Why are so many scientists atheist?

Is there a bias to believe?

I recently heard about a study done by a researcher that was trying to show that men were smarter than women.  He basically collected the test scores from 100 random math classes and arranged them by percentage of questions answered correctly.  He eliminated most of the top test scores from women because after all, women don’t really like math, and those that scored highly on a math test were obvious anomalies that should be excluded from the study as outliers.  Anyway, after this correction, he found that those that scored in the top tier were predominantly men, so his conclusion was that, indeed, men were smarter than women.

Okay, so obviously, I completely made this story up, but I imagine that you were probably thinking… “What?  That study is completely biased! He shouldn’t get away with that!”  Luckily, no scientist would ever get away with this trick because true credible science is always performed by going to great lengths to eliminate bias.

A majority of scientists identify as atheist or agnostic, a much higher percentage than the general public, buy why do you suppose that is?  Is it because most scientists are bleak immoral heathens?  I believe this comes about because scientists are constantly trained to recognize and avoid confirmation bias, and unfortunately, most religions depend on this bias for full acceptance.

I recently attended a talk by Ian Hutchinson, a scientist at MIT of Christian faith that ended his talk by showing why Christianity was “true”.  Specifically, that the Bible was true and that it was the word of God.  When pressed about specific passages in the Bible about the world being created in 6 days, the creation of man (when we know that humans evolved by natural selection), the female coming from the Adam’s rib, etc, his response was essentially “well, we know that some parts of the Bible are written metaphorically and not meant to be taken as literal truth”.  This should strike you as vaguely familiar to the scenario I presented earlier.  If we’re being completely unbiased and seek to find whether the Bible is true, we cannot simply discount certain passages (or entire sections as most Christians tend to do with the Old Testament), simply because we don’t believe those parts were intended to be true.  Like the earlier scenario, no one should be allowed to get away with that kind of bias.

Truthfully, there is tremendous bias for people to believe in God.  Some find it devastating to deal with religious doubt because there is such enormous pressure to believe.  Pressure to be considered a “good” person, fear of the stigma of not believing, family pressure, community pressure, political pressure, peer pressure, employer pressure… the list goes on and on.  But sound, rational decisions are rarely made with such pressure biasing you to one conclusion.  And the pressure to believe isn’t coming simply from external forces.  Many say that they themselves want to believe in God, (this is no doubt a consequence of how they were raised, as few people want to believe in a different God than they were brought up to believe),  and though many people would feel that something is wrong with a statement as biased as “I just want to believe that men are smarter than women, so I will only accept claims that support that conclusion,” the same doesn’t seem to hold true for belief in God.

But it’s important to at least acknowledge that there is pressure and bias for you to believe in God or to be considered a member of the particular religion in which you were raised.  Scientists are trained to recognize instances of bias in order to avoid them in the future, and just recognizing it is a difficult step.  So, assuming you’re a Christian (after all, I am in the Bible belt!), being completely truthful to yourself: do you sincerely believe that the Bible is true and is the word of God?  Or is it that you want to believe in God and be considered a Christian?

PS. If you’re thinking, “of course religious claims are far-fetched and most people are heavily biased toward believing them, but if it makes people happy to believe it, what’s the harm?  Why would you want to rain on their parade?” then please check out my first post.

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13 thoughts on “Why are so many scientists atheist?

  1. Matthew says:

    Does this imply that a sound-thinking unbiased person of reason would only reach one conclusion? Would someone defending atheism fare much better?

    By saying that a Christian will only accept claims supporting their conclusion, you acknowledge that there may be claims supporting either a God or no-God conclusion. Therefore, any empirical thinker (given limited evidence, since we’re all guessing), might choose either side.

    What I’m always perplexed by is why it’s a competition for some people…

    • sarchila says:

      Using Christianity as an example, all I’m trying to get across is that, for those raised Christian, there is tremendous bias to believe that the Bible is true and the word of God due to familial and community pressure. But given that many Christians will openly admit that parts of the Bible aren’t meant to true, I believe that they continue telling themselves that they believe the Bible to be true and the word of God because of pressure/bias or simply because they WANT to believe it to be true.

      If I am taking your last comment correctly, it essentially sounds like another take on the whole “Who cares? Why rain on their parade?” argument. If so, please check out my first post (linked at the bottom) and let me know what you think…

  2. Brandon R says:

    As a Christian who experienced a confirmation of my faith at a scientific institution where atheism (or more commonly, agnosticism) was the norm, I can say that there are also contexts where people may be biased against faith due to external and internal pressures such as the ones you listed, in the exact opposite fashion. Probably a bigger reason that scientists tend to be agnostic is that science, like unbelief, is quite compatible with materialism and naturalism. After all, if all that exists is nature, the role of the scientist is more important, so it is likely that an atheist would pursue science.

    Although I agree with you that it is dishonest to throw out the parts of the Bible that don’t jive with your presuppositions, if you believe that a text was not written to be literal and you have evidence supporting that belief, it is reasonable to discount a literal interpretation if a better one is available. As an atheist, you insist on near-zero selectivity when it comes to religious claims, but how do you avoid bias in your approach to these types of situations?

    • sarchila says:

      I totally agree with your first paragraph that there may be bias to not believe in some cases, but I’m not saying the bias is wrong necessarily. The solution to overcome it is not to just rebel against it and do the exact opposite of what one is being pressured to believe. I’m simply advocating to take it into account and try to avoid it from influencing your conclusion either way.

      On your second point, I take it that you would consider yourself a moderate Christian that isn’t too fundamental about following Christian claims or dogma to a T?

      • Brandon R says:

        I am a conservative evangelical. I believe there are fundamental truths taught in the Bible that must be believed (i.e. dogma) and that the Bible is true in a normal sense. But my point is that even if one takes a selective approach to scriptures, that isn’t dishonest or biased if they invoke a principle that is not correlated to or justified by a conclusion. It would be analogous to the way a scientist deals with outliers.

      • sarchila says:

        Thanks Brandon for thinking about this and responding! My argument, and one that I would hope you sincerely consider, is that many Christians (including yourself) ARE in some ways justifying their decision to selectively pull from the Bible by a conclusion (that the Bible should be absolute truth and the word of God). Mostly, I would also argue that you have an inclination to be Christian because that is how you were raised. Your implication that parts of the Bible that aren’t meant to be taken literally (like a majority of the Old Testament, contradictory portions, particularly savage portions, those that seem to justify slavery, rape, etc) are outliers further proves my point. We’re back to my analogy at the beginning about the scientist trying to show that men are smarter than women by plucking out the data points that he doesn’t agree with and deeming them “outliers”. Outliers are large statistical improbabilities, and when they show up repeatedly or in such large quantity, they cease to be outliers.

        Bear in mind, I’m not stating that having bias is a horrible duplicitous thing, because as I mentioned in the post, people often engage in confirmation bias unknowingly, not out of malice. The important thing is to just recognize it and honestly accept that it does happen and that indeed you might have some deep-seated favoritism towards the Christian story. My argument here is that most scientists (including myself) work to recognize favoritism or bias toward one conclusion and actively engage to ignore its influence.

  3. Brandon R says:

    Just for clarification, I didn’t mean to imply that parts of the Bible aren’t meant to be taken literally, especially not according to the criteria you describe. Thank you for indulging my hypothetical.

  4. Dan Rosbach says:

    Why do you require scientific truth in a religious document? Science and religion are not opposites or enemies; they are entirely unrelated subjects. Science is man’s attempt to understand the physical world around him. The Bible, which is entirely a religious and historical document with no pretense to be science, is God’s vessel for communicating with man about things beyond the physical world around us.

    So what about when the topics overlap? The creation story is a good example. Let us consider two scenarios. First scenario: let’s assume the creation story in Genesis is 100% literally true. How would this story be described in the Bible? Exactly the way it is written now, of course. Second scenario: let’s assume the Earth (and rest of the universe) were created in the fashion our best current scientific theories can surmise, a big bang event that happened billions of years ago, lots of time between that and the formation of the Earth, etc. How would this story be described in the Bible? Using complex technical scientific jargon that wouldn’t be invented or understood for thousands of years? Of course not. The most logical answer (to me, at least) is that it would be described exactly the way it is written now.

    Would the second scenario make the creation story untrue? I think that will depend on what truth you are looking for. The creation story is in the Bible for people to understand the power and role of God as the Creator. For Believers, this is an eternal truth, one that cannot change with scientific advances, and a truth that the creation story has told perfectly to cultures with all levels of scientific understanding.

    I also need to push back on your idea of bias. The first four words of the Bible state: “In the beginning, God”. You have been given fair warning. If you want to read the Bible, do so with the understanding that this is God’s book that describes his interactions with his people. You can’t skip over the idea of an omnipotent God and take issue with specific parts; that is incredibly biased and self serving. If you write off the idea of there being a God, you write off the Bible as a whole, but do not deceive yourself that you have discovered a truth; you have merely chosen one position and Believers have chosen another.

    Finally, I want to say that I absolutely, 100% agree with you: religious beliefs should be questioned and tested. For myself and for many, blind faith is unsatisfying and not even a real option. I always appreciate good discussion and debate about my faith. However, I hope you are careful about what you look for in debate. It is vital to the idea of Christianity that it CANNOT be proven to be true. It will always come down to faith and choice. So explore and discuss, but be discerning and thoughtful in what you classify as “truth”.

    • sarchila says:

      Hey Dan!
      Why do I require scientific truth in a religious document? Because God is said to interact with the natural world in ways that we can test experimentally or verify scientifically.

      Even though you describe these subjects as “entirely unrelated”, you go on to describe an example of when they actually overlap: the story of the creation of the universe. There are many other examples: the creation of man, the creation of woman from the man’s rib, God interacting with human affairs such as football game outcomes or whether you win the lottery or get the job you want, etc. So, I hope you can acknowledge that even by your admission, these subjects are not entirely unrelated…

      Also, your explanation that, assuming the Big Bang occurred as the origin for the universe, it would be described in exactly the same manner as in the Bible is unsatisfying. The main point of this post was to point out that there exists a large and undeniable bias to believe in the Bible and in God based on one’s upbringing, and you’re displaying my point perfectly. You are starting with the notion that the Bible is true or at least should be, then when a fact arises that does not fit that notion, you are explaining away the fact and justifying how the Bible could still be true because God didn’t expect humans to ever understand the complex physics of a Big Bang story. You can see how this explanation would be deeply unsatisfying for a curious scientist’s mind…

      I’m afraid to say that I don’t really follow your point in the 4th paragraph. I take that you are saying that I am biased by concluding that the Bible is, in fact, not absolute truth because of the amount of claims within that have been shown to be false, but that is not the same as bias. Once again, bias is coming in with a pre-conceived notion and not accepting any other conclusion. I am definitely open to the idea of a loving God existing… it would be wonderful, I imagine! But the facts and scientific data just don’t lead me and many others to that conclusion. And most scientists know… you don’t argue with the data.

      Lastly, I am curious what you see as the difference between blind faith and the kind of faith you see as acceptable and satisfying. How are they different? How is blind faith unsatisfying and how does your faith contrast with that? Just some more questions I would like people to consider…

      • Dan Rosbach says:

        Thanks for the thoughtful reply. This is challenging medium for clearly and succinctly explaining ideas, so please bear with me and I will try to elaborate.

        First, I am curious where you got the notion that “God is said to interact with the natural world in ways that we can test experimentally or verify scientifically.” Who said that? And why could He not also interact with the natural world in ways we cannot verify scientifically?

        I seem to have done a poor job communicating my point with the creation story example. The point was simply this: the story in the Bible communicates a religious truth about God, not (necessarily) a scientific truth about the literal creation of the universe. Again, the Bible is not a scientific document; its purpose is not to educate us on natural phenomena. Consider the second scenario I laid out in my first post and the question of how would this type of creation would be described in the Bible. Please think about it and reply with what type of answer would be more satisfactory than the one I gave.

        My fourth paragraph was simply trying to convey the underlying assumption to the Bible: there is a living God. If you do not accept this assumption, then of course you will find issue with the rest of the book.

        The core issue seems to closer to what I mentioned in the last paragraph of my first post. You say “the facts and scientific data just don’t lead me and many others to that conclusion [that there exists a loving God]”, to which I would reply “Exactly. That’s the point.” There is no scientific way to prove any religious truth, ever. This is not bad news for Christians. It is the point. It is faith.

        Blind faith is believing because you are told something and not digging deeper. Blind faith is afraid of learning more because it does not know the “why” behind the “what”. My faith in Jesus is based on my experiences, my reasoning, and my personal body of evidence. I understand the “why” behind His actions. I can fully justify my faith in God. Ultimately, it is not a question of having or not having faith; faith occurs when there is a gap in evidence, and nobody has enough evidence to understand all things. The question is only where you choose to put your faith, and why.

      • sarchila says:

        You’re right, it’s hard to tackle all this stuff succinctly, but I’ll do my best as well.

        I posted several examples of God interacting with the natural world in my last post. He purportedly created the earth, man, woman from man’s rib, every living being on earth, and answers prayers by interceding with events in the natural world.

        As for how the Big Bang could have been described in the Bible to reach people with even basic levels of scientific understanding, here’s a start from the “simple english” wikipedia: http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Bang

        I understand your assumption that the story of creation was not meant to be taken as literal or scientific truth, but to rather represent that God is the creator. I also understand your point about the underlying assumption to the Bible, and your comment about lack of scientific evidence being “the point”. But I reiterate and at the risk of sounding repetitive: the point of my post is to highlight that for many Christians, there is a deep-seated bias or favoritism toward believing the Christian story regardless of fact or scientific evidence. This bias is understood, taken into account, and avoided or ignored by most credible reasoned scientists who choose only to look at natural phenomena and scientific facts. You say that’s “the point”. So we’re in agreement…. that was the point of my post, as well…

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