Atheism Is a Distinct Minority Position Among Scientists

Authors: Benjamin SullivanJim McDermott

Copyright 2017, Certificate of Publication No. #OW120834

For those of us who have left organized religion, people like Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, and Sam Harris are more or less a rite of passage into the secular world. While their cynicism towards organized religion is undoubtedly useful to those looking for a way out, it's unfortunate that they have come to personify science to so many who have previously been unfamiliar with it. The expatriated theist is ushered into the temple of science with the idea that they've come to a place utterly sterilized of the unthinkable 'G' word. The impression is that each and every scientist goes about the day just aching to explode into an hour long rant on the idiocy and sheer evil of a belief in G-d. Contrary to this idea, actual data indicates that science is heavily populated with people who do believe in G-d. In fact, the vast majority of scientists are non-atheists.

The graph (below) was created with data obtained from a Pew Research study and represents one of the most authoritative and extensive studies of its kind to date. It clearly demonstrates that Atheists are a minority in the scientific community.

In the 2nd chart (below), also based upon data from the same Pew Research study, we clearly see that the range of theological and philosophical positions embraced by scientists includes a number of G-d affirming world-views, ranging from Judaism and Christianity to Deism and Agnosticism. A recent ARIS survey suggests there are over 38-million Deists in the US alone, comprising about 12% of the total population,1 so it's likely that many in the 'Other,' 'Nothing in Particular' as well as in the 'Agnostic,' categories in the Pew survey are in fact Deists. Despite evidence to the contrary, some atheists continue to advance the idea that science is a G-d free zone, and that any belief in G-d is counterproductive to science. That's not just untrue, it's radically and inconceivably wrong.

It's also worth noting, Pew Research additionally states that 8% of people in the United States who self-identify as Atheist 'believe in God or a universal spirit,' 2% of which also state that they are 'absolutely certain' that God exists.2

Now let's compare the Pew Research findings to a 1998 survey that was conducted by University of Georgia historian, Edward Larson and writer, Larry Witham on members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Their findings were subsequently published in the September 1st, 1999 issue of Scientific American with the title Scientists and Religion in America. This study and its methods are of particular interest because it is commonly cited as 'evidence' to promote the idea that while many mainstream scientists do not identify as atheists, prominent members of the scientific community overwhelmingly do identify themselves as such.

The results of this survey suggest that 72.2% of NAS members identified as atheist, 20.8% identified as agnostic, and a paltry 7% actually held strong beliefs regarding any sort of G-d at all. On the surface, these numbers seem to run in stark contrast to all other findings. However, when you take into account the method of inquiry, which possessed virtually no objective ability to make such a distinction, it's not hard to see how such high numbers were gathered. NAS members were asked to choose which one of the following three world-views best represented their own:

1. I believe in a God in intellectual and affective communication with humankind, i.e., a God to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer. By “answer” I mean more than the subjective, psychological effect of prayer.

2. I do not believe in a God as defined above.

3. I have no definite belief regarding this question.

Only the NAS members who chose the 1st option were categorized as having a belief in G-d. NAS members who chose the 2nd option were categorized as 'atheists,' and scientists who selected the 3rd option were categorized as 'agnostic.'3  In lieu of the study, NAS President Bruce Alberts appears to have found it necessary to lend clarity, stating publicly in 1998 'there are many outstanding members of this academy who are very religious people.'4 Nearly a decade later, the survey was made famous by Bill Maher in his 2008 film Religious. In this revival of the survey, 'agnostics' and 'atheists' are lumped together into a caption that reads '93% of scientists in the American National Academy of Sciences are atheist or agnostic.' If presented honestly and accurately, the information gathered from the survey looks like this:

The original intent of a number of surveys conducted by Larson and Witham, beginning in 1996, was to gauge the extent of 'religious' decline in the scientific community. To do this,  Larson and Witham reused a questionnaire that had been created by psychologist, James Leuba roughly 80 years prior. With this same goal in mind, Leuba had sent out the questionnaire to scientists in 1914 and then again in 1933. His hope was that comparing the initial responses to those captured nearly two decades later would demonstrate a decline in religiosity within science. Six decades after the 1933 survey, Larson and Witham also hoped to demonstrate the decline in religiosity in the exact same way. How this snowballed into the baseless claim that 93% of scientists at NAS are atheists, remains unknown.

Beyond hard data, let's engage in a utopian atheist thought experiment in which we removed the many non-atheist scientists dominating both its history and future, we'd find it necessary to delete quite a large fraction of quintessential figures.

Let's start by removing Sir Isaac Newton from the annals of history – eliminating the basis for modern science and mathematics as we know it. We also need to eliminate Anton van Leeuwenhoek, the father of microbiology, Michael Faraday, who established electromagnetism in physics, James Prescott Joule, who's work was integral to the first law of thermodynamics (conservation of energy), Gregor Mendel, hailed as the creator of the modern genetics, and Lord Kelvin, who devised the laws of thermodynamics. Now let's pretend that's not enough. We could remove Darwin's colleague, Alfred Russel Wallace, the man who independently conceived the theory of evolution through natural selection - he was quite a spiritually-attuned man. We must extract James Clerk Maxwell, who fathered electromagnetic theory. We can erase Nikola Tesla and relinquish our enjoyment of alternating current. We can then remove Max Planck who fathered quantum physics and who eagerly promoted Einstein's Theory of Relativity. While we're at it, we must remove Einstein, because he most certainly believed in a G-d. In fact he was so inspired by Spinoza that he wrote poetry in ode to him, he wrote papers on his sense of cosmic spirituality, shared his spiritual thoughts extensively in letters and interviews, referred to God as the 'superior mind,' and he clearly stated on multiple occasions that he was not an atheist. We can also remove most of the subsequent generation of quantum physicists including Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg, James Jeans, Arthur Eddington, and John Wheeler. We could go on, but I think we've already irreparably destroyed modern civilization as we know it.

If real, our imagined atheist utopia looks more like the Dark Ages than the civilization we know today. While it is certain that the dogmata of organized religion played a very real part in limiting science not so long ago,  it is equally certain that individuals with deep rooted beliefs in a reasonable G-d have and will continue to revolutionize it.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that many of the most prominent figureheads of Atheism, though they may even refer to themselves as such, aren't truly atheists at all. For example, both Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss have been open to entertaining Deistic ideas. In the following statement, Dr. Krauss clearly shows his agnosticism and openness:

I actually think deism, the possible existence of a divine intelligence is not implausible to postulate and I won't argue against it.

Similarly, Richard Dawkins has also entertained Deism as a potentially valid postulate:

You could possibly persuade me that there was some kind of creative force in the universe, that there was some kind of physical mathematical genius who created everything - the expanding universe, devised quantum theory, relativity, and all that - you could possibly persuade me of that.

So while Dawkins appears to be negative-agnostic in his world view, and Krauss might even be center-agnostic, to be clear, what many of these individuals are fighting against is the heart of fundamentalism in dogmatic-theism. It's the unobjective pseudoscience that wishes to creep into school textbooks and recreate science in its own image. It is the kind of 'scientist' who ignorantly sets fundamental beliefs as the 'objective' by which reality is measured and proclaims that the world is four thousand years old. It's a war waged for the freedom of reason, sanity, and human progress in the scientific arena. In this, I applaud their efforts as noble.

It's unfortunate that some of the people who make the choice to leave organized religion never undergo the sort of self analysis that would allow them to shed the fundamentalism, evangelism, and zealotry that personified them as dogmatic-theists. It seems that far too many simply leap from one radical form of fundamentalism to a reactionary and polarized form of another. While the interest in science is positive, these newly indoctrinated enthusiasts and their gross misinterpretation of this body of human knowledge is as much an injustice to science as it is a misrepresentation of it. These zealots have transformed an otherwise noble and open minded cause for human progress into a new mutant form of blind and unquestioning dogma in which professors and scholars have been elevated to the rank of high priests. Just as these people once evangelized their irrational religious beliefs, they now preach a salvation message of null hypothesis, truly believing that it will make the world better in some way, as though choosing to believe the Universe is an accident were a beacon of hope or null hypothesis was a messiah.

If history has taught us anything, it is that, regardless of what belief or disbelief a person subscribes to, humans are capable of atrocities when tides change and sociopaths climb their way to the head of leadership. Atheism did not save Russia under the secular society of Lenin or Stalin from unspeakable cruelty, nor did it save Mao's China. In cases of tyranny, it is the fundamentalist idealization of utopian concepts that often serve as a catalyst to the unthinkable. In Russia, it was the secular crusade against religion. In Germany, it was the religious and racial motivation to eradicate the Jewish people.

The absurdity of any world-view can only be as great as the degree of literalism which its adherents ascribe to it. We live in a universe that is not static, but dynamic. It is ever evolving and ever changing, just as we are changing from moment to moment and science itself is changing. Anyone who is able to consider ideas outside of their default approach to reality is objective. Anyone who has closed their eyes to the resplendence of the universe and fooled themselves into believing that the vast scope of reality is a trivial book that has been closed and understood, has thrown away the key to all knowledge.

Science is not a religion - it is the inquiry of the human mind into the mechanisms by which our universe operates. It should be seen as the compass that guides technology and understanding of the physical world. If anyone wishes to make it more than that, they must approach reality with honesty. They must recognize their own limitations and be humbled by the vast scope of information that we as simple human primates have yet to grasp and knowledge that we have yet to gain.  They must uphold human qualities such as love, kindness, compassion, and mercy as transcendent, equally valid, and useful in their own right.  Such transcendent qualities cannot be fit into the tiny mechanistic box and reductionist view that science currently offers us. As Einstein once said:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed. This insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms— this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.5


  1. American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS 2008), Trinity College, Hartford Connecticut
  2. Pew Research, '10 Facts About Atheists,' June 1st, 2016
  3. 'Do Scientists Really Reject God?' Eugenie C Scott Executive Director of the NCSE, Published in Volume 18, Issue 2, 1997, March–April, Pages: 24–25
  4. Believing Scientists in America: Polling from Leuba to Larson to Pew by Nancy Frankenberry and Martin Marty, Chicago University
  5. Albert Einstein, 'Mein Weltbild' (Living Philosophies), Simon and Schuster, 1931. As quoted in Introduction to Philosophy (1935) by George Thomas White Patrick and Frank Miller Chapman, p. 44