Scientists and Belief

  • November 05, 2009

When President Barack Obama announced on July 8, 2009, that he would nominate renowned geneticist Francis Collins to be the new director of the National Institutes of Health, a number of scientists and pundits publicly questioned whether the nominee's devout religious faith should disqualify him from the position. In particular, some worried that an outspoken evangelical Christian who believes in miracles might not be the right person to fill what many consider to be the nation's most visible job in science. Collins was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Aug. 7, 2009, but the controversy over his nomination reflects a broader debate within the scientific community between those who believe religion and science each examine legitimate but different realms of knowledge and those who see science as the only true way of understanding the universe.

survey of scientists who are members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in May and June 2009, finds that members of this group are, on the whole, much less religious than the general public.1 Indeed, the survey shows that scientists are roughly half as likely as the general public to believe in God or a higher power. According to the poll, just over half of scientists (51%) believe in some form of deity or higher power; specifically, 33% of scientists say they believe in God, while 18% believe in a universal spirit or higher power. By contrast, 95% of Americans believe in some form of deity or higher power, according to a survey of the general public conducted by the Pew Research Center in July 2006. Specifically, more than eight-in-ten Americans (83%) say they believe in God and 12% believe in a universal spirit or higher power. Finally, the poll of scientists finds that four-in-ten scientists (41%) say they do not believe in God or a higher power, while the poll of the public finds that only 4% of Americans share this view.

Read the full report Scientists and Belief on the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life's Web site.