Does science cause people to disbelieve in God? A look at the research of Dr. Elaine Ecklund

Dr. Elaine Ecklund explains her research about scientists and their beliefs in this paper.


Scholars talk a great deal about research done in the 1960’s that revealed differences in religious beliefs among members of different disciplines (especially comparisons between natural and social scientists). My findings, however, do not reveal vast discrepancies in religious belief and practice among disciplines and fields. The true difference lies between academics in these scientific disciplines and members of the general public. With little doubt, scientists at major research universities are less religious—at least according to traditional forms of religion—than members of the general public.

During public lectures about the study, the question inevitably asked first is: Do the professors you studied believe in God? When asked their beliefs about God, nearly 34 percent of academic scientists answer “I do not believe in God” and about 30 percent answer “I do not know if there is a God and there is no way to find out,” the classic agnostic response. This means that over 60 percent of professors in these natural and social science disciplines describe themselves as either atheist or religiously agnostic. In comparison, among those in the general U.S. population, about 3 percent claim to be atheists and about 5 percent are religiously agnostic. When it comes to affiliation with particular religions, scientists are also vastly different from members of the broader society. About 52 percent of scientists see themselves as having no religious affiliation when compared to only 14 percent of the general population. Scientists who are not religious justify their inattention to religion through language that stresses the irrelevance of science to religion. Those not raised in religious homes, the case for the majority of scientists without religious affiliation, also emphasize their lack of experience with religion.

[…]What are we to make of this lack of traditional religion? Is knowledge of science somehow in conflict with being religious? Childhood religious background, not exposure to scientific education, seems to be the most powerful predictor of future irreligion. Those scientists raised in almost any faith tradition are more likely to currently be religious than those raised without any tradition. In addition, scientists who describe religion as important in their families as children are much more likely to practice faith currently. When compared to the general population, a larger proportion of scientists are raised in non-religious homes. When one considers that many more scientists come from non-religious homes or homes that were nominally religious, the distinctions between the general population and the scientific community make more sense. A large part of the difference between scientists and the general population may be due more to religious upbringing, rather than scientific training or university pressure to be irreligious, although these other possibilities should be further explored.

I heard about this research in the latest episode of the Reasonable Faith podcast. You can listen to it to hear Dr. Craig’s comments.

I think this research raises an important question that we need to ask scientists who don’t believe in God. That question is: “which particular pieces of scientific evidence led you to doubt God’s existence?” And then we should have done our scientific homework about the Big Bang, the fine-tuning, the origin of life, the Cambrian explosion, the habitability arguments from astrobiology, and so on, to be able to make a positive case for God’s existence from science. Christians ought to be more excited about science, because we have nothing to fear – and everything to gain – from knowing a lot more about science than we know now.

You can see Ecklund’s book about her research here on the Oxford University Press web site. You can also buy the book here from

UPDATE: Commenter Eugene has found a related lecture from Cambridge University featuring Dr. Ecklund.

10 thoughts on “Does science cause people to disbelieve in God? A look at the research of Dr. Elaine Ecklund”

  1. When I was busy obtaining multiple degrees in mathematics and engineering, I had no intellectual desire whatsoever to consider God as part of the equation. I wanted the high ground for myself (see? I have all these letters behind my name!) – I wanted to be the most high, my own ‘god.’ It was not a matter of intellect but of will. Interestingly, it was an Old Testament author who convinced me that (good) science and the Bible are in no way incompatible, ultimately leading me to conclude that the Christian God is authentic and is the One True God. Prior to that, the same intellect was there, but the will was lacking. I wasn’t actually as open-minded as I thought, except when it came to “anything goes” from a morality standpoint.

    Since the apologetic approach worked for me, ultimately, I think that the question you pose, Wintery, may be a most effective one, for those who are truly open-minded to the possible existence of God. The scientist is just as good as anyone else in investigating the validity of the Bible – provided he is intellectually honest, which I was not.


  2. Some scientists, being predominately left-brained people, do not like to believe in something that they can not prove. Pretty logical from that standpoint.


    1. The trouble is that all the scientific evidence is for theism:

      – Big Bang
      – fine-tuning
      – origin of life information
      – sudden origin of body plans in fossil record
      – galactic habitability
      – stellar habitability
      – planetary habitability

      There is no scientific evidence for atheism, and that’s why people like Dawkins and Wolpert will tell you that they converted to atheism in their teens. They did it for autonomy. They could not and did not let evidence enter into their decision making, because they did not know about those arguments – science had not yet revealed them to a wide audience.


    2. Of course the same scientists are happy to believe in the reality of the external world, or the belief that their memories were not just implanted in their brains five minutes ago. Some things are found are foundational and don’t require evidence to be believed.


  3. As a scientist in the ivory tower myself, I would say that there is more a lack of interest and discussion than anything else. The day-to-day operations of the academe—committees, grants, papers, experiments, teaching, presentations—make the topic of God a non-issue.

    Until God is resolved and solved, I think scientists in general shy away from It. Further still, God is unapproachable by experiment, leaving scientists like a ship outta water. And no scientist wants that.

    Just my perspective.


    1. Yes, I went through grad school in engineering and people seemed to be busy, that’s all. No time to investigate these things because they were always reading research on other things.


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