Most Scientists are Atheists

Scientists, says Catholic priest Robert Barron in a Youtube video posted last week, rarely understand what serious, smart people mean when they use the word God. That may be quite true. But it's equally true that most average people who follow these serious, smart people also don't know what they mean when they use the word. And let's recognize that Western religion is pretty much all about following the lead of serious, smart theologians. Martin Luther may have believed everyone should think it through for themselves, but most of his followers ditched that in the first generation.

And it's precisely because these serious, smart people don't bother to explain to the rest what they mean by God, that the rest keep on doing amazingly ignorant and bad stuff in God's name. That's the responsibility of those serious, smart people.

Also, it's just a bit too easy to say, "no, you just don't get the God I'm talking about." This God not only can't be measured in any scientific way, but can't be experienced at all. Because now the priest is misrepresenting the scientists and philosophers. They aren't saying that god needs to be measurable in a laboratory to exist, but that God needs to be experienced empirically. If a God can't be experienced at all, then it's Spinoza's God. It's not one that you can get up in front of a congregation and say the Nicene Creed about. So if that's the one you're arguing for, take off that white collar.


A lot of professional philosophers have not specialized in the philosophy of religion, he says. But it's a pretty safe bet anyone who has studied philosophy, even as an undergraduate, has read David Hume. Saying they need to be specialists in the philosophy of religion in order to "adjudicate these complex questions about the existence and nature of God" is the same as saying you need to be a specialist in Middle Earth to decide whether Hobbits exist. There's no evidence for them outside the book, much as we'd all like to believe they're hiding somewhere just out of sight of us clumsy big folk.

He claims to find the historical arguments against God to be "remarkably weak." That's interesting. But isn't it really an argument from authority? Isn't he really saying "if you just trust me, you don’t have to bother your little head with reading Hume yourself"? If you want to compare personal opinions, I find
his argument to be one I've heard again and again. It's the argument you'll find in William Ellery Channing's Discourse on the Evidences of Revealed Religion, and the argument against it is still the one made by Hume in his essay "Of Miracles," and also in Dr. Charles Knowlton's 1833 letter to the Boston Investigator, written in a Cambridge prison cell where he was imprisoned (due to a criminal complaint by religious authorities) for publishing a book on birth control.

Barron goes on to say it's really all about academic politics. Junior scientists and philosophers are browbeaten by their Department Heads. Even many Philosophy departments at Catholic Universities tend towards atheism, he says. But is this because of the success of atheist leaders in enforcing their beliefs, or the failure of theists? Who historically has been more prone to abuse the threat of punishment? No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

His final argument is that in scientism (if not in science), "newer is truer." And he has a point. Science advances by seeking new evidence and improving its hypotheses. Other types of knowledge, he says, don't progress this way. The arts, for example. Today's playwrights are not necessarily better than Shakespeare, just because they're newer. Okay, sure. But the arts are not claiming to instruct us on the origin, design, and purpose of the universe. He's trying to get away with something here: equating religion with philosophy. No, I would not say that Michel Foucault is a better philosopher than Aristotle because he's newer. But that has
no bearing on evaluating religious claims to truth and authority. It's sleight of hand.

And then there's the real final argument: "the denizens of today's Philosophy  lounges" are no match for Wittgenstein or Husserl. And these guys were friendlier to religion than the current denizens. QED. Really? That's what you saved for last? Your best shot? Barron admits he hates (yeah, hates) the arrogance of Daniel Dennett. Well, duh. The four horsemen are easy to dislike. And you're right, an opinion poll proves nothing. But don't think those objections get anywhere near proving your argument.

Why Scientists and Regular People Disagree

I ran into this interesting chart today, describing a Pew poll comparing the opinions of scientists with those of the general public on "science issues." Here's the graphic (click image or find bigger original here) and AP/Huffpost's summary:


Seth Borenstein: "The American public and U.S. scientists are light-years apart on science issues. And 98 percent of surveyed scientists say it's a problem that we don't know what they're talking about. Scientists are far less worried about genetically modified food, pesticide use and nuclear power than is the general public, according to matching polls of both the general public and the country's largest general science organization. Scientists were more certain that global warming is caused by man, evolution is real, overpopulation is a danger and mandatory vaccination against childhood diseases is needed. In eight of 13 science-oriented issues, there was a 20-percentage-point or higher gap separating the opinions of the public and members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, according to survey work by the Pew Research Center. The gaps didn't correlate to any liberal-conservative split; the scientists at times take more traditionally conservative views and at times more liberal." [AP/HuffPost]

So what should we make of this data? There are certainly some like evolution and climate where I read the scientists' position and think, "yes! thank you!" Other opinions like offshore drilling I'm less excited about. But am I cherry-picking? Is there some type of implied obligation in the way the information is presented, to either take it or reject it in total?

I'm not sure if it's intentional, but I think the presentation does nudge the reader in that direction. But looking more closely at the different statements (and trying to imagine the questions that led to these answers), it seems to me there are two basic types of issues jumbled together here. First, there are statements of fact. "Humans have evolved over time." "Climate change is mostly due to human activity." Then there are statements that advocate taking (or not taking) a particular action. "Favor use of animals in research." "Favor more offshore drilling."

And not for nothing, the factual statements tend to be the ones I agree with the scientists on, and the action statements tend to be the ones I disagree with (although there are some I agree with). I think that's because it makes sense to me that when you ask a scientific question of fact (did we evolve), science -- and scientists -- are the source of the best answers. But on the other hand, when you're asking a social question like should we build more nuclear power plants, the answer doesn't rely solely on science. The costs and benefits, even the safety of a nuclear program depend not only on scientific data, but on economic and social factors that may be outside the competence of the scientists polled. For example, it may be possible to make a nuclear plant 100% safe, and we might still fail to do so through cost-cutting, shoddy oversight, terrorism, or any number of other factors not present in the scientist's assumptions about the future when she gave her opinion.

So the "what should we do" questions not only involve assumptions about the future, but these assumptions are much more ambiguous and political than simple scientific facts. Also, I chose nuclear power because the answer
I'd give might vary with the wording of the question. Generating electricity by burning coal kills many more people annually than nuclear. The potential for nuclear disaster may be higher, but the actual disaster that is coal is a fact we've chosen to sweep under the rug. So I'm not sure how my opinion on that issue would be recorded -- it would depend on the way the question was asked.

Postscript: There are also several statements I just set aside. "Safe to eat genetically modified food" is one of these. I think the question fails to encompass the whole issue. I suspect most GMOs are more or less safe to eat (relative to Big Macs at least, if not raw kale). But I object to GMOs for a host of other reasons including promotion of single-source monoculture, patenting of genomes, etc. So the question as it was apparently asked really doesn't do justice to the issue.