Atheism among Anglophone scientists. II. The UK

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So how religious are scientists in the UK compared to those in the US? I would have thought “a lot less”. A recent study by R.. Elisabeth. Cornwell and Michael Stirrat (@Exp_Behaviour,  paper reference) shows that’s close to being the case, but the differences are small.  Michael Stirrat is a research fellow in psychology at the University of Stirling, while Elisabeth Cornwell is the director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation.


The link below (which used to give the entire dataset and some analysis) now has only the abstract, but I have permission to reproduce the original data, some of which I think has already been published in Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion.

Cornwell and Stirrat inquired about religious beliefs of every member of the Royal Society of London having an active email address. That is the UK equivalent of the National Academy of Sciences, as it includes distinguished scientists throughout the United Kingdom.  Requests were sent to 1074 members, who were asked to fill out an online survey. 253 of them responded (10 females, 243 males, which is proportional, sadly, to the gender ratio of members). About half the responses came from physical sciences (including physics, astronomy chemistry, computer science, and math) and the other half from biology (including medicine).

The four queries were these (taken from the survey); members had to agree of disagree with each of the statements below:

  • I believe that there is a strong likelihood that a supernatural being such as God exists or has existed.
  • I believe in a personal God, that is one who takes interests in individuals, hears and answers prayers, is concerned with sin and transgressions, and passes judgement.
  • I believe that science and religion occupy non-overlapping domains of discourse and can peacefully co-exist. (NOMA)
  • I believe that when we physically die, our subjective consciousness, or some part of it, survives.

@Exp_Behaviour

Written By: Jerry Coyne
continue to source article at whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com

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  1. Members were asked to indicate how much they agreed with each statement on a 1 to 7 point scale, with 1 indicating “strongly disagree” and 7 indicating “strongly agree”. Thus lower numbers include higher disbelief.

    I think there needs to be more emphasis on the interpretation of the figures on this chart.

    Given the use of theist blinker specs, faith thinking, and creationist illiteracy, I think it is only a matter of time before the figures on the charts are quote-mined and mis-quoted back to us in reverse form, as showing that “63.4% of UK scientists believe that god exists”, or that “only 4.9% are atheists on the Dawkins scale”!
    YECs in particular, easily confuse any figures beyond the level of counting thousands on fingers and thumbs!

    Alt Text -(right-click and select “view image”)

  2. It is probably still difficult to get an honest answer to that question. Whose asking? who will find out? I recall my father passing as Anglican even though he was completely atheist. Sometimes you pass simply because you don’t have energy for confrontation or the distraction of a confrontation right now.

  3. I believe that science and religion occupy non-overlapping domains of discourse and can peacefully co-exist. (NOMA)

    I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.
    ~ George W. Bush

    I think there is a problem generally with the phrase “peacefully co-exist”. It does not mean consensus or agreement, just non-violence. That phrase should be removed from the question. It just muddles.

  4. It may seem like splitting hairs but language is our main and most powerful weapon why not always have it serve us? Once again we see the unthinking capitalization of the word god. It is an unnecessary concession to Jewish and Christian godbothering, validating their view of their god as the oh so special, only true and real god (which is why they capitalize it to distinguish it from all the other gods). If we understand that all gods are equally untenable then let’s have our use of language reflect that reality.

    The correct version of the above sentences would read as follows:

    “I believe that there is a strong likelihood that a supernatural being such as a god exists or has existed.”

    “I believe in a personal god, that is one who takes interests in individuals, hears and answers prayers, is concerned with sin and transgressions, and passes judgement.”

    • In reply to #5 by godsbuster:

      It may seem like splitting hairs but language is our main and most powerful weapon why not always have it serve us? Once again we see the unthinking capitalization of the word god. It is an unnecessary concession to Jewish and Christian godbothering, validating their view of their god as the oh so s…

      If ‘god’ is being used as a proper noun, then it is correct according to the rules of spelling to write it with a capital letter. No need for religious belief.

      • In reply to #7 by Cairsley:

        In reply to #5 by godsbuster:

        If ‘god’ is being used as a proper noun, then it is correct according to the rules of spelling to write it with a capital letter. No need for religious belief.

        Your fine bit of sea lawyering strictly grammatically speaking is indeed correct in the first example:

        I believe that there is a strong likelihood that a supernatural being such as God exists or has existed.

        However it collapses in the second:

        “I believe in a personal God, that is one who takes interests in individuals, hears and answers prayers, is concerned with sin and transgressions, and passes judgement.”

        The points you are willfully ignoring however is that we -antitheists- can employ the power of language in our favor or miss the opportunity to do so. I pointed out the missed opportunity.

        Moreover, the following definitions of “proper noun” supports the observation that theists capitalize their god because theirs is a particular, unique, special and finally god to end all gods.

        proper noun: A noun that designates a particular person,

        proper noun: A noun belonging to the class of words used as names for unique individuals.

        • In reply to #8 by godsbuster:

          We do not differ on the grammar regarding the use and writing of the word ‘god’, but I think we have to be a little less uptight about how believers in a personal god use the term. In the sentence you cited – “I believe in a personal God, that is one who …” – that would be a typical use of “God” coming from the pen of a devout (or even not so devout) Christian or Jew. Certainly, the word is capitalized not merely because it is, even when used with an indefinite article, a proper noun, but also because it refers to the supreme being, to whom the religious devotee believes himself to be totally beholden and owing all honor. You cannot deny people their right to express themselves as they see fit. You and I would not have capitalized ‘god’ in that sentence; rather we would have written, “I do not believe in a personal god, …” and it would have been impertinent of any religious devotee to complain of our failure to capitalize the word in question.

          The rules of spelling are nevertheless what I use to guide myself in such weighty matters as whether to capitalize this word or not, but for me it is only a matter of which class of nouns it falls into in each instance. If you wish to use language to express you opposition to the capitalizing of ‘god’ for honorific purposes, you are of course entitled and free to do so.

  5. It would be interesting to see a study of the attitudes of the people who determine the budgets of the scientists.

    Is suspect some religious wishful thinking is being much of the climate change denial.

  6. I think that the fourth ‘question’: “I believe that when we physically die, our subjective consciousness, or some part of it, survives” is not strictly merely a religious question – ie most people wonder about this whether or not they are religious. Philosophical concepts such as that shouldn’t really be tainted with the broad sweep of the Religion Brush.

    • In reply to #10 by TanyaK:

      I think that the fourth ‘question’: “I believe that when we physically die, our subjective consciousness, or some part of it, survives” is not strictly merely a religious question – ie most people wonder about this whether or not they are religious. Philosophical concepts such as that shouldn’t real…

      FIne, but let’s not hesitate to brush the woo out of it with the “that which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence” brush.

      • In reply to #11 by godsbuster:

        In reply to #10 by TanyaK:

        I think that the fourth ‘question’: “I believe that when we physically die, our subjective consciousness, or some part of it, survives” is not strictly merely a religious question – ie most people wonder about this whether or not they are religious. Philosophical concepts…

        Quote from Godbuster:”FIne, but let’s not hesitate to brush the woo out of it with the “that which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence” brush.”

        “Said Mr Woo, what shall I do?” Gotta love George Formby.

        Is ‘Woo’ some form of obscure Chinese dialect? Are you actually attempting to assert that there is NO evidence for consciousness beyond the operation of the brain?

        • In reply to #13 by TanyaK:

          In reply to #11 by godsbuster:

          In reply to #10 by TanyaK:

          Are you actually attempting to assert that there is NO evidence for consciousness beyond the operation of the brain?

          Yes.

          • In reply to #17 by godsbuster:

            In reply to #13 by TanyaK:

            In reply to #11 by godsbuster:

            In reply to #10 by TanyaK:

            Are you actually attempting to assert that there is NO evidence for consciousness beyond the operation of the brain?

            Yes.

            Why?

  7. My first post so go easy on the new guy!

    Consciousness resides in the active brain, an interaction between mutually co-operative centres that together allow the individual to become self aware, using the sensory input that is subsequently processed. If part of your brain is damaged or dies, you lose the capability and function it provided and the whole is now reduced because of it’s loss. If you cannot remember the face of your children or even your own name, then what use is a consciousness that is supposedly separate and continuous from our brain, yet is still damaged when the brain is also??

    The idea that we “carry on” after we die is the core of most religions and certainly the monotheistic ones, and is also what makes the reincarnation idea sound plausible to some. This is, in my opinion, simply a fear of death, make believe and wishful thinking and if not the sole preserve of the religious, is definitely monopolised by them to the extent that if brought up in general conversation most people would assume it is from a religious stand point. It is also irrational, why would we have an infinite consciousness but a finite body?? Irrationality is most certainly the preserve of religion!!

    Thank you for your time.

    • In reply to #14 by Virtus83:

      I’m sorry TanyaK, were you including me in your last reply or just godsbuster?? Again I am new to this forum.

      Thanks.

      No, its ok, I was merely replying to Godbuster’s response to my post. But I was making a general point too – which does obviously come into the territory of your post.

      Welcome, by the way -I am fairly new myself.

      • In reply to #15 by TanyaK:

        In reply to #14 by Virtus83:

        I’m sorry TanyaK, were you including me in your last reply or just godsbuster?? Again I am new to this forum.

        Thanks.

        No, its ok, I was merely replying to Godbuster’s response to my post. But I was making a general point too – which does obviously come into the territ…

        Oh right, well thank you ma’am, most kind of you!

        Just to be clear I’m a staunch Atheist and more accurately anti-theist, so any suggestion of “woo-woo” as it is colloquially known, will be met with scepticism as I firmly believe that if an answer doesn’t make sense, then it is no answer at all.

        I can only go on what I have seen and read on the subject, but it seems to me that every viable test carried out thus far points to the clear direction of individual consciousness being empowered by that individuals brain. Experience and decision making build personality and character, but ultimately all the things that makes you what you are, is encapsulated within the workings of the brain. Take someone who has suffered a stroke, many people unfortunately suffer too much damage to the brain, this results in loss of memory, awareness, recognition, motor function etc. If you cannot remember who you are then do you even have a consciousness?? It comes down to what you define as a “consciousness”, and whether you think that is what it really is, or simply what you would like it to be.

        I’m not attacking by the way if it sounds aggressive or sarcastic, just my view based on what I know. It makes sense to me because how often do you hear of a corpse with an opinion? People who think there is something “beyond” often have crystals and take part in seance’s etc. That bit was sarcastic btw :)

        Thanks Tanya.

        • In reply to #16 by Virtus83:

          Yes Virtus, the position you outline is the current orthodox scientific position of Materialist Monism. It is, of course, familiar to all.

          As I’m sure you are aware, such a view replaced a former Dualist view, involving interaction of ‘mind’ with ‘matter’. A primary objection to this dualistic view was that no way could be seen by which one may influence the other. However, there are some hints within aspects of modern physics which suggest a form of information management exists at the formative level of matter, involved with the establishment of its relative and relevant status. It is by no means, therefore, quite so preposterous – at least to suggest – that dualism might be less between a ‘mind’ and ‘matter’, but between a ‘mind’ and ‘information’. This would make Consciousness a dualistic effect of such interaction, and not a ‘thing’. It is, at least conceptually plausible.

          • In reply to #18 by TanyaK:

            In reply to #16 by Virtus83:

            Yes Virtus, the position you outline is the current orthodox scientific position of Materialist Monism. It is, of course, familiar to all.

            As I’m sure you are aware, such a view replaced a former Dualist view, involving interaction of ‘mind’ with ‘matter’. A primary ob…

            Fair enough. Plausible yes, probable no. What happens at the atomic or basic molecular level is a very different story to the complex interaction of whole systems and organisms. Atoms and molecules do not make decisions but act according to energy, mass and gravity. The interaction you are suggesting between the “mind” and “information” I would simply call learning. The “mind” is the brain. Sorry if that sounded sarcastic once again. Evidence shows that individual neurons are given specific bits of information to keep hold of in the memory centres, meaning that in your brain there is a neuron for spoons or trainers that is accessed when the senses provide you input regarding them. When someone is asleep they are said to be “unconscious” because they exhibit minimal brain activity, if the brain stops functioning then the consciousness ends.

            I may however have completely missed your point, in which case just point and talk louder and more slowly! :) I don’t mind being wrong provided you explain to me why.

            Thanks Tanya.

          • In reply to #19 by Virtus83:

            In reply to #18 by TanyaK:

            In reply to #16 by Virtus83:

            Yes Virtus, the position you outline is the current orthodox scientific position of Materialist Monism. It is, of course, familiar to all.

            As I’m sure you are aware, such a view replaced a former Dualist view, involving interaction of ‘mind’…

            Quote from virtus83:” Plausible yes, probable no. What happens at the atomic or basic molecular level is a very different story to the complex interaction of whole systems and organisms. Atoms and molecules do not make decisions but act according to energy, mass and gravity. The interaction you are suggesting between the “mind” and “information” I would simply call learning. The “mind” is the brain. Sorry if that sounded sarcastic once again. Evidence shows that individual neurons are given specific bits of information to keep hold of in the memory centres, meaning that in your brain there is a neuron for spoons or trainers that is accessed when the senses provide you input regarding them. When someone is asleep they are said to be “unconscious” because they exhibit minimal brain activity, if the brain stops functioning then the consciousness ends.”

            That isn’t quite the way the brain actually works, frankly. There is no ‘neuron for a spoon’ I think? If there were such a simplistic physicality to storage of conceptual imagery then one would need to relearn these concepts every time the matter in the brain is renewed or a neuron dies. There is currently no proper theory, nor even a hint, as to how memory might be stored – either in the brain or anywhere else.

            The point is that potential concepts such as the one which I outlined earlier are not solely explored by religious people, so it isn’t quite fair to use such a view as a mark of religiosity.

          • In reply to #20 by TanyaK:

            In reply to #19 by Virtus83:

            In reply to #18 by TanyaK:

            In reply to #16 by Virtus83:

            Yes Virtus, the position you outline is the current orthodox scientific position of Materialist Monism. It is, of course, familiar to all.

            As I’m sure you are aware, such a view replaced a former Dualist view, i…

            I said that it is predominantly held by the religious, not exclusively.

            “I believe that when we physically die, our subjective consciousness, or some part of it, survives”

            This is the final point taken from the questionnaire, and clearly shows that if you tick this answer you believe that your “mind, consciousness etc” continues after you physically die. This is to make the assumption that your life continues after your physical death, meaning you believe your mind (existing in your brain) to be separate from your physical body, an autonomous entity that simply inhabits the body as a host vehicle before abandoning it at the the point of death. This is quite irrational.

            You are talking about the possibility of a difference of interaction within the brain, resulting in a new definition of what the mind is and how it functions, not the continuance of an individual beyond their actual death.

            In response to the “neurone spoon” :) here is a documentary by Marcus du Sautoy on the brains’ role in consciousness, self awareness and individuality you might find interesting: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=We8tXGRoYWU

            Thanks Tanya

          • In reply to #22 by Virtus83:

            Quote virtus83: “This is the final point taken from the questionnaire, and clearly shows that if you tick this answer you believe that your “mind, consciousness etc” continues after you physically die. This is to make the assumption that your life continues after your physical death, meaning you believe your mind (existing in your brain) to be separate from your physical body, an autonomous entity that simply inhabits the body as a host vehicle before abandoning it at the the point of death. This is quite irrational.”

            It is irrational in the sense it is in opposition to strict Physicalism, but that is not the real point – the point I was making is that the fourth question in the list isn’t fairly a marker of religion in an individual, because many people who are not actually ‘religious’ in their general philosophy do often hold this belief in some form. To come across a person who states that they believe that survival of some aspect of mind/personality after death of the organism is true/possible, and then to label that person as ‘religious’ is presumptuous.

          • In reply to #23 by TanyaK:

            In reply to #22 by Virtus83:

            Quote virtus83: “This is the final point taken from the questionnaire, and clearly shows that if you tick this answer you believe that your “mind, consciousness etc” continues after you physically die. This is to make the assumption that your life continues after your p…

            It is one of the key arguments of most religions and so is considered to be a theological position, it is trying to ask the most encompassing questions of a theological / metaphysical belief the scientists might have. Life after death is a religious ideology, the continuance of your consciousness after you die is the same thing. If it does carry on then in what form does it exist, where does it exist, why does it need a body in the first place etc….This is the realm of religious dogma and superstition, granted not a religion itself, but because it is a fundamental basis for most religions then it is included in the questionnaire.

            BTW. Did you see the video??

            Thanks Tanya

          • In reply to #24 by Virtus83:

            Yes, I did see the video. I shall refer to an aspect of it in a moment.

            Firstly, I have to repeat the concept of dualistic consciousness is not exclusive to religion, regardless of how often it occurs in some forms in religious doctrine – it is a philosophical concept.

            As far as the video you mentioned is concerned, the main point of interest to me (the rest was rather generic) was the aspect concerning the attempt to provoke a response in the brain of a coma ‘victim’. In my opinion, it is of note that the response gained to suggestion to the patient of ‘playing tennis’ resulted in activation of, in the description of the specialist, areas of the brain involved with pre-motor preparation for action – in other words, no activity was observed (or at least reported) to occur in any area that would have been expected by a conventional theorist to be required for formation of ‘imagery ‘ or seemingly even normal sensory input management. In other words, the pre-motor preparatory area was simply doing its ‘job’ of reacting to ‘something’ and preparing for the imminence of potential activity in a game of tennis. I find that quite telling, frankly.

          • In reply to #26 by TanyaK:

            In reply to #24 by Virtus83:

            Yes, I did see the video. I shall refer to an aspect of it in a moment.

            Firstly, I have to repeat the concept of dualistic consciousness is not exclusive to religion, regardless of how often it occurs in some forms in religious doctrine – it is a philosophical concept….

            Telling in what way? That the brain is autonomic in it’s basic functions, or that consciousness was not required for it to operate?

            I found the video quite interesting, but if you are well versed in physiological and psychological brain sciences then it’s old news to you I suppose. Are you a student by chance? :P

            Please don’t miss-read my comments, I said quite clearly that it is NOT exclusive to religion but VERY prevalent within it, meaning it is well associated with religious / metaphysical beliefs and so was added as a rounding off question in the questionnaire. That’s all.

            You seem to be quite taken with the old dualistic approach to this, I’m not having a go if that’s what you feel, not at all. I certainly am no expert but just an enthusiastic learner.

            Thanks Tanya

          • In reply to #27 by Virtus83:

            Yes, I am a student. Psychology and philosophy of mind is one of my main interests in science, so yes, I shall always react to areas in that field.

            To answer your question, I found that aspect of the video ‘telling’ because – seemingly – only that area was activated. If that is the case, then from where did the input arrive to trigger the behaviour? Conventional ideas would require that brain activity related to input and concept formation related to ‘imagination’ should also be observed, should it not? That’s what struck me.

  8. The following quote is an excerpt from physicist Brian Greene’s “Fabric of the Cosmos”. Think about the consequences to thought, experiences and consciousness in general if all slices of space-time exist.

    “So, if you buy the notion that reality consists of the things in your freeze-frame mental image right now, and if you agree that your now is no more valid than the now of someone located far away in space who can move freely, then reality encompasses all of the events in spacetime. The total loaf exists. Just as we envision all of space as really being out there, as really existing, we should also envision all of time as really being out there, as really existing, too. Past, present, and future certainly appear to be distinct entities. But, as Einstein once said, “For we convinced physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.” The only thing that’s real is the whole of spacetime.

    In this way of thinking, events, regardless of when they happen from any particular perspective, just are. They all exist. They eternally occupy their particular point in spacetime. There is no flow. If you were having a great time at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1999, you still are, since that is just one immutable location in spacetime. It is tough to accept this description, since our worldview so forcefully distinguishes between past, present and future. But if we stare intently at this familiar temporal scheme and confront it with the cold hard facts of modern physics, its only place of refuge seems to lie within the human mind.

    Undeniably, our conscious experience seems to sweep through the slices. It is as though our minds provide the projector light referred to earlier, so that moments of time come to life when they are illuminated by the power of consciousness. The flowing sensation from one moment to the next arises from our conscious recognition of change in our thoughts, feelings and perceptions. And the sequence of change seems to have a continuous motion; it seems to unfold into a coherent story. But-without any pretense of psychological or neurobiological precision-we can envision how we might experience a flow of time even though, in actuality, there may be no such thing.”

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