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45% of UK scientists don’t believe in God

The late Stephen Hawking famously didn't believe in God. Neither does Richard Dawkins. A new study investigates if that's typical for UK scientists.

Scientists in the United Kingdom are significantly less religious than the general population there, research finds.

In addition, UK scientists at elite universities are more likely to never attend religious services than those at less prestigious schools. The study also indicates biologists are more likely to never attend religious services than physicists.

The study uses data from a survey of biologists and physicists working at elite and non-elite departments, as past research has suggested the distinction could be relevant in understanding differences in religiosity.

“This norm might result from the history of public conflict surrounding issues like evolution and stem cell research…”

The researchers found that while only 18 percent of people in the UK said they do not believe in God, 45 percent of UK scientists responded the same way. In addition, the researchers discovered that scientists in elite departments (a categorization based on the number of publications per department, published department rankings, and insider knowledge) are about twice as likely to never attend religious services than scientists in non-elite departments.

Elite scientists represent the leading edge of the secularizing effects of science, observes lead author Elaine Howard Ecklund, professor of sociology and director of the Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University.

“Individuals who are at the most elite institutions may disproportionately feel the cultural pressure to secularize,” Ecklund says. “So, if those methods and mindset are inherently in conflict with religion, then these successful scientists would experience the greatest erosion of religious faith.”

Ecklund notes that such findings could also be a product of social forces rather than intellectual ones.

“This distinction could have an impact on how the public views scientists, in a national context where some minority groups are bringing challenges to teaching evolutionary theory, for example,” she says.

“Elite scientists might express less religiosity because they assume that, as elite scientists, they are supposed to be or need to be less religious to fit a professional ideal,” she adds. “Because they might already be on the fringes of that professional ideal in the first place, non-elite scientists may feel less social and cultural pressure to further conform to it.”

Coauthor Christopher P. Scheitle of West Virginia says this might also help explain why UK biologists are more than 2.5 times more likely to never attend religious services than are British physicists.

“It is possible that UK biologists might be concerned that being seen as a more active participant in religion would violate some professional norm,” says Jared Peifer, an assistant professor at Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business.

Ecklund adds: “This norm might result from the history of public conflict surrounding issues like evolution and stem cell research, which are most clearly connected to the biological sciences.”

The researchers hope their work will help foster a better understanding of the social dynamics between religion and science beyond the traditional focus on the US.

The work appears in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Funding for the study came from the Templeton World Charity Foundation.

Source: Rice University

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