Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Exploring the negative correlation between science and religion

Interesting dialogue continues with Nobel Laureate about the supposed incompatibility of science and religion.  He cites Laureate colleagues hostile to religion, low levels of religious belief amongst top scientists, and positive reactions of young scientists "liberated from superstition." 

The following facts seem indisputable:
  • Currently the great majority of top scientists do not believe in "a personal God"
  • Some top scientists (eg even amongst Nobel Laureates Hewish, Phillips and I think Martin Evans) do. And many of the all time greats (eg Newton, Faraday, Maxwell) certainly did. Indeed from about 1500-1900 almost all the world's top scientists were Judaeo-Christian, at a time when only about 20% of the world's population was.
So clearly theism is at present currently negatively correlated with outstanding scientific achievement although not incompatible with it.  Why might this be? Some possible reasons spring to mind:
  1. Broadly speaking we can distinguish between left-brain and right-brain thinking, with left-brain thinking tending to view the world mechanistically and right-brain tending to view the world relationally. Western science has over the last 100yrs or so become very left-brain whereas religion is a very right-brain activity.
  2. If you believe that Science is The Most Important activity in the world you are much more likely to become a professional scientist.
  3. Worldly success tends to give people a feeling of self-sufficiency. If you are at (or near) the top of your profession, financially secure etc. you may be less likely to believe in, and practice, a religion which emphasises that we are all equal in the sight of God, and have a duty of service to each other. 

This is not, of course, to suggest that very smart people who are atheists are insincere: but to recognise that our beliefs and attitudes are shaped to a significant extent by the situations in which we find ourselves.  We are social animals, not isolated idealised individual minds: on that surely both atheists and theists can agree.

PS amusing thwack of Dawkins from Archbishop Cranmer.


andrew said...

Thats actually quite a weak arguement and would expect better from you. you cannot compare scientists from centuries ago to now, we know so much more and the environment is much more amenable to contarian thoughts than they were then and cannot know if they were left/right brained. Religion at least at the academic level has big problems when the likes of Hawkings profess there is no such thing as a god - in the end all you have is blind faith.

starcourse said...

Science cannot possibly either prove or disprove the existence of God. Hawking is a fine scientist with lots of interesting ideas (most of which are not yet confirmed by experiment) but his personal views on atheism are not a scientific finding but a statement of his "faith".

However just because science cannot prove something doesn't mean that it is blind faith. There are strong reasons for believing in God - not everyone accepts them but that doesn't mean they don't exist.

Crude said...

What about cultural reasons, even political reasons? Religion is often viewed as a 'conservative' activity, and (for whatever reason) there also is a reported political disparity with many scientists being liberal.

There's also a question of what sort of religion these scientists are exposed to. It's easier to have a negative view of religion if you think of 'religion' as 'Ted Haggard' or '(The popular but wrong view of) The Inquisition'. Just as it's easier to have a negative view of science if you think of 'science' as 'eugenics' or 'nuclear weapons'.

And with all this comes cultural and social pressures, obvious and not, that scientists themselves are not immune to. People seem to forget that it wasn't so long ago where an atheistic political ideology (Marxism) was not only prominent in the world, but certainly made inroads among academia. Effects from such things have a way of outlasting their movements.

andrew said...

I think that science ultimately reduces the space for faith as we understand more. I would accept that perhaps we will never reach a complete understanding of how this all happened and there is always a space for faith. I actually think that having faith would be a nice thing to have but I cant actually get there - I guess I'm just too left brained....

Crude said...

I think that science ultimately reduces the space for faith as we understand more.

The very fact that we understand, and can understand as much as we have, bolsters my faith in God. It adds credence to the idea that our world is rooted in a mind after all.

I actually think that having faith would be a nice thing to have but I cant actually get there - I guess I'm just too left brained....

Then may I suggest you start contemplating the universe and God. Not any particular religion, but those simple things.