A new survey of science, engineering, technical and medical professionals in the UK, Germany and France, shows that atheists are in a minority amongst those who chose to take part.
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.
The Scientific and Medical Network commissioned a survey by Ipsos MORI to look into perceptions of spirituality amongst 3,000 respondents who work in science, engineering, technical and medical occupations.
The survey reveals that:
- only a minority of participants describe themselves as atheists (25% in the UK; 29% in France and 24% in Germany) while roughly another 16% overall describe themselves as agnostic (21% in the UK, 17% in France and 11% in Germany). When combined, these figures show that under half the participants (46% in the UK and France, and 35% in Germany) consider themselves non-religious or spiritual.
- Just over two in five participants in each country considered themselves to be religious or spiritual (Table 1).
Table 1. Which, if any, of the following, best describes you?
|Non-practising religious||Soiritual but not religious||Total religious/
- Roughly one in three (34%) 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 – 44% in the UK, 52% in France and 47% in Germany saw them as independent. 21% in the UK and Germany and 16% in France saw them being complementary (Table 2). Only a quarter (25%) in the UK, and 21% in France and Germany said they 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?
|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|
- Among UK atheists who took part in the survey, 28% thought there was a contradiction between science and spirituality, as distinct from religion, while most (53%) said they were independent and cannot be compared.
- In the UK, 15% of atheists meditated regularly.
- The proportion of participants who were atheists was higher in France than in Germany and the UK.
Former President of the Royal Astronomical Society Professor Eric Priest FRS 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 Tulleken, who is an MRC funded research fellow at UCL reflected:
“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 FBA, former Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford and expert on the relationship between science and religion commented that:
“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. Respondents are members of the Ipsos Interactive Services online panel and were recruited to take part in this survey based on occupation data gathered from previous surveys they have taken part in. The profile of the survey reflects those who chose to take part and is therefore not weighted. The samples contained a roughly equal representation of men and women. This survey was commissioned by the Scientific and Medical Network. More details are available at www.scimednet.org
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