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Specialized Atheism

I'm currently reading The Physics of Immortality by Frank Tipler, which describes the Omega Point theory, or physics' definition of God. I'm not far enough along to offer substantive commentary, but I just flipped through to the end-notes, and found a comment that I had to address.

In attempting to show that belief in God will dissipate as society becomes technologically further advanced unless science is able to "discover" God, Tipler offers the following:

... a 1981 Gallup poll of leading American scientists (defined as scientists listed in Marquis' Who's Who in America) showed that to the question "Do you believe in life after death, or not?" 68% answered "no," 16% answered "no opinion," and only 16% answered "yes." Furthermore, a 1981 Gallup poll of American doctors and medical scientists (defined as persons in the field of medicine listed in Marquis' Who's Who in America) showed that to the question "Do you believe in life after death, or not?" 60% answered "no," 8% answered "no opinion," and only 32% answered "yes" (Gallup 1982, pp.207–12). Thus, even in America, the better educated a person is in the sciences, the more likely it is that the person will disbelieve in life after death.

Unfortunately, as Tipler admits, none of the surveys from which he is working made any attempt to ascertain when belief in God and life after death evaporated, if it was ever held. (Note that we have only the statistics for "life after death," which as figures below illustrate tends to receive a significantly lower percentage of "yes" responses than belief in God.) It might also be instructive to compare responses of the general public correlated to level of scientific education (Tipler shows that "education" broadly defined does not appear correlated to belief in God). As it is, there's no basis to declare a trend, considering that our two points are "general public" and "leading scientists."

Regardless, the factor that Tipler doesn't seem inclined to address is that scientists and doctors have pursued careers that require a specialized way of thinking. They have learned to focus on only that which they can see (or formulate in a provable equation). In other words, their education has trained them to investigate the material world and to disregard that which cannot yield repeatable results. This is entirely speculation, but I can't help but feel that doctors' closer work with individuals and occupational value for life help to explain why they are twice as likely to believe in life after death. And the fact that the scientists are (were) only as likely to have "no opinion" as to say "yes" suggests to me that there is an institutional atheism perpetuated through peer-group conceit rooted in that specialized focus. (If it were level of education and scientific understanding that shifted opinions from "yes" to "no," I would expect the doubters to number somewhere between the two, particularly among a supposedly "objective" group.)

Of further interest is a related sequence of thought within the same end-note. Tipler offers tables for international responses (in 1981) to the questions "Do you believe in the existence of God or a universal spirit?" and "Do you believe there is a life after death?" As shown in the following figures, which I've whipped up, the nations listed range from 95% (U.S.A.) to 52% (Sweden), for belief in God, and 76% (Irish Republic) to 26% (Denmark), for life after death. From this information, Tipler concludes, "Thus we see that disbelief is positively correlated with high standards of living—with the level of technological advancement—among the First World nations." Unfortunately (again), Tipler doesn't show where he gets his standard of living data from, nor does he address the question of whether it is moral turpitude bred by complacency that leads to the dwindling numbers of believers.

But again, the distribution of the non-yes answers implies, in my mind, a cultural bias rather than technological comprehension (remembering that Europe drank much more deeply from the pool of socialism than did the United States). The trend of disbelief is exactly the opposite of the trend of belief. In other words, for both questions, the "yes" category slopes down while the "no" category slopes up. This is predictable; however, in both cases, the "don't know" category is erratic. Again, this is only speculation, but if the diminishing belief were a result of increasing knowledge, I would expect the "don't knows" to be somewhere between the confident answers. As the numbers stand, this is only the case for two countries (U.S.A. and Northern Ireland), and only for the first question (existence of God).

Putting the two chunks of data together, Tipler states, "it is a strong exposure to science that corrodes belief in God, and the results of the European poll could indicate that the average European has more exposure than the average American." Let's just say that I'm skeptical that the general populations of France and Denmark are exposed to science nearly as much as leading American doctors are.

To address what I consider to be the most obvious objection to the above, I thought I'd explain, a little, why I would expect the "don't knows" to be between the confident answers if it were a trend of knowledge. Tipler is emphasizing, here, the movement of science supplanting religion. My point is simply that, if increasing knowledge were replacing religious tradition and emotional desire, it seems reasonable that people would be inclined to resist the change or to be torn between the two. Disbelief is, after all, still a matter of "belief."

Unless there is some specific level of scientific study at which the light of faith predictably goes off, it would seem that something else is at work, here, to make "yes" go so quickly to "no" than a working knowledge of the universe. Indeed, Tipler introduces both the European and "leading scientist" data in an attempt to undermine strong evidence that there was not, in fact, a significant decrease in Americans' faith from 1944 to 1988, a period of tremendous technological advancement as well as increases in average amount of education.

The deciding factor does not appear to have much to do with improved ability to consider all aspects of the debate. Therefore, it is not as crucial as Tipler makes it out to be that scientists save religion by discovering God. For starters, they could get over themselves and admit the limits of their studies and of the frame of mind that they require. The problem can be addressed from the other side, as well, among the theologians, who could do a better job of using their religious understanding to address and filter the advances of science.

Posted by Justin Katz @ 11:19 PM EST