The Religious Beliefs of Scientists

Kirk Straughen

(Investigator 132, 2010 May)

Can a religious person be a scientist? The answer to this question depends on the nature of the religious belief the individual holds. Indeed, the question needs to be qualified further by asking if a religious person can be a good scientist.

First of all what makes a good scientist? I think the core qualities of an individual would have to be a desire to know the facts even if they are contrary to cherished ideas, regardless of whether these beliefs are theistic or non-theistic in nature. In other words they must possess intellectual integrity whose bedrock is honesty and a respect for the truth.

Some varieties of religious belief would impede an individual from being a good scientist. For example, fundamentalists of all creeds would not make good evolutionary biologists because their belief in the literalness of their creation stories and the inerrancy of the sacred texts would be in direct conflict with the verifiable findings of scientific investigations into the origin of the universe, life and humanity.

Many scientists in the past were religious. But the religious beliefs of scientists can neither validate nor invalidate the nature of reality. Nor can the fact that some scientists are religious validate religion. Intelligent people can believe all kinds of things. For example, Sir Isaac Newton was probably the most brilliant intellectual of his day, but despite this he was a practicing alchemist at a time when most of his peers saw it for the pseudoscience it is. (1)

The great scientists of the past lived in a society that was very intolerant of unbelief and heresy, as exemplified by the activities of the Inquisition. Any doubts they may have had concerning religion would probably have been wisely kept to themselves. Even in more recent times expressing doubt as to the veracity of theological dogmas can have serious repercussions. Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), the English philosopher and mathematician, for example, was prevented from teaching at the College of the City of New York during the 1940s because of his religious views. (2)

Today, religion is not as dominant a force in society as it once was and people may express their unbelief (at least in Western nations) without serious danger to either their lives or livelihood. Research has shown that most scientists are not religious:
Research on this topic [religious belief among scientists] began with the eminent US psychologist James H. Leuba and his landmark survey of 1914. He found that 58% of 1,000 randomly selected US scientists expressed disbelief or doubt in the existence of God, and that this figure rose to near 70% among the 400 "greater" scientists within his sample. Leuba repeated his survey in somewhat different form 20 years later, and found that these percentages had increased to 67 and 85, respectively. In 1996, we repeated Leuba's 1914 survey and reported our results in Nature. We found little change from 1914 for American scientists generally, with 60.7% expressing disbelief or doubt. This year, we closely imitated the second phase of Leuba's 1914 survey to gauge belief among "greater" scientists, and find the rate of belief lower than ever — a mere 7% of respondents. (3)

Naturally, the question arises as to whether science causes a loss of faith in scientists. Perhaps it does for some. Research, however, indicates childhood environmental factors are more likely to determine the degree of an individual's religiosity:  

Among scientists, as in the general population, being raised in a home in which religion and religious practice were valued is the most important predictor of present religiosity among the subjects.

Ecklund and Scheitle concluded that the assumption that becoming a scientist necessarily leads to loss of religion is untenable.

Ecklund says, "It appears that those from non-religious backgrounds disproportionately self-select into scientific professions. This may reflect the fact that there is tension between the religious tenets of some groups and the theories and methods of particular sciences and it contributes to the large number of non-religious scientists."

Foreign-born scientists are more likely to say "there is little truth in religion" and less likely to attend religious services, according to the authors. But being foreign-born had no significant impact on the odds of believing in God. This is interesting, they say, in light of the high percentage (25 percent) of foreign-born scientists among those surveyed. (4)

Scientists can be religious. Upbringing, however, seems to be the primary factor in determining an individual's religiosity, rather than evidence based conclusions concerning aspects of the supernatural.


(1) Isaac Newton's Alchemy:

(2) Russell, Bertrand: page 165 in Why I am Not a Christian, Unwin Books, London, 1967

(3) Edward J. Larson: Leading Scientists Still Reject God:

(4) Scientists May Not Be Very Religious, but Science May Not Be to Blame: