The implications of religion among scientists

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.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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9 Responses to The implications of religion among scientists

  1. aeon says:

    Two very rough tongue-in-cheeks thoughts:

    a) The truism “Just because you know about one thing doesn’t mean you know about everything” will go fine with a glass of bubbly. My POV is that if you look at it soberly, then the universal approach to education universities used to apply could have left scientists with a broader view of the world, and not only one special interest pet research subject. In essence, the question is where does pendulum swing: to the ‘ivory tower of splendid academic isolation’ meme, or the ‘universal scholar’ meme?

    I see the flaw in this, however. Life/media outlets/the internet isn’t Salon (capital, capital…), and Victorian-style scholars are history, for the better part at least. Specialisation and the immensly growing body of knowledge and information took their toll. Economic theory applied to education all over the world is enforcing other tariffs and duties. Maybe it’s time for an organised intellectual tax evasion scheme. Now, that would be a progressive societal thing, I say!

    One said: “[T]he education of the individual requires his incorporation into society and involves his links with society at large”. Let’s just try to let it work both ways, shall we?

    b) Before “Dawkins!1! becomes a new subsection of Godwin’s law, could everybody please keep that guy out of the (comments) discussion? I would be much obliged if we could concentrate on the general picture, not on a particular unfruitful bit. I would also try to rationally argue that idols, poster childs, and fetishs of any kind in the discussion about the perception of religion among scientists would best be avoided.

    • thanks for your comment … for a) I’d agree with you, and in the US a science degree is still usually a Liberal arts degree where you do take a range of subjects – not just your core subject. Maybe not for everyone but it’s not such a bad thing. for b) that was really my fault for mentioning him but I couldn’t help myself …

      • aeon says:

        [D*mn, it should have read “a Salon” above – Salon dot something is another media outlet, which I was not referring to…]

        If we agree on that the ideal university education should broaden the views and the mindset of any student, and we agree that we *do* strife to live up to that (sadly, of course, less successful than we want to) – does that lead to the conclusion that scientists could probably have something to say about other fields as well?

        Should scientists have learned to use their mind, more or less rationally?

        Just an anecdote: I remember from my early studies that some physicists I knew were suffering terribly from a lecture and an accompanying course on logic. However, they at least learned about forms of inference. My friends in the biology department never did,

        Personally, I still have trouble, after all those years, to understand a lot of statistics properly – but at least, I’ve learned a bit about the scientific method behind it. Because it was possible at my university. This, I feel, helps when considering my position about beliefs (e.g., in any deity, homoeopathy, or scientific results which just report a p-value without even giving a friggin’ N or test statistics.) And while I can get very agitated under specific circumstances about some beliefs, I sincerely hope that I would have the insight to reconsider if evidence was presented.

        Just for the record, the ‘specific circumstances’ mentioned most of the time touch the harm principle. The freedom to belief in X ends where somebody is harmed. The general track record of most religious beliefs is rather devastating from that point of view. (The specific, personal track record of most believers is a different thing. But I can still go spare about some of them, at times….)

        (Just BTW, Sylvia, of course you can mention That Polarising Guy™ in your posts as often as you like, I’d rather not criticise you for that. It’s your turf, after all. I just didn’t want to be any discussion derailed immediately.)

        • I do agree that university education should broaden the mind, and that it definitely can be applied to other subjects. I don’t think it’s a problem that you might have something to say about something outside your formal training – (like me here!) – but what I think worries me is the logic of
          I am smart
          therefore I know about X because I am smart. I am smarter than other people that thought about it because I am a scientist – or whatever …

          As far as religion goes, I totally agree, a lot of really shitty things have been done under the auspices of religion – similarly a lot of shitty things have been done. It’s hard to know where to separate the religious influence from the justification. People use all sorts of reasons to justify all sorts of crazy stuff. My favorite polarizing guy is good proof of that. Religion dictating society really pisses me off too …

  2. Laurence Cox says:

    First, whilst it is generally true that in the UK at least there is a fairly low level of religious belief amongst scientists, you may well find that for cultural reasons some religions have a rather higher representation amongst scientists. I am thinking specifically of Judaism; Jonathan Sacks, the ex-Chief Rabbi discusses this in his book “The Great Partnership”.

    Also, one university in the UK (at least) does address the tendency of the curriculum to become increasingly specialised. King’s College London, runs an AKC course for all students which, for the non-theology students includes topics like biblical interpretation and the role of art in religion; whilst the AKC for Theology and Religious Studies students includes Medical Humanities and Climate Change. Over a three-year undergraduate course there are six topic areas. [declaration of interest: I am a retired research scientist, currently undertaking the Graduate Diploma in Theology and Religious Studies at KCL].

    Of course, at Oxford you have Alister McGrath, Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion and Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion; so you already have the opportunity to explore the interface between science and religion at your home university.

  3. Colin G. Finlay says:

    This erudition – laden essay, ‘Aterthoughts on Afterlife’ by the palindromically – named Dr Revilo Oliver( late Professor of Classics at the University of Illinois) on the raison d’etre of Religion is well worth any scientist’s perusal :

  4. Colin G. Finlay says:

    Dr Revilo Oliver’s views on White displacement and Third World immigration – driven demographic decline in the US were certainly out of step with the prevailing Cultural Marxist, self – hating views of the media and the minority – venerating political elite, though not with much of the racially self – confident America into which he was born.
    However, this should not matter as long as he dealt in facts and not wishes.

    • Laurence Cox says:

      If he dealt in facts. All I can see in his writings is bile mainly directed at Christians and Jews, which fits his profile.

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