Religion among UK Biologists

Mandie LeScum,
© Mandie LeScum,

42% of biologists in the UK are female, with an average age of 37, and 47% are not from the UK. Not many labs keep a stock of funky pink lab coats, but the cartoon here is a reminder that the iconic picture of a Caucasian male (preferably with a mop of white fuzzy hair) is no longer representative of the average lab worker.

On the other hand, when sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund and her collaborators surveyed the population of British biologists, they found that gender, age, rank and institution seem to have no effect on whether a person is likely to feel a sense of religious belonging.* Some of the preliminary findings of this survey were presented at the Faraday Institute’s Uses and Abuses of Biology workshop in September, and it’s worth reading the full paper, co-authored with Christopher Scheilte.

Ecklund’s earlier study on religion among scientists in the US showed that there are a significant number of scientists who describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’ (see earlier blogs). In the UK this group does not seem to exist. Perhaps, suggested Ecklund, the Church of England is so widely accepted as a cultural institution that people do not feel the need to distance themselves from religion.**

I was sad to find, however, that fewer UK-based biologists  Continue reading

Transcendent Science

Image courtesy of

There is great beauty in science, whether in the experiments themselves, the data produced, or the presentation of that data. There is also great wonder, and that is what drives science forward. How does a seed grow into a plant? What is a star made of? Can we describe the movement of a cell using mathematical equations? At times wonder gives way to open-mouthed awe as we see something vast, incredibly complex or highly ordered.

Awe is enjoyed and cultivated by all scientists, despite their different personalities, and popular science writing is invariably full of awe and wonder – whatever the beliefs of the author. Continue reading

Awe in Science, Part 2

Window at St Crispin’s Church, Braunstone. © St Crispin’s

Awe is an important part of the experience of science – one could almost say it’s a universal. When a scientist feels awe it is usually in response to something complex, precise, ordered, powerful or beautiful. There is an element of unexpectedness and delight, maybe even respect, fear or reverence. Awe always involves the need for some sort of mental adjustment or accommodation: we need to make room in our internal map of the world for this new and amazing experience. The physicist Werner Heisenberg vividly described this process of taking on board a startling new concept when he wrote of his discovery of atomic energy levels:

In the first moment I was deeply frightened. I had the feeling that, through the surface of atomic phenomena, I was looking at a deeply lying bottom of remarkable internal beauty. I felt almost giddy at the thought that I had now to probe this wealth of mathematical structures that nature down there had spread before me. Continue reading

The Spirituality of Scientists

© Darek Krzeminski,

Last month I wrote about sociologist Elaine Ecklund’s survey of American scientist’s beliefs. One interesting result of this survey was that a large proportion of scientists considered themselves to be ‘spiritual’*.

Ecklund and her team predicted that elite scientists in the US would be largely irreligious, and that ‘they would eschew the fuzzier forms of religiously eclectic spirituality which have become common in the general population.’ What they found was quite the reverse: that many scientists (including 20% of atheists) considered themselves ‘religious’, and 70% considered themselves ‘spiritual’ in their beliefs, experiences and practices.

Many of the scientists surveyed saw their spirituality as a personal journey of discovery, a sort of ‘meaning-making without faith’ similar to science. There was a rejection of religion, which was seen as dogmatic, judgmental, controlling, involving believing things without evidence, and incompatible with science. Continue reading

The Beliefs of Scientists

© Joanie Cahill,

Last week sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund spoke at the Faraday Institute about her work on scientist’s beliefs.  Between 2005 and 2007 she and her team conducted nearly 1700 surveys and 275 in-depth interviews with senior scientists at 21 elite US universities. The goal was to get a more accurate and up to date picture of how scientists approach religion and spirituality. The statistics from Ecklund’s study are illuminating. When asked if science and faith were in conflict, fifteen percent of the scientists interviewed said no, seventy percent thought that sometimes they were and sometimes they weren’t, and only fifteen percent thought they were always in conflict. Ecklund has written a more detailed account of this part of the survey, discussing how scientists perceive where there might be boundaries between science and faith and whether they can be crossed. The seventy percent of scientists who recognised that science and faith need not be in conflict used three main strategies. The first was to redefine religion to include a broader notion of spirituality. Seventy percent of all scientists interviewed considered themselves spiritual. Many of these people saw spirituality as a source of insight and clarity in their scientific endeavours. (No doubt the seventy percent who don’t think conflict is inevitable and the seventy percent who value spirituality overlap somewhat.) The second common theme was the recognition of certain ‘boundary pioneers’ who are committed to both faith and science, and are confident in speaking about both at the same time. Francis Collins was mentioned most often as a prominent scientist and a Christian who has clearly integrated his science with his Christian faith in a satisfying way.

There are some people with very deep religious beliefs who simply don’t let those things conflict. One of the lovely examples that I heard about just recently is this guy, Francis Collins . . . He is the Director of the gene-mapping outfit at NIH, and he’s a very serious born-again Christian and obviously a firm believer . . . and obviously manages to live very well with that.

Culturally Jewish scientist, Ecklund et al, 2011

But by far the most common reaction among the seventy percent ‘partial complementarians’ was to encourage dialogue. They were aware that every year young people came into their classrooms bringing new ideas, and that to be good teachers they needed to encourage their students to think things through for themselves. For me this was the most interesting data from Ecklund’s study – that the majority of scientists in the US seem to be opening the door to discussions on science and faith in appropriate contexts.

One biologist, an atheist not part of any religious tradition, told us that she was “rather surprised at how many of our students are very religious. I am always just so surprised, and I’m the other way [not religious].” She also explained that she made a sincere effort to present science such that “religious students do not need to compromise their own selves.”

Ecklund et al, 2011

It’s refreshing to have some data in hand that reflects what I have always experienced in my interactions with scientific colleagues. Scientists are ordinary human beings who are interested in what’s going on around them. They recognise that in order to function as whole persons we need to think about how our academic studies relate to our wider beliefs. I will wait with some interest for the results of Ecklund’s latest study on scientist’s beliefs around the world.