Some early twentieth-century studies show that scientists are less likely than the general population to believe in the existence of God (1). Another study in 1969 suggested that approximately 35% of scientists did not believe in the existence of God (2).
Fast forward to the twenty-first century and a study by sociologist Elaine Ecklund and her colleague Christopher Scheitle provides fresh insight into the question. Ecklund and Scheitle attempted to question 2198 faculty members of a variety of academic disciplines including physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, economics, political science, and psychology from 21 elite American research universities and managed to obtain a 75% response rate (3). Conclusions found that among the different disciplines, disbelief in the existence of God was not correlated with any particular area of expertise. The study suggested the following (the percentages represent non-believers in God):
- Physics: 40.8%
- Chemistry: 26.6%
- Biology: 41%
Total (average) = 37.6%
- Sociology: 34%
- Economics: 31.7%
- Political science: 27%
- Psychology: 33%
Total (average) = 31.2%
Their calculations suggest that no particular field is associated with a disbelief in God’s existence, and found that there are several other factors that played a role in disbelief. For example, those scientists who were immigrants disbelieved in God to a greater degree than those who were born and raised in America. The study also found that scientists come disproportionately from non-religious or religiously liberal backgrounds compared to the general population. These suggest that at least some part of the difference in religiosity between scientists and the general population is probably due to religious upbringing rather than scientific training or institutional pressure to be irreligious. The pair write that,
“demographic factors, such as age, marital status, and presence of children in the household, seem to explain some of the religious differences among academic scientists” (4).
Another interesting find was the correlation between marital status and the number of children on religiosity. Those who were married (especially with children) attended religious services more often. Those who were just living together were more likely than married scientists to believe that “There is very little truth in any religion.”
Although it’s not uncommon for some to argue that science and religion are in conflict with each other, most scientists do not necessarily see this. Only 15% of those surveyed thought that science and religion were always in conflict, and about half of the respondents expressed some form of religious affiliation (5).
[First published: 03/21/2015. Republished: 05/10/2019]
1. Leuba, J. 1916. The Belief in God and Immortality: A Psychological, Anthropological, and Statistical Study.
2. Trow, M. 1969. Carnegie Commission National Survey of Higher Education.
3. Ecklund, E. 2007. Religion among Academic Scientists: Distinctions, Disciplines, and Demographics. p. 289-307. Available.
4. Ecklund, E. 2007. Ibid.
5. Ecklund, E. 2013. Scientists Negotiate Boundaries Between Religion and Science. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. p. 552–569.