The myth of scientists as atheists

scientists as atheists mythI confess.

I am a scientist and I am not an atheist.

Uh oh!

Am I asking to be burned at the stake….er, over the lab Bunsen burner?

Why is there such a persistent myth that scientists must be atheists?

Or is it that good scientists must be atheists?

And by good, I don’t mean top performers with stellar careers.

Rather, I mean, well-behaved scientists.

Someone once told me that trying to get a group of scientists to all do one thing is like herding cats.

I’d say trying to get scientists to think or believe one thing such as a religious or spiritual believe is like herding cats who are chasing mice.

We can’t shoehorn scientists all into an atheistic box.

In fact, I believe that the notion that almost all scientists are atheists is a myth. A recent Pew poll agrees with my view: 51% of polled American scientists believing in some kind of deity. While that rate is far lower than the general public in the US, it is still a majority.

I should disclose that I am not highly or even moderately religious person. It is most accurate to call me an agnostic, but I’m not an atheist.

According to Wikipedia, a number of prominent scientists of yore were also not atheists including Albert Einstein:

Albert Einstein‘s religious views have been studied extensively. He said he believed in the “pantheistic” God of Baruch Spinoza, but not in a personal god, a belief he criticized. He also called himself an agnostic, while disassociating himself from the label atheist, preferring, he said, “an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.”[1]

And I know many living scientists who are not atheists.

I don’t see the problem with scientists believing in something for which they lack scientific proof such as a deity. I also have no issue with scientists who are atheists, but I do find it disturbing how some atheistic scientists in effect proselytize atheism or make fun of believers.

As I said, I’m an agnostic right now. I don’t believe humans are necessarily smart enough to know everything and I see no compelling reason to rule out the existence of a deity.


30 thoughts on “The myth of scientists as atheists

  1. I think about it as abject failure of skepticism. No one should want a scientist working for them who does the same thing over and over expecting different results – this is the definition of lunacy. Likewise, no one should want a scientist working for them who cannot apply the same skepticism that they are supposed to use in their job to themselves and their lives – “Don’t talk the talk if you can’t walk the walk”. I don’t believe that religious scientists are bad people, I just think it is unseemly, like drug use. As far as for positions of power in stem cell research or biological research, why not just have the pope run it?

    • One of the things that you hear from ‘agnostic’ scientists is, “The existance of god cannot be proven or disproven logically, and so I MUST be an agnostic”. This is completely silly. One can walk across a room and touch the wall even though Zeno’s paradox prohibits it, and one can accurately asess Vmax without infinity data points. As far as the evidence indicating that there is NO god increases, and as the zeros stretch out from the right of the decimal point, on and on, there will still be people who say it is not zero. This is not logical.

      Still everyone must find the ‘proof’ that confirms their hypothesis. For me, it was people with brain damage causing amnesia, with no memories of themselves prior to their accident, who then live out the rest of their natural life as a completely different person. There is a location for all of the ‘parts’ of consciousness in the human brain. Thoughts, knowledge, and memory can be lost never to return again. What is a ‘soul’ if it isn’t made up of these things?

      I have seen in posts by Brian and Gary talk about Karl Popper and the philosophy of science. I took a class on this subject and so I have been exposed to Popper and Hume. If I were to push one book it would be “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas Kuhn. It is a tremendous work and how I try to rationalize science. I would also like to add that out of all of the philosophers of science, only Kuhn was a practicing scientist first before becoming a philosopher/scientist.

      One of the important assertions that Kuhn makes is the idea of ‘routine’ or ordinary science that pretty much allows the scientist to run on ‘cruise control’ – I think about Qiagen mini-preps. It is a mistake to disconnect the work world of science from the community at large – there are ‘butt pickers’ in science just like in any job. Young people are encouraged to go to college and many find themselves considering a career in science (they are almost all ‘open majors’, in comparison to engineering). No one challenges them to think critically about this aspect of their life, in fact, they are expressely prohibited from doing so. So no one asks them to “walk the walk” and now they are there in science, trying to work, living in essence a double life as a secret agent.

    • HUH?
      “Likewise, no one should want a scientist working for them who cannot apply the same skepticism that they are supposed to use in their job to themselves and their lives…”
      He IS applying his skepticism. It’s not scientifically possible to prove a deity does NOT exist, so he is rightly skeptical of those who claim such a belief as fact.
      The ones who push atheism without the benefit of scientific proof are the one’s I don’t trust.
      Why not have the scientific integrity to just admit that you DON’T know and CAN’T know?

      • Apologists for religion in science barf up, “god can neither be proven of disproven” in some form or another over and over, like this suddenly makes John Hagee, Crefo Dollar, and all of the other stuff valid. It does not. A preponderance of REAL evidence is all that is necessary to apply an estimation that there is NO supernatural ‘Flying Spaghetti Monster’. No one needs the direct proof that is prohbited in the barf. This is not a special paradox this in simply another paradox. You can think that you are a super scientist and that you can have beliefs that don’t ‘interfere’ with your judgement, or your ability to estmate, but your ‘spiritual advisor’ probably doesn’t think so and I certainly do not.

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  2. Dear Paul,
    Religion aside, I gasped when I read your assertion:

    “I don’t see the problem with scientists believing in something for which they lack scientific proof”

    (1) There is no such thing as “scientific proof”, there is only logica and evidence, sometimes strong, sometimes not so strong. A scientist expects that ideas will be improved, modified or trashed as more evidence and analysis is undertaken. This is the essential difference between adherence to authoritarianism and science.

    (2) Let me allow for the possibility that by “scientific proof” you really mean to say “evidence”. While it may be reasonable for a scientist (or agnostic) to hope that something might be true even though there is no evidence, there is a major problem with believing it to be true without evidence. Anyone who believes something to be true without evidence is flirting with self-delusion or the imposed delusions of authorities — this is definitely to the deteriment of science and reason itself. I would expect a scientist would be more skeptical and seek evidence, one way or another. If the evidence is not to be found then the only reasonable thing is to say “I don’t know”…

    If one wants “proof”, study mathematics. That is the only place where I have ever found proofs that could stand up to rigorous scrutiny.

    Now, returning to religion. It must be understood that religion has been mounting a concerted attack upon science for quite some time. It is most evident in the USA when one comtemplates attitudes towards the Theory of Evolution but there are many other instances. A few weeks ago a Nature editorial documented recent attacks upon science from the fundamentalist-backed ruling government of Turkey.

    The late Stephen Jay Gould attempted to placate the religious attack by coining the concept of “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA). But the simple fact of the matter is that science definitely has shown that much of what people religiously believed to be true 400 years ago is patent nonsense, and the better religious people know this to be so and have adapted their beliefs accordingly. Unfortunately, given that much of religion is taught as faithfully believing the ultimate and unchanging authority, a great many religious adherents have been incapable of adapting to the new evidence. And so we have the spectacle of people of one religion murdering others for the one and only reason that they do not share a religious view point:

    While I do know of scientists who have murdered, I do not know of any scientist who murdered in order to fulfill his/her scientific obligations. (I’d appreciate examples, if you know of any.) And yet, Deuteronomy 13.6-9 demands that believers must kill those who have a different belief, to quote:

    “If anyone secretly entices you — even if it is your brother, your father’s son or your mother’s son, or your own son or daughter, or the wife you embrace, or your most intimate friend — saying, `Let us go and worship other gods’, whom neither you nor your ancestors have known, any of the gods of the peoples that are around you, whether near you or far away from you, from one end of the earth to the other, you must not yield to or heed any such persons. Show them no pity or compassion and do not shield them. But you shall surely kill them; your own hand shall be first against them to execute them, and afterwards the hand of all the people.”

    It says a lot that religious beleivers have not expunged such material from their holy books. Yes, many religious people have the common decency to ignore that instruction while others don’t act upon it because of it would bring them into serious conflict with prevailing secular law. But are these semi-adherents more or less holy than those who truly believe Gods unalterable words?

    Religion would be greatly improved if only religous people adopted the scientific method.

    • OK, I realize I have neglected a few examples: scientists (many of them also religious and/or political) have murdered in the process of furthering their scientific studies:

      Nazi and Japanese scientists did gruesome experiments that killed people. Similarly, Canadian scientists did some nasty experiments upon aboriginal children:
      and then there are the well-known experiments done upon African-Americans and other disadvantaged groups in the USA.

      What all these sad examples have in common is that they are tarred by the brush of authoritarianism, the certitude that greater power makes one both right and superior. (Authoritarianism can turn otherwise decent people into monsters.)

      I would argue that the scientific method is antithetical to authoritarianism and science has no mandate to control others (whereas authority and control are inherent for religion and government). Scientists must constantly guard against being corrupted in this way.

      Neither religion nor government make comfortable bedfellows for science.

    • And so it is true Brian, that much of what religion thought to be true 400 years ago has been shown to be ‘patent nonsense’!

      Can we safely say the same thing about ‘scientific thought’ 400 years ago, that much of established scientific thought was ‘patent nonsense’?

      So their is every reason for us ‘religious people’ to believe that many of the proclamations made by scientists today will also soon be shown to be ‘patent nonsense’!

  3. I worry that young students will be discouraged from careers in science by fears that they must give up their religious beliefs. I agree with your calls for tolerance and humility when discussing religion and science. Thank you for making a constructive statement about this important subject. I can’t help but think that Gregor Mendel would probably have agreed with you.

    • I don’t share your fear. I have never met a scientist who prevented or dissuaded another person from doing science because of their religious view(s). But science, by its very nature, does challenge many old-fashioned viewpoints.

      • Have you met all scientists? Why should the truth revolve around the extent of your life’s experiences? Ben Stein did a documentary on “Intelligent Design” and interviewed a large number of scientists that were ostracized and relieved of their careers because of the fact that they considered “intelligent design” as a possibility, not even a certainty.

  4. I don’t think I’ve heard this “myth” in my many decades as an atheist. It is well known that highly educated people are more likely than average to consider themselves atheists or agnostics. But all scientists being strictly atheists? That’s just silly.

    More importantly, the distinction between atheism and agnosticism is far more complicated than the argument presented in this article. I am an agnostic. I do not think the question of inherent cosmic intelligence (or other concepts of ‘god’) can be resolved with foreseeable techniques and experiments. I am also an atheist. I possess no belief in any gods, and I am very skeptical of the very meaning of the various god hypotheses. I am thus epistomologically agnostic and ontologically atheistic.

    I agree with the idea that religious belief is irrelevant to one’s quality as a scientist (to an extent), and I find the aggressive stance some atheists take incredibly insulting and counter-productive.

    Either way, I enjoy Professor Knoepfler blog, and I follow his work on stem cells research religiously (pun intended?). But if he, or anyone else, is interested in a far deeper level than typically presented in mainstream discourse, I recommend the work of Karl Popper, Hans Albert, and David Deutsch.

      • Brian,

        There are plenty of interesting criticisms of Popper, most notably in the field of analytic philosophy. Usually Thomas Kuhn is mentioned as one of Popper’s more notable critics. But I’ve yet to see anyone approach Popper’s depth of reflection when it comes to the nature of “truth” and the limits of inductivist thought, which dominated much of pre-20th century philosophy.

        I have not heard of Patrick Roache, and I look forward to reading the critique you linked.

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  7. Speaking as a Christian here, this guy is not saying anything remarkable if he’s simply an agnostic. As far as I’m concerned, saying your an agnostic does not mean you somehow are going against the mold in terms of the Atheistic/Materialist trend in Scientists…

    Now, if he came in here, said he was a scientist, and said he was a ardent catholic or baptist…then we could talk.

    Not that that it bothers me to say that; Scientific you guys might be, but the only thing worse than dumb dumb people is dumb smart people; and looking at the progress of Western civilization towards Atheism, I’d say you guys are just tearing down the old gods to put ghastly new ones up in their place.

  8. Great article! Thank you!

    1. Many doctors are persons of spiritual belief as well. Maybe it’s because they’ve witnessed so many unexplainable things about the human mind and body. Or maybe it’s because they know that research studies have found that people with spiritual faith live longer and are healthier/happier. Or maybe it’s because such a powerful profession naturally benefits from the highest morals, trustworthiness, compassion, optimism, and empathy from its practitioners.

    2. The myth that scientists are mostly atheists is just an extension of the myth of a “war” between religion and science that has been overhyped in the last century. Sir Isaac Newton was a Christian as well, for example. Many of the greatest scientists and thinkers throughout history have been religious believers.

    3. The fact that religions are still so pervasive and powerful today around the world is NOT a testament to less public scientific knowledge today than in the past. It is instead a testament to the inherent nature of religion being COMPLETELY OUTSIDE of the realm of science, having no conflict with it. If you take the time to read the New Testament, for example, you will clearly see that it does NOT resemble anything like a science textbook.

    4. For a scientist to be a believer does NOT mean that he or she must be a “fundamentalist” (believing every word in the Bible or other religious text as some sort of scientific fact). It simply means that A) they have a faith or trust in a higher power/purpose to human life/existence, B) they align their lives as best possible with this notion, C) meditate upon it often, and D) seek inspiration to be a better person, adhere to higher moral standards, and make a difference in the world.

    5. Just like religion and all other social institutions are slow to roll back their overreaches, science also has been slow to do the same. For example, most people today believe that the Darwinian notion of evolution through random genetic mutation is fact. While evolution is fact, the agent of random genetic mutation is now understood to be only a tiny part of it. But that’s not talked about much. Because it would seem like a “victory” or “defeat” in the false war between science and religion. Or here’s another example. Most people today believe that science points to life on earth arising out of non-living matter. Many scientists today even today work very hard under that false assumption. But the reality is that the smarter scientists have backtracked on this completely, generally agreeing that life on earth must have come from an extraterrestrial source of some kind. They’ve actually known this for years. But it’s generally not talked about. It would seem like a “defeat” for science and a “victory” for religion in this same, foolish “science versus religion” war.

  9. I ask this ‘scientist’ author if he is agnostic regarding the tooth fairy? By his logic, he would answer ‘yes.’

    This ‘scientist’ implies that it’s OK to invent answers where there is ignorance.

    This essay is an example of muddled thinking – nothing more.

  10. Yes, science and religion are two separate systems. Religion is based on faith–not scientific evidence. Most religions are frameworks on how to live a moral life, based on parables. The lessons of the scriptures are universal and timeless. The scientific method is based on hypothesis and discovering and testing that hypothesis with evidence. This body of evidence is constantly changing, and so are the theories. The fact that science is changing over time is a plus or minus, depending on your perspective. It is good that new discoveries may improve our understanding on how the natural world works, but looking back at what we thought was “true” a century ago may make us cringe. This gives us scientists the proper humility for the enterprise and an appreciation for the timeless wisdom of religious faith.

  11. I feel the need to start this off by admitting I am a functional atheist (that is I’m an atheist but I don’t feel the need to define myself by it), and I don’t believe in any sort of supernaturalism…so here goes:
    Why is it that atheism is the hallmark of a good scientist? There are atheists that believe in downright ridiculous things like acupuncture and go to chiropractors, or are anti-gmo and anti-vaccine. Even Dawkins, the great saint of atheism, spent a few paragraphs mooning over Buddhism, which makes a ton of ludicrous and anti scientific claims.
    Just because a person is an atheist does not mean they possess an analytical mind or that they embrace the scientific method as a superior means of understanding the world. A person may also believe in a god, but still feel that science is an accurate method of understanding. Science can only contradict specific and individual claims; it can say ‘there is no physical mechanism for bread and wine to turn to flesh and blood because of an incantation”. Science is not built to prove that something like a god does not exist, just as it cannot prove there isn’t some kind of supernatural being living in my closet. Because the definition of supernatural makes the question of my closet monster’s existence impossible to tackle, it can only comment on whether it is or is not stealing all my left foot socks.
    Many philosophers are also atheists but eschew the idea that there can ever be an objective measure of anything, and completely reject science and everything but their own pet theories. Newton was religious and a closet alchemist; shall we cast off his work then as the musings of a soft minded superstitious boob and instead embrace existentialism?
    This idea that embracing atheism will wrap one up in the warm blanket of logic is a superstition all its own. Converting an idiot to atheism will not turn him into a Spock-like power house of analytical thought he’ll just be an idiot and an atheist.

  12. To state “There is no god” is illogical as it is akin to “proving a negative”. One can logically say, “I believe there is no god” but that is entirely different.
    As far as I can tell, (yes, I am a scientist), science has nothing to say on the existence of God except to say that all physical phenomena SEEM to have physical explanations which is different from “All physical phenomena have physical explanations”.
    IF a God exists who is able to control physical phenomena, there is certainly room for him to act on events within the uncertainty of events on a quantum level. On that level, ALL events are probabilistic and cannot be predicted with certainty. The probabilistic nature of things is a complete theory that does not require any “hidden variables”. A God could act within the constraints of this probability to nudge events and be completely acting within the “laws of Physics”. One could never ascertain the existence of such a God by looking at physical events. Consequently, science has nothing to say about such a god.

    • This is a paradox, one of many. Science endures them. How many decimal places does pi go out to? How about the position and momentum of a hydorogen atom, how accurate can a simultaneous measurement be? Everyone can suppose what they wish as long as it is a superset of shared reality, right? Well it doesn’t matter if it isn’t apart of a shared reality which isn’t predetermined. If our shared reality is predetermined then it still doesn’t matter because there wasn’t anything you could do about it anyway.

  13. I don’t have an issue with people who believe in a god or with atheists. My issue comes with atheists who make fun of or reject the opinions of people who believe in a higher being because they dismiss them as being stupid. From a scientific point of view, there is no proof as to whether a higher being exists or not. I understand having an opinion about people who don’t believe in evolution or that dinosaurs walked the planet or rejecting something that we know to be true – but not everyone that believes in a higher power is running around claiming that God created Earth in seven days. In fact, most people I have come across are not like that at all.

    I wonder if there is a difference between the traditionally conservative south and the more liberal north. I went to Catholic school from the time I could speak until I graduated high school – but I was never taught to reject science. I always hear horror stories of children in religion affiliated schools being taught to reject everything science says about the development of our planet – I wonder if this is in the south, because it is definitely not something I experienced in New Jersey – where the Catholic influence is very heavy. In high school, I took a course that compared the Book of Genesis to the Big Bang, evolution, dinosaurs, etc. and essentially justified reasons as to how you can still believe in the words of the Bible without rejecting science. I didn’t necessarily agree with it or follow the Catholic faith at this point in my life – I label myself as an agnostic – but the course was interesting, to say the least.

  14. Something that I find very irritating is the whimsy of many of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ people. They are so sad they can’t even take a position. This would be fine if ‘spiritual but not religious’ people were minding their own business, but they’re not. They are making laws about scientific research. I actually respect people more who are religious and don’t even to justify it. Much more than the ones who wont take a position, because they couldn’t stand to see it torn down and cling so tenaciously to their secret smug certainty. There are more than enough measurements to make a logical decision. Something other than logic prevents them. Be plain about that, take a stand (for something)

    • Ah, that’s only if I would want to play by your rules. Really, I have no opinion on the matter, and I don’t really care. So there, talk to yourself for all I care.

  15. I think we need to keep Religion per se out of the discussion. These are man made institutions completely divorced from a God idea. A definition of “God” is that he/she invented us and allows us to survive. There are many man made tales as to how this happened. Each Religion and culture has there own story about this.

    We do have some proofs of a story about this. Not complete but many facts. The Space around us has many chemicals and energies we need to exist. The billions of years of time has allowed us to piece together a partial picture of the many reactions and time to develop us.

    It seems that the most prominent thing in our earths development and creating life is the Suns energy. This allows all of the things needed to feed ourselves and to create cellular energy to live. The Sun is part of a whole complex we call nature. Nature is the God we seek.

    See =our ancient origins, and God is nature.

  16. I am a scientist and a person of faith and I know many others like me. Science is a methodology and a discipline, not a belief system.

  17. Ah, once again, a theist making themselves out to be the victim or the minority. Seriously, I don’t care what you believe, sir. I don’t pity the sheep.

  18. The Pew results show that 10x more scientists than public members identify as atheist, despite the common misunderstanding of that term (i.e., meaning that it can be proven there is not god). It properly means “without god” or nonbeliever. And the author is clearly a nonbeliever, whether or not he chooses that term because of its misinterpretation by some.

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