In 1997, the science journal Nature reported that 40 percent of scientists in the U.S. believed in a personal God—the same amount as had believed eighty years prior. However, when those results were filtered to include only members of the National Academy of Sciences, the number dropped to 10 percent. A Pew survey taken in 2009 records that 33 percent of scientists believe in God and another 18 percent in a higher power, compared to 94 percent of the general public. On the list of long-ago scientists who believed in God are Galileo, Descartes, Pascal, and Newton; more modern names have been added, such as Lord Kelvin, Max Planck, and Francis Collins.
So, to say that scientists don't believe in God is a gross generalization. However, it is true that there are fewer believers in God among professionals in the scientific community than among the general public. Why?
For some scientists, atheism is a matter of faith, not of evidence. Hungarian biologist George Klein wrote to a Christian colleague, "I am indeed an atheist. My attitude is not based on science but rather on faith, just as you have your faith. The absence of a creator, the nonexistence of God is my childhood faith, my adult belief, unshakable and holy."
Other scientists deny God's existence because of a commitment to materialism. Francis Crick, a molecular biologist, biophysicist, and neuroscientist, was a materialist to the core. Materialism teaches that there is nothing in the cosmos besides matter and energy. The supernatural does not exist, and there is no such thing as thought, consciousness, or the soul. Crick even went so far as to predict that science would one day find that the act of prayer changes a neurotransmitter in the brain and induces a positive effect on the person praying.
Some scientists reject faith because of personal experiences. Marie Curie, the only scientist to win two Nobel Prizes in two different science categories, became an atheist or agnostic after the deaths of her mother and sister. It's possible that this loss influenced her theological beliefs. Alan Turing, a mathematician and groundbreaking computer scientist, lost faith in God after the death of his first love. Refusing to believe a loving God would allow her death, Turing embraced materialism.
Some scientists simply see no use for God. Paul Dirac was a forefather of quantum mechanics. He believed science was well on its way to describing the universe in detail, and he saw religion as a political tool. String-theorist Brian Greene says, "Most scientists like to operate in the context of economy. If you don't need an explanatory principle, don't invoke it."
Some atheistic scientists come from a religious background and purposefully reject it. Richard Leakey, a paleontologist and conservationist from Kenya, is the grandson of missionaries but was disillusioned with any kind of faith in God.
Some scientists see faith and science as mutually exclusive. James Watson, who with Francis Crick discovered the double-helix structure of DNA, thought belief in God would preclude his love of science. He loved science more than God.
There are scientists who simply don't bother thinking about God. Steven Weinberg, a Nobel Prize laureate for his work in particle physics, said, "The experience of being a scientist makes religion seem fairly irrelevant. Most scientists I know simply don't think about it very much. They don't think about religion enough to qualify as practicing atheists."
Some scientists are religious but deny any reality beyond tradition and ritual. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist portrayed by Robin Williams in the movie Awakenings, loves religion and feels comfortable in both Orthodox Jewish and Catholic settings. He explains that "nature itself seems so wonderful that I don't feel a hunger for any concept beyond it."
In short, scientists reject faith in God for the same reasons anyone else does. Their atheism is built on some foundational choices:
1) They choose to worship "created things rather than the Creator" (Romans 1:25 NIV).
2) They choose to embrace "opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge" (1 Timothy 6:20 NIV).
3) They choose to retain their sin instead of repenting (John 3:19).
4) They choose to limit their definition of truth to what can be empirically discovered. Unfortunately, the truth of God cannot be discovered via the scientific method. "The world through its wisdom did not know him" (1 Corinthians 1:21 NIV).
5) They choose pride over humility (James 4:6).
One other reason for their rejection of God has to do with the enemy of their souls. "The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers" (2 Corinthians 4:4). We must never forget that we are involved in a spiritual battle. The human intellect, no matter how lofty, must be redeemed by Christ.
God gives grace to the humble. "For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards … But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise" (1 Corinthians 1:26-27).
Of course, not all scientists reject God. Dr. Francis S. Collins is the former head of the National Human Genome Research Institute. As a young man, Collins was well on his way to atheism when a woman dying of heart disease confronted him about his beliefs. He realized that none of his scientific work answered the bigger questions in life. Later, a minister gave him C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity. Something about the irrefutability of natural moral law resonated with him, and he became a Christian. The moment Dr. Collins was saved, there was "rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God" (Luke 15:10 NIV).
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