Beliefnet

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."

CHART

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%

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