Are Scientists Atheists?

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A priest, a rabbi and an evolutionary biologist walk into a bar. Wait, have you heard this one? Chances are you have. The scientific and religious worlds continue to butt heads in the news headlines and across countless Internet message boards, but is there really a conflict beneath all this media noise?

In 2009, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press polled members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on belief in a higher power. The study found that 51 percent of members polled expressed such a faith, compared to 95 percent of the American public. Additionally, the National Academy of Science charted belief in God as low as 5.5 percent among biologists and 7.5 percent among physicist and astronomers in a 1998 study.

Are scientists atheists? Should they be?

A False Dichotomy

The clash between science and faith often comes down to how one chooses to define atheism, according to neuroscientist and author David Eagleman.

"Strict atheism, as it's often practiced, gives the impression that the opposite of believing in some sort of god or supernatural being is to believe in a closed cosmos," Eagleman says, "It seems to me that we as a society have lately been caught in this false dichotomy where it's either God as the guy with the beard on the cloud or nothing at all."

Eagleman, who heads the Eagleman Laboratory for Perception and Action at Baylor College of Medicine, believes that scientists do their calling a disservice when they entrench themselves within a strict atheistic viewpoint. On the other hand, religious explanations for the cosmos naturally lack hard evidence and can contain disruptive or even dangerous ideas.

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"I think there are lots of concerns about subscribing to a particular religion," Eagleman says, "but what's troublesome to me is the fact that many scientists have been very polarized by that, and instead of exploring interesting other ideas, they've gone all the way to the opposite extreme by essentially saying there's nothing. And the fact is we just don't know."

Possibilianism and the Middle Path

How can a scientist contemplate the cosmos without straying too close to either extreme? For Eagleman, the answer is "possibilianism," or the idea of holding multiple hypotheses while exploring new ideas.

"The goal is to avoid committing to any particular story," Eagleman says, "whether that's religious fundamentalism or strict atheism. The goal of possibilianism is to retain the wonder that drives us all into science in the first place and to avoid acting as though we know the answers to things we can't possibly know at the moment."

If this sounds akin to the Buddhist "middle path" concept of avoiding extremes to obtain enlightenment, you shouldn't be surprised. After all, when's the last time you heard about Buddhist opposition to a scientific paper?

"The vast majority of Hindus and Buddhists would probably say that the conflict between science and faith is a purely Western phenomenon," says professor Varadaraja V. Raman, author of "Truth and Tension in Science and Religion."

Raman points out that conflict between faith and reason exists principally in post-enlightenment Western societies. He believes this clash often stems from confusing causative questions such as "How did the universe form?" with teleological questions such as "For what purpose did the universe form?"

"Teleology is the view and the conviction that there is a purpose to everything that happens in the world," Raman says, "not simply our personal lives but for nature as a whole. It is the view that the world is purpose-driven."

Two Minds

Logically, science  does not recognize a purpose to the universe. It attributes thoroughly non-teleological causes to natural phenomenon and continue to chart the neural functions that give rise to consciousness and emotion.

Yet for many human minds, this isn't quite enough.

 

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"Our brains are extraordinarily complex, and the two engines that make us human are, on one hand, the dimension of logic and, on the other hand, the dimension of feeling and experience."

The dimension of feeling and experience, Raman argues, has a tendency to transcend logic — even in the face of biochemical and hormonal explanations.

"The explanation is very different from the experience itself," Raman says, "not unlike music, for example. Music can be explained and analyzed in terms of the notes and the components, but the experience of music goes way beyond the logic and the mathematics that undergird the production of sound."

The Future of Faith and Science

Many atheists and believers, therefore, continue to explain the music of the universe from the perspectives of their own entrenched extremes. The conflict might not evaporate any time soon, but Raman believes both science and faith will eventually drift more toward the middle path.

"I seriously doubt that the dialogue will cease, but I do believe that as a result of these exchanges, religion is likely to become less irrational in some of its expressions," Raman says. "In fact, one would hope that the greatest contribution science can make in calming religion is to eradicate the many unpleasant, unhappy and in many cases destructive aspects of religious expression."

And that, as you might imagine, is a future David Eagleman wants to see, too.

"I don't think there's a necessity for scientists to be atheists," Eagleman says. "I don't even think it's a very good idea necessarily. I think scientists should be possibilians, which means actually exploring ideas and using the tools of science to rule out bad ones."