The more they learn, the less they believe

Phillip E. Johnson (
Sat, 01 Aug 1998 19:40:26 -0700

This is in reference to the following paper, which is to be delivered at
the ASA-CIS Conference this week in Cambridge:

>Evangelicals Inheriting the Wind: The Phillip E. Johnson Phenomenon
>Denis O. Lamoureux
>St. Joseph's College
>University of Alberta

In the written version of the paper, Denis Lamoureux makes the following

However, Johnson's claim that naturalism/materialism has
pervaded extensively throughout modern society must be challenged.
For example, is the scientific community as thoroughly
naturalistic/materialistic as he declares? Regarding biological
origins, is Johnson correct in asserting that contemporary
scientists and science educators "are absolutely insistent that
evolution is an unguided and mindless process, and that our
existence is therefore a fluke rather than a planned outcome"? In
direct opposition to Johnson, Edward Larson and Larry Witham
reported in the prestigious scientific journal Nature (3 April
1997) that 4 out of 10 leading American scientists believe in a
personal God. Their paper, entitled "Scientists Are Still Keeping
The Faith," found that this ratio is identical to that found in a
duplicate survey performed by James Leuba in 1916. Impetus for the
recent study was to test the prediction made by Leuba that with the
spread of education disbelief would increase. However, comparing
the two surveys shows little has changed in 80 years regarding
belief in a personal God. As a result, the gloomy picture with
near conspiratory tones that Johnson paints with regard to the
pervasiveness of naturalism/materialism is not as dark, sinister
and widespread as he claims because this is certainly not the case
in the American scientific community today.
To be sure, during this century the biological theory of
evolution has come to be the only paradigm for the origin of life
in the scientific world. However, in the light of the Larson and
Witham study, it does not follow that to be an evolutionist one is
necessarily a naturalist/materialist denying the existence of God
as Johnson constantly insists in his books. Rather, it is
reasonable to suggest that at least 4 out of 10 scientists in the
U.S. believe God created through a teleological evolutionary
process, and the belief in this view of evolution is probably much
higher. More specifically, the so-called "believers" in this study
were limited to those who held a narrow view of the Divine Being;
i.e., a personal God. Unfortunately, scientists who have other
conceptualizations of God, and thus also accept a teleological
evolution, were grouped with respondents who completely deny the
existence of God (this so-called "disbelievers" group accounted for
45% of scientists). In addition, 15% of those polled were agnostic
on the existence of a personal God. As a result, a rough
calculation would suggest that the term 'evolution' carries a
dysteleological sense for less than half of the scientists
surveyed, which is far from Johnson's view that contemporary
scientists and science educators "are absolutely insistent that
evolution is an unguided and mindless process."


The following update to the Larson/Witham paper puts matters in a different

The Washington Times, July 30, 1998, Thursday, Pg. A2
HEADLINE: The more they learn, the less they believe
BYLINE: Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham; NATURE

The question of religious belief among U.S. scientists has been debated
since early in the century. Our latest survey finds that, among the top
natural scientists, disbelief is greater than ever - almost total.
Research on this topic began with the eminent American psychologist
James H. Leuba and his landmark survey of 1914. He found that 58 percent of
1,000 randomly selected U.S. scientists expressed disbelief or doubt in
the existence of God, and that this figure rose to near 70 percent among
the 400 "greater" scientists within his sample.
Mr. Leuba repeated his survey later, and found that these percentages
had increased to 67 percent and 85 percent, respectively.
In 1996, we repeated Mr. Leuba's 1914 survey and reported our results
in Nature. We found little change from 1914 for American scientists
generally, with 60.7 percent expressing belief or doubt. This year, we
closely imitated the second phase of Mr. Leuba's 1914 survey to gauge
belief among "greater" scientists, and found the rate of belief lower than
ever - a mere 7 percent of respondents.
Mr. Leuba attributed the higher level of disbelief and doubt among
"greater" scientists to their "superior knowledge, understanding, and
experience." Similarly, Oxford University scientist Peter Atkins commented
on our 1996 survey: "You clearly can be a scientist and have religious
beliefs. But I don't think you can be a real scientist in the deepest sense
of the word because they are such alien categories of knowledge."
Such comments led us to repeat the second phase of Mr. Leuba's study
for an up-to-date comparison of the religious beliefs of "greater" and
"lesser" scientists.
Our chosen group of "greater" scientists were members of the National
Academy of Sciences (NAS). Our survey found near universal rejection of the
transcendent by NAS natural scientists. Disbelief in God and immortality
among NAS biological scientists was 65.2 percent and 69 percent
respectively, and among NAS physical scientists, it was 79 percent and 76.3
Most of the rest were agnostics on both issues, with few believers. We
found the highest percentage of belief among NAS mathematicians (14.3
percent in God, 15 percent in immortality). Biological scientists had the
lowest rate of belief (5.6 percent in God, 7.1 percent in immortality),
with physicists and astronomers slightly higher (7.5 percent in God, 7.5
percent in immortality).
Overall comparison figures for 1914, 1933 and 1998 surveys appear in
the accompanying table.
Repeating Mr. Leuba's methods presented challenges. For his general
surveys, he randomly polled scientists listed in the standard reference
American Men of Science. We used the current edition.
In Mr. Leuba's day, AMS editors designated the "great scientists"
among their entries, and Mr. Leuba used these to identify his "greater
scientists." The AMS no longer makes these distinctions, so we chose as our
"greater" members of NAS, a status that once assured designation as "great
scientists" in the early AMS. Our method surely generated a more elite
sample than Mr. Leuba's method, which (if the quoted comments by Mr. Leuba
and Mr. Atkins are correct) may explain the extremely low level of belief
among our respondents.
For the 1914 survey, Mr. Leuba mailed his brief questionnaire to a
random sample of 400 AMS "great scientists." It asked about the
respondent's belief in "a God in intellectual and affective communication
with humankind" and in "personal immortality." Respondents had the options
of affirming belief, disbelief or agnosticism on each question. Our survey
contained precisely the same questions and also asked for anonymous responses.
Mr. Leuba sent the 1914 survey to 400 "biological and physical
scientists," with the latter group including mathematicians as well as
physicists and astronomers. Because of the relatively small size of NAS
membership, we sent our survey to all 517 NAS members in those core
disciplines. Mr. Leuba obtained a return rate of about 70 percent in 1914
and more than 75 percent in 1933, whereas our returns stood at about 60
percent for the 1996 survey and slightly more than 50 percent from NAS
As we compiled our findings, the NAS issued a booklet encouraging the
teaching of evolution in public schools, an ongoing source of friction
between the scientific community and some conservative Christians in the
United States. The booklet assures readers, "Whether God exists or not is a
question about which science is neutral."
NAS President Bruce Alberts said: "There are many outstanding members
of this academy who are very religious people, people who believe in
evolution, many of them biologists."
Our survey suggests otherwise.
Reprinted by permission from Nature. Vol 394 p. 313. Copyright (c)
1998 Macmillan Magazines Ltd.

* Edward Larson of the University of Georgia won the Pulitzer Prize in
history this year. Larry Witham is a Washington Times reporter.


Belief in a personal God has sharply declined among America's natural
scientists during the century.


YEARS: 1914 - 1933 - 1998

Personal belief: 27.7% - 15% - 7.0%

Personal disbelief: 52.7 - 68 - 72.2

Doubt or agnosticism: 20.9 - 17 - 20.8

Source: Nature magazine

GRAPHIC: Photos, A&B) The question of scientists' belief in God spans the
ages from Louis Agassiz, who studied natural science in the 1800s, to Carl
Sagan, famous in this century for his study of the cosmos.; Chart,
SCIENTISTS AND GOD, By The Washington Times

Comment by Phillip E. Johnson: Note that you have to add explicit disbelief
to "doubt or agnosticism" to get the total figure of 93 percent unbelievers
among responding NAS members. I think the difference between "atheist" and
"agnostic" is mainly one of temperament, and that the two positions are
effectively similar. (If anything, the bored indifference often signified
by "agnosticism" can be even more dismissive of God than the engaged denial
of a Provine or Dawkins -- just as "not even wrong" is more dismissive than
"wrong.") These results are exactly what I would have expected. The more
general survey takes in people who are basically science teachers or
applied scientists, and this explains why a larger proportion don't fully
grasp the implications of methodological naturalism, the method of thinking
Peter Atkins probably has in mind when he refers to science and
supernatural religion as "alien categories of knowledge."

Suppose Larson and Witham had asked biologists who are members of the NAS
to step forward publicly at a scientific convention to affirm in front of
their colleagues that they agree with this statement: "A supernatural
being we call God actively guided evolution in order to bring about the
existence of human beings in furtherance of a divine purpose." How many
would step forward?

Phillip Johnson