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Are Most Scientists Atheists or Agnostics Rather than Believers in God?

During last Friday night's episode of Real Time, Bill Maher made the comment that most scientists are atheists or agnostics.  That caught my attention, although it's the kind of statement that I probably wouldn't have questioned if my own personal observations weren't to the contrary.  Sure, I could buy that it's a true statement in the sense that any percentage greater than 50 is "most", but frankly I don't at all buy it in the sense that Maher was using it: to claim that science and faith are incompatible and that religion's credibility is diminished by the "fact" that it is rejected by "most" scientists.

For the last 8 years I've worked in R&D for a major chemical company surrounded by a whole gaggle of PhD engineers and other members of the "hard" sciences.  Time and again I've been surprised to find out that one of my colleagues is a church-goer.  With many of them that I haven't had deep conversations about faith, so admittedly some may be atheists or agnostics who happen to go to church for one reason or another.  However, there are also plenty that I do know well and know that they are strong believers.  As another anecdote, my own PhD advisor (who was and continues to be one of the most respected and influential professors in his field of science) is a Christian.  Somehow these sorts of surprises are reassuring to me in my own faith.

Prompted by Maher's statement, I did some googling.  A recent study pretty much fit my expectations, so I quit looking further.  ;-)

Based on a survey of scientists from 21 "elite" research universities, approximately 60 percent were either atheists or agnostics.  So, yes, ~60 is greater than 50 and is a larger number than the general public.  The study also suggested a bit of a surprise:

Scientists are less religious than the general population, a new study shows, but the reason has little to do with their study of science or academic pressures.

The findings challenge notions that science is responsible for a lack of faith among researchers, indicating that household upbringing carries the biggest weight in determining religiousness.

"Our study data do not strongly support the idea that scientists simply drop their religious identities upon professional training, due to an inherent conflict between science and faith, or to institutional pressure to conform," said Elaine Howard Ecklund, a sociologist at the University at Buffalo and co-author of the study.

That fits with my observations.  It's too simple to say that faith and science are incompatible and the scientific pursuits necessarily drive out faith.  Other factors are important, so I shouldn't be surprised that many of my scientist-pals in the mid-west, middle-America are people of faith despite the stereotype.

I'm sure if I looked a little harder, I could find plenty of evidence to the contrary (for example, this site quotes from various sources to draw different conclusions), and I'm not at all surprised that scientists tend to be less religious than the general population.  But I'm also convinced that the science vs faith divide isn't as cut and dried as conventional wisdom might claim.


In addition to giving at church, each month we set aside some money for miscellaneous charitable giving.  In the past, we've used this money to help support a missionary friend, for disaster relief, etc.  Now that our missionary-friend is back stateside, this year we've decided to sit down together as a family each month to decide together where to donate the money.

To say that the boys are interested in video games is quite the understatement.  Therefore, when I came across the Child's Play charity, it struck to me that they'd be able to relate to this.  From the web site:

Since 2003, we've set up and organized Child's Play, a game industry charity dedicated to improving the lives of children with toys and games in our network of over 40 hospitals worldwide. In four short years, you as a community have answered the call and come together to raise millions of dollars.

Through the web site you choose a charitable institution (we chose the Children's Hospital of Michigan) and then it takes you to an Amazon wishlist for the organization.  We bought an X-box and Madden 2008 and had it sent to the hospital.  We hope the kids understand what our family has done and that some sick kids will have a hospital stay that is quite as bad as it would have been because of what we've given.

Another site of interest is the Charity Navigator.  It's a place where you can do some homework about a charity ahead of time.  Unfortunately, the few that I've searched for so far did not have any info there.


What Happened This Afternoon

On the way home from work tonight, I stopped and picked Elliot up from Taekwon Do and then headed home.  As I turned onto a street near our house, I noticed a car heading toward me that swerved into my lane before turning back to its own.  As I proceeded, I noticed a dark object lying an the side of the road.  Today was trash day, so at first I assumed it was a garbage bag.  As I passed it, I realized that it was a person.  I stopped and got out, and saw that it was an elderly.  She said she had fallen and asked me to help her up.  I was concerned that she might have been injured, but she assured me that she didn't have a bad fall.  I offered to give her a ride, and she asked for a ride to Kroger.  She said her husband had said that snow had been forecasted for tonight, and she was trying to get to Kroger before it snowed.  After she bought a couple items, we gave her a ride home.  I offered to give her my phone number in case she needed anything else, but she said she didn't need it.  She just asked my name and street (presumably to send a thank you note).

I was quite glad that I saw her when I did because she could easily have be run over while lying there on the side of the road.  Her hearing seemed to be fine, but her vision seemed to be a bit lacking (which probably explains why she was walking instead of driving).  I was also glad that my son was there to observe me stopping and giving this lady aid.

Hard as Nails

Today I finished watching HBO's documentary Hard as Nails.  From the HBO web site:

When Justin Fatica steps to the altar, he becomes a whirlwind of energy, using a mix of professional wrestling, hip hop and Scripture to bring Jesus to his audience. An unordained Catholic minister and the founder of the Hard as Nails youth ministry, Fatica employs an intense, over-the-top approach that has connected with thousands of troubled teenagers, but also inspires resistance within his own Catholic Church. HARD AS NAILS paints an intimate portrait of this driven, charismatic man.

It was an interesting documentary.  The Hard as Nails ministry uses a lot more yelling and screaming than I'm used to hearing.  Maybe it's effective, though I guess I don't see much precedent in scripture.  Justin seems like a dedicated guy.  I like his idea of frequenting a barber shop on the black side of town and interacting with the folks there because it makes him uncomfortable.

I give it 3 out of 5.

A Pot of Tea is Boiling

Last week my six-year-old asked me if there was ever a negative year.  I wasn't sure what he was asking.  He was wondering when the earth was made and if that was a negative year.  I explained that there were no negative years.  As you go back in time, you go from 1 A.D. to 1 B.C. and then keep counting upwards.  "So when was the world made?" he asked.  I had to wiggle a little but responded that we don't know exactly when the world was made.

Then today he asked, "Were Adam and Eve and the dinosaurs alive at the same time?"  I said that we don't really know because the Bible doesn't talk about dinosaurs.  Without any hesitation he suggested a solution to this lack of knowledge: "Just look it up on the internet."  I explained that scientists who study dinosaur fossils, etc. think that they lived millions of years ago.  "So that would be before Adam and Eve," he said.  I agreed and again emphasized the problem that the scientists who study dinosaurs can't really study anything about Adam and Eve and the Bible that tells us about Adam and Eve doesn't really address dinosaurs.  Then he said, "Wouldn't it be funny if they found Adam and Eve's bones?!?"

Both of those questions (year the earth was made and did dinosaurs live with Adam and Eve) were actually asked of Lisa, but her response is "Go ask you dad."

There's an interesting interview on Salon with John Haught, author of the forthcoming book "God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens".  He uses the metaphor of a boiling pot of tea to explain how he reconciles faith and science:

...I approach these issues by making a case for what I call "layered explanation." For example, if a pot of tea is boiling on the stove, and someone asks you why it's boiling, one answer is to say it's boiling because H2O molecules are moving around excitedly, making a transition from the liquid state to the gaseous state. And that's a very good answer. But you could also say it's boiling because my wife turned the gas on. Or you could say it's boiling because I want tea. Here you have three levels of explanation which are approaching phenomena from different points of view. This is how I see the relationship of theology to science. Of course I think theology is relevant to discussing the question, what is nature? What is the world? It would talk about it in terms of being a gift from the Creator, and having a promise built into it for the future. Science should not touch upon that level of understanding. But it doesn't contradict what evolutionary biology and the other sciences are telling us about nature. They're just different levels of understanding.

At the end of Haught's interview, he's asked whether or not as a Christian he believes the resurrection actually happened.  He doesn't give a straight answer.  Instead, he argues that science is not adequate for addressing questions of such importance.  When pushed, he admitted that he does not believe that a camera would have captured anything when Jesus visited his disciples after the resurrection.  That answer seems like one that would be unsatisfying to most Christians and atheists alike.

Haught is a big fan of Jesuit paleontologist named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  Coincidentally, I recently listened to a Science Friday segment featuring the author of a recent biography about Teilhard de Chardin.


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