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