Elaine Howard Ecklund, above, lead author of a new study into the religious beliefs of British scientists, says they are significantly less religious than the UK’s general population.
In addition, the study – The Religiosity of Academic Scientists in the United Kingdom: Assessing the Role of Discipline and Department Status – shows that scientists at elite universities are more likely to never attend religious services than those at less prestigious insitutions.
The study also indicates biologists are more likely never to attend religious services than physicists.
The study utilises data collected in a survey of biologists and physicists employed at elite and non-elite departments, as past research has suggested the distinction could be relevant in understanding differences in religiosity.
The researchers were interested in how UK scientists, particularly those who work at elite institutions, compared to the general population with regard to religious beliefs.
They found that while only 18 percent of people in the UK said they do not believe in God, 45 percent of British scientists responded the same way.
The 18 percent statistic is puzzling, for it was reported in 2017 by the Mail – under the headline “Britain loses its religion: Number of people who describe themselves as atheists is at its highest EVER level” – that:
In 2016, seven in ten (71 per cent) of young people aged 18-24 said they had no religion, up from 62 per cent in 2015.
There has been a decline in religious affiliation among all age groups between 2015 and 2016, but among the oldest people, those with no religion are in the minority.
Four in 10 people aged 65-74 say they have no religion and this drops to 27 per cent of those aged 75 and over.
But the Bishop of Liverpool said: “No religion is not the same as atheism.”
But back to the US study.
In addition, the researchers discovered that scientists in elite departments (a categorisation 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.
Ecklund, the Herbert S Autrey Chair in Social Sciences, Professor of Sociology, and Director of Rice’s Religion and Public Life Program, observes that that elite scientists may represent the leading edge of the secularising effects of science.
Individuals who are at the most elite institutions may disproportionately feel the cultural pressure to secularise. 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 noted 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.
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. 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.
Study co-author Christopher P Scheitle of West Virginia University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology said this might also help explain why UK biologists are more than 2½ times more likely to never attend religious services than British physicists.
Said Jared Peifer, an assistant professor in the Department of Management at Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business, suggested:
It is possible that UK biologists might be concerned that being seen as a more active participant in religion would violate some professional norm.
This norm might result from the history of public conflict surrounding issues like evolution and human embryonic 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 study was funded by a grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation.