What do scientists think of religion?

A widely held stereotype of research scientists is that of persons who openly reject any form of religious belief. It is also widely assumed that the fraction of scientists who would be considered agnostic or atheistic has sharply increased in recent decades. There is some truth to these assertions. The percentage of professional scientists who profess a conventional belief in God, or a membership in a religious denomination, is somewhat lower than that of the general public. What’s more, several scientists have openly criticized religion (see, for example, Atheists).

In a 2014 study, Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund surveyed nearly 1700 natural and social scientists from 2005 through 2008 about their views on religion, spirituality and ethics. She spoke with many of them personally, in their offices and laboratories. She found that nearly 50% of these scientists identify with a religious label. Roughly 20% were actively involved in some house of worship, attending services at least once per month. Although 30% consider themselves atheists, many of these consider themselves “spiritual atheists,” meaning that although they do not subscribe to a traditional Judeo-Christian notion of God, nonetheless they have a deep sense of awe and wonder at the magnificence of the universe and life on planet earth. Many report a deep craving some something beyond themselves.

Numerous leading scientists have openly acknowledged a belief in God, or, at the least, have declared that they see no need for science and religion to be in conflict. Here are just a few examples:

  • Francisco J. Ayala (Professor of Biological Sciences at U.C. Irvine; recipient of the National Medal of Science and the Templeton Prize):

    If science and religion are properly understood, they cannot be in contradiction because they concern different matters. Science and religion are like two different windows for looking at the world. The two windows look at the same world, but they show different aspects of that world. Science concerns the processes that account for the natural world: how planets move, the composition of matter and the atmosphere, the origin and adaptations of organisms. Religion concerns the meaning and purpose of the world and of human life, the proper relation of people to the Creator and to each other, the moral values that inspire and govern people’s lives. Apparent contradictions only emerge when either science or belief, or often both, cross over their boundaries and wrongfully encroach upon one another’s subject matter.

  • Francis Collins (former Director of the Human Genome Project; now Director of the National Institutes of Health):

    In my view, there is no conflict in being a rigorous scientist and a person who believes in a God who takes a personal interest in each one of us. Science’s domain is to explore nature. God’s domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible to explore with the tools and language of science. It must be examined with the heart, the mind, and the soul — and the mind must find a way to embrace both realms.

  • Freeman Dyson (noted mathematical physicist):

    As human beings, we are groping for knowledge and understanding of the strange universe into which we are born. We have many ways of understanding, of which science is only one. … Science is a particular bunch of tools that have been conspicuously successful for understanding and manipulating the material universe. Religion is another bunch of tools, giving us hints of a mental or spiritual universe that transcends the material universe.

  • Kenneth Miller (noted biologist at Brown University and co-author of the most widely used biology textbook):

    I think that faith and reason are both gifts from God. And if God is real, then faith and reason should complement each other rather than be in conflict. … Does that mean that scientific reason, by taking some of the mystery out of nature, has taken away faith? I don’t think so. I think by revealing a world that is infinitely more complex and infinitely more varied and creative than we had ever believed before, in a way it deepens our faith and our appreciation for the author of that nature, the author of that physical universe. And to people of faith, that author is God.

  • John Polkinghorne (British theologian, physicist and Anglican Priest):

    Science and theology … share one fundamental aim which will always make them worthy of the attention of those imbued with intellectual integrity and the desire to understand: in their different ways and in their different domains, each is concerned with the search for truth. In itself, that is sufficient to guarantee that there will continue to be a fruitful developing dialogue between them.

Many additional examples could be listed. See Scientists for some additional items. See also the collection of essays and interviews that were produced from the Science and the Spiritual Quest workshop, which was held in 1997 in Berkeley, California.

It is also worth nothing that at least one major scientific society has openly declared that science and religion are not in conflict. In its report Science, Evolution and Creationism, the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine declared:

Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience. In science, explanations must be based on evidence drawn from examining the natural world. … Religious faith, in contrast, … typically involves supernatural forces or entities. Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist.

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