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Leading scientists still reject God

Sir — The question of religious belief Table 1 Comparison of survey answers among intellectual and affective communication
among US scientists has been debated since “greater” scientists with humankind” and in “personal
early in the century. Our latest survey finds Belief in personal God 1914 1933 1998 immortality”. Respondents had the options
that, among the top natural scientists,
disbelief is greater than ever — almost total.
Research on this topic began with the
Personal belief
Personal disbelief
Doubt or agnosticism
of affirming belief, disbelief or agnosticism
on each question1. Our survey contained
precisely the same questions and also asked
eminent US psychologist James H. Leuba for anonymous responses.
and his landmark survey of 1914. He found Belief in human 1914 1933 1998 Leuba sent the 1914 survey to 400
that 58% of 1,000 randomly selected US immortality “biological and physical scientists”, with the
scientists expressed disbelief or doubt in the Personal belief 35.2 18 7.9 latter group including mathematicians as
existence of God, and that this figure rose to Personal disbelief 25.4 53 76.7 well as physicists and astronomers1. Because
near 70% among the 400 “greater” scientists Doubt or agnosticism 43.7 29 23.3 of the relatively small size of NAS
within his sample1. Leuba repeated his Figures are percentages. membership, we sent our survey to all 517
survey in somewhat different form 20 years scientists it was 79.0% and 76.3%. Most of NAS members in those core disciplines.
later, and found that these percentages had the rest were agnostics on both issues, with Leuba obtained a return rate of about 70%
increased to 67 and 85, respectively 2. few believers. We found the highest in 1914 and more than 75% in 1933
In 1996, we repeated Leuba’s 1914 percentage of belief among NAS whereas our returns stood at about 60% for
survey and reported our results in Nature 3. mathematicians (14.3% in God, 15.0% in the 1996 survey and slightly over 50% from
We found little change from 1914 for immortality). Biological scientists had the NAS members1,2.
American scientists generally, with 60.7% lowest rate of belief (5.5% in God, 7.1% in As we compiled our findings, the NAS
expressing disbelief or doubt. This year, we immortality), with physicists and issued a booklet encouraging the teaching
closely imitated the second phase of Leuba’s astronomers slightly higher (7.5% in God, of evolution in public schools, an ongoing
1914 survey to gauge belief among “greater” 7.5% in immortality). Overall comparison source of friction between the scientific
scientists, and find the rate of belief lower figures for the 1914, 1933 and 1998 surveys community and some conservative
than ever — a mere 7% of respondents. appear in Table 1. Christians in the United States. The booklet
Leuba attributed the higher level of Repeating Leuba’s methods presented assures readers, “Whether God exists or not
disbelief and doubt among “greater” challenges. For his general surveys, he is a question about which science is
scientists to their “superior knowledge, randomly polled scientists listed in the neutral”5. NAS president Bruce Alberts said:
understanding, and experience”2. Similarly, standard reference work, American Men of “There are many very outstanding
Oxford University scientist Peter Atkins Science (AMS). We used the current edition. members of this academy who are very
commented on our 1996 survey, “You In Leuba’s day, AMS editors designated the religious people, people who believe in
clearly can be a scientist and have religious “great scientists” among their entries, and evolution, many of them biologists.” Our
beliefs. But I don’t think you can be a real Leuba used these to identify his “greater” survey suggests otherwise.
scientist in the deepest sense of the word scientists1,2. The AMS no longer makes Edward J. Larson
because they are such alien categories of these designations, so we chose as our Department of History, University of Georgia,
knowledge.”4 Such comments led us to “greater” scientists members of the NAS, a Athens, Georgia 30602-6012, USA
repeat the second phase of Leuba’s study for status that once assured designation as e-mail: edlarson@uga.edu
an up-to-date comparison of the religious “great scientists” in the early AMS. Our Larry Witham
beliefs of “greater” and “lesser” scientists. method surely generated a more elite 3816 Lansdale Court, Burtonsville,
Our chosen group of “greater” scientists sample than Leuba’s method, which (if the Maryland 20866, USA
were members of the National Academy of quoted comments by Leuba and Atkins are
Sciences (NAS). Our survey found near correct) may explain the extremely low level 1. Leuba, J. H. The Belief in God and Immortality: A Psychological,
Anthropological and Statistical Study (Sherman, French & Co.,
universal rejection of the transcendent by of belief among our respondents. Boston, 1916).
NAS natural scientists. Disbelief in God and For the 1914 survey, Leuba mailed his 2. Leuba, J. H. Harper’s Magazine 169, 291–300 (1934).
immortality among NAS biological brief questionnaire to a random sample of 3. Larson, E. J. & Witham, L. Nature 386, 435–436 (1997).
scientists was 65.2% and 69.0%, 400 AMS “great scientists”. It asked about 4. Highfield, R. The Daily Telegraph 3 April, p. 4 (1997).
5. National Academy of Sciences Teaching About Evolution and the
respectively, and among NAS physical the respondent’s belief in “a God in Nature of Science (Natl Acad. Press, Washington DC, 1998).

eloquently expounded recently by Chen-Lu confronting the nation, it may appear

Dilemma over genetics Tsou2 — the discourse may not produce logical to concentrate on the segments of its
significant tangible results. society considered the least productive and
and population in China We acknowledge that the Chinese least able to contribute to the future, if a
Sir — As you write in a recent editorial, the Maternal and Infant Health Law, which has major effort is launched to reduce its
forthcoming 18th International Congress been the focus of much recent debate, population size 3.
on Genetics in Beijing will provide a rare represents a well-intentioned step towards But the good intention of the law is
opportunity to continue discourse on the reducing the burden of debilitating diseases seriously undermined by its shaky scientific
ethics and science of eugenics1. But a perceived to be hereditary. By sheer scale, foundations. For example, where is the
number of fundamental problems facing the enormous social and economic cost to evidence that 20 million people are
geneticists in China deserve mention. the most populous nation has no equal in handicapped by hereditary diseases? In a
Without a thorough understanding and the world, and would surely prompt any nation where more than half the adult male
awareness of these problems and their sensible society to react. Indeed, given the population smoke, and environmental
cultural and psychological roots — as urgency of the population problem pollution is rampant in some areas, could a
NATURE | VOL 394 | 23 JULY 1998 Nature © Macmillan Publishers Ltd 1998 313
significant proportion of those presumed nationalism, coupled with the lack of the resignation and exile of most of the
hereditary handicaps be prevented by a ‘checks and balances’ in the system, research personnel. In 1966, the military
reduction in smoking, a cleaner provides a recipe for abuse. Ironically, destroyed the School of Exact and Natural
environment, and improved pre-, peri- and efforts to protect China’s human genetic Sciences of the University of Buenos Aires
postnatal care? Should one take the current resources are seriously compromised by (“Exactas”), beating and incarcerating
search for genetic mechanisms underlying inadequate research in basic genetic researchers, and had the laboratories
many complex diseases or disorders, such as epidemiology. exorcised by a priest. Luis Botet was
schizophrenia, as the fait accompli that these
diseases are preventable through
sterilization? How strong is the evidence
The best protection against over-
politicization and ignorance may be
an overhaul of China’s research evaluation
appointed president of the university by the
military: he fired all scientists who
expressed solidarity with their Exactas
that enforcement of the law alone will and grant review systems. For example, colleagues. Hence, 1,315 scientists left the
prevent many or all of the handicaps? experts from other countries should be country.
Without solid documentation, any claims invited to participate in evaluating large In 1976, Raul Matera, undersecretary of
about the law and its intended effects are scientific grant applications and science and technology, bought 40
merely opinions, without scientific research institutions. For a poor country crucifixes for CONICET’s offices, despite
validation. such as China, this is also the best way the small amount of money available for
The fact, as pointed out by the sponsor to ensure that scarce and meagre resources research. The Argentinian government
of the law, that births of “inferior quality” are well spent. The science part of the passed a law of amnesty to pardon all the
are relatively more common among eugenics law — which unfortunately has military involved in torturing and
“the old revolutionary base, ethnic no quick fix — requires years of basic murdering tens of thousands of people, as
minorities, the frontier, and economically genetic research which will ultimately well as a law of punto final (no more
poor areas” 4 suggests that many benefit not only the Chinese people, but all questions asked), but refused to
so-called “inferior births” may in humankind. compensate researchers who had been
fact be of environmental origin, and so The opinions expressed here are the fired and deprived of their labs. In 1990,
preventable through improved living authors’ own and should not be taken to finance minister Domingo Cavallo said
standards and better pre-, peri- and post- represent those of their institutions. that he would prefer scientists “to wash
natal care (for example, taking folic acid, Sun-Wei Guo dishes”. Accordingly, those 3,000
reducing perinatal trauma, and eliminating Institute of Human Genetics and researchers referred to in your editorial are
iodine deficiency). Division of Epidemiology, paid meagre salaries, and have almost no
The law was drafted with input University of Minnesota, money to run their labs. Argentina has a far
from geneticists in China, but it is 1300 South Second Street, Suite 300, larger and more productive community of
questionable whether the scientific Minneapolis, Minnesota 55454-1015, USA researchers in exile abroad than it has at
part of the law was based on the best e-mail: swguo@med.umn.edu home.
knowledge available. Judging from Chang-Jiang Zheng To appreciate the quality of Argentinian
Chinese human genetics textbooks and Epidemiology, Statistics, Data System Branch, researchers, one has only to note that they
scant publications in international National Institute on Deafness and Other publish in the best international journals,
journals, it is evident that basic research Communication Disorders, they frequently work in first-rate
in genetic epidemiology is still in its infancy Bethesda, Maryland 20892, USA universities in Britain, France and the
in China. This situation is undeniably the C. C. Li United States, and are awarded all types of
result of political turmoil and the chronic Department of Human Genetics, distinctions, including the Nobel prize.
shortage of government funds for this type University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Argentina has some poorly financed
of research. Pennsylvania 15261-0001, USA research, but no science, because while the
The lack of a rigorous grant review first depends on the ability of a few
1. Nature 392, 109 (1998).
system allows scope for excessive 2. Tsou, C.-L. Science 280, 528–529 (1998).
thousand, science is a way of interpreting
importance to be given to popular 3. Neel, J. V. Perspect. Biol. Med. 40, 328 (1997). reality that Argentina has never developed.
acclaim and to the political goals of 4. Dickson, D. Nature 367, 3 (1994). Thus, not a single workers’ union or society
5. Swinbanks, D. Nature 394, 109 (1998).
scientific research in allocating funding. of entrepreneurs complained when the
In a country where political loyalty is universities were destroyed. Consequently,
often considered more important than today masses of unemployed people beg
scientific talent and integrity, this can
be an effective strategy for attracting
Science in the firing line San Cayetano (the patron saint of workers)
for work.
government funds. in Argentina Argentina is not willing to accept that, in
Indeed, the recent substantial increase order to develop science, an ethical
in funding for genetic research in China5 Sir — I am appalled by your editorial of transformation is required, not just of its
was largely the result of a letter to the 16 April, asserting that Argentina’s national scientific infrastructure but of its society in
Chinese president from a prominent research council (CONICET) spends general. Its ideal seems to be to combine
geneticist urging protection of China’s nearly all its money on 3,000 staff technology with theology. For local
human genetic resources, because of the scientists but has now set up a new governments, science is something that
fear of losing the resources to foreign agency, in collaboration with industry, to comes only after countries become rich. So
organizations. produce sound science (Nature 392, 635; they appoint managers to decide scientific
As for issues relating to international 1998). matters.
collaboration, the importance given to I would like to mention a few facts and Marcelino Cereijido
popular acclaim and political goals can events that influenced the careers of those Centro de Investigation y de Estudios Avanzados,
easily lead to narrow-minded nationalism, 3,000 researchers. In 1961, a secretary of Fisiologia, Biofisica y Neurociencias,
which can be generated by provoking state who did not tolerate Jews fired the Apartado Postal 14-740,
painful memories of imperialist aggression director of the Malbran Institute of 07000 Mexico
and humiliation in the past. This type of Immunology, Ignacio Pirosky, provoking e-mail: cereijido@laneta.apc.org

314 Nature © Macmillan Publishers Ltd 1998 NATURE | VOL 394 | 23 JULY 1998