Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Theism among different types of scientists

(Originally posted by PJ in 4/2012)

I figured for some time that theism is more prevalent among certain types of scientists than others. Just from a layman's standpoint, some science fields involve different modes of thinking than others. One field may involve heavy memorization and careful hands when performing experiments while another field may be more concerned with raw logic than anything else. Assuming that most scientists are working in fields that are most compatible with the way they think, this should translate to different rates of theism among those in different sciences as well.
With this thought nagging me, I decided that it was time to take a look at research already done on this to see if my conclusion has some basis in truth. Intuitively, I believed that (among the natural sciences, at least) chemists would have high rates of theism compared to other scientists. I came to this conclusion because chemistry generally doesn't concern itself with anything that could indirectly relate to the philosophical. With such a top-down view, I believed that this would prevent a religious chemistry researcher's belief from contradicting with their work. (Also, from an anecdotal standpoint, I've come across a higher percentage of people working in Chemistry who were devout Christians than in other sciences.)
So enough of my speculation, and on to the description of articles I looked through. It wasn't completely exhaustive by any means (only found three studies so far). The second study listed is under a paywall, so if you want to read that paper, let me know and I will give a link to it. In addition, feel free to ask about anything that needs clarification.
The first study I currently know which discusses this was by James H. Leuba in The Belief in God and Immortality: A Psychological, Anthropological and Statistical Study, published in 1921.  It didn't deal with the topic at hand as thoroughly because this book was a study among Americans in general, but it does show briefly that even then, there was enough of a difference in theism among different types of scientists worth mentioning. 1000 of the ~5500 men listed in American Men of Science were contacted with questions about belief in God. They were split generally randomly in two divisions of 500. Those in each division were separated into 'Lesser' and 'Greater', and the scientists were separated into the 'Biological Sciences' or 'Physical Sciences'. Here were the results among the second division:
Physical Scientists:
Lesser - 49.7% Believers
Greater - 34.8% Believers
Total - 43.9% Believers
Biological Scientists:
Lesser - 39.1% Believers
Greater - 16.9% Believers
Both - 30.5% Believers
There are pie charts giving a visual of the other percentages for 'disbelievers' and 'agnostics & doubters', but the actual numbers are only described for a few cases, so they will not be listed.
A more recent study was Religion among Academic Scientists: Distinctions, Disciplines, and Demographics by Ellen Howard Ecklund and Christopher Scheitle. This was published in Social Problems Vol. 54, No. 2 in May of 2007. In this study, 2,198 faculty members from 21 elite universities were selected for the study, and 1,646 responded. There were three different subfields represented for the Natural Sciences (Physics, Chemistry, and Biology), and four different subfields represented for the Social Sciences (Sociology, Economics, Political Science, and Psychology). When it came to belief in god, they were given six options:
The first was an option for atheists: "I do not believe in God."
Biology 41.0%
Physics 40.8%
Sociology 34.0%
Psychology 33.0%
Economics 31.7%
Political Science 27.0%
Chemistry 26.6%
The second was a option for agnostics: "I do not know if there is a God and there is no way to find out."
Economics 33.3%
Political Science 32.5%
Sociology 30.7%
Biology 29.9%
Physics 29.4%
Chemistry 28.6%
Psychology 27.8%
The third was an option for those who believed in a higher power but not God. The remaining three options were for theists. For weak theists, there was "I believe in God sometimes". For strong theists, there was "I have no doubts about God's existence". Here were the combined results for those who believed in God or a higher power:
Chemistry 44.8%
Political Science 40.5%
Psychology 39.1%
Sociology 35.4%
Economics 35.0%
Physics 29.9%
Biology 29.2%
A third study I came across was a survey by Pew Forum: Scientists and Belief. Here is a visual of the data breakdown by gender, age, and field:

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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