Scientists Aren’t Religious, So Why Should You Be?

Megan McArdle reflects on a recent report that science professors, especially those at elite institutions, are much less religious than the public at large.

She’s wondering why that might be and passes on Robin Hanson‘s musing that, “If all we know about a view was that professors held it more, and elite professors even more so, we would be inclined to favor that view. . . . So should we favor elite professors’ views on God, or can we identify other relevant considerations?”

I’d say science profs are more likely to be atheistic than the general population the same reason clergymen are more religious: A combination of self-selection and reinforcement by training.

Scientists are people who are, not surprisingly, interested in science, which is by definition empirical and materialistic. Conversely, religion is based on faith and defies falsification. Science enthusiasts who go on to be science professors have gone through a long, rigorous process which reinforces their bias toward the empirical to get their doctorate. To remain in the profession means getting selected for tenure by other scientists, who will naturally be skeptical of colleagues who express much belief in the supernatural.

As to Hanson’s question–should we favor elite professors’ views on God?–I’d say No. Professors at elite universities tend to be highly intelligent, well-educated, and curious about the world around them. So, sure, their views are likely more well-thought-out than that of some random guy plucked off the street. It doesn’t necessarily follow, though, that their opinions on things outside their field of expertise are particularly valuable.

A Harvard physicist’s views on all manner of things related to the material world should indeed be favored over those of most people. That’s because his views are not mere opinion, but a reflection of intense study; he is an expert. Furthermore, his expertise can provide solid answers to matters than pertain to religious teaching such as, for example, the age of the Earth, whether human beings were created during the same 6-day period as the mountains, and so forth. Unfortunately, the more important religious questions — whether there is a God or a Heaven or whether Jesus or Muhammed or the Pope provides your best path for getting there — are likely outside the scope of scientific inquiry. That makes his guess as good as yours.

For that matter, expertise is limited even within a field of inquiry. A political scientist at Yale is likely whip smart and able to out-debate your average layman on matters of public policy. His views on whether you should vote for the Republicans or Democrats, whether abortion is immoral, or how judges should go about interpreting the Constitution are still completely normative. In that arena, it doesn’t matter how many degrees you have or whether you have tenure.

UPDATE: Elite law professor Steve Bainbridge assures us that, after 18 years of faculty meetings, “I feel confident in saying that: If all I know about a view was that professors held it more, and elite professors even more so, I would be inclined to be skeptical of that view.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. bruhaha says:

    Your headline makes a mistake and an assumption.

    First, the report says PROFESSORS, not even “science professors”. Then you go on to equate “science professors” and “scientists”. But many (most!) scientists are NOT professors, and the study, at least makes no mention of what those folks think. In fact, there have been numerous surveys of scientists that have found that a good percentage of scientists involved in “hard science” ARE religious. In addition, those involved in the social sciences tend to be LESS religious… and very likely a large percentage of those who are the least religious in the report you cite are teachers of “social science”, if “scientists” at all.

    Even if the numbers of the religious among the science professors turns out to be high, this would simply suggest that it is NON-religious scientists who are more likely to be hired as professors, esp. at elite schools.

    Given the bias of much of academia, and esp. of elite schools, this would not surprise me.

  2. Francis says:

    I find this post a little odd. Unless God has an extremely quirky sense of humor and created the earth and universe less than 20,000 years ago in a manner that made it consistently appear that the universe was about 14.5 billion yrs old and the earth about 4.5 billion years old, then the Bible is just wrong.

    Plenty of people are spiritual. Plenty of people go to church for the social aspects. But my definition of religious is someone who believes in the fundamental tenets of his / her chosen religion. And last I checked, none of the major Christian sects were actually to the point of admitting that the Bible is a neat collection of very old stories badly translated.

    so you can either believe in the Bible and ignore the evidence, or trust the evidence, including the evidence that the King James Bible is not the unerring word of God.

  3. madmatt says:

    Hey Bru…what bias would that be…the bias against half thought out and unprovable ideas…the question is why aren’t you biased in the same way…do you think ignorance is a strong base to build a decision on?

  4. legion says:

    So, sure, their views are likely more well-thought-out than that of some random guy plucked off the street. It doesn’t necessarily follow, though, that their opinions on things outside their field of expertise are particularly valuable.

    James, the entire field of punditocracy just declared jihad upon you.

  5. Mannning says:

    Why does the cosmos, man and life exist at all? Is it all a huge accident? Or, is it a result of the actions of God? Science will reach its limits of verifiable, useful cosmological conclusions very soon now; however, they will continue for some time operating with inexact models of the universe, such as branes. We still do not know what an electron really is; we act as if they are as described mathematically–in other words, a model. But, there is a limit.

    What then remains but faith?

  6. legion says:

    Quite so, Manning. Not to get too meta here, but I have never seen a conflict between science and faith that wasn’t due to Man’s own ego. The best example, and probably the one causing the most friction these days, is the belief that the Bible is absolutely, literally true. _That_ particular view conflicts with science, because it stands in direct contradiction of so many things we can directly test and observe. I’m no historian, but I don’t know of any other major religion that has ever put its holy text forth as literal truth – only as allegory…

  7. vnjagvet says:

    The problem with the Bible as “literal truth” position is the words “literal” and “truth”.

    Virtually all biblical scholars (even including those of the “fundamentalist” Christian persuasion) would agree that only a few words of the King James Version of the Bible are the “literal” words of the received texts written from 500 to over 1,000 years before the Church of England even began, by men who wrote in, among others, the Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek languages.

    How, in all that welter of languages, the phrase “in the beginning” came to be defined as a time 20,000 (or, say 25,000) years ago is lost to the mists of time.

  8. Wayne says:

    How much of the bible is accurate is debatable. If parts of the bible are wrong, how much of the error was created by translators from the original languages? How much of it is due to our own or someone else’s misinterpretations of the bible?

    We tend to be very smug in our own understanding of anything. Often we are wrong or at least not entirely enlighten. Most look for evidence that support their own believes and disregard all else. Many use the example of the bible saying the World was created in seven days as proof that the bible is wrong. Assuming for a minute that it is wrong in that case doesn’t mean the rest of the bible is incorrect. Second, the understanding of “time” ” when the bible was written isn’t the same as it is today. Third there are many different types of day that we know of such as a solar day, a galaxy day and a universal day. Some of which can take millions of earth solar years to accomplish. Many will dismiss that argument since the consensus is the bible meant one earth solar day or it doesn’t fit their believe. However, consensus does not make something true or wishing it false doesn’t make it so. Also god could have set up these facts just to test people’s faith. Perhaps there is an explanation no one has thought of. No one knows for sure.

    People will believe whatever they believe in. Some believe solely in science while others solely believe in religions and others believe in both. That is fine believe in what you want. However, to think that there is no other possibility but your own is truly being ignorant.

  9. just me says:

    How much of the bible is accurate is debatable. If parts of the bible are wrong, how much of the error was created by translators from the original languages? How much of it is due to our own or someone else’s misinterpretations of the bible?

    I don’t think questioning the translations is the best argument. The reality is that the translations from the original language seem to be pretty consistent between the oldest known copies and the current ones.

    I think where there is more room to wonder is more when the stories were still passed down as oral tradition. Even the Bible when taken “literally” has thousands of years from “The Beginning” and when Genesis was actually written.

    I think much of what is in the Bible is true, although not neccessarily literally true. I think when we realize that much of what is written is written from the observation of man, it makes sense. Today the concept of a world wide flood doesn’t make sense, because CNN would be there to cover it, but to a neolithic human a massive local flood could feel and look like the whole world was under water and utterly destroyed.

  10. floyd says:

    Still,it is claimed that half of all “scientists” believe in God.

  11. floyd says:

    My bet is that the greatest opposition to the inerrancy of scripture comes from those who have never read it and are prepared to deny that fact. Intelectual frauds.