From Point of Inquiry: Does Studying Science Cause Atheism, or Vice-Versa?

By Chris Mooney | May 10, 2010 3:19 pm

As I’ve said, there is much that is surprising or unexpected about Elaine Ecklund’s findings on religion among scientists. I’m going to be blogging on this all week, but again, as background, if you haven’t yet you should first check out our Point of Inquiry episode (show website here; listen here; download/subscribe here).

The second point that arises from Ecklund’s research that I find intriguing is this. There’s a cliche out there, particularly among some conservative religious folks, that there is something nasty about science (and particularly evolutionary science), such that studying it will kill off your belief system.

However, Ecklund’s research seems to give the lie to this idea–and our discussion of this topic begins around minute 17:55-19:10.

First, among scientists who are atheists, Ecklund found that they tended to come from irreligious or not very observant family backgrounds. In other words, their atheism or lack of religion was in place long before their scientific training began.

Meanwhile, for scientists who retained religious beliefs, they tended to have started out with them to begin with, and then held on to them after a struggle or crisis of faith. But once again, if I understand Ecklund right, the struggle tended to happen before one’s scientific training and so was obviously not caused by it.

In both cases, then, what seems to be the key predictor of a scientist’s religious belief is family religious background…and not whether one studies science.

So why then are Christian conservatives so afraid of letting their kids learn real science? It doesn’t seem to be the threat here at all.

(Again, as background, if you haven’t yet you should first check out our Point of Inquiry discussion: show website here; listen here; download/subscribe here).

Comments (30)

  1. I have no scientific training beyond the classes in high school, some extra stuff in college, and all of my general love for science. I was raised with no religion in my life, and even held some amount of disbelief for it. The past few years, I started going to church with one of my friends and I am now a believer. I still believe completely in what science has shown. There are a lot of people like me actually. We just aren’t as vocal.

  2. I was raised with religion in my life, and it was shaping my perceptions in my early childhood. Until an experience brought into question what religion really offers, or strives to accomplish. Over the years, through Philosophy, I was able to understand the argument for Design, the Mind-body problem, and other deep metaphysical topics; however the most substantial is Atheism, or just plain nonbelief. Religion for some is a great psychological device for focus and well-being, for me Philosophy is.

  3. There are indeed many Christians who can accept science without problems, which is great. However, one shouldn’t be so positive and optimistic that one doesn’t see the elephant in the room. A very very large amount of religious people who quite literally reject science on the sole reason that it clashes with their religion, as evident in the large opposition such simple theories like evolution and big bang face in America.

  4. Don’t you need to control for the age at which non-scientists develop their belief systems? If people’s belief systems get set at an age of 10, or 14, or 18, then of course their later career choices won’t have an effect.

  5. joe dude

    Maybe not so much the study of science causes atheism, but I feel a contributing factor is the relgious negative attitudes towards science and evolution…it really causes a huge brain drain in christian culture….I grew up in Baptist churches.. I dont recall a single doctor, proffesor, scientist, academic who attended my church.
    At the Unitarian church I currently attend, a large percentage is atheist/agnostic teachers, proffesors, doctors,scientists with christian backgrounds

  6. Anna

    @ joe dude,

    At the Lutheran church I attend, several scientists, professors in scientific fields and medical doctors are members. One of our best volunteers who gives the children’s sermon is, literally, a rocket scientist. Previously I attended an Episcopalian church which also had several members with scientific/medical careers — the priest at that church holds a doctorate in a non-religious field, in addition to her M. Div. Also in the Catholic churches I attended growing up, we had a number of people with scientific and academic credentials. Not all Christian churches force a ‘brain drain,’ though I agree that some do.

  7. Nullius in Verba

    Scientific education starts at an early age. Specialised scientific training to become a scientist is a different thing.

    But I would say it was quite obvious that theism or atheism depends heavily on the philosophies and epistemological approaches one is exposed to as a child. Somebody who never sees anything but one branch of theism, treated with universal respect, will react differently to somebody exposed to a range of religions given no particular respect, or to irreligious approaches to understanding the world. Becoming a scientist comes long after many such attitudes are permanently settled.

    There is quite clearly no obstacle to doing science in being a theist. One simply has to compartmentalise ones beliefs, and work in one mental frame while doing science, and another when at home or in church. Humans do that routinely, and even within science you can get different incompatible paradigms which scientists switch between. I can switch from Gallilean to Newtonian to Relativistic mechanics, I can believe in light and inelastic string, frictionless surfaces, rigid bodies, incompressible fluids, and centrifugal forces. I can switch from classical to quantum thinking, and back again. Humans are absolutely brilliant at simultaneously holding multiple inconsistent beliefs without any feeling of conflict, and scientists are no exception. Being a religious scientist seems no harder than following one football team or another. You don’t have to apply science and rationality to everything in life.

    Religion is mostly a result of social interaction with the people around you. You believe what your neighbours believe in so many things – religion is just one. There’s no rationality to it, any more than there is to your local dialect or accent, or even the language you speak. There is no more evidence for a Christian God than there is for Thor or Tiamat or Ninsun or Mictlantecuhtli, or any of the thousands of others. But nobody nowadays is “agnostic” about Thor, nor worried about the widespread disbelief in his existence, because he’s not part of the social context they live in.

    Science as such makes no difference, but scientific attitudes to evidence, general disrespect for superstition, and openness to other social cultures possibly could.

  8. Dave

    The difference is this: Science seeks evidence and then follows its path, always willing to abandon and/or modify claims in order to match the evidence.

    Religion, conversely, presupposes the conclusion: God. And scriptures, often with some staggering detail, feign to know what God wants, what it (He) expects, its story, etc. The fact of its human invention is obvious, and scriptures’ ignorance of the natural world demonstrates the inadequacy of the alleged truth of scripture. Evidence is then reverse-engineered and rationalized (which is not rationality) to fit said predetermined conclusion: God.

    The way one approaches reality is what matters. The mindset of a person invariably determines this.

    Belief is based on indoctrination, and science: on discovery.

  9. Brian Too

    Science certainly does not promote religion, which is what a great many Christian conservatives want. This is the need to proselytize, bear witness, evangelize, testify, and so forth.

    And, quite frankly, I suspect that Ecklund’s research is wrong or faulty at some level. Although many scientists may reconcile their intellectual and religious lives, science it seems to me challenges religion as a practical matter. Science can explain a lot that religion attempted to (pre-Reformation), and sometimes still attempts to.

    The awakening of the mind that science promotes will often challenge faith, most especially a deeply conservative faith. Faith is the bedrock of religion. I suspect that the Christian conservatives are correct, in overall terms, to be suspicious of science (viewed from their perspective).

  10. cgray

    Please give me the name of the brilliant atheist scientist who has created something out of nothing. I’m waiting. Here in the universe. Which was created out of nothing. But sure as hell not by a brilliant atheist scientist.

  11. LP22

    Science disproves religion. I don’t necessarily think science disproves god but it definitely disproves religion and that’s why it has them shaking in their boots. When a child is taught to think critically, they will naturally question, which is what they are afraid of.

  12. Rules For

    cgray:
    Give us the name of the god who has created something out of nothing.

  13. GM

    7. Nullius in Verba Says:
    May 10th, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    There is quite clearly no obstacle to doing science in being a theist. One simply has to compartmentalise ones beliefs, and work in one mental frame while doing science, and another when at home or in church. Humans do that routinely, and even within science you can get different incompatible paradigms which scientists switch between. I can switch from Gallilean to Newtonian to Relativistic mechanics, I can believe in light and inelastic string, frictionless surfaces, rigid bodies, incompressible fluids, and centrifugal forces. I can switch from classical to quantum thinking, and back again. Humans are absolutely brilliant at simultaneously holding multiple inconsistent beliefs without any feeling of conflict, and scientists are no exception. Being a religious scientist seems no harder than following one football team or another. You don’t have to apply science and rationality to everything in life.7. Nullius in Verba Says:
    May 10th, 2010 at 4:54 pm
    Scientific education starts at an early age. Specialised scientific training to become a scientist is a different thing.
    But I would say it was quite obvious that theism or atheism depends heavily on the philosophies and epistemological approaches one is exposed to as a child. Somebody who never sees anything but one branch of theism, treated with universal respect, will react differently to somebody exposed to a range of religions given no particular respect, or to irreligious approaches to understanding the world. Becoming a scientist comes long after many such attitudes are permanently settled.
    There is quite clearly no obstacle to doing science in being a theist. One simply has to compartmentalise ones beliefs, and work in one mental frame while doing science, and another when at home or in church. Humans do that routinely, and even within science you can get different incompatible paradigms which scientists switch between. I can switch from Gallilean to Newtonian to Relativistic mechanics, I can believe in light and inelastic string, frictionless surfaces, rigid bodies, incompressible fluids, and centrifugal forces. I can switch from classical to quantum thinking, and back again. Humans are absolutely brilliant at simultaneously holding multiple inconsistent beliefs without any feeling of conflict, and scientists are no exception. Being a religious scientist seems no harder than following one football team or another. You don’t have to apply science and rationality to everything in life.

    There is no obstacle to being a lab technician. Being a scientist is a completely different thing.

  14. Tom S. in the Napa Valley

    Or, tell us who created the god who created something from nothing.

  15. Matt

    Jesus Christ of Nazareth is one name for him. Lets be realistic, something had to set everything in motion. If you go back billions of years to the start of the universe-it had to start somehow meaning something had to start everything. Just watched Ben Stein’s documentary “Expelled”. Even the self-acclaimed atheist Richard Dawkins acknowledges Intelligent Design as an explanation for the origin of life. I think we should examine all possibilities including Intelligent Design as a possible explanation for the origin of life. Many parts of evolution also seem pretty soundproof. I think we should search for the truth no matter what it involves…

  16. rob

    Gods and religions are all man made creations. That’s why there are and have been thousands of different ones throughout the ages. I think science opens some eyes, and minds, to alternate, more believable explanations to many thing that were attributed to a god previously.

    As science continues to fill in the gaps in our knowledge, one can only hope that the human race will continue to evolve and reach our full potential as a species before we destroy each other and our world because some of us can’t agree on who’s imaginary friend is the best.

    Beware of those that claim to speak to or know what a “god” is/wants for they are surely delusional.

  17. @cgray
    Ok, so no scientist – brilliant, atheist or otherwise – has made “something” out of “nothing”.

    So what? Where do we go from there?

    So we make the absurd claim that the inability to create matter somehow invalidates all of scientific observation? (Such as those which led to the creation of the computers and networks we’re communicating through.)

    Do we sum up with “therefore god”? Which is a logical leap of mind-bending proportions.

    I ask because I just do not see how your point is in any way relevant to the discussion at hand.

  18. Digby

    Before I give you the name of that brilliant atheist scientist, answer just one question for me.
    Who created your God and who created your God’s creator.

    If everything must have a beginning, then so must God(s).

    BTW, it is OK to say you don’t have a clue what you are talking about, your god will not punish you.

    DD

  19. Chris

    I’m not sure if the explanation of “these scientists adopted the beliefs of their parents” really explains the drastic differences between the beliefs of the general public and scientists. Considering how small the portion of the general population both atheists and agnostics represents, and comparing that to the overwhelming majority they hold in the scientific community, it’s hard to say it just panned out that way. It’s just too big of a coincidence that less than 10% of the total population (atheists and agnostics combined) birthed around 70% of the scientific community.

    This is a very interesting topic, though.

  20. MartyM

    I say unequivocally yes.

    Having grown up in a Christian household, then as an adult going to church, I had been compartmentalizing science and religion for years. I have college education in math and engineering. Though I had my doubts and skepticism within Christianity and didn’t really take the miracles that defied the laws of physics literally (parting of the red seas, global flood, people turning into pillars of salt, etc.) I played along the social norms for church goers; don’t ask hard questions and don’t express ideas outside the box. The turning point was when my fundie (yes I went to a fundamental, literal reading) church started pushing creationism. I took an honest look into the “science” behind it. I came to the conclusion that I could not support that view and left that church; though it was difficult since I had built relationships with many of those people. I saw the illogical claims and presupposed assumptions of creationism and started seeing them elsewhere in Christian apologetics. (For example the common argument that Christ’s missing body is proof of His resurrection). This consciousness raising experience did erode my faith. I began feeling intellectually unchallenged and often intellectually offended in sermon. This led me to read books from biblical scholars like Ehrman and Price, and I began to listen to podcasts like Reasonable Doubts, POI, Skepticality, and others to get information I wasn’t being told in church. Information that would be damaging to the fold.

    So I say, yes. Scientific understanding, along with some psychological and philosophical understanding, will erode faith unless you want to compartmentalize them. I can no longer do that.

  21. MartyM

    As for the “something from nothing” argument… that is another prime example of the apologetic mindset. Einstein showed us we can not have space without time or time without space, so there never was “nothing” before the big bang. If there was nothing before the big band, then there couldn’t be a “before” the big bang. We may never know what there was before the big bang (though some ideas are floating around – perhaps the multi-verse idea), but there couldn”t have to be “nothing”.

  22. I haven’t read the book or listened to the podcast, so I’m simply replying to the post above.

    If — as some say — evolution is the atheist creation myth, it makes sense that atheists would be drawn to study evolution. I.e., that atheism creates science students and not the reverse.

    Anecdotally, I probably know about as many people who lacked faith, studied science in college (at a secular university) and were convinced there had to be a God as the reverse — people whose faith was destroyed by what they learned in science class.

    I’m not offering that as evidence, just saying.

    However, in answer to the question “why do Christians discourage their children from studying science” (if, in fact, they do), the answer might not be the science, per se, but the scientists. Along the lines of “bad company corrupts good morals.”

  23. Nullius in Verba

    The “something from nothing” argument is easily answered anyway. If you’re talking about matter, any particle collider does that millions of times a second. Or we can pull particle-antiparticle pairs from empty vacuum by the application of a strong enough electric field. (It’s called ‘vacuum polarisation’.) If you allow non-material stuff, like information or entropy, then everybody creates that continuously, just by living. Creation is not a particularly special act – it’s why the word is such a common one.

    But it’s a philosophically empty argument, anyway. All you’re doing is picking something humans can’t do, and then making up a story in which your deity can. Humans can’t use a magic hammer to throw thunderbolts, but the God Thor can, therefore Thor exists, is superior to humans, and is the cause of lightning. Humans can’t make it rain, but the God Tlaloc can, so Tlaloc exists, does cause rain, and if you want it to ever rain again then you’d better get sacrificing. The argument clearly doesn’t work, even without pointing out that actually we can generate lightning and seed clouds.

    Anyway, everyone knows that the world was created when the God Mbombo had a few drinks too many one night and vomited it up. “Creationism” contains a far broader set of beliefs than just the Christian version – it’s only one myth amongst hundreds, and not even a very good one as myths go. Many of the others are a lot more fun!

  24. “So why then are Christian conservatives so afraid of letting their kids learn real science?”

    That would depend on the type of Xian and conservative. Science obviously is a problem for those (fundamentalists/evangelists) who’d like to stick to such claims as the earth being ~6000 years old. Some also clearly have a disdain for biological sciences (read evolution) for obvious reasons.

    On the other hand a (politically) conservative Catholic might not have these issues with science.

  25. second opinion

    There are two obvious thoughts:
    1)the amount scientific knowledge available today facilitates to have a naturalistic world view which is a sound basis for atheism
    2)study of science may teach you skepticism which could spill into other areas like religion

    But the real world is probably much more complicated.

  26. L. S. Lerner

    The scientific way of thinking and the religious way are diametrically opposite — the latter from revelation to interpretation of what one sees and how one acts, and the former from observation to overarching theoretical understandings of the big picture. It is difficult to accommodate both of these methods at once, and I am quite sure that being seriously religious is an impediment to doing science.
    But the human mind is quite good at compartmentalization, and so the handicap of being religious is far from being a barrier. There are a few top-notch scientists who are quite religious. But their numbers are quite small. As a general rule, the better a scientist is, the less likely he is to be seriously religious, or religious at all.

  27. Somebody

    I was just discussing this the other day with friends. At the time, my point was that I grew up in a very religious household, and that I truly enjoyed religion.

    It wasn’t until I got further and further into science that I started to put things in greater perspective, and subsequently lost my faith. Without a doubt, learning more about science and the wonders of this Universe that it revealed was directly responsible for my atheism.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »