set, which was modeled after the GSS.

Read the entire article here.

The difference between scientists and the general public is large. 52 percent of scientists surveyed said they had no religious affiliation, compared with only 14 percent of the general population. Interestingly, however, younger scientists were more likely to believe in God and attend religious services than older scientists.

The implication of this study seems to be that those with religious faith are less likely to choose a religious career than those without faith. Why is that? And why has there been a change in this trend with younger scientists?

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