Scientists Keeping Faith in God

Scientists today appear just as inclined to believe in God as their colleagues were in 1916. The findings of a survey, conducted last year and published in today's issue of Nature, counter a prediction made 80 years ago that scientists' faith would wane with time.

In 1916, psychologist James Leuba queried 1000 randomly selected scientists, finding that 42% believed in God. Duplicating Leuba's methods as faithfully as possible, historian Edward Larson of the University of Georgia, Athens, found that 39% of 1000 respondents believe in God. The results appear to contradict Leuba's prediction that disbelief among scientists would increase as education spread. According to Larson, "Leuba misjudged either the human mind or the ability of science to satisfy all human needs."

While overall figures changed little, belief has shifted subtly within fields. In 1916, biologists were most likely to disbelieve or doubt God's existence (70%); today the disciplines with the most skeptics are physics and astronomy (78%). Larson speculates that physicists in the early 1900s may have been more inclined to believe in God because top experts in the field, including Lord Kelvin, Robert Millikan, and Sir Arthur Eddington, "publicly defended religious belief."

The surveys' results diverged in other ways, too. Scientists today appear far less likely to believe in human immortality, and they certainly desire it less: In 1916, 34% of respondents had an "intense" desire for immortality, versus just 10% today. As one respondent in the 1996 survey put it, "It is pointless to desire the ridiculous." Others would disagree. And of course, there are many shades of gray that survey questions can't capture. Expressing no desire for immortality, one 1996 respondent added, nonetheless, that "it would be nice."