Can a religious person be a good scientist?

Source: Pew

In the culture of science you occasionally run into the sort of person who believes as an apodictic fact that if one is religious one can not by their fact of belief be a good scientist. You encounter this sort of person at all levels of science, and they exhibit a range of variation in terms of the volume of their belief about beliefs of others. I don’t want to exaggerate how much it permeates the culture of science, or at least what I know of it. But, it is a tacit and real thread that runs through the world-views of some individuals. It’s a definite cultural subtext, and one which I don’t encounter often because I’m a rather vanilla atheist. A friend who is now a tenure track faculty in evolutionary biology who happens to be a Christian once told me that his religion came up nearly every day during graduate school! (some of it was hostile, but mostly it was curiosity and incomprehension)

This is on my mind because a very prominent person on genomics Twitter stated yesterday that Francis Collins by the very fact of his evangelical Christianity should not hold the scientific position of authority that he holds (the individual in question was wondering if they could sign a petition to remove him!). The logic was very straightforward: science by its nature conflicts with religion, and those who engage in the sort of cognitive processes which result in religion will be suboptimal in terms of scientific reasoning. As I indicated above the people who promote this viewpoint treat it as a deterministic scientific law. And, importantly there is little reference to cognitive science or survey data to support their propositions. Ten seconds on Google will yield the figure you see above. A substantial proportion of American scientists aver a religious affiliation.

Programming_Perl_4th_Ed_coverMind you, there are patterns. The data when examined in a more granular fashion suggests that academic scientists are more secular than those in industry, as are the more eminent ones. But it doesn’t take much time to think of great scientists who avowed some sort of religious affiliation. In evolutionary biology R. A. Fisher and Theodosius Dobzhansky affiliated as Christians. The mid-20th century evolutionary biologist David Lack was an Anglican convert. In Reconciling Science and Religion the historian of science Peter J. Bowler outlines a movement in early 20th century Britain to accommodate and assimilate the findings of evolutionary biology to that of mainstream Christianity, so it is entirely unsurprising that Anglicans such as Fisher and Lack were active researchers within evolutionary science.

Outside of evolutionary biology there are two examples which stand out in my mind. Larry Wall, the originator of the Perl language which has had a long history in bioinformatics is an evangelical Protestant Christian. And Donald Knuth, the author of the magisterial series The Art of Computer Programming is a Lutheran.

51-C0feX3uL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_My point in reviewing this data, which should be widely known, is to bring some empiricism to this discussion. What do the data say? Not one’s prejudices and intuitions. One response on Twitter was that empiricism precludes faith. That’s the theory about empiricism. The reality is that there are many great empirical scientists who have a religious faith. Any scientist worth their salt who wishes to air hypotheses about the incompatibility of religion and science on an individual level needs to engage with these facts.

To be fair, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there’s a correlation in the aggregate between secularism and science. But this issue is complex, emerging at the intersection of cognitive science, sociology, and history. These subtleties can’t be waved away airily with a reference to facts that everyone knows which happens to reflect one’s own personal prejudices. That reminds me of things besides science.

Finally, this truth that in the aggregate scientists are a diverse lot even if there tends to be particular patterns of social concentration is a general one. E.g., most scientists are more liberal than not. But a substantial minority are not, with a fraction of those being rather closeted about this. The average scientist, in particular in the academy, is a secular liberal. But the minority are not trivial. We’re in your lab meetings, at your conferences, collecting data for you, and on your committees, reviewing your grant applications.* Because of the nature of the academy outside of religious colleges there is often silence from this minority lest they be pigeon-holed as out of step with the social culture of science. That’s human nature. And scientists can’t escape that, whether they are in the majority, or the minority. For all the talk of logic and empiricism, scientists are all too human in their basic wiring.

* Much of what I say applies to natural science. From the survey data in the academy non-liberals-to-Leftists are almost entirely absent in sociology and a lesser extent in areas of psychology.

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