Does It Matter That Many Scientists Are Atheists?

June 26, 2013 | 8 comments

One fact that concerns some Christians and elates some atheists is that 93 percent of the members of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the most elite scientific organizations in the United States, do not believe in God. Atheist Sam Harris says that, “This suggests that there are few modes of thinking less congenial to religious faith than science is.”

Should Christians be concerned that so many of these intelligent people don’t believe in God? I don’t think so, and here’s why.

Check the numbers

First, the National Academy of Sciences represents a small number of scientists. The Academy itself comprises only about 2,000 members, while there are more than 2 million scientists employed in the United States as a whole. This means that the NAS only represents about one-tenth of one percent of all scientists in the nation. Using this statistic alone to prove scientists are overwhelmingly atheists would be inaccurate.

A more accurate description comes from the Pew Research Center, which reported in 2009 that 51 percent of scientists believe that God or some higher power exists, while 41 percent of scientists reject both of those concepts. In addition, while only 2 percent of the general population identifies as atheist, 17 percent of scientists identify themselves with that term.

But now we have to consider another important set of factors: Is it science that turns people into atheists? Or is it atheism that turns people into scientists?

Elaine Ecklund’s recent book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think shows that scientists are more religious than we realize. In the course of her interviews she found that many scientists reject religion for personal reasons prior to becoming scientists (as opposed to rejecting religion solely on scientific grounds).

It is unfortunate that secular people feel more compelled to study the natural sciences than religious people, because some of our greatest scientific discoveries have come from people of faith (Gregor Mendel and Fr. Georges Lemaitre instantly come to mind).

Indeed, I have the pleasure of having a father-in-law who is a devout Catholic and a literal rocket scientist.

Who cares?

While it may dishearten believers to see that so many intelligent people reject the existence of God, we should ask a very frank question in light of this fact: Who cares?

The existence of God is not a scientific question, because science restricts itself to searching for natural explanations of observed phenomena. Since God is a transcendent being who exists beyond space and time, the search for God must primarily use philosophy, or careful reasoning, and not science (even though science provides facts which can be used in philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God).

Natural scientists (such as the biologists, chemists, and physicists that make up the Pew study) are no more equipped to make conclusions about God than they are equipped to make conclusions about economics, history, literature, or philosophy. Since the question of God is philosophical in nature, scientists who investigate it are just as equipped as laymen, and their opinions should be placed on the same footing as any other educated non-scientist.

At this point a critic may respond that if the existence of God is a philosophical question, then the theist still loses because 73 percent of professional philosophers are atheists. However, if one looks at the data more closely, one may find that such a conclusion is premature.

“I’m not bad, I’m just misunderstood”

Philosopher Edward Feser has written in his book The Last Superstition that many philosophers misunderstand the arguments for the existence of God and just take it “by faith” that they have been refuted. They might glance over Aquinas’s “Five Ways” and, without understanding the complex metaphysics behind the arguments, refute only straw man versions of them, just as Richard Dawkins did in his book The God Delusion (a book whose arguments were so weak that Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga joked that Dawkins’s “forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores).

When it comes to philosophers and God, it is interesting to see that the majority of philosophers of religion, or those who have extensively studied the existence of God, are theists (72 percent). This could mean that the most well-informed philosophers are swayed by the power of the arguments and embrace theism on philosophical grounds. Or it could mean these philosophers started out as theists and then bolstered their beliefs in their academic studies (just like the atheistic scientists I described earlier).

Of course, we can psychoanalyze people until the cows come home, but at the end of the day a belief isn’t true just because a lot of smart people hold it. A belief is true if it corresponds to reality. Both theists and atheists must refrain from the shortcut of saying, “My beliefs are true because smart person X says so” and be willing to follow the evidence where it leads (which may include testimony from someone like smart person X).

I have tried to do that in my own life and I hope my forthcoming book Answering Atheism (which will be published by Catholic Answers this fall) will be helpful for people who want to examine the arguments and move closer to the truth.

As St. Paul wrote, “Test everything; retain what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21).


After his conversion to the Catholic faith, Trent Horn pursued an undergraduate degree in history from Arizona State University. He then earned a graduate degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy from Holy Apostles College....

Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Henry Ashley - Alton, Illinois

Why is using the academy of sciences a bad place to observe demographics of intelligent people? From your own link -

"Members are elected to the National Academy of Sciences in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. Membership is a widely accepted mark of excellence in science and is considered one of the highest honors that a scientist can receive."

Do you disagree with this? Is it actually a bad place to observe intelligent people?

Sampling is not only acceptable, it is standard practice. If you want to observe anything carefully, it is not required that you check every single entity of it. To do a study on fruit flies, you try to use a statistically relevant amount of fruit flies to perform a study on. You do not study every single fruit fly in existence.

"Using this statistic alone to prove scientists are overwhelmingly atheists would be inaccurate."

I don't think anyone is making that claim. Harris claims that members of the National Academy of Sciences are overwhelmingly atheist. They happen to be considered exceptional scientists.

If you wish to respond to people's claims, don't use a strawman argument.

I hold faith as much as you, but I will not use dishonest arguments to enforce it. Please do not undermine this debate with poor logic. Perhaps we should accept that dedication to religion can inhibit scientific achievement, but not so fully that the most religious of us cannot achieve something amazing. It makes sense that atheists have more time to spend on scientific studies, after all.

December 10, 2013 at 9:40 pm PST
#2  Scott Campo - Bel Air, Maryland

Henry,

Sampling is most certainly acceptable and standard practice when studying a population, but using only members of the NAS provides for a biased sample. Obtaining a good, usable sample of any population requires the use of unbiased, random sampling methods. The fact that the scientists are in the NAS doesn't make them unqualified to be a part of such a sample, but restricting the sample of all scientists to only those in the NAS is clearly biased and not random.

December 18, 2013 at 7:36 pm PST
#3  Henry Ashley - Alton, Illinois

It is not meant to be an observation of the general population though. That is exactly the point. It is a focus on respected members of a productive scientific community.

January 9, 2014 at 9:45 pm PST
#4  Scott Campo - Bel Air, Maryland

Henry,

You're right, it's not an observation of the general population of all people, but it is meant to be an observation of the general population of all professional scientists within the broader scientific community. To restrict one's sample of this broad, diverse group to only members of one subset is to obtain a biased sample.

February 14, 2014 at 9:16 am PST
#5  Kaleem Shahzad - Lahore, New Jersey

Henry, and Author
To do a study on fruit flies, you try to use a statistically relevant amount of fruit flies to perform a study on. You do not study every single fruit fly in existence.
"Using this statistic alone to prove scientists are overwhelmingly atheists would be inaccurate."

My Dear, there is much difference between the fruit, animals and human. Fruit of one kind also are in differnt in taste, even some fruits of one kind could be sweet and bitter. You can say every human has two eyes and two legs, one heart. But you can't say their identity is same. Every human has different name, different thoughts. While the taste of "one Kind of fruit" could be same.
So the present analyse about athists scientists are totally wrong about 90%.

Second if you are talking about the percentage. Then for your information these atheists are only the 12% of this population while 88% people believe in Almighty God. If you say that only scientists are intelligent, my dear these scientists are also the same class of human who become scienctist, philopsers, doctors, engineer, etc.

As Human we believe in science as knowledge and fact, But we don't believe in the foolishness of atheists. Who think they are anti faith, but inside they believe they are children of monkey, ape etc.

God bless you.

I am writing a book, I have added some material about atheists also for their guide.

February 18, 2014 at 12:43 am PST
#6  Joe Doe - Saska, Florida

@ Kaleem,

Your analogy is, frankly, complete and utter nonsense. It does however do a great job of justifying why sampling larger populations of people with the aim of obtaining the general religious opinion of scientific experts is not a good idea; the vast majority of people are not scientifically minded. At all.

Yes, scientists and doctors and engineers came from these same group of people.

But those other people aren't scientists, doctors and engineers.

If you want to know what the most brilliant minds in science think of religion, you poll the most brilliant minds in science. You don't poll everyone.

Furthermore, your nonsensical rant about beliefs of being the 'children of monkey, ape, etc.' demonstrates just how scientifically illiterate the general public tends to be, even on issues which are essentially settled, factual science. Such as evolution.

No, we didn't come from monkeys, or apes. We share a common ancestor with them. At some point, several hundred thousand years ago, we branched off from each other. Our branch one way, the branches that eventually formed our cousins (apes, etc.) went another.

That this information upsets you, or makes you uncomfortable, is irrelevant to its veracity. Your scientific illiteracy, and unwillingness to understand the things you're so vehemently opposed to, are irrelevant to its veracity. Reality is entirely indifferent to how you feel about facts that don't coincide with your pre-existing beliefs.

If you want to believe in invisible sky wizards, the great juju on the mountain, the cosmic turtle, or whatever combination of the thousands of other myths and legends man has made up in their attempts to explain creation, be my guest. It doesn't pick my pocket or harm me in any way. But you don't get to deny scientific fact and reality, backed up by overwhelming mountains of evidence, because you don't like the conclusions those facts draw. You're not the arbiter of reality. And when reality factually and firmly curbstomps your ideology (which again, factual or evidenced-based in any way), then it's your ideology that needs to change. Not reality.

August 2, 2014 at 8:29 am PST
#7  Joe Doe - Saska, Florida

Also, I'd like to add that while approx a quarter of the country now considers itself non-religious, that number only continues to go up year after year. Primarily because of the invention of the internet, and the fact that we can now have global conversations about just how absurd most of the thousands upon thousands of creation myths man has invented are. We can talk about how your religion isn't determined by anything divine or magical; it's geographical. The same christian indiivdual who claims theirs is the one true religion, would just as easily be a muslim if they were born in the middle east, claiming THAT is the one true religion. Or they'd be a Buddhist if born in some other part of the world. Or any of the numerous other religions that one inherits depending on their geographical location.

We can have conversations about the bible is absolutely rife with self-contradictory nonsense and factually incorrect information, now that we can digitally catalog and index it, and see where it quite literally says "____ is good" in one part, and "_____ is bad" in another.

We have the scientific means of verifying that there was never a great global flood, that there is no evidence supporting the notion that one ever took place whatsoever; something that would be incredibly easy to do, if it ever actually happened.

We can talk about just how morally and intellectually absurd the god of the old testament is. The fact that he's petty, jealous, vindictive, contradictory, sadistic, manipulative, sexist, and malicious. And why? because he's a reflection of the mentality of the bronze age farmers that thought him up. Not surprisingly, as society softens and becomes more civilized, so do our deities. Right now, we stand on a unique cusp; humanity is too advanced to invent new gods (because we now know what causes lightning and storms and all the other natural phenomena we used to ascribe to angry supernatural forces), but we're not ready to let go of our old gods and myths and legends.

August 2, 2014 at 8:37 am PST
#8  Jeff Sampson - Durham, North Carolina

Why are Christians so concerned with what others believe or don't believe? Why are they so concerned with what others do. When did Christianity become more about judging others than one's own faith?

August 2, 2014 at 2:21 pm PST

You are not logged in. Login or register to leave a comment.