Are “agnostic” scientists really agnostic?

Sun Over Earth (NASA, International Space Station Science, 11/22/09)

The rising sun, seen from the International Space Station

Last week, I became engaged in a rather lengthy online conversation about the religious faith of university scientists. It was prompted by this GetReligion post about Francis Collins. In my comments, I cited Rice sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund’s recent book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, as well as her online article “Religion and Spirituality among University Scientists” (PDF). Ecklund’s research examines the religious beliefs and practices of university scientists, with some important findings – such as a much higher rate of religiosity than usually assumed.

Another commenter, though, noted a strange statistic: the number of scientists who consider themselves religious and/or spiritual actually outnumbers the number who say they believe in God. About half (48%) of scientists say they belong to a religious tradition, and 66% consider themselves to be a “spiritual person.” Yet more than half gave classic atheist or agnostic responses when asked whether God exists.

When asked their beliefs about God, nearly 34 percent of academic scientists answer “I do not believe in God” and about 30 percent answer “I do not know if there is a God and there is no way to find out,” the classic agnostic response. This means that over 60 percent of professors in these natural and social science disciplines describe themselves as either atheist or religiously agnostic. In comparison, among those in the general U.S. population, about 3 percent claim to be atheists and about 5 percent are religiously agnostic. (Ecklund, “Religion and Spirituality”)

What are we to make of this apparent contradiction? While I was jogging on Saturday, a thought occurred to me: What if this “agnostic” response is actually an expression of the scientists’ refined understanding of knowledge according to naturalism and the scientific method?

My reasoning is after the jump. 

Some of the scientists — maybe most or even all of them — might truly be agnostics. The survey statement, however, falls into a gao between the general public idea of knowing and the scientific idea of knowing. Let’s dissect the statement.

I do not know if there is a God… According to the scientific method, how do we come to know anything? It’s a process based on narrowly defined variables, observable evidence, experimental repetition, and testable hypotheses. Personal, subjective experiences must be discounted in favor of objective data, which is often difficult to obtain. Even relatively minor scientific discoveries often require years of experimentation, while some concepts may take several generations of scientists to refine and prove.

Further, knowledge is distinct from belief. So someone could be a believing, practicing Christian (or other religion) without knowing that God exists – at least, according to this narrow definition of knowledge.

…and there is no way to find out. How would one find out if God exists? Again, according to a naturalistic worldview based on the scientific method, It would depend on experimental data — or, at least, some sort of concrete, indisputable evidence that would be agreed upon by all observers. A naturalistic worldview which puts “science” in one realm and “religion” in another — “nonoverlapping magisteria,” in Stephen Jay Gould’s forumulation — would say that this kind of evidence would not merely be difficult, but actually impossible to obtain.

Thus, one could believe that God exists, hope that God exists, even live as if God exists (following Pascal’s Wager, perhaps), but still not know that God exists.

I haven’t read Ecklund’s book, so perhaps she goes into the data more deeply or addresses this question of how the survey was phrased. I wonder, though, how many of these “agnostic” scientists are actually practicing believers (of whatever religion) who cannot, according to their scientific understanding of knowledge, affirm these statement “I know God exists.” Some Christians have written of the danger of practical atheism – making formal statements of belief, but living as if God doesn’t exist or matter. Could some of these “agnostic” scientists be practical Christians?

What do you think? Am I on to something, or am I reading too much into this survey response? Does this concept of “agnostic believers” make sense in the unique world of university scientists?

N.B. I know that I’m not distinguishing between methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism, for which I beg forgiveness. I am not sure, though, how many people – even Christian believers – understand the distinction between the two.

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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One Comment

  • amywung@gmail.com'
    Amy commented on September 14, 2010 Reply

    Some of the scientist/engineer types that I’ve had the pleasure of working with would fall under your description of allowing for a great deal of necessary uncertainty when it comes to the existence of God. They acknowledge that making a statement that God definitely doesn’t exist is just as radical as making a statement that God definitely exists.

    Many of the scientist/engineer types though would call themselves “spiritual” though out of a respect for nature (on a “ooh pretty” level, as well as an appreciation for biology/physics/etc. level). Throw in some scatterings of humanism and Eastern philosophy, and I think that makes up the rest of the self-identifying “spiritual” science crowd.

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