What to make of those few believers in the National Academy of Science?

Surveys demonstrate a far lower belief in God among scientists than the general public. At the highest level, this 2009 Pew survey indicated that 83% of the general public believe in God, compared to 33% for scientists. Other surveys show that for members of the prestigious National Academy of Science, the percentage drops to about 7%, suggesting the more accomplished the scientist, the less likely they are to believe.

As you can imagine, this is generally spun in one of two directions.

Some atheists will spin it as “See, really smart people do not believe in Bronze-age superstitions.”

Some Christians will spin it as “We told you scientists are atheistic minions of the antichrist.”

Perhaps the atheists are right, after all the bible does teach the God chose what is foolish to shame the wise (1 Cor 1:27).

I would offer two less common observations, never of which I can demonstrate let alone quantify. I’m just putting it out there.

The first is a variation of the [Bradley Effect](Bradley effect - Wikipedia. Roughly speaking, people sometimes give the answer they believe they are expected to give, for fear of embarrassment or of being perceived negatively. It is possible that some scientists are not comfortable admitting they are believers because it doesn’t seem to fit with their chosen profession. Similarly, some in the general public may not be comfortable admitting they are not believers. This effect, if real, would tend to widen the gap between scientists and the general public.

The second observation is not unrelated. The egos of scientists might make them more immune to the cultural and familial pressures to affirm belief. In the first observation above, it was posited that some scientists are embarrassed to admit belief. In this case the hypothesis is that they are much more likely to be honest about their unbelief, or to “own it” if you will.

It is this effect I find fascinating.

There are only about 7% of the NAS scientists who profess faith. I would expect (I could be wrong) that their faith, on average, is quite strong, for it generally takes belief-backed fortitude to take an extreme minority position.

Maybe 7% is closer to the real number of those with strong faith, among everyone. Maybe the 83% number for the general public is highly inflated by pressures arising from our culture.

In my mind, this is why the reduction if not elimination of the stigma of being an atheist is a good thing, a win-win. People should not feel pressured by the culture to affirm something they do not believe.

If this is true, then over the years we should see the 83% number drop (I think we have seen this) and the 7% number hold steady or drop relatively less. (I don’t know.)

In reality the net effect is some linear combination of all these and other possible contributions. I don’t know what the relative weights are, but I would not be surprised if a big effect in explaining the discrepancy is related to scientists answering more honestly than the general public.



I don’t find it credible that atheists are meaningfully smarter. Aside from the known problems with IQ testing, most of the difference can be explained by education level (atheists tend to be more educated). Even then the differences are small, less than one standard deviation of IQ, and the average difference is not meaningful.

When it come to the National Academy of Science we no longer have anything resembling a random sample. I can only speculate about biases associated with atheism (ex: less time in church --> more time for work?).

Darnit, they figured us out! :wink:


16 posts were split to a new topic: Does Science Take Us Away or To God?

I would add that even some think they believe, but really don’t have faith based on their actions. I see it in bible college, people want to believe, but don’t want to walk in their belief, so in essence don’t really believe…hypocrites as Jesus would say (and I agree). Not a judgment, just an observation.

Authenticity is a rare attribute among humans, which would lend to fudging on polls and deceiving yourself. Scientists tend to be way more authentic. Lawyers, Politicians and Christians (not a complete list of offenders) often fail in authenticity in my opinion. Pride and keeping up appearances makes it hard for many.

James 1:26 - If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless.

Selection bias explains some of the statistic.


My completely fallible and subjective gut feeling is this:

  1. Most believers are raised in the faith they currently belong to. Conversions in adulthood make up a smaller percentage of congregations.

  2. The hard physical sciences are not viewed kindly in some congregations. Growing up in the church myself, I remember the anti-science films we were shown by the likes of Carl Baugh and others. Why would kids pursue a career in the sciences when they are told how those fields run counter to Christian beliefs?

The result is fewer Christians pursuing a research focused career in the sciences when they go to university. It could also be that the sciences are more attractive to atheists given that many are already drawn to formalized versions of skepticism. However, I don’t think the sciences are actively discriminating against people of faith nor is there any field-wide social pressures against religious belief. There are probably isolated examples of Christians facing discrimination, but there are heaps and heaps of examples where Christians are embraced by their peers and colleagues, including the atheists. To be frank, scientists really don’t care what another scientist’s religious beliefs may be.


Somewhat similar to @Dan_Eastwood’s point, I’d suspect that the differences in belief between the NAS, scientists in general, and the public will shrink once one takes into account geographical, cultural, ethnic, and racial factors. One hypothesis I have is that it is likely that membership in NAS is heavily dominated by people who are white, male, and living in geographical areas which tend to have more research institutions but also have lower rates of belief in God.


The National Academy of Science is a secular organization. I find it laughable to be taking a religion survey among members of the NAS.

I’m an outsider but it would not surprise me if, in the US, the Bradley effect also drove the high percentage of averred Christian belief.

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Its anyone’s guess as to how many people have “strong faith”.
However Survey’s tend to try to quantify this number using criteria such as

  1. How regularly someone prays.
  2. How regularly they attend places of worship etc.

Its highly unlikely that a person who regularly prays/ attends a place of worship identifies himself/herself as an atheist. The number probably varies based on geography,culture etc.
Obviously, Peer pressure has a role in one’s confession of faith or lack thereof.

I guess scientists would be under more pressure to have world views that do not contradict with “Scientific consensus”. This is something that can push scientists toward Scientism as an epistomological outlook.
It would be interesting to see whether the number of panthiests among Scientists increase over the coming decades.

I think it is a hangover from previous generations when the discovery of natural processes directly contradicted the declarations of the church.

There are theists to blame for that. I have heard many creationists claim that if evolution is true then the Bible is false and God does not exist.

We all suffer from confirmation bias. The trick is in recognizing it and confirming your findings with others.


Agreed. And in this case it is perfectly natural and harmless. Believers who have their beliefs enhanced by scientific discovery and atheists who respond similarly–it’s no harm, no foul, unless you begin insisting that it proves your position.

One related quote that comes to mind is Hoyle’s statement that the fine tuning in nucleosynthesis had “greatly shaken his atheism.” While this is great fodder for theists, in reality it was hyperbole. He appears to have remained an atheist to the end.


More to the point, personal beliefs are a basic human right so it’s really none of our business. What counts is the science and how well it is supported which is independent of personal beliefs.

There’s also nothing wrong with atheists converting to a religion or changing their mind. I don’t know about other atheists, but my personal journey wasn’t influenced by the popularity of atheism or which popular people were atheists. Perhaps in the future I will have some sort of personal experience that completely changes my outlook, who knows? The question of atheism and theism isn’t a competition decided by numbers on a scoreboard.

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Just to add a datum, I have never heard any member of the National Academy of Sciences ask any other member what their religious beliefs were.


You made me realize, to my horror, I left off the ‘s’ in National Academy of Sciences. Serves them right for “losing” my invitation!


A thoughtful article, David. Thanks for putting out some possibilities. I think all of your suggestions are possible partial explanations.

I think it might well be the case that if social pressure (inside the academy and outside) were removed, the number of scientists acknowledging religious belief would go up, and the numbers for the general public would go down. But it’s a pretty large gap to overcome completely, and I can’t help but think that there is something about, if not science itself, at least the way science is taught, or the way it is conceived (from an epistemological point of view), that is the problem. As you point out in a later comment, even now, and certainly in past eras (e.g., Newton, Boyle, Kepler), the greatest scientists were not hostile to religious belief, and usually embraced it in some form (albeit sometimes maverick or heretical forms). So since the 17th century “science” has taken on some new attitude; the question is how to identify or characterize that attitude, and discern whether it is a legitimate one, or based on an error.

Who says there’s a problem?


What would be interesting is a survey of incoming freshmen at universities. What are the demographics of students who are going to pursue a research focused career in the physical sciences? Is the disparity already baked in before students even get to university?


Good question. Even if we don’t have recent data on that, are there not surveys of the religious beliefs of 18-year-olds (or, say, 18-24-year-olds) from, say, 15 or 20 years ago, that would pertain to people who have since become research scientists and are now in their 30s or 40s?

Generally speaking, if a culture that has for 1500 years or so shown a rough religious harmony between the beliefs of its common folks and the beliefs of its intelligentsia, starts to show a pronounced religious division between those two groups, there is potentially a social, political, or cultural problem. And actually, that applies not only to religion but to other things that might be called “basic commitments” or “basic understandings”; e.g., if the intelligentsia of a society is wildly to the political left of the society at large, that indicates a potentially serious source of social, cultural, and political divisiveness. It is only natural to wonder about the causes or sources of such division when they manifest themselves. Any sane social analyst would want to understand those causes or sources.

Not to worry. Polls show that the U.S. (which is mainly where this happens) general population is getting closer to the NAS position over time.