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Religious scientists

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I admit I'm surprised whenever I encounter a religious scientist. How can a bench-hazed Ph.D, who might in an afternoon deftly puree a colleague's PowerPoint presentation on the nematode genome into so much fish chow, then go home, read in a two-thousand-year-old chronicle, riddled with internal contradictions, of a meta-Nobel discovery like "Resurrection from the Dead," and say, gee, that sounds convincing? Doesn't the good doctor wonder what the control group looked like?
—Natalie Angier[1]

Proponents of the idea that religion produces scientifically-meaningful claims about the nature of reality—meaning, in practical terms, creationists—will sometimes claim that the existence of religious scientists is evidence for the validity of their religious beliefs.[2] They argue that because men like Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler, Galileo and Albert Einstein believed in God, belief in God has scientific underpinning. The argument is an informal fallacy.


The fallacy, in different forms, asserts different things:

  • That religion and science are compatible
  • That religion motivates science
  • That religion created science


The fallacy is part guilt by association (where science and religion, due to proximity, are seen as similar) and part argument from authority (because scientists are seen positively).

The argument also often fails on the grounds that the religious scientists in question don't actually follow the religion they're set up as supporting. Newton, a favorite because of his renown,[3][4] for example, was an Arian and rejected views that many Christians find central (such as the trinity & divinity of Christ). Einstein, another oft-used scientist,[5] was more of a pantheist or deist than a theist and certainly not a Christian, describing his God as nearly synonymous with the wonder of the universe and no more.

And perhaps most damning is the rarity of such scientists in modern times. While in Newton's day, effectively everyone was Christian (and being otherwise might mean social exile), modern scientists are more atheistic than modern citizens. Pew Research (2009) reports:[6]

A survey of scientists who are members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in May and June 2009, finds that members of this group are, on the whole, much less religious than the general public. Indeed, the survey shows that scientists are roughly half as likely as the general public to believe in God or a higher power. According to the poll, just over half of scientists (51%) believe in some form of deity or higher power; specifically, 33% of scientists say they believe in God, while 18% believe in a universal spirit or higher power. By contrast, 95% of Americans believe in some form of deity or higher power, according to a survey of the general public conducted by the Pew Research Center in July 2006. Specifically, more than eight-in-ten Americans (83%) say they believe in God and 12% believe in a universal spirit or higher power. Finally, the poll of scientists finds that four-in-ten scientists (41%) say they do not believe in God or a higher power, while the poll of the public finds that only 4% of Americans share this view.

And more experienced scientists only get less religious. For example, according to Larson et al (1998), among the members of the National Academy of Sciences, an honorary organization that elects only the most accomplished scientists in the USA, 93% are atheist/agnostic while 7% believe in a personal god.[7] And in general, as early as 1914, "58% of 1,000 randomly selected US scientists expressed disbelief or doubt in the existence of God".[7]

And if the existence of religious scientists is evidence for religion, then the existence of atheist scientists is surely evidence for atheism.


See also[edit]