Religion and science: global survey explores academia’s views

Are scientists just uninterested in religion or actively at odds with it?

December 14, 2015
NASA space photograph
Source: NASA
Divine views: ‘scientists are indeed more secular than the general population’

A new report looks set to spark fresh debate on the contentious relations between science and faith.

A Global Lab: Religion among Scientists in International Context was launched earlier this month at a conference hosted by the Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University in Texas.

It presents the results of “the most comprehensive cross-national study of scientists’ attitudes toward religion and spirituality ever undertaken”, which was supported by a grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation. A team of more than a hundred, including “undergraduate students, postdoctoral fellows, subcontractors and research staff members from various backgrounds”, was headed by programme director Elaine Howard Ecklund.

Even the most secular scientists, the authors point out, cannot totally avoid religion, given the obvious facts that “religious students enter scientific disciplines” and that “certain forms of scientific research have religious implications”.

To explore what this means for individuals, the researchers created a “sampling frame” of just over 61,000 scientists in France, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Taiwan, Turkey, the UK and the US, surveyed about 22,500 and got responses from 9,422. They followed up with 609 in-depth interviews.

Because the Bible has little to say about fibre optics or nanotechnology, the researchers deliberately focused on “junior and senior biologists and physicists at universities and research institutes” whose disciplines “offer explanation[s] of the origins of humans and the universe” that can be seen as competing with religious claims.

The broad conclusions of the research were clear. In most places, “scientists are indeed more secular than the general population”. Yet they do not tend to regard science as “a secularizing influence”, with most thinking that “religion and science operate in separate spheres”. Nor do science and religion “generally…seem to be in conflict in the lives of individual scientists”.

This broad picture conceals huge differences between regions.

Only 6 per cent of scientists in Turkey and 11 per cent in India and in Taiwan describe themselves as atheists, as against 35 per cent in the US, 40 per cent in the UK and 51 per cent in France. Attendance at religious services and particularly commitment to prayer vary even more starkly: 63 per cent of the Turkish scientists pray at least once a week, yet in France 82 per cent of scientists do not pray at all.

But within particular countries, are scientists just slightly less religious than their compatriots or do they stand out significantly? Here the figures from Western nations are very striking. In France, three times as many scientists as members of the general public “believe there is no God”; in the UK, the figure is four times, and it climbs to almost seven times in Italy.

Even more dramatic is the situation in the US, where 35 per cent of scientists, compared with 4 per cent of the total population, are non-believers. The researchers speculate that this could be because of the “groups of evangelical Christians…vocal in their opposition of human embryonic stem cell research and the teaching of evolution in public schools”.

Meanwhile, scientists in both the UK and France worry that “Muslim immigrants may pose unique faith-based challenges to science”, while their much more religious Turkish colleagues are still “concerned about the impact of Islam on their developing science infrastructures”.

Along with outputs such as articles and books, “a publicly accessible dataset of project data” should be available by the end of 2017.

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Print headline: Just how big a problem do scientists have with God?

Reader's comments (4)

It's always interesting that the conflict is expressed as that between religion and science. Why not between religion and history, for example. How many history professors question the lack of historical evidence for any aspects of the life of the person called Jesus of Nazareth other than his execution? What about the views of sociologists or philosophers? The foundation for all belief in the Christian faith is the resurrection, not a general cosmological position about the creation. Scientists can waffle around about some sort of universal energy and use any euphemisms they like to avoid outright denunciation of Judaism, Islam or Christianity. What about those humanities researchers whose very research is grounded in the study of the creation of belief and its transmission in culture?
Interesting article. I myself am a scientist with a doctorate in chemistry. I came to faith through examination of evidence. I see science simply as a method to get understanding of His world. The two are not incompatible. Yes the bible teaches of 6 day creation but no mention of a day being strictly 24 hours but a passage of time. Interestingly in both evolutionary and biblical accounts, mankind is made last. Given how much science has progressed over the last 150 years or so, imagine God trying to explain quantum physics to Moses. The passage is not intended to be anything other than a lovng God establishing a relationship with His people. It was never a science text. I do not need to find gaps in science theory to point to God. He needs no such help! I believe in a God who has revealed the mechanisms of science to improve the lives of His children. This is why it is morally wrong to withold drugs and technology from developing nations to increase profit. It was never intended.
As an engineer and a lay minister in the Church of England, I agree with Dr Porter. Opponents of religion who use the necessary scientific naivety of Genesis as a weapon in the "science has disproved religion" argument are choosing a false friend. It is perhaps useful to spotlight the fact that atheism is, itself, a faith position. The assertion that life "spontaneously evolved" from a "primordial soup" of chemicals and hence achieved its present level of sophistication by blind chance is, as far as I am aware, to date unproven by any repeatable scientific experiment. A friend of mine who is a biologist (and a Christian) assures me that the age of the planet as calculated by the physicists is too short to allow the evolution of higher mammals like primates or cetaceans to have occurred, i.e. it is statistically of vanishingly low probability. This is outside my competence and I would have to admit, based on my knowledge of quantum mechanics, that events of vanishingly low probability (e.g. electron tunnelling in semiconductors, which is my field) do nevertheless occur. However, I haven't seen any new species of macrofauna appearing recently, only plenty of reports of approaching extinctions. I understand that certain 'evolutions' are evidenced but life spontaneously arising seems to me still to be at least as big a leap of faith as positing an almighty Creator.
Part of the problem with such surveys is the failure to make a systematic distinction between religion and religious fundamentalism. Opponents of religion such as Richard Dawkins constantly conflate these two things (see: ) hence encouraging the impression that religion and science are incompatible.

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