‘Faith’ in Science.


There are a few hot spots in popular science that I periodically circle back to, like the MMR vaccine and GM crops. One of them is about science and faith: Can you be a theist and a scientist? Are there scientists who practice religion? Are they any ‘less scientists’ than the rest of the scientific community?

The most comprehensive review I’ve found is a paper in journal Social Problems called Religion among Academic Scientists: Distinctions, Disciplines, and Demographics. It looks at everything from Physicists to Sociologists; but – for fairly obvious reasons – I’m just going to concentrate on Biologists. It’s not a huge sample size (289 respondents for biology), of whom 59% are ‘full professors’. I’m not sure whether it’s better to have a broad range of academic levels or whether somehow being a full professor gives your opinion more weight, but whatever. At any rate, about 70% of these biologists believed there was some truth in several religions, but 41% unequivocally believed that God did not exist and 51.8% self-identified as unaffiliated. 57% had not been to a religious service in the last year and only 11.6% are what you could call ‘regular worshippers’ – i.e. attended 2 or 3 times a month or more. This is an American paper looking at US scientists, so the numbers are likely to be inflated relative to the UK. I knew I was rare in being both a practising Christian (of the never-miss-mass variety) and a scientist, but I hadn’t realised I was that rare. (I was also interested that biologists were the most likely to say they didn’t believe in God and didn’t attend church. Is that because of how close to us the evolution vs creationism debate comes?)

Anyway, I only really intended to mention that paper in the spirit of background. As a general rule there are a few scientists who combine their vocation with religious faith: but not tonnes. Popular consensus is something along the lines of ‘scientists actually think about the world in terms of facts rather than airy fairy alternative theories so they reject religion’. In terms of young scientists though, I’m just not sure that that is the case.

(For the record, I’m a firm believer that people should come to their faith as part of a personal journey, not because their parents were religious and made them go to church. If the difference between scientists vs non-scientists is just down to the number who feel able to reject an institution that they wouldn’t have actually believed in even had they chosen a career as a non-scientist then fair enough.)

I’m fortunate enough to do a little bit of undergraduate biology teaching. Whenever the topic of evolution comes up, as it is wont to do in undergraduate classes, there is a noticeable minority who, when presented with a question that asks them to specifically talk about evolution, will often break forth into several pages of not especially relevant material making fun of creationists, or people with religious faith in general. (I privately refer to these as the Dawkins-Lite posse.) Quite apart from giving me the opportunity to teach them about actually answering the question, writing coherently and realising that if they want to keep the ‘high ground’ as objective scientists they need to actually be objective, it always gives me pause to think about how they came to their conclusion that faith is at best misguided and at worst laughable and pathetic.

What strikes me as particularly perverse is the faith that these young atheists have in science that they have not yet studied themselves. I don’t mean to say that I believe in a 10 000 year old creation. I’m a firm advocate of evolution. But what strikes me is how easily in a single paper these freshmen will disparage those who believe what those they respect and trust have told them, while also easily respecting and trusting what they have read themselves in no particular amount of detail. (I say this based on some of the utter rubbish they write in their essays, not on a presumption of their level of knowledge.) There are many famous atheists who have devoted their lives to understanding the process of abiogenesis and evolution: while I often find Richard Dawkins arrogant, obnoxious and down right rude, I still respect his opinion, on account of the fact that he is a tremendously qualified and well-read scientist. (I also don’t correct out of hand anyone who can do a good impression of ‘slightly arrogant disdain but with all the facts right’. It’s mainly the ones who neglect to talk about science at all in their essays who get the sharp edge of my tongue.)

I am not the best read or most well qualified young scientist in the world, but when it comes to undergraduate evolutionary biology I know my stuff. I can talk about ring species  and selection pressures and recombination and genetic drift until the cows come home. But I’m often faced with students who haven’t done the reading, know none of these things… and yet still blindly accept on faith that the common wisdom of the subject is true.

I’m not sure what my conclusion is here. As an undergraduate I rarely encountered anyone who felt it necessary to make fun of my faith or to try to convince me that it was unbefitting for a scientist. Since moving institution to pursue my postgraduate studies I have met a few of these, and maybe it is their influence that causes my students to feel they can mock one group of people for faith while so blindly displaying it themselves?

I have, however, reached the conclusion that all scientists have faith of one kind or another.  Some of them just haven’t realised it yet.

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4 responses to “‘Faith’ in Science.

  1. significantfigures

    Great article. I’ve had the same thoughts myself several times, but when discuss it with my other scientist friends, I think they get offended by linking science and faith. I totally agree with you on the fact that, as scientists, we have to take a lot on faith. Quite simply, we can’t all start from scratch or science would never go anywhere. So, we decide which sources we trust, hopefully with a critical eye. We all believe a lot of things that we have not personally tested and accept things as evident even though we’ve never looked at the evidence for why it’s so, makes me think of the Flat Earth Society, which (I think) is a joke, but I think it’s a good example of taking an idea “on faith” that few people could ever prove or investigate themselves.

  2. Hello there! I am in my sophomore year at an undergrad college in the US majoring in cellular and molecular bio and I am a Christian! I just happened along your blog and subsequently this post. I was so encouraged. I’ve just started blogging my journey through science and faith (Life and Lab Coats). So, to read of the other side of the spectrum is wildly exciting! Often times I find it hard to defend my position, as I am early on in this journey and don’t pretend to know very much, to my peers and even to those in my church (I find that very conservative believers—without scientific backgrounds are tougher to converse with than non-believing scientists!) I’m looking forward to poking around your blog! Thank you for sharing!

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