Does atheism lead to an interest in science?

We Americans are often told that if we could only get rid of religion then scientific advance would flourish.  To support this argument, we’re always presented with the same two statistics – Europeans are much less religious than Americans and Europeans are much more likely to accept evolution than Americans.  But if being less religious translates as being more scientific, shouldn’t there be many more indicators of this than acceptance of evolution? In fact, if this Gnu atheist argument had substance, shouldn’t Europe, compared to the USA, be a scientific Gnutopia?

You would think so.  But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

For starters, consider a paper by Carlos Elías, entitled, The decline of natural sciences: confronting diminishing interest, fewer scientists and poorer working conditions in western countries. A comparative analysis between Spain and the United Kingdom

(pdf file here)

Here is the abstract:

This study sets out to determine if the interest in and study of natural sciences is declining in western countries as scientists currently contend. Part one demonstrates how survey results reveal a decline of interest in scientific news in the EU. Part two explores the decline of interest further through examining data such as the number of students interested in scientific subjects and scientific careers. We compare data from two different countries: the UK and Spain. Within the study the UK represents the Anglo Saxon culture (traditionally more interested in science) and Spain represents the Latin culture (traditionally less interested). We conclude that in both regions there is a lack of interest in scientific subjects.

The paper lists some interesting findings. For example, almost 40% of European students “do not care” about science or scientific discoveries.  And this lack of interest is significantly reshaping European universities:

In 2006 Sussex University announced to shut down its high- ranking chemistry department, the proud source of three Nobel laureates. Scientists reacted angrily to the announcement but Sussex University’s authorities confirmed the plans to concentrate in other areas, including English, history and media studies.

It was the latest in a long list of closures indicative of the weakening state of chemistry education in the UK universities: King’s College London closes chemistry department (2004); University of Wales Swansea stops taking in new chemistry undergraduates (2004); Queen Mary, University of London, merges chemistry with biology (2005); University of Dundee closes division of physical and inorganic chemistry (2005) and University of Exeter merges reduced chemistry department into biological sciences(2005).

According to The Observer (12 March 2006: 12): Financial pressures and  the shift of popularity towards less traditional subjects such as media studies have been blamed. In a statement to staff, the vice-chancellor at Sussex University said chemistry was a difficult recruitment area at present times.

and

Data from the Spanish Education Office from 2000-2004 proves physics fell by 12%. Chemistry fell by 18% (from 30,744 to 25,171). So that means a fall of 5.570 students in only four years. Mathematics dropped by 20%, and Biology only fell 7.9%.

In contrast to this, and in a similar trend to UK, Journalism has risen 4.4% but actually the star is Cinema & TV studies, which has risen 13%. Data from the academic year 2003/2004 shows the following number of students registered: chemistry (25,171); Physics (10,923); Mathematics (8,266); Cinema & TV studies (11,266) and Journalism (16,656). Data from Italy —a country with similar cultural parameters to Spain— shows the following numbers of students registered: in Physics & Maths (4,126); in Chemistry (2,628) and in Media Studies (54,000).

It looks to me like getting a population to get rid of its God beliefs isn’t translating into some resurgence of interest in science.   Gnutopia is looking like an article of faith.

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7 Responses to Does atheism lead to an interest in science?

  1. Crude says:

    Very interesting. This is something I was completely unaware of.

    I also recall that Ecklund’s? study mentioned that in the US, scientists lacked their belief in God well before they became scientists. (Though she’s with Templeton, so atheists tend to reject those studies out of hand.)

  2. Having a diminishing interest in the study of a subject is not the same as the population not believeing what scientists have to say, or having an interest in them. Laymans books on popular science and TV shows on the same subects are more popular than ever before. Scientific degrees are closely linked with industrialising nations, as seen currently throughout Asia.

    Its not just about evolution, what about climate change, the age of the universe, radioactive decay rates and quantum mechanics?

    Also, on the last comment, I would expect a person entering scientific study to be more sceptical about religion and dogma before starting study, they would be pretty poor scientists otherwise.

  3. thinkingchristian says:

    Why should religious belief make for a poor scientist, Rowan? Do you hold to the stereotype that religious people are locked unthinkingly in dogma? What is your evidential source for that belief?

  4. “Having a diminishing interest in the study of a subject is not the same as the population not believeing what scientists have to say, or having an interest in them. “

    In other words, it seems to be good news for you if the majority of the population doesn’t bother to actually study science, but simply “believe” (by faith?) what scientists have to say. Great.

  5. Crude says:

    In other words, it seems to be good news for you if the majority of the population doesn’t bother to actually study science, but simply “believe” (by faith?) what scientists have to say. Great.

    Or better yet, say they believe, even if they don’t really even understand what they say they believe?

    I recall Dawkins making a big deal, insisting that most people who say they’re Christians, aren’t, on the grounds that said Christians don’t believe in or are unaware of certain doctrines and teachings. How many people even ‘believe’ in evolution by that standard, I wonder?

  6. Michael says:

    Rowan,

    In addition to the good points made by others, ask yourself what if the study had found the opposite? What if young people In Europe cited science as their number one interest and European universities could not keep up with the demand for more science courses? I think we all know that Coyne and others would be trumpeting this, citing it as another talking point. Again and again. So if you have a study that a) can either support Gnutopia or b) fail to damage Gnutopia, then it becomes clear that Gnutopia is supported by confirmation bias.

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