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Contrary to Popular Belief, Many Scientists Are Religious

The first worldwide study of science and religion finds that science and atheism don't necessarily go hand in hand.

| 3 min read

The first worldwide study of science and religion finds that science and atheism don't necessarily go hand in hand.

Can science and religion co-exist? Or is every scientist automatically atheist? In the first study of its kind, researchers at Rice University conducted a worldwide survey of how scientists view religion, drawing an intriguing conclusion about the complex interplay between the two seemingly conflicting subjects.

"No one today can deny that there is a popular 'warfare' framing between science and religion," Elaine Howard Ecklund, lead researcher and founding director of Rice University's Religion and Public Life Program, said in a press release. "This is a war of words fueled by scientists, religious people and those in between."

The study analyzed information from nearly 9,500 respondents in eight regions around the world: France, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Taiwan, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The researchers traveled to each region to conduct in-depth interviews with over 600 scientists, and all of this data comprised the largest worldwide survey and interview study ever conducted on the topic of scientists and their religious beliefs.

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Many assume that all scientists reject religion, but the study shows that this is simply not the case. While the researchers did find scientists to be generally less religious than a given general population, there were some exceptions. For instance, 39 percent of scientists in Hong Kong identify as religious compared to 20 percent of Hong Kong’s general population. Interestingly, the majority of Taiwanese scientists self-identity as religious — 54 percent of scientists report religious beliefs in comparison to 44 percent of Taiwan’s general population.

"More than half of scientists in India, Italy, Taiwan and Turkey self-identify as religious," Ecklund said. Even in some of the most secular countries around the world, like the UK and the US, Ecklund reveals that only a minority of scientists believe that there’s a stark conflict between science and religion. In the UK, only 32 percent of scientists characterized science versus faith as a conflict, and in the US, the number was just 29 percent.

So how exactly can a scientist also be religious? There were a number of interesting ways in which the scientists explained their religious beliefs during interviews.

Numerous scientists expressed that religion provides a “check” in ethically gray areas, according to the press release. "(Religion provides a) check on those occasions where you might be tempted to shortcut because you want to get something published and you think, 'Oh, that experiment wasn't really good enough, but if I portray it in this way, that will do,'" explained a biology professor from the UK.

Other scientists view religion as a cultural experience, and feel as though it’s something to be a part of in that respect. "I have no problem going to church services because quite often, again that's a cultural thing," said a physics reader in the UK who had a daughter in a church choir. "It's like looking at another part of your culture, but I have no faith religiously. It doesn't worry me that religion is still out there."

Intriguingly, another scientist reported a belief in “multiple atheisms” — some atheisms which include religious traditions.

Lastly, many scientists mentioned they would express tolerance toward the religious beliefs of other students or colleagues even if they didn’t identify religiously themselves. "Religious issues (are) quite common here because everyone talks about which temple they go to, which church they go to. So it's not really an issue we hide; we just talk about it. Because, in Taiwan, we have people [of] different religions," said a Taiwanese professor of biology.

Basically, the divide between science and religion doesn’t have to be as impenetrable as it’s commonly perceived to be. Not only do scientists have many ways of viewing religion or self-identifying as religious, but they can also be generally accepting of religion in a cultural context and as a personal choice.

"Science is a global endeavor," Ecklund said. "And as long as science is global, then we need to recognize that the borders between science and religion are more permeable than most people think.”

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