Health & Science

Rice Sociologist: Religious Beliefs Vary Among Scientists In 8 Countries

Contrary to stereotype, most scientists aren’t atheists, but their beliefs about religion vary depending on country and culture, according to a study from the Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University.

The five-year study surveyed more than 9,000 biologists and physicists, and included in-depth interviews with 609 of them.

The data repudiates the common stereotype that scientists are atheists, said Elaine Howard Ecklund, a sociologist at Rice University.

Ecklund led the five-year study and directs the Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University.

Ecklund said religious beliefs varied within and between the eight countries in the sample: France, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Taiwan, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Only in France did a slight majority of scientists, 51 percent, say they did not believe in God, the study found. But in India just 11 percent of scientists believe there is no God, and in Turkey, just six percent of scientists.

The interviews revealed that even among scientists who don't believe in God, they hold nuanced beliefs about religion and its institutions, Ecklund said.

"There are scientists who are atheists but, by and large, they're not against religion. They're not against religious people, and many of them even attend church," Ecklund said. "Some of them are interested in spirituality and things beyond themselves."

The study showed scientists in the U.S. are less likely to believe in God compared to the general population, and that also held true in France, India, Italy, Turkey and the U.K.

But in Taiwan and Hong Kong, scientists were more likely than the rest of the population to believe in God. Ecklund doesn't have an explanation for that yet and is still reviewing the data.

One benefit of the study would be counteracting the stereotype that there is an inherent conflict between science and religion, Ecklund said.

"They've often been pitted against one another, and scientists have been seen as the mouthpiece of this debate," Ecklund said. "So having better empirical data may help a religious public accept the ideas of scientists more than they do already."

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