Does It Matter That Many Scientists Are Atheists?
One fact that concerns some Christians and elates some atheists is that 93 percent of the members of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the most elite scientific organizations in the United States, do not believe in God. Atheist Sam Harris says that, “This suggests that there are few modes of thinking less congenial to religious faith than science is.”
Should Christians be concerned that so many of these intelligent people don’t believe in God? I don’t think so, and here’s why.
First, the National Academy of Sciences represents a small number of scientists. The Academy itself comprises only about 2,000 members, while there are more than 2 million scientists employed in the United States as a whole. This means that the NAS only represents about one-tenth of one percent of all scientists in the nation. Using this statistic alone to prove scientists are overwhelmingly atheists would be inaccurate.
A more accurate description comes from the Pew Research Center, which reported in 2009 that 51 percent of scientists believe that God or some higher power exists, while 41 percent of scientists reject both of those concepts. In addition, while only 2 percent of the general population identifies as atheist, 17 percent of scientists identify themselves with that term.
But now we have to consider another important set of factors: Is it science that turns people into atheists? Or is it atheism that turns people into scientists?
Elaine Ecklund’s recent book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think shows that scientists are more religious than we realize. In the course of her interviews she found that many scientists reject religion for personal reasons prior to becoming scientists (as opposed to rejecting religion solely on scientific grounds).
It is unfortunate that secular people feel more compelled to study the natural sciences than religious people, because some of our greatest scientific discoveries have come from people of faith (Gregor Mendel and Fr. Georges Lemaitre instantly come to mind).
Indeed, I have the pleasure of having a father-in-law who is a devout Catholic and a literal rocket scientist.
While it may dishearten believers to see that so many intelligent people reject the existence of God, we should ask a very frank question in light of this fact: Who cares?
The existence of God is not a scientific question, because science restricts itself to searching for natural explanations of observed phenomena. Since God is a transcendent being who exists beyond space and time, the search for God must primarily use philosophy, or careful reasoning, and not science (even though science provides facts which can be used in philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God).
Natural scientists (such as the biologists, chemists, and physicists that make up the Pew study) are no more equipped to make conclusions about God than they are equipped to make conclusions about economics, history, literature, or philosophy. Since the question of God is philosophical in nature, scientists who investigate it are just as equipped as laymen, and their opinions should be placed on the same footing as any other educated non-scientist.
At this point a critic may respond that if the existence of God is a philosophical question, then the theist still loses because 73 percent of professional philosophers are atheists. However, if one looks at the data more closely, one may find that such a conclusion is premature.
“I’m not bad, I’m just misunderstood”
Philosopher Edward Feser has written in his book The Last Superstition that many philosophers misunderstand the arguments for the existence of God and just take it “by faith” that they have been refuted. They might glance over Aquinas’s “Five Ways” and, without understanding the complex metaphysics behind the arguments, refute only straw man versions of them, just as Richard Dawkins did in his book The God Delusion (a book whose arguments were so weak that Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga joked that Dawkins’s “forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores”).
When it comes to philosophers and God, it is interesting to see that the majority of philosophers of religion, or those who have extensively studied the existence of God, are theists (72 percent). This could mean that the most well-informed philosophers are swayed by the power of the arguments and embrace theism on philosophical grounds. Or it could mean these philosophers started out as theists and then bolstered their beliefs in their academic studies (just like the atheistic scientists I described earlier).
Of course, we can psychoanalyze people until the cows come home, but at the end of the day a belief isn’t true just because a lot of smart people hold it. A belief is true if it corresponds to reality. Both theists and atheists must refrain from the shortcut of saying, “My beliefs are true because smart person X says so” and be willing to follow the evidence where it leads (which may include testimony from someone like smart person X).
I have tried to do that in my own life and I hope my forthcoming book Answering Atheism (which will be published by Catholic Answers this fall) will be helpful for people who want to examine the arguments and move closer to the truth.
As St. Paul wrote, “Test everything; retain what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21).