Scientific Semi-Belief

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

BY: Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham


Continued from page 1

While the Leuba data may have caused sensation in 1916 by suggesting that most scientists do not believe in God, the same percentages for 1996 may do the opposite, surprising typical Americans with the indication that as many as 40 percent of scientists are believers in God and an afterlife. Compared to today's computer-driven, mass telephone surveys, Leuba's effort looks quaint. And yet his was among the earliest efforts to apply the science of statistics to sociology. He published his findings in the landmark book, The Belief in God and Immortality, which historian George Marsden recently described as "both an early effort to apply the scientific use of statistics and a pragmatist tract for scientifically created religion."

In two separate mailings, Leuba sent his survey to a total of 1,000 scientists drawn randomly from the 1910 edition of American Men of Science. He received about a 70 percent response. Similarly, we randomly drew 1,000 names from the current edition of the same volume, now called American Men and Women of Science. Our response was about 60 percent. We stuck to Leuba's apportionment: Half biologists and a quarter each in math and physics/astronomy.

On the quirky side, Leuba's survey found that about 20 percent of the scientists who did not believe in God nevertheless believed in personal immortality. In the 1996 response, the breakdown was closer to what might be expected: respondents tended either to believe in both God and immortality, or to reject both. Leuba defined the divine in very conventional terms: "A God to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer." We believed that because such traditional tenets still prevail in American culture, retaining Leuba's 1916 definition of God--hearing prayers and giving immortality--still was the best simple question. If respondents in Leuba's time did not agree with his survey in general--one respondent said, "This is a lot of damned rot!"--we received unsolicited comments that the definition of God did not allow for enough variation. "Why such a narrow definition [of God]?" asked one 1996 respondent, writing in the survey margin. "I believe in God, but I don't believe that one can expect an answer to prayer."

Surveys of the last decade have shown that religious beliefs about God, professed by 93 percent of Americans, have become more diverse. When Americans are asked to define "God," a fourth of them opt for something other than a conventional theistic deity. They see "god" as higher consciousness (11 percent), full realization of personal potential (8 percent), many gods (3 percent), or everyone as their own god (3 percent). A more robust sampling by both Leuba and ourselves would doubtless give statisticians more confidence that we really know what scientists believe. Yet our findings do corroborate a major survey done in 1969 by the Carnegie Commission, asking 60,000 professors--a quarter of all faculty in America--questions such as "how religious do you consider yourself?" It found that 34 percent of physical scientists were "religiously conservative" and about 43 percent of all physical and life scientists attended church two or three times a month--on par with the population.

Under conditions of anonymity, we offered to send the results to those parties surveyed, and their responses gave us an inkling of the professional landscape we made contact with. Letters came from prestigious private universities such as Chicago and Johns Hopkins, but more so from land-grant schools. We heard from scientists at national research centers such as the Smithsonian Institution and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, as well as technical institutes, medical colleges, and commercial labs--and from one Nobel laureate.

The persistent interest in, even struggle with, religious questions among scientists was poignantly captured in one handwritten letter from a Harvard professor. "When backed into a corner, as it were, by questions such as those on the survey, I have to come down on the side on non-belief," the scientist wrote. "This result for me, however, (and possibly for others) is an unduly harsh picture. I try frequently to open my mind to an influence of what is good, and the 'subjective and psychological' effects of this can be quite profound, such that I am happy to make contact with the religious tradition by saying that I am praying to God." Similarly, after indicating no desire for immortality, one of our respondents added wryly, "But it would be nice."


Topic of Question: 1916 Survey 1996 Survey

A. Belief in Personal God

1. Personal Belief 41.8% 39.3%
2. Personal Disbelief 41.5% 45.3%
3. Doubt or Agnosticism 16.7% 14.5%

B. Belief in Human Immortality

1. Personal Belief 50.6% 38.0%
2. Personal Disbelief about 20% 46.9%
3. Doubt or Agnosticism about 30% 15.0%

C. Desire for Immortality

1. Intense 34% 9.9%
2. Moderate 39% 25.9%
3. Not at all 27% 64.2%

comments powered by Disqus