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87 MIN READ TIME

The Mystery of Elite Religious Scientists

“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.

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