The NAS Talking Point

Back in 2006, Sam Harris made an incredibly stupid argument:

Although it is possible to be a scientist and still believe in God — as some scientists seem to manage it — there is no question that an engagement with scientific thinking tends to erode, rather than support, religious faith. Taking the U.S. population as an example: Most polls show that about 90% of the general public believes in a personal God; yet 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences do not. This suggests that there are few modes of thinking less congenial to religious faith than science is.

While a first year college student would likely note that Harris is confusing correlation with causation, this doesn’t stop another Gnu leader from regurgitating the same talking point seven years later:

while the official position of the National Academy of Sciences is that there is no conflict between science and faith, 93% of the members of that Academy—the most elite body of scientists in America—are atheists or agnostics……No conflict? Why is atheism among scientists tenfold more common than among the American public, and even higher among scientists at more elite universities or those who are members of more elite organizations?  The answer surely involves atheists going into science more often, but almost certainly the main reason for the discrepancy is simply that practicing science erodes one’s religious belief.

There are so many things wrong with this argument that it is embarrassing to see men who are supposed to be scientists making it.  But let’s just focus on one aspect.


Why have Harris and Coyne cherry-picked this variable alone? Surely, such one-dimensional explanations can be used to account for other facts about the NAS. For example, what is the % breakdown of males and females who are members of the NAS? I couldn’t find a list of the NAS members (and I admit not looking very hard), so I decided to search the member directory of the NAS with the ten most common male and female names . It turned out that 614 members have the ten most common male names. Yet only 76 members have the ten most common female names. Hmmm.  So while it is true that 93% of NAS members are either atheists or agnostics (as if there is no difference between the two), it’s also probably the case that something like 89% of NAS members are male.

Now imagine if someone decided to use Coyne’s logic and argue that science and being female are incompatible.  Imagine if they borrowed from Coyne’s line of thinking and argued  “the main reason for the discrepancy is simply that practicing science is something women can’t do very well.”  Or maybe they borrow from Harris and argue, “there are few modes of thinking less congenial to women than science is?  And they use the NAS data to support their case.

Any thinking person would recognize this as poorly supported sexism.  Yet for some odd reason, the New Atheists don’t seem to recognize the poorly supported, bigoted essence of their own version of the sexist argument.


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9 Responses to The NAS Talking Point

  1. Bilbo says:


    So what would be your hypothesis for the small percentage of religious scientists in the NAS?

  2. TFBW says:

    I’d suggest that self-selection has entered the picture. A group like that can reach a tipping point where it is perceived as an atheists’ club as much as a scientific association, thus encouraging more atheists to join, and others to leave. I would not be inclined to be a member of a professional association which I perceive as ideologically opposed to me in other matters. Yes, one could point at their official position of “no conflict between science and faith”, but Dawkins characterises that position as a strategic lie. I hope he’s stretching the truth (as he is wont to do), but it’s far too easy to believe that the official position is substantially insincere, serving primarily to maintain an aura of scientific authority around their statements, rather than one of atheistic ideology.

    Self-selection doesn’t explain how the tipping point is reached, of course, but only how it can get from there to a super-majority. I think it’s a useful (if partial) explanation, even so.

  3. ChazIng says:

    Even Scott does not necessarily agree with the 93% claim:

  4. Apollyon says:

    It is a combination of self-selection and other factors. If we set aside scientists in this debate, how many in the Arts community or the Academic community, or media, etc are a) theists and b) attend a religious institution?

    It is quite low. Does this mean all these areas are ‘incompatible’ with religion?

    Historically, it has been the ‘privileged’ classes that have been atheist/agnostic. The ‘great unwashed’ tend to continue believing.

    Quite simply, a large part of it is arrogance, concious or otherwise. If ‘jane and john average’ believe in God and ‘organized religion’, then it must be for the ‘simple’ folk.

    Don’t forget, these are the people that will sneer at anyone who doesn’t believe in AGW. Clearly only ignorant people will dismiss the ‘science’ of man-made climate change.

    Part of it is rebellion. How many teenagers rebel against authority? The typical atheist, in my experience, never left this stage. Consider the standard argument: I don’t believe in Santa Clause or the Tooth Fairy. Therefore I don’t believe in a ‘make belief’ God.

    Essentially, it is a combination of self-selection, arrogance and rebellion.

  5. Bilbo says:

    Thanks for the link to Eugenie Scott’s article, Chazing. Have there been more recent and more accurate surveys? Or is the 93% number based on the survey that Scott writes about?

  6. Bilbo says:

    Apparently the 93% number that is being thrown around today is from that same survey, as Josh Rosenau makes clear:

  7. ChazIng says:

    Thanks Bilbo, as your link makes clear, the survey question was problematic to begin with. No atheist seems to be making the case that the lack of women and possible under-representation of Africans and Latinos is indicative of their incompatibility with science.

  8. ChazIng says:

    Another view:
    Ecklund’s book can be found here:

  9. Dhay says:

    So scientists aren’t just sexist, misogynistic, racist, transphobic etc etc, as some of the 2017 March for Science organisers are portraying them, they’re also atheistic.

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