Stereotypes of atheist scientists must be dispelled before confidence in science is eroded
Dealing with a global pandemic has laid bare the public’s need for trust in science. And there is good news and bad news when it comes to the likelihood of the public trusting science. Our work over the past ten years shows that the the public trusts science and religious seem to trust science as much as non-religious. Yet public confidence in scientists as a group of people erode in a dangerous way. And for some groups who are particularly unlikely to trust scientists, the belief that all scientists are loud, anti-religious atheists is part of their mistrust. Our research with atheist scientists in the US and UK shows that atheist scientists are radically different from what the loudest voices might lead us to believe.
A small but vocal subset of atheist scientists (think Richard Dawkins, author of The illusion of god) speak derisively of religion and give the false impression that most scientists are anti-religious. It is therefore not surprising that many religious individuals believe that scientists are anti-religious. (Also, given that women and communities of color are more likely to be religious than white men – who predominate in science – it’s no surprise that the scientific community has difficulty recruiting and retaining individuals from these backgrounds). Our data, however, overturn the notion of hostile atheists. After interviewing 1,293 atheist scientists at universities and research institutes in the US and UK, and conducting 81 in-depth interviews with survey participants, we identified three groups of atheist scientists. Certainly we have encountered some anti-religious sentiment among a group we call modernist atheists. They are scientists who are not part of religious institutions and believe that there is no way to know outside of science. A subset of modernist atheists worry about the potential impact of religion on promoting cognitive rationality in society. And more than two-thirds view the relationship between science and religion as one of conflict. But conflict does not necessarily lead to personal hostility. Indeed, many modernist scientists espoused positive views on the role of religion in society and dismissed the discourse of vocal anti-religious atheists as hyperbolic and prejudicial to science.
Another group of atheist scientists whom we identify as culturally religious, (less than 40% of whom adopt the perspective of conflict), who value the inclusion of elements of religion in their daily life through social ties such as marriage with religious people, the religious education of their children or formal religious affiliation— despite these culturally religious atheists, their own irreligion. Many of these atheists see the value of being part of a religious community. The lack of anti-religious sentiment among other culturally religious atheists is seen in their engagements and ties to individuals and religious organizations.
A third group, spiritual atheists, we label as such because they build alternative value systems – oriented around the transcendent – but without belief in God or religious affiliation. For these scientists (again, less than 40% of them adopt the perspective of conflict), spirituality often permeates wonder and motivates their work. Spiritual atheist scientists rarely espouse negative views of religion, perhaps in part because they see limits to what science can explain and understand that religious and non-religious forms of understanding can inform ethics, religion. moral and other non-material dimensions of the world.
These models, associated with our previous work which shows that more scientists are religious than most people realize, indicate that most scientists, even atheists, are not hostile to religion. They also suggest that science may have a marketing problem. According to one logic, the public sphere implies a market of ideas where several points of view on a problem can be presented for debate. At present, a small but noisy group of atheist anti-religion scientists maintain a monopoly on discourse related to science and religion. Unless a greater variety of atheist and religious scientists start contributing to such conversations, the erosion of trust in scientists is unlikely to change.
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