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.