I recently attended a meeting in London – ‘Exploring the implications of religion among scientists in the UK and India’, which is a subset of a larger investigation by Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public policy headed up by Prof. Elaine Ecklund. When I received the invitation back in May, I didn’t really quite know what to expect. Well actually, having not done my homework, I thought I might have signed up for something that was a bit flaky – a sort of let’s have a group hug and sing Kumbaya for how-much-religion-can-teach-science conference.
I was so very wrong, the meeting was anything but soft and squishy. Prof. Ecklund and her team very adroitly presented some preliminary results for their recent study on ‘Religion among scientists in International context (RASIC)’. They exhibited their findings to a handful of social, biological and physical scientists in order to get feedback on what people thought the implications of the data might be. This process was weird for me as a scientist and reminded me that I need to get out more. In science, while you might talk to your colleagues in your department or attend conferences to present your results, you wouldn’t necessarily invite a whole myriad of interested parties, give them nice champagne, and ask them to discuss, critique and give feedback on your research. It is a good process though, I like it and I wish there was a similar mechanism in science and not only because I’m a fan of a glass of bubbly.
While the questions that emerged from this study are much more extensive and complex, it all has to start with the basic question: Are scientists religious?
The answer? In the UK, probably not. In India, probably so.
Which leads to another related question: Are scientists predominantly atheists? (Atheism not being synonymous with non-religious)
In the UK probably so – at least the majority are. But so is the rest of UK society, in the main. Around 50% of the UK population claim to be non-believers.
This led to a working question for RASIC, with respect to the UK anyway, which is:
Are scientists at the forefront of current societal thought? Or in a more expanded form, given that scientists are perceived as more ‘intelligent’ are they riding along on the crest of the societal wave leading the UK into more ‘rational’ atheistic beliefs?
Besides just wanting to figure out if scientists are ahead of the curve in societal trends (which admittedly is well nigh almost impossible to answer without access to the future Zeitgeist), the assumption packed into this hypothesis is that scientists are more intelligent/rational than other people. And this is the bit that really irked me … Not the question itself I should say, but this underlying assumption that scientists are somehow more intelligent and rational than other people. Scientists are people and like every other human in the world can be entirely irrational and hide bound.
To be fair to the meeting conveners, they never stated whether they actually thought scientists in general were more intelligent or if they just thought this was public perception. Deciding that scientists are ‘more intelligent’ and have something to say about everything because they are ‘more rational’ is giving the body of scientists as a whole (as opposed to individual scientists who might happened to be well versed in something besides science) a whole lot more credit than they deserve for pontificating about things they may not know much about. As most of us who have lived for more than 10 minutes know, in this life we can be smart enough about some things but completely ignorant of others. With respect to religion, and perhaps I am wrong, I’d suspect that a large number of practicing scientists have limited religious training or formal education in theology. So why, would we assume that scientists, because they ‘more intelligent’, can say more about religious belief than say a philosopher, or a psychologist or hell even my grandmother?
Now while I definitely am NOT saying that intelligent, thoughtful people who have no formal training have nothing good to say, just thinking that the majority beliefs of one group of people must be correct because they are all ‘smart’ is a bit nuts. It’s sort of like when you ask Miss America how she would cure cancer or when we ask actors what they think about public policy. Granted, we do it, or rather the media does it, but why do we assume these folks know more than everyone else just because they are pretty or are actors? Just because you know about one thing doesn’t mean you know about everything.
Underlying all of this, is that annoying recurrent meme that, yes Virginia, atheists are more intelligent/rational people than the rest of humanity. While, I am sure Richard Dawkins, who’s already decided he’s smarter than everyone else, would give a withering ‘obviously’ to that, the rest of us mere mortals should all keep in mind that self declarations of superior rationality should be met with a certain amount of scepticism.