The Clash Between Religion and Science

Here's one reason why the war between science and religion cannot be resolved. Most scientists do not believe in God.

That's one of the findings in a huge study of leading scientists at the 21 top-rated research universities in the United States. And there's more:

Almost 52 percent of the 1,646 scientists who participated in the study have no current religious affiliation compared with only 14 percent of the general population.

More than 31 percent said they do not believe in God, and another 31 percent said they do not know if there is a God and there is no way to find out -- a whopping 62 percent of those surveyed.

More than 56 percent did not attend a religious service during the entire year preceding the survey.

Only 9.7 percent said they have "no doubts about God's existence."

The landmark study was conducted by sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund at the University at Buffalo, and Christopher P. Scheitle of Pennsylvania State University. Ecklund said it's the first study in decades of the religious beliefs and practices of "elite academics," and it included 271 in-depth interviews with leading scientists, some of which lasted several hours.

She notes that the participants may not be representative of scientists as a whole, because they are the superachievers in their fields, men and women who are obsessed with science. But the findings are important, she said, because these are the people who shape the scientific attitudes and goals of the nation's academic communities.

The clash between science and religion is as old as science itself, but it seems especially heated -- and particularly important -- these days because of burning issues ranging from evolution to stem cell research. It may seem that scientists tend to shy away from discussing religion, but Ecklund did not find that to be the case. About 75 percent of the scientists she surveyed, through a professional polling organization, agreed to participate in the study, a surprisingly high number. None of their names are being released.

The question she most wanted to answer was pretty basic: Does the study of science drive a person away from religion? It does not, she said in an interview.

Nearly all the scientists who said they believe in God, and have a current affiliation with a church, were raised in a home where religion was considered very important, she said. Thus, they conform to the same pattern seen in the population at large. As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.

Most of the scientists who believe in God have children, she said. And the 3,000 pages of transcribed interviews tell her something else.

"In my interviews, some scientists reclaimed the religion of their youth when they had children, and people in the general public do that as well," she said.

Unlike the general population, however, younger scientists tend to be more religious than older scientists. And although women generally tend to be more religious than men, that was not the case among the surveyed scientists.

"Gender did not play a role," Ecklund said.

She is convinced that her research shows that whether a scientist believes in God is determined primarily during childhood, and most of the scientists she studied came from homes where religion was not considered important. Her study, published in the current issue of the journal Social Problems, puts it this way:

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