Science Not to Blame for Non-Religious Scientists

A man praying. (Image credit: stock.xchng)

Scientists are less religious than the general population, a new study shows, but the reason has little to do with their study of science or academic pressures.

The findings challenge notions that science is responsible for a lack of faith among researchers, indicating that household upbringing carries the biggest weight in determining religiousness.

"Our study data do not strongly support the idea that scientists simply drop their religious identities upon professional training, due to an inherent conflict between science and faith, or to institutional pressure to conform," said Elaine Howard Ecklund, a sociologist at the University at Buffalo and co-author of the study.

"It is important to understand this, because we face religious-scientific controversies over stem-cell research and evolution,” Ecklund said today.

Detailed in the latest issue of the journal Social Problems, the study is based on a survey of 1,646 scientists at 21 elite research universities and in-depth interviews with 271 of the scientists. Specifically, the survey contacted researchers specializing in physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, economics, political science, psychology and other fields.

Ecklund said nearly 75 percent of the subjects responded, which she said is extremely high for a faculty survey.

So why are scientists less religious? The data indicate that being raised in a religious home is the best predictor of how religious someone will be—scientist or member of the general population.

For general population information, Ecklund used data from the 1998 and 2004 General Social Survey (GSS), which is a national survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Ecklund then compared the data to the scientists’ set, which was modeled after the GSS.

Among the study’s findings:

  • 52 percent of scientists surveyed said they had no religious affiliation, compared with only 14 percent of the general population.
  • Of the religious scientists, however, 15 percent identified themselves as Jewish compared to 2 percent of the religious general population.
  • 14 percent of the general population described themselves as "evangelical" or "fundamentalist.” Less than 2 percent of scientists, however, identified themselves as either of these.

Curiously, younger scientists were more likely to believe in God and attend religious services than older scientists.

If these young and religious scientists continue to stay religious, Ecklund said, "it could indicate an overall shift in attitudes toward religion among those in the academy."

Dave Mosher, currently the online director at Popular Science, writes about everything in the science and technology realm, including NASA's robotic spaceflight programs and wacky physics mysteries. He has written for several news outlets in addition to Live Science and, including:, National Geographic News, Scientific American, Simons Foundation and Discover Magazine. When not crafting science-y sentences, Dave dabbles in photography, bikes New York City streets, wrestles with his dog and runs science experiments with his nieces and nephews.