BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Did God make scientists? Most of them don't
The first systematic analysis in decades to examine the
religious beliefs and practices of elite academics in the sciences
supports the notion that science professors at top universities are
less religious than the general population, but attributes this to
a number of variables that have little to do with their study of
The 2005-07 study, "Religion Among Academic Scientists" (RAAS)
was conducted by Elaine Howard Ecklund, assistant professor of
sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University at
Buffalo and principal investigator.
The study is based on a survey of 1,646 academic scientists at
21 elite research universities and in-depth interviews with 271 of
The survey sample consisted of academics in seven different
natural and social science disciplines: physics, chemistry,
biology, sociology, economics, political science, psychology and
sub-fields like molecular biology, biochemistry, social psychology
and neuroscience. The rate of response to the survey was nearly 75
percent, which Ecklund says is extremely high for a faculty
The first article based the study, co-authored by Christopher
Scheitle of Penn State, appears in the current issue of the journal
Social Problems (Vol. 54, No. 2).
"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," Ecklund says.
"It is important to understand this," she adds, "because we face
religio-scientific controversies over stem-cell research and
evolution, for instance, and increased debate about the role of
religion in both national politics and in the public policies that
"In order to have the meaningful dialogue between scientists and
the general population important to the advancement of science,"
Ecklund says, "we need comprehensive information about the
religious beliefs and practices of scientists themselves. Although
academic scientists at elite universities teach and train future
leaders of American universities, media, primary and secondary
education, medicine and government, there actually has been little
systematic study of their religious beliefs and identities."
For comparison with the general population, in the Social
Problems article Ecklund and Scheitle employed data from the 1998
and 2004 rounds of the General Social Survey (GSS), a national
survey by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of
Chicago, which regularly collects data on demographic
characteristics and attitudes of U.S. residents.
The RAAS survey asked questions on religious identity, belief
and practice, which were replicated from the GSS, and other
questions on spiritual practices, ethics and the intersection of
religion and science in the respondent's discipline, some of which
were replicated from other national surveys. In addition there was
a series of inquiries about academic rank, publications and
The authors then examined how natural and social scientists
differ from the general public and how they differ from one another
in terms of religiosity. They also considered some of the sources
of these differences.
They concluded that academics in the natural and social sciences
at elite research universities are significantly less religious
than the general population. Almost 52 percent of scientists
surveyed identified themselves as having no current religious
affiliation compared with only 14 percent of the general
And while nearly 14 percent of the U.S. population who responded
to the GSS describe themselves as "evangelical" or
"fundamentalist," less than 2 percent of the RAAS population
identifies with either label.
The only traditional religious identity category where the RAAS
population has a much higher proportion of religious adherents than
the general population is among those who identify as Jewish -- 15
percent compared to 2 percent of the general population.
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
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.
The oft-discussed distinction between natural and social
scientists with regard to religious belief is inconsistent and
weak, Ecklund says.
"This is interesting," she adds, "because most of the scholarly
literature on faculty attitudes toward religiosity addresses the
field-specific differences between natural and social scientists
and many scholars hold that social scientists are significantly
less religious than natural scientists."
Results from the study also show that the more children in a
scientist's household, the more likely he or she is to adhere to a
In the general population women are more likely than men to be
religious, but in the RAAS population, however, gender was not a
significant predictor of religiosity.
Although data from the GSS reveal that older individuals express
higher levels of religious belief and practice compared to younger
individuals, this does not seem to be the case among academic
RAAS data reveal that younger scientists are more likely to
believe in God than older scientists, and more likely to report
attending religious services over the past year. "If this holds
throughout the career life-course for this cohort of academic
scientists," Ecklund says, "it could indicate an overall shift in
attitudes toward religion among those in the academy."
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive
public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the
State University of New York. UB's more than 27,000 students pursue
their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate,
graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the
University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American