A group of scientists and engineers were asked if they believe in God. The results might surprise you

 

Nathan Anderson/Unsplash

Scientists and those working in science-led professions are often assumed to be hostile to religion and spirituality, an impression reinforced by celebrity atheists like Richard Dawkins and Brian Cox.

But it seems that many of them do in fact believe in God.

The Scientific and Medical Network commissioned a survey to look into perceptions of spirituality among 3,000 respondents who work in science, engineering, technical and medical occupations.

The survey, carried out in collaboration with Ipsos MORI, and financed by the Salvia Foundation, reveals that barely one in four describes themself as atheist – 25 per cent in the UK, 29 per cent in France and 24 per cent in Germany.

A further 16 per cent overall say they are agnostic – 21 per cent in the UK, 17 per cent in France and 11per cent in Germany.

When combined, these figures show that under half the participants – 46 per cent in the UK and France, and 35 per cent in Germany – consider themselves non-religious or spiritual. 

More than two in five participants in each country consider themselves to be religious or spiritual.

Table 1. Which, if any, of the following, best describes you?

Country Practisingreligious Non-practising religious Soiritual but not religious Total religious/spiritual Agnostic Atheist Totalnon-religious Un-categorized
UK 13 18 14 45 21 25 46 8
France 7 25 11 43 17 29 46 9
Germany 10 18 13 41 11 24 35 20

Roughly one-third of participants in the UK, and a quarter of participants in France and Germany, agreed that religion or spirituality was important to the way they live their lives.

In all three countries, people with higher educational qualifications were more spiritual or religious than those with lower qualifications.

Most respondents saw religion and science as independent realms that cannot be compared.

Just one in four in the UK and one in five in France and Germany said religion and science contradict each other.

Table 2. Which of the following BEST represents your view about how they interact? And now we'd like you to think about the relationship between science and spirituality (as distinct from religion). Which of the following BEST represents your view about how they interact?

Country Religion Spirituality
Science and religion are independent - they cannot be compared as they refer to different things Science and religion are complementary - one helps reinforce the other Science and religion are mutually exclusive - they contradict each other Science and spirituality are independent - they cannot be compared as they refer to different things Science and spirituality are complementary - one helps reinforce the other Science and spirituality are mutually exclusive - they contradict each other
UK 44 21 25 47 22 16
France 52 16 21 49 25 11
Germany 47 21 21 44 24 18

France had the most atheists among those surveyed. And in the UK, 15 per cent of atheists said they meditate regularly.

Guy Hayward, post-doctoral research fellow with the Scientific and Medical Network, said: 'The results of this survey suggest that we cannot assume that the scientific community is predominantly atheistic and anti-spiritual. Some scientists, doctors and engineers are atheists, but most are not. Indeed, it would seem that the more scientifically educated people are, the more they are likely to have religious or spiritual beliefs.'

Professor Eric Priest, former president of the Royal Astronomical Society of the University of St Andrews and editor of a recent volume on the relationship between science and religion, said: 'This impressive survey by Ipsos-MORI reinforces previous results of Elaine Ecklund that most scientists reject the outdated claim by New Atheists of a conflict between science and spirituality. Instead, many scientists have a more subtle, nuanced view of the relationship and recognise that questioning, imagination, creativity, reason, faith and community are common features of both science and religion.'

Dr Chris van Tukkelen, an MRC funded research fellow at UCL, said: 'I think that science, at its best, is a wonderful and limited tool which occasionally helps us understand our world. But there are forms of knowledge which will always be impenetrable to it. In particular, two types of question seem beyond its reach: questions about the origins of the laws that govern the physical universe, and questions about the experience of being human.

'Personally, I divide my sense of wonder fairly evenly between the achievements of science and those things which remain, in the parlance of the laboratory, refractory to investigation.

'In the laboratory I have a lucky shelf in the incubator where cloning experiments work better, and a pipette with magical properties beyond mere accurate calibration. I don't see any conflict between these irrational ideas and my overall belief in a process of rational enquiry.'

Professor Keith Ward, former Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford and expert on the relationship between science and religion, said: 'This is a well-constructed survey which throws doubt on the assertion that scientists mostly find that their work is incompatible with religious belief. The facts are much more complex, and it is good to have evidence that this is so.'

Ipsos MORI conducted interviews in the United Kingdom, France and Germany with respondents aged 18+ who are science, engineering, medical or technical research professionals. The surveys were conducted online between 28-30 November 2016 in the United Kingdom with 1,003 respondents, 2-5 December in France with 1,020 respondents and 29 November – 3 December in Germany with 1,000 respondents. 

More News in Society