Scientists and their faith

Eric Von Salzen writes today of his ideas about the connections between the faith of those who study the natural world. His essay “Dark Matter and Dinosaurs” over on Anglican Centrist discusses why is is that physicists, and specifically cosmologists, might be more likely to be people of faith than those in other disciplines:

“This all brings to mind an impression I have that belief in God is more prevalent in some scientific disciplines than in others; specifically that cosmologists and quantum physicists are more likely to believe in God than are biologists.

I’ve done no research on this, and maybe I’ve just been overly influenced by books I’ve happened to read – like God and the Astronomers by Robert Jastrow, on the one hand, and practically every book that Stephen Jay Gould wrote, on the other. If anyone has any actual data on this, I’d love to hear about it.

But for the time being, assuming that this impression is correct, it makes sense to me that this should be so.

Cosmologists and quantum physicists deal with matters that are right on the edge of human comprehension, as the discussion of the Higgs Boson illustrates. I don’t mean merely that I don’t understand these subjects; there are myriad things I don’t understand, from the popularity of rap music to why anyone would eat Manhattan clam chowder if they can get New England. What I mean is that the most powerful human minds are stretched to the limit to puzzle over what happened in the first micro-instants of the Big Bang, or why galaxies are the shape they are, or what it is that makes a quark charming.”

Read the full essay here.

I’ve not got the numbers at my finger tips, but I do remember seeing studies that tried to answer just this question. The finding was that physicists and astronomers were no more likely and no less likely to be religious believers than were people in the general population. That was not true for biologists, psychologists and, I think I recall, geologists. They were the least likely of the science disciplines to have people who self-identified as religious believers.

I’m a very small sample, but I can say that personally I’ve found that physicists as a group are more tolerant of folks like me than are other academics departments.

For historic reasons astronomy is sometimes part of the Mathematics department. That was the case for me as an undergraduate and at Lehigh University until recently (where I was an adjunct for a while.) When I was officially part of the Math Dept. there was a sense that I, as a person in clerical garb, was just barely tolerated – even an embarrassment. That totally changed when the astronomy program was moved to the Physics building. There was a real sense of welcome and even of interest among the grad students and other faculty. The students initially found it surprising to see my stalking around the building in my collar and black suit, but pretty soon I was just another oddball professor as far as they were concerned.

In every diocese I’ve served, I’ve never been the only ordained person who had formal advanced training in Physics or Astronomy. I think there are four of us here in Arizona, including Deacon Kinman who is the Astronomer Emeritus at Kitt Peak. (A very big deal.) The numbers were different in Bethlehem, Pittsburgh and Delaware, but there were always more than one.

When I was in grad school there were enough of us in the Physics and Astronomy Department that we actually formed a weekly bible study group. Two of us from that group ultimately went on to ordained ministry, me in the Episcopal Church and another in the PCA.

So, given the caveat that this is mostly anecdotal evidence, I have to say that my experience bears out the findings of the study I mention above, and verify what Eric Van Salzen is suggesting.

Van Salzen ends his essay above with the idea that perhaps the Episcopal Church has a special mission to reach out to people who are searching for a reasonable and comprehensive faith (ala Mr. Hooker). I’ve often asked the same question. I used to think the answer was an emphatic YES.

I think my answer is changing.

I’ve got an early appointment this morning, and don’t have time to write about why that’s the case, but maybe that will be something I can do for Monday morning.

Right after I knock out the essay that I owe the Episcopal Cafe on the new Apostolic Constitution… Sigh. Too much to say, not enough time to write it all.

(Consider yourselves very lucky that way. Grin.)

Author: Nick Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

4 thoughts on “Scientists and their faith”

  1. Thanks for the link to my piece on Anglican Centrist. It’s good to know that someone else is thinking about the same things I am. I’ll check back for more.
    Eric Von Salzen

  2. I looked up one survey on this topic a while ago and the results were disappointing. The survey, which is done on a regular basis, is intentionally limited to leading figures in each field of science. I believe this is done by questioning members of the National Academy of Science and perhaps the National Academy of Engineering. (Don’t quote me on this; it was a few years ago.) This made it a very small survey with questionable statistical merit. Still, the results were so dramatic that it tempts a lot of conversation every time it comes out. The lowest rate of religious belief was among the biologist, the highest among engineers. The wars over evolution have probably left their mark on the data.
    I don’t think there is any good data on the subject. It is a difficult survey to do properly.

  3. Paul – if you find a reference to that study, even if it’s methodology is questionable, I’d be very interested in reading it. Thanks for confirming that it (or something like it) exists.

  4. Nick,
    I’m still looking, but here are a couple of interesting links in the mean time. First, a recent Pew study talks about general levels of religious belief among scientists compared to the general population, as well as denominational affiliation among believing scientists. The survey was of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Second, a survey of academic scientists by Elaine Howard Ecklund. I’ll keep looking for my original reference.

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