Field of Science

Are American scientists getting more religious?

Razib at Gene Expression has the lowdown on a new survey comparing social, political and religious attitudes of scientists with the general public. Unsurprisingly, there's a huge gulf between the two groups. While 41% of the scientists said they didn't believe in god or in a high power, just 4% of the general public said the same.

There's one statistic that is rather unexpected, however. As you can see in this table, younger scientists are more likely to be religious than older ones. That's the reverse of what you see in the general population.

A similar thing was seen in a study published back in 2007 by Elaine Ecklund at SUNY. In a survey of of 1,500 academics, she found that those aged under 35 were 50% more likely to say that they believed in god or attended religious services compared with those aged over 45.

Ecklund thinks that this might indicate a trend towards increasing religiousness in academics. After all, adults don't often change their religious beliefs. So as the younger academics get older and the older ones retire (or die), you would expect the number of believers to increase. But I have one niggling doubt.

Ecklund also thinks (and she's probably right) that the reason academics are less religious is because academia attracts freethinkers. It's not so much that the facts you learn as a professional biologist tease you away from religion, it's more that people who aren't that wowed by religion are more likely to become biologists (see Matt Young's recent post on this over at Panda's Thumb).

So I wonder about the age effect. Could it simply be that there's a selective process at work here? Perhaps religious scientists simply don't stay in the profession after their PhD and maybe one or two post-docs.

For this to be true, however, you would expect there to be fewer older academics than younger. Stats on that are hard to come by. The NSF publishes comprehensive stats on just about everything other than the age of university-employed scientists. Ecklund doesn't break down the age demographics in her survey. The Pew Survey does (p 95), and over half of the scientists they surveyed (selected from members of the AAAS) are actually over 50!

So I'm not sure what can be concluded from the age profiles of non-religious scientists. Evidence that scientists are bucking the general secularizing trend, or an interesting insight into workplace peer pressure?

Ecklund, E., & Scheitle, C. (2007). Religion among Academic Scientists: Distinctions, Disciplines, and Demographics Social Problems, 54 (2), 289-307 DOI: 10.1525/sp.2007.54.2.289

Creative Commons LicenseThis work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.


  1. Perhaps young, religious thinkers enter science in an attempt to prove creation science?

  2. Now if someone can come up with a similar poll from 2 decades ago we might make some guesses as to what could be going on.

    Does a large fraction of the young folks gradually dump religion as they get older even if they don't say they have no god? Were previous generations less likely to believe in sky spooks? (in which case we're going backwards)

    So it looks like half of scientists polled are superstitious, 10% don't want to say, and 40% are godless heathens. :)

  3. This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 7/12/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  4. Perhaps science and religion are more widely seen as compatible, maybe even non-overlapping, as NOMA would have it.

    Careers in science may be becoming more attractive to theists. I think it's even more plausible that the pursuit of a career in science is no longer likely to lead a person away from religion. Something must have changed, either with the way science is taught or with the way religion is understood, or both.

  5. A few theories, none of which is intended as all-encompassing, are:

    1. The university science education system is increasingly a turn-off to young freethinkers.

    2. Other fields of study are increasingly more attractive to young freethinkers.

    3. A religious upbringing (or at least some forms of it) provides better motivation and/or preparation for the rigors of higher level science study than a secular one.

    4. This is part of a (transitory) wave of young people from a religious uptick that spanned the Reagan-to-BushII years.

    5. The data is misleading or unreliable. I'm unclear what is meant by the 18-34 age category in this context. Do they mean PHd's or any post-bachelors under 34? Do they mean anyone studying science from the age of 18 (which would include the masses of pre-med, pre-dent, etc, hopefuls coming right out of highchool).

    I'm not sure about your suggestion that late-changers are few. The data you linked to may well describe Americans overall, but things could be quite different for those living life as scientists.

  6. I just looked over the 2007 Ecklund paper, and I don't see any mention of age being a factor among academic scientists' religious beliefs. She doesn't mention age at all.

    She does make two interesting observations, though. She says that the most reliable indicator of an academic scientist's religious beliefs is whether or not they had a religious upbringing. She also says that there is one traditional religious label which is represented among academic scientists more than it is represented in the general population: Judaism.

    So, contrary to my earlier suggestion, it does not look like academic scientists were largely led away from a religios background during their education and training.

    If it is true that younger academic scientists are more likely to express religious beliefs, it is probable that younger scientists are also more likely to come from religious backgrounds. I also expect that a smaller percentage of younger scientists are Jewish.

    I still suspect that, because of changes in the way science and religion are understood (now being seen as more compatible or non-overlapping), scientific study has become more acceptable and interesting to religious, or at least Christian, people.

    This could reflect positive as well as negative changes in the quality of our education systems, of course.

  7. Sorry, I just noticed that the article referenced in this blog post was a different 2007 Ecklund article on religion and academic scientists with a very similar name. Can anyone link to an accessible version of the other article?

  8. Hi Jason, here's the open access pdf. The discussion on age starts on p300 (p12 of pdf), and continues on p303.

  9. I'm curious about the group that doesn't believe in god, but believes in a "higher power". What exactly does that mean? I note this is the smallest group, but still substantial.

  10. Thanks for the link, Tom. I wonder how the age factor looks within each discipline. In any case, it's a very interesting read. I noticed the study was funded by the Templeton Foundation. Not that there's anything wrong with that; but it gives me pause.

    William, I think the "higher power" question might indicate a form of agnosticism; specifically, a belief in the supernatural combined with a strong resistance to religious doctrines and institutions.

  11. I agree Tom. The statistics for the 18-35 group can almost certainly be explained by a sample bias towards science undergraduates, who are a different type of person to science academics. Clearly the vast majority of undergraduates don't go on to become career academics - I don't think there's much need to worry about finding evidence to support that!

    This doesn't explain the statistics for ages over 35, but then again they aren't particularly striking, especially given the relatively small sample size.

  12. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  13. In the Ecklund study, they were all academic staff. But in the Pew study - the one just out - they surveyed a random selection of members of the AAAS (excluding those not based in the US and also excluding teachers).

    So they are quite different groups, but there's a consistent result.

    Neil, yes, I agree with that last point. It may well be that people who go into science as a profession are more likely to abandon childhood faith. Even more probable is that those who do switch are more likely to go faith->faithless than vice versa.

    William, my take on 'belief in a higher power' is that it's a kind of agnostic theism.

    Alex, hello :)

  14. I just want to apologize for the lack of sense in my last post. I confused the two studies. I won't be offended if the post is deleted.

  15. Done - I wouldn't worry though, easy enough to confuse them because I didn't describe the different demographics in the blog post.

  16. All sciences and religions can be compared with different languages:to understand each other we need translators. I think of religion and philosophy as some analog of organelle in the social life (the world is fractal), and not all cells in the body have the full set of organelles. The works of Bruce Lipton are interesting. And are there some data on health status of different religious groups taken into account differences in food patterns, habits etc. May be about those living in US and UK compared to vegetarians?

  17. US scientists might be growing more religious, but that doesn't mean they have mainstream religious views. Here's an anecdote. I taught chemistry for 16 years at a Southern Baptist college in the Bible Belt. They have no trouble recruiting science faculty who are members of conservative Christian denominations, but I never met a young earth creation scientist. (Young earthers are pretty darn common around here.) We even interviewed a guy for a geology position who had gone into geology specifically to fight against the old-earth idea, only to be convinced of it by his third year of college. Education has its effects.

  18. I have an alternate explanation for why younger scientists are more likely religious than older ones. Religion has become more accepting of science. I think religiosity precedes scienticity (if there were such a word), or more accurately one's choice of science as a career path. That's because of the genetic component of religiosity, but also because children are exposed to religion earlier than they are to science, at least formally. I think over the last several generations religion has probably gotten significantly more liberal, at least in most developed societies.


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