Is atheism bad for science?

By Ken Perrott 21/03/2011 15

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?


15 Responses to “Is atheism bad for science?”

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

    What’s the problem? Do we have a confidence complex?

  • After reading Carl Sagan’s ‘The Demon Haunted World’ it’s hard to believe that the approach back then was doing any good. If you read the responses he was receiving from students on science education in the U.S. (or lack thereof), it was a colossal failure.

    I actually think the “New Atheists” speak to the younger generation better than the guys I grew up with like Bill Nye. They may have a blunt approach or in hindsight have been too harsh but it’s a gateway into the world of science. It’s not like the “New Atheists” don’t do what all the science popularizes of the past have done. It’s just a different approach and I think a new approach was needed considering I didn’t see any significant progress with the old one.

    If the old accommodation approach was working, it definitely didn’t show. Just look at the number of non-religious people back in Sagan’s day and now look at the number. It’s continuing to grow so what are people complaining about? More people are becoming non-religious as well as gaining an understanding of important scientific concepts.

  • Just look at me if you doubt science’s ascendancy. In 1970 I was a Druidic warlock and today I’m an atheist with a particle accelerator in my backyard.

  • I think the argument that Atheist turn people away from science has yet to be backed by convincing evidence. However, the very presence of sci-blogs and incidences such as the “Ken Ring” saga and climate arguments etc demonstrate that significant portions of the population are not trusting of science (let alone scientists). I’m interested what may have contributed to that in New Zealand in recent times. One idea worth exploring is that relativism has undermined the search for truth in science. I’d postulate that relativism is more likely amongst atheists and agnostics than amongst those that hold to an absolutist religious position.

  • Kiwisiki, I think there is inevitable fact that scientific thinking does not come naturally. It’s counter intuitive. In contrast superstition and religious thinking and behavior (but not formal religion) does come naturally. It’s basically intuitive.

    So scientific thinking does require relatively developed societies and education. Even so only a small part of the population will regularly think scientifically. Even these will also fall prey to more intuitive thinking. After all quite a few scientists are superstitious and/or religious.

    So it doesn’t surprise me one bit that there is still a lot of anti-science attitudes out there. I guess our species will have this situation for a very long time.

    On the other hand even this people who don’t think scientifically are not immune to evidence. They can see the reality of the positive role and influence of science. The fact that it works. They can appreciate their own personal benefit. So I think respect for science is far more widespread than scientific thinking itself.

    But this is not to ignore factors which work to undermine that respect even in our modern society. Certain religious trends obviously. The fossil fuel industry.

    And quite apart from religion I think there are ideological trends interested in promoting superstition and questioning science. This is encouraged by a psychology of anti-intellectualism, post-modernism and also blatant economic or mercenary interests.

    The phenomenon of Ken Ring and his support is very similar to what I encountered in the agricultural
    Industry. It’s amazing how the profit motive gets in the way of reasoned thought and evidence – especially for the small business persons involved with alternative fertilisers and medicine. And weather.

  • I am confused as to the point of the question. You might as well ask,”is being rational bad for science?”

    The belief in a mythology has little to do with the enterprise of science. Science is indifferent to the supposition one way or the other and is available to evidence. It does not assume the conclusion without reason to do so and, as the reason is anathema to the embrace a religious perspective, such mythology is irrelevant. What is relevant, is the perception of science as antagonistic to matters of faith and spiritual experience; a perception which has been developed and exploited by politicians for their own self advancement. The 1982 down-turn in the prestige of scientists displayed in the graph correlates to the election of Reagan on an anti-intellectual and religious fundamentalist platform. Scientists, when they were seen as a political advantage in the struggle with communism, were held in high esteem. But, when there is no political necessity to accommodate the scientific perspective, it becomes problematic for politicians who want to orchestrate the peoples understanding of reality to make them more compliant and manageable. Religion has an established history of being of service to political authority, while science has proven stubbornly democratic in its assumption that truth was available to anyone willing to empirically examine the nature of a problem. So the problem does not lie with science and its belief or unbelief in some random deity, but rather with the politicians who would encourage simple emotionalism and zealotry over rational deliberation. The success of this political strategy is evident in the question presented as the title to this article. They have succeeded in placing science in a position of being self critical, insecure and potentially self censoring.

  • Hi Ken

    I think you can go a step further than Even so only a small part of the population will regularly think scientifically [rationally ?]. Very few scientists think rationally when they are outside their laboratories – some examples – why buy books when we have a public library? Why buy a flash new car with racing stripes when a small plain Jap import will do and cost us much less ?- why buy a car at all? Why take your cat to the vet when you can pick up a replacement for much less than the vet fees – why have a pet? How can religious scientists possibly believe what they do? (Note that I’m not saying that ALL of these things are bad – simply that these decisions reflect some degree of irrationality).

    As Steven Pinker (I think, in the Blank Slate) pointed out, part of the problem is that we tend to think of our brains as something producing unified thought. In fact the brain is involved in balancing many compteting perspectives, especially in areas where there are overlaps between complex moral and ethical iisues, gaining social status, sex and competition for mates….etc. The brain is compartmentalised according to value systems that helped us quickly make important life-threatening decisions when we were on the savanah. We can argue whether religious thought was of benefit on the savanah, but there seems little doubt that religion in a modern society is a handicap.

    We are inherently irrational, and its takes a great deal of discipline and training to think otherwise, even its only in our labs. Unfortunately we are no longer on the savanah, and we must all learn to think rationally and adjust our value systems if we are to cope in the modern situation. I’m tempted to get one of Peter Singer’s books but I fear I might never enjoy a rare steak ever again (doublethink again).

  • RodW, I sympathize with the problem you have with Singer’s books!

    Yes I agree with you overall. I think also that emotion is a natural and important part of decision making. I suspect this might remain so and we will never be a completely rational species.

    However evidence and reason can be promoted as important. And I think with this it’s possible to make collective decisions (where there are possibilities for emotions and biases to balance out) which are more objective

  • I fail to see how the results of the survey on occupational prestige (opinion of the average Joe on scientists in general) bears any relevance to the question you are asking in the title of your post. Religious beliefs, or lack of them, are irrelevant to science.

    As an agnostic researcher I find both vocal atheists and vocal happy clappy scientists mildly annoying. The first group feels the need to explain how people’s spiritual beliefs are irrational (which is pretty much a pointless exercise). The second group tries to explain why their spiritual beliefs have a rational basis (which is, again, pointless).

    As anecdotal evidence, I have met a few potential recruits for careers in science that consider Dawkins et al. off-putting and a bit of an asshole. I think that his position could be damaging to attract some intelligent people with religious beliefs to work in science, because by association we tend to look like intolerant assholes.

  • The question in the title must be related to the content of my post – otherwise you can distort it’s meaning.

    The conflict thesis advanced by some people is that the fact that many scientists are now open about their atheism and prepared to engage with religious critics has turned the US public off science. But the data just doesnt support that hypothesis. If anything it is more credibly suggesting that militant and strident Christians are turning the public off religion.

    Your anecdotal evidence may well be accurate for your example. Strange, though, I have known plenty of stupid, arrogant (including religious) scientists and it never turned me off science. That would have been a petty reaction.

    And we know that anecdotal evidence by itself is only useful for confirming prejudice – not for describing reality.

  • > But the data just doesnt support that hypothesis.

    Which data? You do not present any data directly answering your question.

    I have met arrogant scientists that did not turn me off from science but they did so from specific areas. If I have plenty of choice, and I did, why would I choose to deal with pricks? In your case those encounters didn’t put you off but someone said “we know that anecdotal evidence by itself is only useful for confirming prejudice”.

  • Luis – here’s the thing:

    My question: Have the openness of “atheist scientists” and the pronouncements of the “new atheists” turned the US public off science as Ecklund claims? Is this a threat to science and a possible cause of future defunding, as she claims?

    Possible data: Your anecdotal data” “I have met a few potential recruits for careers in science that consider Dawkins et al. off-putting and a bit of an asshole.”

    Other counter anecdotal data. The huge sales of books by “new atheists” Huge turnouts to meetings at book promotion tours and events like Lawrence Krauss’s Origins.

    These anecdotes can confirm prejudices but don’t answer the question about trends in the US public’s overall view of science.

    Objective evidence: The Harris poll data shows no decrease in the standing of the scientific profession in the eyes of the US public over the period (post 2001) suggested.

    I conclude from that there is no evidential support for Ecklund’s claim.

    However, another legitimate question might be “has the activity of religious terrorists in 2001 and the public pronouncements of creationists and other “militant” and “strident” religious people turned the US public off religion?

    I suggest that the Harris poll evidence does provide some support for that claim. A hypothesis worth testing? Or should sensible religious people just tell their “strident militant” people to STFU?

  • When fundamentalsits conflate two distinct realms of thought, methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism, they get into trouble. These domains can, in fact should, be viewed as separate……as ‘non-overlapping magisteria’. There’s nothing whatsoever intrinsic to evolutionary theory that banishes God in matters of ‘first cause’. In fact, it’s obvious to me now that the human apprehension of Faith itself is constantly evolving which is what all theses contemporary fundamentalist culture wars are resisting. Look to the millennial history of religion and how it has morphed… for the better, for the truer. Undoubtedly, science makes it tougher for some Christians to justify the Genesis story as real history, inevitably forcing them to adapt or perish.
    Furthermore, I suspect today’s latest uprising of the ‘faithful’ is a last gasp effort. In some ways, it is democracy itself that sustains its continuation through elected ‘representatives’ that wrongfully co-sign their views and petitions in Congress and the Courts.
    However, the accelerating pace of new science is literally an avalanche of irrefutable insights, experienced by some as a de facto ultimatum. It isn’t openly declared by advocates of science but it’s surely felt as such by non-science people. This is why ‘creationists’ speak as though they’re being assaulted unjustly by it.

  • “As anecdotal evidence, I have met a few potential recruits for careers in science that consider Dawkins et al. off-putting and a bit of an asshole. I think that his position could be damaging to attract some intelligent people with religious beliefs to work in science, because by association we tend to look like intolerant assholes.”

    Perhaps I think differently from these “potential recruits” but my choice of career was based on what I found enjoyable and intellectually challenging. It’s not like any one person dominates any of the scientific fields, and if a certain field had a few obnoxious people in it, then that is an opportunity to stand out in that field as someone a bit “nicer”.

  • Dawkins was Oxford’s Professor for Public Understanding of Science (1997-2008), an odd choice if you think him officious and unpleasant. I can understand that but I’ve found him to be a thought, straight-shooting and brilliant thinker with a tough job on the frontlines of public controversy. He impresses me as a caring, empathetic scholar devoted to teaching. But I suspect what is perceived as arrogance sometimes is just a mixture of Prof. Dawkins’ legendary assertive atheism (probably a fault which he acknowledges btw) along with his impatience with common, garden variety stupidity— especially the stubborn kind.
    I watched him take Pastor Ted Haggard apart (before that pastor’s scandalous confessions of impropriety) and Haggard, normally an even tempered fellow, became exasperated with Dawkins, threatening to confiscate his video equioment (illegal) and call the Colorado Springs Police (useless). Haggard chased him to his van….the pastor was so discombobulated. He actually was trying to ‘convert’ Dawkins to Christianity, not aware initially of who he was in the “Who’s Who” of infidels.LMAO. Poor Richard. Give him a break.

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