A Better Explantion for the NAS-Atheism Connection

According to the New Atheists, a survey about NAS scientists, which shows them to be far more atheistic than the general public, proves that science and religious faith are incompatible.  Sam Harris insists, “there is no question that an engagement with scientific thinking tends to erode, rather than support, religious faith.”  Jerry Coyne insists “but almost certainly the main reason for the discrepancy is simply that practicing science erodes one’s religious belief.”

We have already seen that this talking point illustrates a mindset that is eager to abandon the scientific approach while adopting a line of thinking we might expect from sexists. So let’s come up with a better way to account for the finding that NAS scientists are more likely to be atheists or agnostics.

A fatal flaw in the New Atheist talking point is that it merely assumes the NAS scientists and general public are the same with the exceptions that a) NAS scientists are the “scientific elite” and b) NAS scientists are mostly atheists.  Yet if there are other differences between the general public and NAS scientists, the meaning of the correlation behind the talking point becomes more and more ambiguous.  So what we clearly need is some form of scientific study of the NAS scientists to better interpret the significance of their atheism.  And I would predict there are many other differences between the population of NAS scientists and the general population.  Here is my reasoning.

 

To be an elite scientist does not so much depend on reasoning ability as it does depend on one’s level of devotion.  To be an elite scientist, one must effectively live, eat, sleep and breathe their research.  Elite scientists spend a large part of their life living in the lab.  And when they are not in the lab, they are writing papers and grants.  And when they are not writing papers or grants, they are reading papers or attending seminars. Get the picture?

If I am correct, you should be able to see how such scientists would differ from the general public.  Because a life of such extreme devotion to one’s research can only occur within a lifetime of finite time and energy, I would predict that, compared to the general population, NAS scientists are less likely to be married, less likely to have children, spend less time with their families, spend less time at social events, spend less time doing home repair or remodeling, spend less time volunteering for charities, etc.  So in this context, it would not be surprising to see them spend less time in a church or a religious community.

So it’s not that scientific thinking erodes faith, it’s that when someone has other priorities in life in addition to their research, they are unlikely to be able to match the level of devotion that someone without those other priorities has.  And since the Christian faith stresses that people place high value on their families and service to community, this emphasis can indeed get in the way of becoming an elite scientist.   There are only 24 hours in every day.

My hypothesis not only leads to testable predictions of about NAS scientists (see above), but there are two lines of support.

1.  There is the issue of parsimony.  For not only does my hypothesis at least partially explain the over representation of atheists among NAS scientists, but it also explains the over representation of men.

2.  The NAS has the official position that science and religious faith can indeed co-exist.  The New Atheists responding by activating their conspiracy theory mode and attempt to dismiss this position by reframing the NAS community as a community of cowards and deceivers, who won’t tell the truth for fear of losing their funding.  I would argue that the NAS position is sincere and most atheists among the NAS community are smart enough to recognize their atheism is more of a metaphysical, personal choice than some scientific result.

Finally, if someone still wants to cling to the notion that the NAS survey shows that science is incompatible with religious faith, then why don’t the NAS scientists explain how this is?  If atheists among the NAS were to articulate how their scientific expertise led them to atheism, does anyone really believe we would get some astounding, new argument for atheism?  I don’t.  Not at all.  I think we would get what we always get – some simple-minded god-of-the-gaps argument mixed with the weird notion that God is supposed to be some form of Trickster who would mess with the experiments of scientists.

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25 Responses to A Better Explantion for the NAS-Atheism Connection

  1. merlynleroy says:

    Hey, nothing like being guilty of the same conclusion-jumping as you accuse others of.

  2. ChazIng says:

    Good points! Didn’t think of that.

  3. Michael says:

    Hey, nothing like being guilty of the same conclusion-jumping as you accuse others of.

    Huh? What are you talking about? I’ve jumped to no conclusion.

  4. The Deuce says:

    Another interesting facet in all this is the gulf that exists between academic scientists and working scientists/experts with a scientific background. This point was driven home to me recently when watching Ben Carson’s speech. Take a look at his history. I would easily put him up against anyone in the NAS in terms of knowledge of how the brain works, and he’s probably got a better practical understanding than any of them. But I doubt that he would’ve ever wanted to be in that organization, nor vice-versa, nor would he have fit in there.

  5. Bilbo says:

    The irony of the use of the 93% number is starting to get to me. Eugenie Scott pointed out over a decade ago the shoddiness of the survey that produced this number, but to practically no avail. The number is still used to this day. Philosopher of science Alex Rosenberg referred to it quite a few times in his debate with William Lane Craig to demonstrate the incompatibility of science and religion. And that was just a couple of weeks ago! So here we have people science continuing to use a blatant example of bad science, and interpret it using bad scientific principals, to bolster a philosophical point of view. I’m beginning to laugh uncontrollably as I write this, just thinking about it.

  6. Crude says:

    So here we have people science continuing to use a blatant example of bad science, and interpret it using bad scientific principals, to bolster a philosophical point of view.

    Very few people care about science or reason in this capacity.

    Very many people care about being thought of as someone who cares about science or reason in this capacity.

    I always use the Cult of Reason (as in revolutionary France) as an example. Were they very reasonable? I mean, they had to be. They had a cult of Reason. Couldn’t be much more devoted to reason than that, eh?

    And yet, and yet…

  7. Michael says:

    Philosopher of science Alex Rosenberg referred to it quite a few times in his debate with William Lane Craig to demonstrate the incompatibility of science and religion. And that was just a couple of weeks ago!

    Well, we’re talking about a community that has shown no skepticism regarding Dawkins’s kooky religion as child abuse claims. It took a Muslim interviewer to stump him. Anyway, is that debate on the web?

    So here we have people science continuing to use a blatant example of bad science, and interpret it using bad scientific principals, to bolster a philosophical point of view. I’m beginning to laugh uncontrollably as I write this, just thinking about it.

    The end justifies the means. Never make the mistake of thinking someone like Rosenberg stands on some moral principles. He is, after all, an ethical nihilist who thinks Dennett is too timid:

    http://people.duke.edu/~alexrose/dditamler.pdf

  8. Barkov says:

    The poll offered three choices:

    * I believe in a God in intellectual and affective communication with humankind, i.e., a God to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer. By “answer” I mean more than the subjective, psychological effect of prayer.

    * I do not believe in a God as defined above.

    * I have no definite belief regarding this question.

    A lot of theists have left that God behind, and those theists would be lumped into the nonbelief category. Top scientists were essentially asked, “Do you believe in magic?” I would have expected even less than 7% to say yes.

    Mixing correlation and causation seems just as inappropriate as concocting other explanations in place of the obvious explanation: that top scientists said they don’t believe in magic. Big surprise.

  9. Michael says:

    LOL. Let me translate Barkov: Why bother with a scientific approach when a bag of cliches does the work for you.

  10. Crude says:

    A lot of theists have left that God behind, and those theists would be lumped into the nonbelief category.

    Even if this claim were true, it would be quite a mistake to regard them as non-theists.

    Top scientists were essentially asked, “Do you believe in magic?”

    Not at all. For magic, see the beliefs of Rosenberg, Krauss, etc. Actually, see nowhere, since ‘magic’ is little more than an ignorant slur.

    As Mike has pointed out, for all the talk about the importance of reason, the Cult of Gnu is profoundly lacking it. ;)

  11. merlynleroy says:

    “Huh? What are you talking about? I’ve jumped to no conclusion.”

    I’d say you have; you are simply rationalizing what you would like to be true. For example:

    “So it’s not that scientific thinking erodes faith, it’s that when someone has other priorities in life in addition to their research, they are unlikely to be able to match the level of devotion that someone without those other priorities has.”

    Here you aren’t even couching your statement in probabilities; you are claiming definitively that:
    1) scientific thinking does not erode faith
    2) other priorities make devotion less likely (implying that this is the reason why more scientists are atheists vs. the general population).

    But you’re only using your own speculation to reach a forgone conclusion.

  12. Michael says:

    Er, no. It’s called a hypothesis. And a testable one at that.

  13. Barkov says:

    I’m not taking a side here. I’m pointing out the poll was obviously
    skewed to suggest less theists than there actually are. The poll’s
    wording is from 1914, repeated 80+ years later. It’s not a good poll.

    Scientists generally don’t believe in an intervening God that directly
    answers prayers, as described in the poll. The wording makes it
    indistinguishable from magic. It’s not at all surprising that only 7%
    of NAS scientists believe in that old-timey God. I would like to know
    why this an apparently implausible explanation to the people here.

  14. Crude says:

    The wording makes it indistinguishable from magic.

    “Magic” is little more than an epithet in these discussions, and inaccurate.

    It’s not at all surprising that only 7% of NAS scientists believe in that old-timey God.

    It’s no more ‘old-timey’ than materialism, and alternate views of God tend to be just as old.

    I would like to know why this an apparently implausible explanation to the people here.

    What explanation? There’s really nothing you’ve offered on that front other than to call option 1 magic, and say “Well yeah scientists don’t like magic.”

  15. Michael says:

    I never said the number was implausible. I just offered a better explanation for it than Harris or Coyne. Wouldn;t you agree?

  16. Bilbo says:

    Barkov,

    Eugenie Scott (and I) agree with you that the wording of the survey leaves much to be desired. There certainly needs to be a better survey taken before the 93% number is tossed around anymore.

  17. KevinB says:

    [My comments aren’t getting through. Am I being blocked?]

    We’re not talking about some miracles that happened a couple thousand years ago which fall under the radar of scientific understanding and which scientists could believe without much conflict. We’re talking about divine interventions happening right now, interventions that directly affect us, when we ask for them. Some would regard that as a caricature of theism today, an understanding of God whose time has passed. It is in the same category as Harry Potter magic — say a few words and, kazam, something happens. The magic analogy is to emphasize the inappropriateness of the poll’s wording as it applies to contemporary theism, not as some attack on theism.

    The explanation for the 93% is simply that only 7% of NAS members believe in that almost-caricature conception of God. This is wholly unsurprising considering how science works and what scientists do. However this explanation has been repeatedly dismissed here without an accompanying reason. I would like to hear the reason, please.

  18. Michael says:

    KevinB/barkov,

    You don’t seem to understand the Gnu talking point. It uses the 93% number to show that atheism is more common among the “elite” scientists than the general public AND the general scientific community. It then insist that this must mean scientific thinking erodes religious faith. My hypothesis neuters that explanation and better yet, is testable.

    AS for your explanation, you are correct in the sense that I would answer that question ‘no’ also, as my theological understanding does not entail that God be a magic genie. Your problem is that you seem to think, with no justification at all, that a NAS scientist is more likely to realize this than a non-NAS scientist. I find that silly.

    As for being blocked, no. Nothing was here this morning except your posting that I approved. But now that it is clear you have multiple names with multiple IPs, it is prudent for me to approve your future comments.

  19. merlynleroy says:

    “Er, no. It’s called a hypothesis. And a testable one at that.”

    You haven’t phrased it like one. You’ve phrased it just as certainly as the people you’ve criticized.

  20. Bilbo says:

    Hi Merlyn,

    You must have missed this sentence in the middle of Mike’s OP:

    My hypothesis not only leads to testable predictions of about NAS scientists (see above), but there are two lines of support.

  21. Michael says:

    You haven’t phrased it like one.

    Read again:

    “If I am correct…. I would predict that……”

    Compare to

    “there is no question” (Harris) and “but almost certainly” (Coyne)

  22. merlynleroy says:

    You still didn’t phrase your statement tentatively; you phrased it as absolutely true.

  23. Michael says:

    That’s only your subjective impression. Is there some reason why you don’t quote where I am phrasing my hypothesis as absolute truth?

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