Wednesday, November 27, 2002

Religion: The Scientists Send this entry to: Spurl Ma.gnolia Digg Newsvine Reddit

Time permitting, I'm starting a multi-part posting on religion. Religion is in my opinion the most important part of culture, and culture along with biology are the twin pillars that make us human [1]. As someone with an underdeveloped "God module" faith and ritual fascinate me as exotic expressions of humanity that I to some extent find alien. In recent years groups like The Templeton Foundation have probed the boundaries between faith and science, and provided fodder for popular articles written about the dawning of religiosity amongst the pagans (the scientists). I take objection (and have repeatedly in this blog) to this characterization as a sop to popular demand. Scientists are still respected by the general public, but the perception that they reject faith in God and are atheistic disturbs many. When Time magazine publishes articles about the natural dove-tailing of faith and reason, it assuages its readerships concerns about the relevance of their faith in light of scientific progress [2]. So it was a surprise to me when Larson & Witham did some research into the beliefs of scientists (those with Ph.D.s) and found that 40-45% were theists, this was claimed as proof that the technical priesthood were in line with the general American public! No one seemed to want to point out that 90-95% of Americans are theists, so though the number of theists among scientists had remained stable (they were comparing to Lueba's work in the early 20th century), it was still far less than the norm. Their follow-up work, which was not noted much by the mainstream press, found that their respondents who were members of the National Academy of Sciences (equivalent to Lueba's "eminent" scientists) had rates of theism on the order of 5-10%! In addition, belief in immortality and the like had dropped considerably, indicating that a strict materialist understanding of the universe had increased among those who set the terms of debate in the scientific world. What does this all mean? The decrease in secularism among NAS members could be interpreted as directly proportional to g, in other words, smarter people are less religious, and so that explains why NAS members were less religious that Ph.D.s in general. But as Arthur Jensen has noted, many great scientists are not set off by extremely high levels of g, but rather a high level of g combined with dedication, passion and other such intangibles. Jensen and others seem to be indicating that professional success often requires a minimum level of intelligence, but beyond that at minimum the correlation between performance on a standardized test and prominence in the field becomes rather lower. As an example Jensen notes that the famous Terman study of high IQ children (140+) excluded two boys who were a few points below the threshold. These two went on to win Nobel Prizes in scientific fields, while none of the 140+ IQ boys did. Jensen asserts that for instance though an IQ of 140 is probably a minimum to succeed as a professional mathematician (the profession where g is most relevant), there is less information and certainty on what benefits an IQ of 180 has vs. one of 160. I am basically saying that though NAS scientists are probably smarter than the typical Ph.D., they are not that much smarter as to explain such a large sociological difference in religiosity if intelligence was the only causal variable. The fact that mathematicians have the highest rates of theism in both groups indicates that there is more to this than intelligence, as they are probably likely to score higher on an IQ test than an equally eminent group of biologists. In fact, I believe the 1996 study of Ph.D.'s in general indicated that some "soft" disciplines such as psychology had higher rates of secularism than "hard" ones such as chemistry [3]. Obviously other factors are at play. How to explain the discrepancy between NAS and non-NAS scientists than? There are many points that can be brought up. One idea that Larson and Witham bring up is that the NAS scientists are self-selected, and so non-religious scientists favor their own (this sort of politics supposedly played into Carl Sagan's exclusion from that organization, as his foray into popularization vulgarized his reputation). The culture of science itself can be inimical to religious faith, and so bright young religious scientists leave the profession and join a career where their ideals are more accepted and the remuneration is greater. In addition, it may be that religiosity tends to indicate a more "normal" psychological profile, and a more balanced life. With church, family and social obligations in the way, it maybe that religious scientists are less likely to remain in the lab or office and make the next break-through. Jensen's comment on passion and dedication is also important to consider, because someone who believes that they are already saved by the grace of God and await an afterlife might be less likely to feel that their scientific quest has as much transcendent value-they might derive meaning from their life in more diversified and conventional ways. Also, it is interesting that mathematicians are the most religious of scientists both times. Unlike other scientists, mathematicians deal with absolute truths, a world of ideals and ideas. Physical and life scientists can always be second guessed, and even the most elegant of physical theories can be vetoed by nature. The natural scientist does not truly view the mind of god, for their world is messy and chaotic. As Steve Sailer notes in his article Darwin's Enemies on the Right:
Anti-religiousness is the appropriate professional prejudice of scientists. The "Far Side" cartoon summed it up. A lab-coated researcher is filling the left and right sides of a black board with equations, but the only thing connecting the two clouds of symbols are the words, "A miracle happens here." Another scientist suggests, "Maybe you could give us a little more detail on that middle section." Relying on miracles in science is like relying on the lottery in retirement planning.
Unlike other scientists in mathematics a belief that the mind of god lurks beneath the surface of every proof or theorem is not a professional liability. Also, we must note that as many theists have reminded those of us on the less religious side of things, many great scientists of the past were religious. In fact, most of them were. Isaac Newton spent a large portion of his career on disputations and inquiries of faith and the supernatural for instance. But what many forget is that Newton was a theological Unitarian who spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about the pagan corruption of Christian theology that occurred in the 3rd and 4th centuries (his opinion, not mine). Though Galileo remained a believer, he was a dissenter from the orthodoxies of his church when they came up against his scientific instincts. Darwin, though an unbeliever at life's end, began life as the peculiar orthodox Christian in a family of free-thinkers and dissenters. Some of the early Arab scientists (I use the term loosely as they were more often engaged in quasi-medicine and alchemy) began to veer into Hellenic deism. Though Einstein believed in "God," many forget he believed in the "God of Spinoza", often considered by many theists to be nothing less than warmed-over atheism. My point being that one thing constant about scientists, and great minds in general, is that they are more likely heterodox than not, though one can not guess the heterodoxy outside of the historical context. I wanted to start my series on religion discussing scientists because many of us who believe in genetic engineering and the promise of the post-human future do not think in great detail about the cultural implications on the individual level. What would changes in the germ-line imply for faith in the soul for instance? Many of us secularists might imagine that high intellectual ability will mean that religions will whither away, and the scientists with their low levels of belief serve as models. But I think close examination of the data and some analysis indicates that scientists might not be the best models, that their atheism is the product of a complex interplay of variables, and not just the result of their super-human levels of intellect (cough, cough). [1] Proof? Aside from language differences (nationality) religious differences have been among the greatest causes of conflict in human history. Also, you can add "Christian" as an adjective to anything, from music to body-building. [2] I don't mean that religious faith is contingent on its coherence with scientific progress, but most people would rather not have that intellectual dissonance, explaining the books that sell so well that show the Big Bang Theory to be a reflection of a less literal reading of the Genesis. [3] Larson and Witham volunteer this might be due to the need for chemists and physical scientists in general to have cut & dried answers and explanations, while social scientists are more at ease with uncertainty.

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