Thursday, July 02, 2009

Does Teaching Science Lead to Atheism?

Does science lead to atheism? My short answer is "no" just like the answer given by John Wilkins and Matt Young. Their emphasis is on whether scientists are always atheists and whether those who are atheists became atheists because of science or whether they picked science as a profession because they were nonbelievers. Not all scientists are atheists, therefore science doesn't inevitably lead to atheism. That's their position.

Let's ask a different question. Would good science education in the public schools convert religious students to atheism? No, it is not true that exposing students to good science teaching will inevitably make them abandon their religion.

Is that all there is? No, the question can't be answered in such a simple manner. I think that a good science education will threaten most religious beliefs and in some cases will cause students to abandon those beliefs.

Let's imagine what a good science education would look like. The teachers would explain how science works. They would teach that scientific explanations require evidence and logic and that everyone should learn to be skeptical of all claims. Teachers would use examples like evolution, plate tectonics and cosmology to describe good science and how new ideas are incorporated into our understanding of the way things work. They would use astrology, homeopathy, and the deluge as examples of how some explanations do not conform to the expectations of science. The goal is to stimulate students to think and teach them how to do it in a scientific manner.

Imagine that there are religious students in the class. There seem to be three possible ways they could incorporate their knowledge about science into their religious worldview.

1. It will have no effect on their beliefs.
2. It will cause them to question and possibly abandon some of their beliefs.
3. It will reinforce and strengthen their beliefs.

I strongly suspect that more students will start questioning their beliefs when they are exposed to good science education but I admit I have no data to support that suspicion. Does anyone think that the net effect would be to strengthen beliefs or leave them unaffected?


  1. Data from the US: 60 percent of all "working" scientists are atheist or agnostic and 93 percent of all "Academy of Science" level scientists are.

    That would seem to indicate that learning science makes atheism more likely (a "risk factor" for atheism)

  2. Disentangling cause from effect here will be difficult. Science education fails to "take" on a lot of people, but some are natively inclined to accept it. Are they the same group that is natively inclined to disbelieve the folk religion of their parents? Perhaps. I think science education can and will change people's religious commitments in one sense, though - if science is seen by them as more reliable than What Their Pastor Said, the religion they do end up adopting, if any, will tend to filter out all the non-factual claims (as it does, for instance, with heliocentrism).

  3. As with any system of examining our condition, whether it be scientific method or more abstract epistemological assessments, those systems are confined by rules and their ability to test the environment. Humans are limited by the ability to sense the environment and make reasonable abstractions from its behavior. So if there are "supernatural elements" that lie outside of that system, as most religions to some degree or another claim, the inability of science to assay those territories of existence renders it to being only able to comment on the effects those forces may have on our natural environment that it is able to assess. If scientific education does dispose to atheistic inclinations, it does so because it is unable to comment on elements outside of its system and inevitably leads to conclusions that do not incorporate supernatural factors, not because it can prove those elements do not exist. My observation has been that people's ultimate decisions regarding religious belief are shaped by their early childhood experiences, which influences their later ability to recognize these limitations.

  4. "Does Teaching Science Lead to Atheism?"

    All I can say i I hope so.

    Larry K

  5. The 60 percent you mentioned Harriet was interpreted by Nisbett as atheists are simply more inclined to become scientists rather that science makes you an atheist.

    Like Wilkins said, I'm not sure you could separate cause and effect with the available data.

  6. I do think that there are competing early influences, such that a child will incline towards whatever influence is strongest in their lives. However, there are some innate dispositions, such as trusting personal experience over someone's words, and a tendency to follow those who can show they are right over those who merely assert it, that can over-rule these influences. I have a paper coming out in Synthese entitled "Are creationists rational?" which discusses this. A preprint is here.