15 Comments

Since publication of books like Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in the mid 2000′s some reviewers and commentators have argued that the “new atheists” and  vocal “atheist scientists” are “bad for science.” That they are turning people, especially students, away from science. Even that a hostile public will endanger future funding science funding.

Some of these naysayers have an obvious motive. The militant religionists who just wish the people like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers would STFU.  Their concept of a pluralist society does not extend to allowing a public voice to people who disagree with god beliefs. They are “offended” by such voices.

But there have also been the non-religious who disagree with what is being said. Or, agree but don’t think the way it is said is polite or quiet enough. Possibly these people are more honest in their concern that scientists who are up-front about their atheism could be endangering public acceptance of science and its future funding. I don’t think that is a principled position -  surely in a democratic society atheists have as much freedom to being “vocal” as believers have. But should they be concerned about public opinion?

Another myth

I suggested in my last post, Myths within a myth, that perhaps this impression of public attitudes is mistaken. Perhaps it is just another myth. Well, I have been continuing to check out data indicating public attitudes towards scientists. The US Science and Engineering Indicators: 2010 has some relevant data taken from Harris Polls (Harris Interactive 2008b). These have asked questions about public attitude to professions in the USA. The relevant question was: “tell me if you feel it is an occupation of:

  • very great prestige,
  • considerable prestige,
  • some prestige, or
  • hardly any prestige at all?”

The data in the figure below show responses of ’very great prestige.’ As the complaint about “atheist scientists” and “new atheists” causing a decline in support for science have come from religiously motivated people I thought I would also include the data for religious professions.

%age of US public considering professions of "very great prestige."

It seem to me that since the 70′s, attitudes to scientists has been fairly constant in the range 50 – 60%, with a mean of 55%, of the US public considering the science profession has “very great prestige.”

Contrast this with the public’s opinion of the religious professions. The mean numbers supporting “very great prestige” have been about 40% – with a minimum of 32% in 2004.

Now, I wouldn’t make too much of these sort of statistics. But they certainly don’t support the thesis that “atheist scientists” or “new atheists” are responsible for turning the US public off science. Remember – the “new atheist” phenomena that theological commenters complain about started in the early to mid 2000s. Books like “The God Delusion” and the new willingness of scientists to be open about their atheism, especially after September 2001, do not seem to have led to the feared loss in  prestige for the profession among the US public.

“New Christians” too strident?

Maybe the “new atheists,” “atheist scientists” and their books have turned the public off the religious professions? Or more likely, the decline in the mid 2000′s could have resulted from the attack on the US by religious terrorists in September 2001.

But what about the religious attacks on evolutionary science and promotion of creationism and “intelligent design” alternatives? Perhaps publicity around the Dover trial and the legislation being promoted by creationists in various State legislatures have influenced public opinion. Even the proliferation of books attacking “new atheism” – after all there have been many more of these than “new atheist’ books themselves.

Perhaps these religious militants should be told by their more liberal brethren to STFU. Perhaps the more thoughtful believers in our society should turn their attention and concern away from “atheist scientists” and “new atheists.” Maybe they should be warning their own militants to stop being so “strident” and militant”. That their brash behaviour is endangering the public’s acceptance of religion in our societies. Maybe even threatening future funding for religion.

Just imagine of the public got so pissed off they agreed to do away with the privileged position religions have with tax exemption?