A sociological survey by Prof. Elaine Howard Ecklund of Rice University has asked a sample of 1,700 scientists from top tier American universities about their view on religion. Perhaps surprisingly, a large proportion (50%) did claim a religious identity. The scientists in this survey were less religious than the general population, 52% said they had no religious affiliation compared with only 14% of the American population. A greater majority (65%) say they are interested in matters of spirituality. Ecklund has recently published a book discussing her research called, Science vs Religion: What Scientists Really Think.
Around 300 of these scientists (both religious and non-religious) were followed up in more in-depth interviews. Many scientists had the view that religion was not a topic for discussion amongst their colleagues and chose to keep their faith hidden. Others had unorthodox views of religion – not believing in God while still identifying as a catholic, for example. Only 2% identified their beliefs as ‘fundamental’ or ‘evangelical’. The best news was that none of the interviewees though intelligent design (creationism) should be taught in classrooms.
Interestingly, the results of this survey indicate that learning about science does not seem to cause people to lose their religious beliefs. Most of these scientists had already come to their religious point of view before engaging into higher education. The biggest predictor of a scientist’s religion (or lack thereof) was still the religion of their parents.
I think this survey has revealed some heartening information about the scientific community (at least in USA). Scientists that are also religious already understand the tensions between science and faith, and how to resolve them. These religious scientists are also more likely to be accepted into faith-based communities and have the best chance of imparting good scientific information. As long as they are not to scared to ‘come out’ to their colleagues, there is a great opportunity for some useful dialogue in the science vs. religion debate.
Ecklund, Elaine and Christopher Scheitle 2007. ‘Religion Among Academic Scientists: Distinctions, Disciplines, and Demographics.’ Social Problems 54: 289-307.