Friday, June 29, 2007


Cloistering Science

Some atheism promoters, like Sam Harris, are fond of citing the polls showing that 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences do not believe in a personal God, as if studying science somehow causes the adoption of atheism. A new poll may have turned that notion of the causation involved on its head.

According to the new study, "Religion Among Academic Scientists" (RAAS), conducted by Elaine Howard Ecklund, an assistant professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University at Buffalo, which is billed as first systematic analysis in decades to examine the religious beliefs and practices of elite academics in the sciences, "concluded that the assumption that becoming a scientist necessarily leads to loss of religion is untenable."

Ecklund says, "It appears that those from non-religious backgrounds disproportionately self-select into scientific professions. This may reflect the fact that there is tension between the religious tenets of some groups and the theories and methods of particular sciences and it contributes to the large number of non-religious scientists."
While certainly such tension might explain a part of the difference, there are many mainstream religious traditions the tenets of which not only fail to conflict with science but whose traditions actually value the practice of science.

Another possibility might be that, as many prominent evolutionary biologists apparently believe (according to another recent survey by Gregory W. Graffin and William B. Provine), religious belief is an evolutionary adaptation that is, presumptively, genetically based. In that case, the self-selection, far out of proportion to the actual conflict between religious beliefs and scientific practice, could be a result of some more basic mechanism that keeps theists from pursuing science at a high level. But that raises the question Larry Moran and, in a rare moment of lucidity, Michael Egnor, pose: if belief in God is an evolutionary trait that needs explanation, then so must be the lack of belief. Following the logic to the end, science might well be, for some people, at least, a religion substitute.

In any event, if the authors of this study are right, it isn't so much that science defeats religion, it's that most religious people chose not to immerse themselves so deeply in the intellectual struggle that goes into a science career. But, then again, most people, no matter what their attitude towards religion, aren't prepared to make that commitment.

Maybe top level scientists, in their deep vocation, are the evolutionary equivalent of monks for the theism adapted.

The spin in and around Ecklund and Scheitle's RAAS results is ridiculous.

Their own data show that even among scientists raised religious---the majority of scientists, most DO IN FACT drop their religious beliefs and become atheist or agnostic.

They like to say that among scientists the best predictor of religion is being raised in a strongly religious (and especially protestant) household. Irreligious scientists come disproportionately from irreligious households, or theologically liberal ones, or households where religion wasn't rated very important.

Well, duh. Of course they do, and self selection going in is huge and important. But that doesn't change the fact that most scientists start out religious and end up irreligious. (Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that their research is funded by the Templeton Foundation.)

Being a scientist is a great predictor of being irreligious, which is the elephant in the room that Ecklund and Scheitle want to distract you from.

By their own data, scientists raised Christian are 7 times as likely to become atheists as the general public, and several times as likely to become agnostic as well.

Becoming a scientist is usually accompanied by a substantial erosion or complete loss of religious belief.

See my comments in this thread on Gene Expression for more analysis.
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