American Atheists

A leading scientific journal concludes that increasingly, scientists have doubts about the existence of a deity or similar supernatural and religious claims. This finding questions the pop-culture view that science and religion are moving toward a consensus, and a shared view about the humanity and the universe. The study also touches on the changing character of the scientific enterprise in modern society...

Web Posted: July 25, 1998
study in today's edition of the prestigious science journal "Nature" reveals that members of the scientific community are "more likely than ever to reject God and immortality," discloses Britain's Daily Telegraph.

That claim is based on another study which repeats a historic survey first made in 1916 by Dr. James Leuba of Bryn Mawr University. It revealed that over eight decades ago, only about 40% of the scientists surveyed expressed belief in any supreme being. Leuba predicted that advances in education and technology would further erode faith in religious claims.

In 1997, Edward Larson of the University of Georgia decided to revisit Leuba's study and evaluate the prediction that religious belief was disappearing, at least in the scientific community. Author of the book "Summer for the God's" and a professor of science law and history, Larson said that Leuba's original survey raised "good questions."

"They provoke responses and give much more insight into how people think than the vague Gallup poll question, 'Do you believe in God?'" he told a writer from Research Reporter.

Larson closely followed Leuba's methodology, repeating the same questions and attempting to find a representative sample which met the original survey profile. "I had no idea how it would turn out," Larson said.

60% responded, a figure considered high for any surveys. Of those, 40% expressed belief in a deity, while nearly 45% did not. Larson's survey also discovered that physicists were less likely to have such faith, while mathematicians were significantly more likely to believe in a supreme being, as defined by Leuba.

The follow-up study reported in "Nature" reveals that the rate of belief is lower than eight decades ago. The latest survey involved 517 members of the National Academy of Sciences; half replied. When queried about belief in "personal god," only 7% responded in the affirmative, while 72.2% expressed "personal disbelief," and 20.8% expressed "doubt or agnosticism." Belief in the concept of human immortality, i.e. life after death declined from the 35.2% measured in 1914 to just 7.9%. 76.7% reject the "human immortality" tenet, compared with 25.4% in 1914, and 23.2% claimed "doubt or agnosticism" on the question, compared with 43.7% in Leuba's original measurement. Again, though, the highest rate of belief in a god was found among mathematicians (14.3%), while the lowest was found among those in the life sciences fields -- only 5.5%.

Dr. Larson, in commenting on his 1997 replication of the 1916 study, noted that as with Leuba's report, his revelations elicited wildly different accounts in the news media. "It's being spun in different ways," Larson observed. "The Christian Science Monitor ran an editorial exhorting the fact that scientists still do believe -- despite the fact that well less than half of the scientists in my survey believed in God -- while the Journal of Humanism ran a piece proclaiming that they do not."

"Is the glass half empty or half full?," Larson asked.

It would be difficult to interpret the figures reported in "Nature," though, as suggesting that belief within the scientific community is gaining popularity, or even holding its own. The "belief in a person god" category suggests a precipitous drop, from about 40% in Larson's survey to 7% in the "Nature" study.

While Leuba and his study were historic curiosities when Dr. Larson and co-researcher Larry Witham decided to revisit the findings, during its time the 1916 survey ignited considerable controversy. Paul Karr of Research Reporter noted that Leuba's findings "touched off an anti-evolutionary movement that would culminate in the historic Scopes trial where science and Darwinism faced off against Christianity and creationism for the mind and soul of the American schoolchild." Indeed, just nine years after the Leuba findings, high school biology teacher John T. Scopes (1900-1970) was in the middle of a legal controversy, accused of violating Tennessee's Butler Act which forbade the teaching of evolution in the state's public schools. The trial drew worldwide publicity, and was soon dubbed the Monkey Trial due to popular misconceptions about evolutionary findings -- that "people came from monkeys."

Criminal attorney Clarence Darrow faced off against the prosecution's most illustrious witness, former U.S. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, a populist known for his famous "Cross of Gold" oration. Darrow conceded "the facts of the case," that Scopes had indeed violated the Butler Act -- but he also argued for the scientific validity of evolution. Scopes was convicted and fined $100, but the state supreme court later overturned the verdict on technical grounds; meanwhile, the Butler Act remained on the books in Tennessee until 1967.

But William Jennings Bryan, the consummate politician, also was typical of the "amateur scientist" of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, but as described by Edward Davis in a review of "Redeeming Culture: American Religion in an Age of Science (James Gilbert, University of Chicago Press, 1997), was also "representative of an older, less abstract, way of understanding scientific knowledge, a common sense Baconianism that eschewed speculative hypotheses (such as evolution) and saw both science and religion as ways of glorifying God."

The paradigm exemplified by Bryan -- the practical, "amateur scientist" who understood the scientific enterprise as a reaffirmation of the sacred -- may be even less represented today within the academic community than when John Scopes went to trial in Dayton, Tennessee nearly three-quarters-of-a-century ago. Evolution, a core tenet of modern life sciences such as biology, was not a major point of contention even among professional academicians then. It reflected the tension between the "common sense" position of the "amateur scientists" and the more rigorously trained professionals. Davis argues that "Bryan's 'greatest mistake' was to assume that this view of science was still operative among professional scientists in the 1920s. Because it was still part of the popular conception of science, however, his actions leading up to the Scopes trial 'revealed a fault line between popular and professional science.'"

Today, the fault line appears between the scientific community which increasingly doubts supernatural or religion-based explanations of how the universe operates, and the wider popular culture which is in the midst of both a fundamentalist revival, and a disturbing popularity of new age and related pseudo science beliefs. One example could be the recent article in Newsweek Magazine, which suggests a convergence of scientific opinion and more traditional religious doctrines. The agreement may exist more in the news rooms of popular magazines, than in the libraries, labs and observatories where scientists actually do their work.