Why are Most Scientists Atheists If There is Evidence for Belief in God?
by Rich Deem

Belief in God

A larger percentage of scientists in the United Stated are atheists compared to that in the general population. Do they disbelieve in the existence of God because of their intelligence, knowledge, and academic studies? A new study shows that disbelief is correlated with such mundane things as marital and family status and family of origin.

Rich Deem


In the early 20th century, studies showed that scientists were less likely than the general population to believe in the existence of God.1 A survey conducted in 1969 showed that 35% of scientists did not believe that God existed.2 In contrast, recent surveys on religious belief have shown that 90 percent of Americans believe in God and 40 percent attend a place of worship weekly.3 Is a lack of belief in God among scientists due to their higher intelligence and knowledge? A recent study was designed to look at differences in belief among scientists (and other academics) and what factors influence those beliefs.

Religion and Academics

Elaine Ecklund, and Christopher Scheitle questioned 2,198 faculty members in the disciplines of physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, economics, political science, and psychology from 21 elite U.S. research universities.4 Overall, 75% of professors contacted completed the survey. Among the different disciplines, disbelief in the existence of God was not correlated with any particular area of expertise:

Disbelief in God by Academics4
Discipline %
Physics 40.8
Chemistry 26.6
Biology 41.0
  Overall 37.6
Sociology 34.0
Economics    31.7
Political Science 27.0
Psychology 33.0
  Overall 31.2

Are professors atheists because of their knoweldge?In fact, disbelief in the existence of God was nearly as high in the natural science as in the "soft" sciences. Earlier studies had shown a similar trend, with those in the social sciences regularly attended religious services less often than those in the life sciences.2 So, it doesn't seem that study in any particular field is associated with a disbelief in God's existence. However, several factors unrelated to areas of expertise and training did correlate with belief in God. It was found those scientists who were immigrants (where belief in God is lower) disbelieved in God to a greater degree than those who were born and raised in the U.S. In addition, the study found that scientists come disproportionately from non-religious or religiously liberal backgrounds compared to the general population, suggesting that at least some part of the difference in religiosity between scientists and the general population probably due to religious upbringing rather than scientific training or institutional pressure to be irreligious. Most interesting was the correlation between marital status and number of children on religiosity. Those who were married (especially with children) attended religious services more often. Those who were cohabiting were more likely than married scientists to believe "There is very little truth in any religion." This could be a reflection of wishful thinking!

Another reason why social scientists are atheists comes from the public perception of the social science profession.5 Accordingly, children of liberals, atheists, secular Jews, and other secularists perceive social sciences as more important issues compared with children from religious homes. Therefore, these professions have been abandoned by those brought up with religious backgrounds, leaving mostly secularists and atheists to fill those positions.5

Science and religion in conflict?

Contrary to the claims of the new atheists, most scientists do not necessarily see religion and science as always being in conflict. Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund and coauthors studied the responses of scientists at 21 elite U.S. universities, finding that only 15% thought that science and religion were always in conflict. About half expressed some form of religious affiliation.6

Conclusion Top of page

Science vs Religion: What Scientists Really Think by Elaine Howard EcklundIt is true that scientists believe less in the existence of God than the general population of the United States. However, the recent study by Ecklund, and Scheitle reveals that the most important factors in belief were related to upbringing and family status, and not area of expertise. The fact that social scientists as well as those in the natural sciences expressed nearly the same disbelief in God suggests that rejection of God's existence is not a result of knowledge in any particular area of expertise. It is likely that those who have rejected religious morality (i.e., those who were cohabiting) wanted to justify their behavior by saying that there was very little truth in any religion. The conclusion by the authors:

"Instead, particular demographic factors, such as age, marital status, and presence of children in the household, seem to explain some of the religious differences among academic scientists... Most important, respondents who were raised in religious homes, especially those raised in homes where religion was important are most likely to be religious at present."

¿Por qué son Ateos la Mayor parte de Científicos Si hay Pruebas para la Creencia en Dios?

References Top of page

  1. Love Your God With All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the SoulLeuba, J. 1916. The Belief in God and Immortality: A Psychological, Anthropological, and Statistical Study. Boston: Sherman, French, and Company.
    Leuba, J. 1934. Religious Beliefs of American Scientists. Harper's Magazine 169:291–300.
  2. Trow, Martin and Associates. 1969. Carnegie Commission National Survey of Higher Education: Faculty Study [computer file]. Berkeley: University of California at Berkeley, Survey Research Center [producer]. Ann Arbor, MI: University Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor].
  3. Gallup, G. Jr. and D. M. Lindsay. 1999. Surveying the Religious Landscape: Trends in U.S. Religious Beliefs. Harrisburg, PA, Morehouse Publishing.
    Hadaway, C. K., P. L. Marler, and M. Chaves. 1993. What the Polls Don't Show: A Closer Look at U.S. Church Attendance. American Sociological Review 58: 741–52.
  4. Ecklund, E. H. and C. P. Scheitle. 2007. Religion among Academic Scientists: Distinctions, Disciplines, and Demographics. Social Problems 54: 289–307.
  5. Fosse, E. 2010. Why are professor liberal (alternate link.
  6. Ecklund, E. H., J. Z. Park, and K. L. Sorrell. 2011. Scientists Negotiate Boundaries Between Religion and Science. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 50: 552569.

Last Modified September 23, 2011


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