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Friday, December 12, 2008

Religious Scientists

There are lots of interesting things in this month's issue of SEED magazine. One of them is a survey of scientists in the USA, UK, France and Germany.

SEED asked a total of 1000 scientists whether they were "atheist or agnostic," "practicing nonbelievers," "believers," or "spiritual" [SEED: State of Science].

Here's the result, in percent, for each of the four choices.

USA: atheist = 17%, nonbelievers = 6%, believers = 53%, spiritual = 24%
UK: atheist = 44%, nonbelievers = 10%, believers = 35%, spiritual = 11%
France: atheist = 50%, nonbelievers = 6%, believers = 39%, spiritual = 5%
Germany: atheist = 40%, nonbelievers = 24%, believers = 32%, spiritual = 4%

I find this surprising. The distribution isn't that much different from the general public in each of the countries. I was under the impression that scientists are considerably less religious than the society in which they live.

Perhaps this is because the SEED definition of scientist is more flexible than the one I would use. Here's the breakdown of their survey group.

Social Science: 24%
Medicine: 23%
Life Sciences: 15%
Engineering: 12%
Physical Sciences: 9%
Computer Science: 9%
Mathematics: 8%


  1. Agreed: They should toss out Meds, Engineering, CompSci and Math. That's 52% of the survey population right there, that doesn't really belong in the set "Scientist".

  2. Those numbers are, I think, quite consistent with data from studies spanning nearly a century. (See, for example, NY Times report from about 10 years ago on a major study.) The percentages among U.S. scientists do differ from those among the general population, if I'm not mistaken. Your impression "that scientists are considerably less religious than the society in which they live" is not, at least as a broad generalization, consistent with the studies I've seen over the years.

  3. What does it take to qualify as a "scientist" for purposes of their poll? Which of the following would qualify?

    Teaching K-12 science
    Undergraduate science major
    Bachelor's degree
    graduate student
    Working as a technician
    Working as a Post-doc
    Professor in a religious college
    Professor at a secular research university
    Got a degree in science but now doing something else, like flipping burgers or serving time in federal prison for tax evasion

  4. At the elite levels belief is far less.

    Note: this is from the US Academy of Science which does include mathematicians.

  5. What's the difference between atheist and non-believer? To me, one is a more specific category of the other. And exactly does "spiritual" mean?

  6. I looked at the link provided in the hope of locating the criteria for "scientist" but I couldn't find the survey referred to. I think that they need to make clear the exact criteria used and ideally I'd like to see how the religious statuses are spread among the different sub-classes.

  7. As I stated in the other post about this survey, the definition of "scientist" is undefined for the survey and varies widely in this article. If it was anyone with a bachelors degree and working for industry/pharma/academia, as is the case for some of the other stats SEED presents, then that would go a long way to explaining these particular results.

  8. It would be especially interesting if their definition of scientist varied with nationality.