Scientific Semi-Belief

Scientists Still Keeping the Faith: Comparing Scientists in 1916 and 1996

BY: Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham

 

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of God's demise in American science have been greatly exaggerated. In 1916, four in ten scientists said they believed in a personal God and individual immortality. A new survey shows no decline in this figure, after eighty years of science and skepticism. To measure the strength of belief in an era of ascendant science, the eminent researcher James Leuba conducted a landmark survey in 1916. He found a 60 percent rate of disbelief among scientists, and predicted its increase as education spread.

To test that prediction, we replicated Leuba's exact survey to see what scientists believed in 1996. The result: About 40 percent still believe in a personal God and an afterlife. In both surveys, the other 60 percent was divided roughly between 45 percent who rejected the idea of God, and 15 percent who were agnostic.

Leuba's interest in psychology prompted him to insert a secondary question, asking whether respondents who did not believe in personal immortality nevertheless desired it. More than any other, this question probes the tension between intellect and emotion in some scientists. In 1916, 73 percent of the nonbelievers nevertheless desired immortality (1). That hope has dwindled over 80 years, with only about 36 percent desiring today what they otherwise cannot believe in.

Despite the stable 40-60 split in belief-disbelief over 80 years, there has been a significant shift in views held by the three professions surveyed--mathematics, biology, and physics/astronomy.

The 1996 survey showed that scientists in mathematics are most inclined to hold belief in God (44.6 percent). While biologists showed the highest rates of disbelief/doubt in Leuba's day (69.5 percent), that ranking was given to physicists and astronomers this time around (77.9 percent). Higher belief among physicists in Leuba's survey might have been expected in that era, a time when such leading physicists as Lord Kelvin, Robert Millikan, and Sir Arthur Eddington publicly defended religious belief. In our survey we expected the same, especially with some prominent astrophysicists in the 1990s entertaining the anthropic principle (the idea that the universe had to be the way it is in order for humanity to come into being) and certainly Big Bang cosmology--and many prominent biologists sticking hard by Darwinian naturalism. But we were wrong in that expectation. Leuba's 1916 documentation of disbelief had a political impact in his era, particularly his separate data on declining belief among American college students. The populist Democratic politician Williams Jennings Bryan and some conservative Christians seized on the Leuba data in the 1920s to show the social evils of modernism, and its ultimate impact on the nation's morality. They charged that academic scientists were leading college students into disbelief.

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