Monday, June 15, 2015

Why Are So Many Scientists And Philosophers Atheists?

In the largest survey of philosophers ever done, it was revealed that 72.8% of philosophers are atheists and only 14.6% are theists. To me, the results of this survey never really felt surprising. I had known for quite a while that the vast majority of philosophers were atheists or leaned toward it. This survey just confirmed that suspicion.

As for scientists, a 2009 Pew survey showed that 41% of American scientists don't believe in god or a universal spirit, effectively making them atheists. And in the National Academy of Scientists, a survey showed that 93% are either atheists or agnostics. Contrast this to only 7.1% of the general American public identifying as atheist or agnostic according to the latest Pew survey.

So, one thing is for sure, scientists and philosophers are overwhelmingly more likely to be atheists. But why? Is it that people who enter these fields are already atheists, or is it that these fields expose people who are believers to new data and ways of thinking and they become atheists? I can't say for sure. Both are probably true to a degree. I know of at least one philosopher, Dan Finke (who blogs at Cammels with Hammers), who's told me that studying philosophy made him question his religious beliefs, which effectively made him an atheist.

From Pew's survey about scientists, one thing strikes me rather odd. When broken down by age, scientists who are between 18-34 are only 32% atheist, and those that are 65+ are 46% atheist. This means that as scientists get older, they're more likely to be atheists. This is the exact opposite of the surveys of belief among the general public, which show the younger generation is more likely than older generations to be atheist.

So, what gives? Why would the demographics of scientist on god be the exact opposite as the general public on age? Could it be that people go into the sciences as theists, and become atheists the longer they stay in the field, presumably because they're exposed to new data and ways of thinking that challenge their theistic beliefs? If that was the case it would make sense of the data. But I'm not sure. Being exposed to new data that challenges your religious views can definitely make you doubt them, and those doubts can lead to atheism, like a gateway drug.

This could be the case, but I'm only speculating here. It seems plausible to me that being in these academic fields can result in one being an atheist. But, there are theistic philosophers, albeit a small minority. So what explains them? Well, on the survey, the largest field of philosophy that has the most theists is—what else—the philosophy of religion, of which 72.3% are theists—the exact opposite of the overall survey. So are philosophers of religion going into the field as theists, or are they becoming theists by being exposed to new ways of thinking about religion and new data? I don't have any data showing the latter to be true, and it is suspected that many people who are already theists go into the philosophy of religion, like William Lane Craig, just as many people who are already Christian go into biblical studies.

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