Rosenhouse on Eklund …

Jason Rosenhouse has posted a discussion of some of the claims and numbers in Elaine Howard Ecklund’s new book Science vs. Relgion: What Scientists Really Think:

Off the start, I’ll give him kudos for saying that the book is worth reading even though he has some problems with it.

I, however, have some problems with his problems, starting with this:


“Asked about their beliefs in God, 34% chose “I don’t believe in God,” while 30% chose, “I do not know if there is a God, and there is no way to find out.” That’s 64% who are atheist or agnostic, as compared to just 6% of the general public.”


Problem:  while “I do not know if there is a God, and there is no way to find out” is an agnostic position, it’s not agnostic in the sense that allows it to slide into the atheistic camp.  I am, as everyone should know by now, a theist.  And yet I would, in fact, be able to chose that option and be quite honest.   That’s because I accept the definition of agnostic that Huxley defined, which is, in fact, just that: I don’t and can’t know.  However, that doesn’t say anything about belief.   So, agnosticism is a stance on knowledge, and theism/atheism is a stance on belief (atheists don’t belief, theists do).  Thus, since they address two somewhat separate domains (we always believe what we know) I can, in fact, be an agnostic theist.  Or an agnostic theist.  So it’s a bit quick to jump from that statement to the claim that they are agnostic and therefore not theistic.

He’s probably right to say that these agnostics were at least weak atheists.  After all, most people don’t really know what the term agnostic really means, and the common definition is pretty much how he uses.  But he can’t get there from that statement of agnosticism itself; he really should acknowledge that the claims are, in fact, distinct.

The next issue is this:


“Now explain to me, please, how anyone can look at that data and write this:

As we journey from the personal to the public religious lives of scientists, we will meet the nearly 50 percent of elite scientists like Margaret who are religious in a traditional sense…. (p. 6)

This claim, that fifty percent of scientists are traditionally religious, is repeated in the jacket copy.”


He’s counting the atheists and agnostics and getting 64% at least, and adding another number into it — not unreasonably — and getting 72%  being non-theistic.  And then questionning how then you could say that almost 50% are religious in a traditional sense.  Unfortunately, there is data that shows why she might say that:


“Also stark is the data on religious affiliations. Here we find that 53% of scientists claim no religious affiliation at all. I was very surprised by that number, since religious affiliation is as much about cultural identity as it is about specific beliefs. For example, when asked for my religious affiliation I always say that I am Jewish even though I am also an atheist.”


So, if 53% claim no religious affiliation at all … then doesn’t that mean, at first glance, that there are 47% left over?  If all of those did have a religious affliliation, then there’s a not unreasonable case for saying that almost 50% are traditionally religious.  At least at first glance.

Now, there are some issues here, and I haven’t read the book in detail so I don’t know the numbers.  One issue that really does require the numbers is how many simply didn’t answer the question, since that would take some out of the 47% and leave it a bit lower.  Let’s assume — until further evidence is provided — that that was insignificant.

The other issue is the one that Rosenhouse himself raises: is it fair to count people who claim religious affiliations but are atheists?  This, of course, depends on the people who are in that boat.  Do they reject religion, or just God?  Recall that her quote above talked about traditionally religious, not theistic.  If they really aren’t hostile to religion and really do respect it, then they might count for her purposes.  Of course, I suspect that Rosenhouse is not such an atheist who would answer that he had a religious affiliation.

That being said, his use of Jews to support his point is a bit weaker.  There is a much closer association between cultural identity and religion among Jews than is the case among other groups.  For example, I am of Polish descent, and Catholicism is a major part of the Polish cultural identity.  Yet I’d never consider using the terms interchangeably, and so if I became an atheist while I’d remain of Polish descent I wouldn’t even think about still claiming to be Catholic.  For Jews, my impression is that you could use the term “Jew” for both descent and religion, which makes it a poor example and would explain the high number of Jewish atheist scientists.

But I’m not an expert in how the Jews view the terms for themselves, so if I’m wrong someone who knows better than me can correct me.

So, at any rate, there’s some work to be done before either side can claim to have said anything definitive, and some confounds in the data — on either side — that need to be dealt with.

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