Are scientists more or less religious than laymen?

There is a stark contrast between public discussions of the relations between science and religion in the West and in the Arab-Muslim world. In the West, a conflict narrative prevails: science is rational, open-minded, and progressive; religion is “magical thinking”, rigid and backward. In the Arab-Muslim culture, science is almost an integral part of religion, for it is supposed to lead to God or at least reaffirm the obvious existence and power of God. Scholars and highly educated people have always held complex and subtle views on religion, often holding beliefs that traditionally minded people regard as beyond the norms of religious dogmas.

This has also been true in the history of the Islamic civilisation, where several sophisticated thinkers, from Al Kindi to Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, were often accused of heresy for expounding ideas that they saw as religiously valid and in harmony with their advanced knowledge, but which others saw as representing unacceptable conceptions of existence and the divine. On the other hand, Muslims have often recalled that the Quran contains hundreds of verses encouraging people to seek knowledge and reflect on the variety and magnificence of God’s creation; indeed, knowledge raises people to higher levels of understanding (of one’s existence and of life and nature).

In the West, the European Enlightenment produced a general view that science and modernity are synonymous to secularism, if not atheism. Many western scientists and intellectuals today have made it their agenda not just to try to push religion out of the public space but to depict it as the biggest hindrance to human progress. They often point to the resistance of many religious people to modern scientific knowledge (Darwin’s evolution, in particular) or new vistas (stemcell research, genetic engineering, etc.).

Still one frequently encounters western scientists who are fervent believers (in one religion or another), who feel no conflict between their religious beliefs and their scientific mindsets. Likewise, one often meets devout Muslim scientists who oppose none of the established contemporary scientific knowledge. It is thus of high interest to everyone to know the extent to which science leads to less or more religiosity. However, it is very difficult to measure religious beliefs and scientists’ adherence to them. And to my knowledge, the correlation between religiosity and scientific attainment has never been studied in the Arab-Muslim world.

In the West, surveys of scientists’ religiosity have been conducted by several groups of researchers, going back to a landmark study in the US by Leuba in 1916. Surveys have recently been conducted in the US and in the UK among scientists of various levels, including members of the US National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the UK Royal Society.

US scientists have been found to be much less religious than the general population: where some 80 per cent of lay Americans are reported to believe in God or some higher power, but only 40 per cent of American scientists believe in God, 45 per cent do not, and 15 per cent are agnostics; in fact, among members of the high societies, 15 per cent or less believe in a personal God or a higher power. A notable exception is physicians: 3 out of 4 are reportedly believers.

Until now, however, we have only had surveys from the US and the UK. Those must then be interpreted with the western historical and social contexts in mind, i.e. with the afore-mentioned science-religion conflict narrative that has prevailed in the western discourse.

International study

But now, for the first time, a large-scale, international study is being conducted about the attitudes of scientists towards religion around the world. Professor Elaine Howard Ecklund of Rice University in the US, and her collaborators have launched a survey of 20,000 scientists in France, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Taiwan, Turkey, the UK and the US.

A few weeks ago I was invited to a seminar in London where results from the surveys in the UK and India were presented, after roughly 2,000 scientists were surveyed and some 100 were interviewed in depth in each country. Contrary to the UK, where non-belief is prevalent among both scientists and the general public (but more so among the scientists), only 11 per cent of Indian scientists said they do not believe in God or a higher power, compared to 2 per cent of the general public; only 19 per cent of Indian scientists never attend any religious services, etc. So while we eagerly await the results of the study from other countries, particularly Turkey, for at least one Muslim context, it is already clear that the attitudes of scientists towards religion vary highly from one social and cultural environment to another.

The studies also show that the conflict narrative between science and religion that the western popular culture has been deluged with is not dominant on the ground; indeed, only 38 per cent of UK scientists describe religion as being in conflict with science. In fact, many scientists openly hail the positive influence that religion often has on the practice of science, particularly in terms of ethics; few see religion as “interfering”. And indeed, there are several areas where the two can cooperate: environmental issues and the fight to eradicate poverty, to name just two.

But for such cooperation to take place, everyone must adopt an attitude of humility. As the Quran reminds us, “you have been given but little of knowledge…”.

By Nidhal Guessoum, published in Gulf News, November 3rd 2014.

Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah. You can follow him on Twitter at:

Image: Artist’s illustration of Ibn al-Haytham by Hanane Kaï