Scientists and religion

Scientists and religion

Edd Doerr

Nature magazine reported on a new study of the religious beliefs of scientists in its April 3,1997, issue. The study, conducted by University of Georgia historian Edward J. Larson and Washington journalist Larry Witham, replicated as closely as possible a study done in 1914 by psychologist and humanist James H. Leuba.

Larson and Witham found that the percentage of scientists who believe in a personal deity has remained rather stable while belief in personal immortality has declined considerably and the desire for personal immortality even more. The authors recognized that opinion polling about religion is tricky but chose to replicate Leuba’s original study for the sake of comparing similar samples over an eighty-two-year span. The questions used were kept simple and dealt only with belief in a personal, prayer-answering God, personal immortality, and, for those who do not believe in personal immortality, whether “desire” for such was intense, moderate, or nonexistent.

Leuba repeated his study in 1933; but because he changed his sampling method, his 1933 results cannot be compared too closely with the 1914 and 1996 results. The findings for all three studies, however, are represented in the table.

In 1914, Leuba divided his sample into “greater” and “lesser” scientists–as defined by American Men and Women of Science, the source of his sample–and found that the “greaters” were less likely to be believers than the “lessers.” Although the 1996 survey sample came from the same source, the same comparison could not be made because there no longer is a differentiation made between “greater” and “lesser” scientists.

Some would quarrel with the use of the personal, prayer-answering deity question as being too simplistic, but it has the virtue of using an easily understood, traditional (in Western terms) idea and avoiding the ambiguity of such definitions of God as”the ground of being,” “higher consciousness,” a “natural process,” the “sum total of the laws of the universe,” and the like. Polls asking the general public about belief in “God” usually get about a 93 percent positive response, yet more sophisticated polls show that only about two-thirds of Americans believe in a personal, prayer-answering deity.

It may be concluded that, in general, the more well educated one is, especially in science, the less likely one is to be a traditional “believer.” The Leuba-Larson-Witham studies also show that, while belief in a traditional Western deity has declined only slightly, belief in personal immortality among scientists is now more consistent with lack of belief in a deity than was the case in 1914.

(An interesting postscript: Leuba’s last book, The Information of the Churches, which contained summaries of his pioneering polls, was published posthumously in 1950 by Beacon Press, the Unitarian publishing house, and was prepared for publication by E. Burdette Backus, a Unitarian minister who was president of the American Humanist Association from 1944 to 1946.)



Percentage Comparison of 1914, 1933, and 1996 Surveys

1914 1933 1996

Belief in personal God

Personal belief 41.8 30.0 39.3

Personal disbelief 41.5 56.0 45.3

Doubt or agnosticism 16.7 14.0 14.5

Belief in personal


Personal belief 51.0 33.0 38.0

Personal disbelief 21.0 41.0 46.9

Doubt or agnosticism 28.0 26.0 16.0

Desire for immortality

Intense 34.0 9.9

Moderate 39.0 25.9

Not at all 27.0 64.2

COPYRIGHT 1997 American Humanist Association

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