Monday, October 13, 2014

Why So Many Scientists Are Atheists

According to Pew Research, 17% of scientists identify as atheist, compared to only 2% of the general population. 41% of scientists say they don't believe in God or a higher power, compared to only 4% of the general population. Why are so many scientists atheists?

Some say it's because science disproves God or that science and religion are somehow incompatible. Others point out that most were atheists before they ever became scientists, suggesting they pursue science because of their atheism. Both explanations assume a false dichotomy. The true answer probably is very complex, but two factors might explain a lot of it: demographics and personality.

Atheists are predominantly white men. According to Pew, 70% of American atheists are men and 90% are white or Asian, compared to 48% and 74% of the general population, respectively. Scientists [according to NSF] are 72% male and 87% white or Asian, almost identical to atheists. Thus, any random sample of people with the racial and gender makeup of scientists, for that reason alone, should have a higher percentage of atheists than the general population. Among sciences, chemistry and biology employ a relatively high percentage of women -- and, perhaps consequently, a relatively low percentage of atheists.

Personality may explain even more. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is probably the most common measure of personality. Though it has several major flaws, it has been used and studied enough to provide useful statistics.

The MBTI type typically associated with scientists is INTJ, whose description closely resembles the stereotypical scientist. Hence, it often is called the "Scientist" type. INTJs generally are analytical, opinionated, and don't believe things without "cold hard facts" -- a common description of atheists as well. In a survey of 10,627 American atheists, 13.7% were classified as INTJ, compared to only 2.6% of the general population.

A few other personality types are typically associated with scientists. By far the most common of these is ISTJ, which tend to prefer more practical, applied science than their INTJ cousins. For example, ISTJ has been found to be the most common type among National Weather Service employees. It's also the most common type among atheists. 41.2% of atheists are ISTJ, but only 13.8% of the general population are ISTJ. Thus, a majority (54.9%) of atheists are either ISTJ or INTJ, compared to only 16.5% of the general population.

Personality type can explain the high male-to-female ratio among atheists [and perhaps scientists as well]. Male and female atheists have similar proportions of ISTJ and INTJ (40.8% and 11.7% for female atheists, 41.4% and 14.4% for male atheists). But in the general population these two types are approximately 70% male -- just like atheists and scientists!

Combining demographic and personality data, we can calculate the probability that a random person is an atheist, given basic demographics. For example, starting with a prior probability of 2.0% (the % of atheists in the general population), the probability that a random white male would be an atheist is 3.5%. If the random white male is an INTJ, that probability increases to 14.5%. If we consider random college graduates, it becomes 21.1%.

Extending the calculations to a random group of college graduates (and post-graduates, in parentheses) with the same race and gender makeup as scientists [72% male, 69% white, 18% Asian, etc.], the following percentages are expected to identify as atheist:

  • INTJ: 20.2% (23.7%)
  • ISTJ: 11.4% (13.7%)
  • INTP: 7.4% (9.0%)
  • ENTJ: 6.0% (7.3%)
  • INFJ: 5.5% (6.7%)
  • ISTP: 4.6% (5.6%)
  • ESTJ: 3.6% (4.4%)
  • ENTP: 2.8% (3.4%)
  • ESTP: 2.0% (2.5%)
  • INFP: 1.7% (2.1%)
  • ENFJ: 1.5% (1.9%)
  • ISFJ: 1.5% (1.8%)
  • ISFP: 0.6% (0.8%)
  • ENFP: 0.6% (0.7%)
  • ESFJ: 0.4% (0.5%)
  • ESFP: 0.3% (0.4%)

Thus, if scientists are predominantly INTJ and ISTJ, the 17% who are atheists is similar to that what would be expected from a random sample of people with those personality types and similar basic demographics.

Of course, there are much deeper factors than what these crude statistics represent. Scientists are quite diverse in ways that aren't accounted for here. Not all are INTJ or ISTJ, including myself (an INFJ), and I couldn't find any statistics about that. Correlation doesn't imply causation, and these variables probably aren't completely independent as the equations assume. However, unlike the "science and religion are incompatible" explanation, this one at least has some science to support it.


  1. As is often the case, establishing "cause" and "effect" is a challenging task. It's certainly true that correlation doesn't imply causation and each individual may be able to recognize diverse factors which they believe caused them to be atheists (or not). In my case, I never swallowed what I was forced to consume in church, so there was no "aha!" moment. What I was taught/told/indoctrinated with never made any sense to me. I became a scientist later, of course, but my goal to be a scientist was pretty firm when I was 10 y/o.

    I have my own opinions about why so many scientists are atheists, but have done no studies ... and the percentage increases as you climb the scientific prestige latter. The PEW study I remember showed that a very high percentage (I can't find it now) of those scientists in the National Academy of Sciences are atheists.

    The assertion of incompatibility between science and religion is related to the numerous believers trying to push creationism into cosmology, biology, and other sciences. Apparently, a substantial number of believers (of all sorts) find them incompatible, irrespective of your opinion (or mine).

    1. I appreciate the personal history. Very interesting! Mine is somewhat opposite of yours (always wanted to be a scientist but never went to church much until college, and was never forced/indoctrinated to believe anything).

      I would guess that the percentage of INTJs increases as you climb the scientific prestige ladder (one that most non-INTJs probably have little or no interest in climbing), so I'd expect the percentage of atheists to increase as well. And the percentages are very sensitive to how "atheist" is defined and how the poll questions are worded.

      I suppose a perceived conflict between science & religion (even if it doesn't actually exist) might explain a few believers not going into science, but I really doubt it explains much of it. I'd be interested to hear your opinions about why so many scientists are atheists and how you reconcile those with the data presented above.

    2. It may well be that my personality had a lot to do with my being both an atheist and a scientist. I don't respond well to arguments by authority and authority figures in general. I see that as essential to my not being religious, which is dominated by the ultimate authority figure, and being a scientist, which rejects authority as an acceptable argument. If I'm going to respect an "authority" - some of whom I do - that person's authority must be based on something other than reward/punishment, or simply occupying a privileged position. And any authority figure worth respecting is one who admits flaws and mistakes (which the Abrahamic deity doesn't do, nor do his "spokesmen". In the absence of convincing evidence, the default is to not believe, just as in science.

    3. Interesting perspective. I'm sure a lot of scientists see it that way (and hence, are atheists). I don't. Maybe because of my personality, I'm constantly looking for hidden meanings and exploring possibilities, however unlikely they may seem. Maybe that's compatible with your approach too, but my default is much different. In the absence of evidence, the default is to consider all possibilities as equally likely -- which I believe is more justifiable than the default you described.

  2. At least justifiable from your personal perspective. I'm not sure what you might mean by "hidden meanings," but if I were to consider where to explore possibilities, I'd probably start with the most likely. The fact that I consider some possibility less likely than another doesn't mean I rule it out with absolute certainty. History certainly shows that is folly in science. I don't rule out the possible existence of a deity (however that might be defined), but I think other explanations are much more likely.

    1. ... but that's the problem. In the absence of evidence, you can't know which is the most likely. Whether the evidence is sufficient not would depend on an arbitrary assumption about one possibility being more likely. "All possibilities are equally likely", if arbitrary at all, is at least much less so.

      Of course you wouldn't totally rule out the possibility. But I think it's safe to say (based on your starting point, methodology, and comments) that whatever probability you have in mind for the existence of God is MUCH smaller than mine for non-existence. And in general, atheists seem to have much more certainty about it than believers (though of course there are exceptions with loud voices).

  3. As an INTJ myself, I think that when one of us becomes convinced of the existence of God, our conviction is unswerving, in part because of our personality type. There is a large part of our thinking process that is based on an intuitive spark. Another large part of our thinking process involves pattern recognition in data. These frequently operate together. When an INTJ (or ISTJ) observes the natural world and intuits that God is in the details, we see evidence that clearly supports our intuitive conclusion. Our atheist colleagues who see the same data and intuit another cause for it, also see evidence supporting their intuitive conclusion. And so, belief in God comes down to the spark of intuition which makes scientists good at what they do. It is, in the end, less about the data, and more about the spark within: does that spark fly upward toward a Creator, or flame briefly and die out within the natural order?

    1. Interesting thoughts, Bob. Makes a lot of sense. I see INTJs as intelligent people who'd never believe or not believe in God out of blind faith or because of where they grew up or what they were taught. Hence, some of the very strongest believers and non-believers I know are INTJ.

      I think a few other types (e.g., INFJ & INTP) also are very much driven by an intuitive spark but generally don't seem as "unswerving" as INTJs and especially ISTJs -- maybe because our sparks tend to draw us more toward the wildest of other possibilities.

  4. Actually there are significantly lower rates of theism in biology as opposed to other empirical sciences like physics. This is related to the nature of the work these scientists are immersed in. Theists in physics are much more impressed by an apparent clockwork-like theme to the universe, and are much likelier to perceive intelligent design.

    Biologists, on the other hand, deal with crazy mess that is life itself. There's no clockwork anything going on in evolutionary biology, there's ample examples of unintelligent design, which can only be explained by the natural mechanisms of evolution itself. Evolution isn't about getting the best of the best, it is only about just "good enough." Virtually no evolutionary biologists perceive intelligent designer at work in life

    1. Btw I'm INTJ and an evolutionary biology nerd, if that counts for anything

    2. I figured this out via over a decade of debating theists. The pattern in unmistakable. ID proponents find the most sympathizers in the ranks of physicists, chemists, biochemists (which is more chem than bio trust me), some geneticists, and other people who work in the small-scale life sciences, and mathematicians. Mathematicians are particularly drawn to theism and ID, again owing to that clockwork-like view that is echoed in mathematics.

      Not a single one of them that I've encountered over the years seems to know what evolutionary theory is and the proper way to view life in this universe (they are looking at it backward, thinking the universe is designed for life when it's really just life existing wherever it CAN and evolving according to environment)

    3. ID creationists like to use those statistics of biologists vs physicists as some kind of evidence that evolutionary theory is necessarily part of some atheistic religion.

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