This is the third installment of my five part series on what we know (and don’t know) about intelligence and religion. These were inspired by questions about and challenges to a video I was in, particularly questions about my statement that the religious are not more or less intelligent than the non-religious. In part one, I introduced the series by briefly discussing some of the very diverse areas of one’s life that are impacted by your religious belief system. Part two focused on the relationship between religion and educational attainment.
This post will review what we know, based on large studies and surveys, about the religious beliefs of scientists. As scientists are generally considered to be highly intelligent, this is an area of research relevant to the central question of this series – are non-theists smarter than theists?
Religion and science often espouse contradictory theories, the most publicized in the United States being evolution by natural selection versus creationism. This inherent conflict between the teachings of some religions and the findings of scientists has prompted several studies and articles concerning the religious attitudes of the scientific minds of the last century. Studies of the attitudes of scientists provide the present study with relevant data on groups of people who are generally well educated and very intelligent.
Lehman and Witty (1931) evaluated the biographical information of research scientists included in the 1926-1927 publication of “Who’s Who in America” to determine how many were members of various churches. Although 1,189 scientists were included in that year’s “Who’s Who,” only 303 provided church membership information, meaning that 889 (74.8%) opted to leave the question blank rather than indicate a religious denomination. Based on the information available, Lehman and Witty (1931) found that approximately 22% of the responding scientists were Congregationalists, 20% were Presbyterian, 17% were Episcopalian, 12% were Unitarian, and 10% were Methodist. The remaining, less represented denominations include Baptist (5%), unspecified Protestant (5%), Friends (2%), Disciples (1%), Jewish (1%), Lutheran (1%), Roman Catholic (1%), and Universalist (1%). These data were then compared to nationwide reports of church membership among the public during the same year.
When the church membership of the average person was compared to church membership of the “Who’s Who” scientists, there were major differences (Lehman & Witty, 1931). Unitarians made up a mere 0.15% of the nationwide church memberships but a significant 12.21% of the scientists’ church memberships, meaning that there were 81.4 times as many Unitarian scientists as would have been expected based on nationwide church membership. Congregationalists were represented 9.3 times more in the scientists’ survey than in the public survey, Friends and Universalists were represented 6.6 times more, Episcopalians were 5.7 times more, and Presbyterians were 3 times more. The Jewish (0.72), Methodist (0.44), Disciples (0.29), Baptist (0.24), Lutheran (0.2), and Roman Catholic (0.05) scientists were less represented than would have been expected. According to the findings of this particular study, the odds of a Unitarian’s becoming a distinguished scientist were over 1600 times better than the odds of a Roman Catholic. Lehman and Witty (1931) noted that of the scientists claiming to affiliate with a religion, most belonged to a liberal denomination, and a strikingly small number belonged to the Catholic Church.
Roe (1952) interviewed and tested a total of 64 scientists (20 biologists, 22 physicists, and 22 social scientists, all chosen by a panel of experts in each of the three fields) in an effort to learn more about their personalities. A special, more difficult intelligence exam was developed by the Educational Testing Service and administered to the group of scientists. As one might expect, the scientists demonstrated a very high average intelligence, confirming widespread beliefs on the matter. During the interview portion of the study, participants answered questions about religion. None were Catholic, 59 were of a Protestant background, and five were raised Jewish; however, less than five percent said that they had any serious interest in church at the time of the interview. Religion appeared not to have played much of a role in the lives of this elite group of scientists.
In a study performed a decade later, Chambers (1964) found similar religious characteristics. Among 438 scientists employed primarily by educational institutions, only six percent came from Catholic homes, while 77% came from Protestant homes. At the time of the survey, five percent of participants considered themselves Catholics, and 63% were Protestants. Both of these studies suggest that those raised in Catholic homes are less likely than Protestant-raised children to become scientists.
In a similar report, Bello (1954) collected information through questionnaires from 87 scientists in research and industry areas. Bello found that five percent of the scientists came from Catholic, 29% from Jewish, and 53% from Protestant backgrounds. At the time of the survey, none considered themselves Catholic (compared to 19% of the general population at the time), nine percent were Jewish (compared to three percent of the general population), 23% were Protestant (compared to 34% of the general population), and 22% considered themselves to be religious but had no affiliation. While only eight percent were raised in an agnostic or atheistic household, 45% labeled their current beliefs as agnostic or atheistic. This study demonstrated once again that Catholics were disproportionately underrepresented in the field of science and that scientists tended to experience a larger decline in faith than did the average person.
Vaughan, Smith, and Sjoberg (1966) surveyed 642 natural scientists (physicists, zoologists, geologists, and chemical engineers), selected at random from the 1955 and 1960 editions of the biographical directory American Men of Science, about their religious orientations. The participants were asked about church membership, church attendance, and belief in an afterlife. Sixty-three percent of respondents were Protestants, the majority of which were from liberal denominations. Catholics, while making up 25% of the general population at the time, accounted for only seven percent of the scientists surveyed. Six percent of the respondents were Jewish, compared to three percent in the general population. Twenty-four percent of the scientists were not members of a church, but only six percent of the non-member group actually considered themselves to be atheists.
The scientists were also asked how frequently they attended church services (Vaughan, Smith, & Sjoberg, 1966). Fifty-seven percent of church members attended services two or more times a month, 21% attended once a month, and 22% did not attend church services. Catholics reported going to church most frequently, followed by Protestants, and then Jewish respondents. Only three percent of non-members reported attending church more than once a month. When asked about an afterlife, 39% of the total sample did not believe in life after death, 32% did believe, and 25% were undecided. When evaluated based on church membership, only four percent of non-members believed in life after death, while 41% of church members reported believing.
Based on the information obtained about church membership, church attendance, and belief in an afterlife, participants were labeled as orthodox, non-religious, or liberal (Vaughan, Smith, & Sjoberg, 1966). Orthodox scientists were members attending church at least twice a month who believe in an afterlife, non-religious scientists were non-members who did not attend church and did not confirm belief in an afterlife, and liberals were respondents who did not fit into the orthodox or non-religious category. Twenty-five percent of the scientists were considered orthodox, 20% were non-religious, and 53% were liberal. The scientists also showed, as in previous research, a departure from the religion of their parents. This study suggested a non-orthodox approach to religion among scientists.
Thalheimer (1973) analyzed data from surveys of nearly 700 faculty members in the applied academic fields of Professional Schools, Fine and Applied Arts, and Medical Sciences, and the more theoretically oriented fields of Natural Sciences, Humanities, and Social Sciences. This study examined the relationship between religiosity and chosen academic field. Thalheimer (1973) hypothesized that research-intensive academic areas would be less attractive to people who have traditional religious beliefs and practices and would cause people to abandon traditional religious beliefs and practices. Religiosity was measured with questions about religious affiliation, frequency of church attendance, frequency of private prayer, beliefs about the Bible, and beliefs about God. Faculty members in the Fine and Applied Arts demonstrated the highest religiosity scores, with Medical Sciences and Professional Schools following. Natural Sciences and Humanities scored low in religiosity, with Social Sciences scoring the lowest. Faculty members in the applied fields appeared to have higher levels of religiosity than those in theoretical fields. The majority of respondents indicated that their professional work and training had no impact on their religious convictions, indicating that their beliefs influenced their career choices rather than their careers influencing their beliefs.
A more recent survey of American scientists performed by Larson and Witham (1999) polled people listed in the publication American Men and Women of Science who were also members of the National Academy of Sciences, an honor society. They found that over 90% of respondents reported that they did not believe in a god. When comparing disciplines, 95% of biologists who responded were non-believers, while only 83% of mathematicians were. Results of this survey strongly suggest that top scientists are largely non-religious, especially when compared to the total population.
Ecklund and Scheitle (2007) analyzed data from surveys administered to randomly selected natural and social science faculty members of several elite research universities as part of the “Religion among Academic Scientists” study. Questions about religion were identical to those asked in the General Social Survey to allow for accurate comparison between the public’s responses and those of the elite scientists. Results indicated that only 48% of the scientists reported having a religious affiliation, compared to 86% percent of the general population. For those who were religious, the scientists were significantly less likely than the public to consider themselves to be evangelical or fundamentalist. Proportionally, there were far more Jewish (especially liberal Jewish) scientists than general population members. No consistent differences were found between the natural versus the social scientists, much like in Thalheimer’s (1973) study described above. In normal populations, women and the elderly are generally found to be more religious than men and younger people, but this difference was not found among the scientists. Scientists were, however, similar to the general population in that those who were married and had children were more likely to be religious. This study also showed that scientists who were raised in homes where religion was important were more likely to be religious as adults. Finally, this study also supports the idea that elite natural and social scientists are less religious than those in the general population.
One of the largest and most recent studies of the religious beliefs of scientists was conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in 2009. The sample in this case was drawn from members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and, consistent with past research, the scientists had a much lower overall level of belief in God than the public. The numbers, though, were much lower than seen in the National Academy of Science (NAS) poll. Overall, 51% of the AAAS members reported either believing in God or a higher power of some kind (compare that to over 90% in the NAS poll). Similar findings to previous studies were also found, in that a very low number of scientists were members of evangelical religious or Catholic groups, while a much higher proportion were Jewish, atheist, and agnostic.
Summary / TL;DR
Results from the above studies suggest that scientists are more likely to hold agnostic, atheistic, or liberal religious beliefs than they are to hold fundamentalist or orthodox beliefs. Scientists also appear to be significantly less religious than the general population, and those who are members of a church tend to be members of a liberal denomination. The decision to enter a scientific field of study, especially the natural and social sciences, appears to be somewhat guided by religious beliefs, but scientists report that their religious beliefs are not influenced by their chosen profession. Also, those scientists who are at the top of their chosen field appear to be much less religious than the “average” scientist.
But, what does this mean about overall intelligence? Obviously, scientists and engineers are quite intelligent, but does this mean that the non-religious as a whole are smarter than the religious? As we will see in the next post, this relationship is much less clear-cut, as I examine the relationship between directly measured intelligence and religious beliefs. This will be followed by the final post in this series – a summary of the total literature and a map for where to go next.
(Many thanks to Julie White for allow the adaptation of her thesis – which I supervised – into this series. For a list of cited works, please contact me.)