A Neglected Survey

While New Atheists love to argue that most scientists are atheists and this somehow shows that science and religion are incompatible, the survey results from the Pew Research Center tell us something else.

Consider the results:

Scientists and Belief 1

Yes, scientists are less likely to be theists than the general public, but the simple fact remains that the majority of scientists are not atheists or agnostics.  In fact, only 40% of scientists are atheists, a number too small to give significant support to the radical incompatibility claim.

But what of the fact that there are about 4 times as many atheists in science than there are in the general public?  I suspect dynamics similar to those mentioned about the NAS are in play.  To become a biologist or chemist, one first obtains a B.S. degree in biology or chemistry.  From there, the person chooses to go to graduate school to pursue a career in research.  Christian students, however, might be more likely to opt for career choices that involve more direct service to those around them.  And an obvious choice would be the healing professions.  So I did a quick Google search and lookie what I found:

The first study of physician religious beliefs has found that 76 percent of doctors believe in God and 59 percent believe in some sort of afterlife. The survey, performed by researchers at the University and published in the July issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine, found that 90 percent of doctors in the United States attend religious services at least occasionally, compared to 81 percent of all adults. Fifty-five percent of doctors say their religious beliefs influence how they practice medicine.

These results were not anticipated. Religious belief tends to decrease as education and income levels increase, yet doctors are highly educated and, on average, well compensated. The finding also differs radically from 90 years of studies showing that only a minority of scientists (excluding physicians) believes in God or an afterlife.

“We did not think physicians were nearly this religious,” said study author Farr Curlin, Instructor in Medicine and a member of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University. “We suspect that people who combine an aptitude for science with an interest in religion and an affinity for public service are particularly attracted to medicine. The responsibility to care for those who are suffering and the rewards of helping those in need resonate throughout most religious traditions.”

Further support for this hypothesis comes from looking more closely at physicians:

The survey revealed considerable variation between different medical specialties. Doctors in family practice and pediatrics were far more likely to carry their religious belief into “all my other dealings” and to look to God for “support and guidance.” Psychiatrists and radiologists were the least likely.

For some strange reason, I have never heard the Gnu atheists acknowledge this aspect of  reality.

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12 Responses to A Neglected Survey

  1. Bilbo says:

    It could be that most Gnus, just like the rest of us, didn’t know about this survey. Thanks for the info.

  2. Michael says:

    But that would further illustrate the non-scientific thinking of the Gnus. They’ve been pushing this talking point for years and none of them have ever paused to wonder if alternative hypotheses exist. Wanna know how hard this study was to find?

    Step 1 – Go to Google.
    Step 2 – type ‘religious beliefs among physicians’
    Step 3- Click on first entry.

    Eight years and not one Gnu has ever thought to do this.

  3. TFBW says:

    Another possible factor contributing towards the 40% atheism figure in science is the “evolution” factor. This works in two ways: self-selection, and conversion. Those who are already atheists might gravitate towards these subjects (self-selection) because they make it “possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist,” as Dawkins said. There are also those who start out with some nominal belief in God or the supernatural and undergo conversion to atheism as a result of Darwinian indoctrination.

    If anyone knows of surveys which put some numbers on these conjectures, I’d be interested to hear about it.

  4. TFBW says:

    The article in question also says (in relation to beliefs among scientists), “among scientists, mathematicians were the most likely to believe in God and biologists the least likely.” They consider this fact “curious”. I find it quite unsurprising: biology is the Darwinian centre of the universe, and in mathematics, philosophical materialism offers no intellectual high ground.

  5. “There is only one Lord of the Ring, only one who can bend it to his will. And he does not share power.” — Gandalf

  6. Jon Garvey says:

    Anecdotally … I did pretty well in zoology at school (Distinction at Scholarship Level), but opted for medicine instead (a) to help people and (b) to serve God.

  7. I find it quite unsurprising: biology is the Darwinian centre of the universe, and in mathematics, philosophical materialism offers no intellectual high ground.

    It’s very remarkable how the most logical and rigorous of all the fields of knowledge, mathematics, is also the one which is most esoteric, mystical, and intuitive in some sort of way. Ramanujan, perhaps the most naturally talented mathematician in history, was a very religious man (although he wasn’t Christian) who thought that his mathematical insights came from divine inspiration. Even in theoretical physics, which is perhaps the next most rigorous field of knowledge, you seem to have more theists (e.g. Paul Davies, Frank Tipler, Freeman Dyson).

  8. The Deuce says:

    I find it quite unsurprising: biology is the Darwinian centre of the universe, and in mathematics, philosophical materialism offers no intellectual high ground.

    Yup, Darwinian evolution is the lynchpin of the entire atheistic worldview, so it’s not the least bit surprising that atheists looking to support their beliefs would be drawn to those disciplines where it holds the most sway, and that those fields that are most oriented around it would be the most atheistic.

    On the other hand, universals are impossible to coherently account for within a materialistic framework, so it’s not surprising that those who work in a field that consists of dealing with universals like mathematics would trend away from materialistic beliefs, and that those fields closest to mathematics would be the least atheistic.

    These things are especially unsurprising in light of the fact that, aside from certain sub-disciplines of genetics, biology is the least mathematical branch of science.

  9. Michael says:

    Y’know, it’s not uncommon to find Gnu atheists using the 93% to make some snarky anti-religious point. So here’s a come back for ya:

    Why are there so many atheists in science? They couldn’t get into medical school.

  10. Justin says:

    I’ve seen these surveys. And I’ve pointed out to many a Gnu that they’re ommitting medical doctors from the “scientists” they so often cite as being so “atheistic”. Meh, the same might be true in philosophy, but I’ve not seen any data – that people sufficiently interested in the philosophy of theology often end up in seminary, and not in philosophy departments.

  11. Justin says:

    It’s a much simpler explanation (core beliefs steer people in career choices) than the Gnu theory that if someone is sufficiently pedigreed, and enters into a select group of “scientific” fields, that somewhere along the way they are taught the Secret Nugget of Truth that there is no god. And if everyone else could just be as smart as Scientists®, they’d know there is no god, too. But I’ve never been too keen on conspiracy theories.

  12. The Deuce says:

    Hey, Mike, this is an old post, but I was just reminded of it after seeing someone mention the Pew poll on Facebook (though they were focusing on the finding that scientists are supposedly only 6% Republican: http://www.people-press.org/2009/07/09/public-praises-science-scientists-fault-public-media/). Anyhow, it was so ridiculously lopsided that I smelled a rat and decided to look into the internals of the poll, and noticed some interesting things.

    First of all, by “scientists,” the poll actually means “AAAS members” (Why it didn’t just say “AAAS members” I cannot say – Perhaps the pollster was deliberately trying to create political talking points?). AAAS, of course, is an advocacy group, and is hardly politically neutral. This comment points out some other breakdowns of the sample: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2011/02/18/why-are-scientists-so-often-liberal-in-political-outlook/#comment-51130

    Basically, the definition of “scientists” that was used here, in addition to being restricted to those who joined the AAAS, is disproportionately tilted towards academics and others drawing a paycheck from the government (84%), and also towards biologists (which, as you know from other polls, are the most atheistic and politically leftist among scientific disciplines).

    Also, this…

    “Scientists are far less critical than the general public of government performance. Just 40% of scientists agree that “when something is run by the government, it is usually inefficient and wasteful”; a majority of the public (57%) agrees with this statement.”

    …shows by itself that this is largely a group of ideologues who’s opinions are simply illogical and opposed to known facts and laws of economics/math outside the facts required by their own disciplines, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously :-)

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