Of all scientists, mathematicians are most inclined to believe in God. – A finding of Professor Edward Larson of the University of Georgia and Larry Witham of Bartonsville, Maryland, in a survey of 600 scientists, as reported by the London Weekly Telegraph.
In 1916, Professor James Leuba of Bryn Mawr University in Pennsylvania surveyed the religious beliefs of scientists. He found that about 42% believed in God, almost exactly the same percentage did not, and another 16% described themselves as doubtful about God, although not convinced of his non-existence. In short, about 40% could be described as believers and 60% as unbelievers.
The Leuba survey created a sensation. Politicians expressed fears that university science courses would lead young people away from religion. Prof. Leuba himself envisioned a continuing trend away from God, so that by the end of the century few if any scientists would be believers.
Therefore, with the year 2000 close at hand, Prof. Larson and Mr. Witham conducted a matching survey. Had the Leuba prophecy come true? They found it had not. Belief and non-belief among scientists had not significantly changed. The total expressing belief was 39.3%, while 45.3% listed themselves as unbelievers and 14.5% as doubtful. The 60-40 ratio held.
This assumes, of course, that it has remained consistent throughout the century. It may not have. Prof. Leuba may have been right for a time as the number of believing scientists continued to shrink, but the trend may have later reversed.
The Larson-Witham survey did turn up some unexpected changes. Three disciplines were examined: physicists, biologists and mathematicians. In Prof. Leuba’s day, the most determined unbelievers were the biologists (69.5%). Today it's the physicists and astronomers, 77.9% of whom list themselves as such. Biologists, meanwhile, seem to have somewhat recovered their faith, though the Telegraph story did not cite a specific percentage.
The relatively improved faith of biologists may well be due to the gradual decline in credibility of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Too many holes have appeared in it, and biologists would be the first to become aware of this. They would know before anyone else, for instance, of the failure to discover the fossil remains of transitional species, of the failure of laboratory experiment to duplicate any evolutionary change and, most recently, of the profound complexities evidenced in the single cell, which Darwin regarded as “the simple cell.”
But it seems that faith is strongest today among the mathematicians, 44.6% describing themselves as definitely believing that behind reality there must be some kind of Mind. Wondering about this, we consulted two friends, one a retired physicist, the other a young mathematician. Both are believers. Why, we asked, would mathematicians be more prone to believe?
The physicist's answer went like this: “I suspect it comes from the role mathematics plays in the exploration of the solar system. After all, using nothing more complex than Newtonian mathematics, the mathematician calculates the necessities of sending a rocket from here to Venus where it orbits and gathers thrust from the rotation of that planet, then comes back and circles Earth, gathering further thrust from our planet, then goes to Jupiter and takes up a precisely calculated position around that planet. All on the basis of simple Newtonian maths. The mathematician marvels at this. He begins to see mathematics, not as a mere humanly contrived system, but as a great work of art by a great Creator, and he is awestruck.”
The mathematician, Mike Roshko of Edmonton, graduated in pure mathematics from the University of Alberta two years ago, found there were no jobs to be had in this line, and is now a computer programmer in Ottawa. He answered this way:
“For me, it’s amazing the way in which the seemingly different areas of mathematics fit together. When you begin studying advanced math, you tend to think of geometry, algebra, analysis and so on as separate entities, each beautiful and elegant on its own.
“But as you go on, you realize that these different areas are connected in the most astonishing yet natural ways. You may discover that what you thought of as purely a part of geometry turns out to be an essential part of algebra. And what we're dealing with is not just something we've made up. It's a reality. It’s there.
“And it all intertwines and works so perfectly, so beautifully, that you realize that Somebody or Something must have done this. It simply could not have happened by chance. It’s a kind of revelation, I guess. And it’s very convincing.”
By Ted and Virginia Byfeld, British Columbia Report, June 2, 1997, p. 31.