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The Mystery of Elite Religious Scientists

A Cognitively Impenetrable Illusion

“THERE’S SOMETHING ELSE GOING ON THAT NOBODY seems to be talking about.” Thus exclaimed an exasperated Neil deGrasse Tyson to his audience of mostly nonreligious scientists at the Beyond Belief conference at the Salk Institute in 2006.1 He had just cited the central finding of a study of members of the National Academy of Sciences, 93 percent of whom reject belief in a personal God who answers prayer.2 Tyson’s point, however, was that the authors had missed the most exciting and puzzling thing in their data, namely: Why do 7 percent of the most brilliant scientific minds in America believe in a personal God?3Why isn’t this number zero? There appears to be something mysterious and alluring about religion that can seduce even the most elite of scientists.

At the same conference, Tyson’s colleagues (including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, and Steven Weinberg) addressed aspects of religion common among the vast majority of believers: fundamentalism, dogmatism, ritual, affinity to the in-group, and hostility to out-groups.4 This social dimension of religion has long been the purview of anthropology, psychology, sociobiology, and cognitive science. But according to Tyson, if we really want to understand religion, it’s these mysterious elite scientists we should be studying, not the general public. Whatever it is that can make believers out of them must be the most concentrated essence of the thing we’re trying to understand.

Some skeptics take the view that religion is merely a false belief that comes from indoctrination. Replace indoctrination with critical thinking, they argue, and belief in God will vanish.5 If so, then elite religious scientists should simply be the ones who had the most intense religious indoctrination as children. The evidence, however, does not bear this out. A study of theistic belief among Fellows of the Royal Society of London found no significant effect of religious upbringing on subsequent belief in God.6 Apparently Tyson was right to suggest “there’s something else going on.”

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About Skeptic

SCIENCE AND MORAL VALUES Jordan Peterson Phenomenon; Thought Crimes: Jordan Peterson and the meaning of the Meaning of Life; Special Section on Science & Morality. Getting Real About Right and Wrong; No, Being Religious Will Not Save You from Suicide; Lessons from Behavioral Science in a Warzone: How Reason, Skepticism, and Compassion Can Win Hearts and Minds; Moral Philosophy and its Discontents: Can science determine moral values? An Exchange with Massimo Pigliucci, Michael Shermer, and Kevin McCaffree; Facilitated Communication Redux: Persistence of a Discredited Technique; The Mystery of Elite Religious Scientists: A Cognitively Impenetrable Illusion; Five Questions About Human Errors for Proponents of Intelligent Design; The SkepDoc: Beware Stem Cell Clinics that Offer Untested Treatments; Junior Skeptic: Astral Projection