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When I was an engineering student, I had many friends who were atheist, or otherwise became so as the years progressed, including myself. Because I grew up with a religious background, I tend to notice when others took the same turn in the road as I have, but I can't help noticing that most of these people have engineering backgrounds. I'm wondering if the nature of the studies is less conducive to the belief in any religion.

Is there any statistical evidence that shows that engineering (or science) students / graduates have a high percentage of atheists?

Update: I found an article stating that there are high number of scientists being atheist, but I'm not sure how credible it is:
Popsugar social blog about statistics of scientists being atheist

Only 33% of scientists believe in "God" while another 18% believe in a "universal spirit" or "higher power". (See source 1. ) The study concluded that scientists are less likely to believe in a "God" or "Higher Power" as the general public.

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Welcome to the site. I've corrected your question to refer to the claim you cite. –  Sklivvz Apr 19 '12 at 20:14
You mean in general (i.e. world-wide) or in <insert your country here>? –  Martin Scharrer Apr 19 '12 at 20:40
I'm in the US, but it would be nice to know if the statistic is uniform across the world (if it is even statistically significant). The world stat might be hard to find though, so USA is OK. –  John Apr 19 '12 at 20:48
Do agnostics count as well? –  nico Apr 19 '12 at 20:53
@John, attempting to separate atheists and agnostics is very difficult though.. Atheism is a statement regarding the acceptance of any god hypothesis (i.e. rejection of that hypothesis). Agnosticism is a statement of the degree of knowledge that is attainable in that position. For instance, it is easy to say someone is an agnostic atheist, or a gnostic theist. They are two orthogonal axes, such as displayed in this diagram: media.photobucket.com/image/recent/Sleipnir123/wu2p3r.png (And there is the separate positions for each defined god perhaps?) –  Larian LeQuella Apr 19 '12 at 23:38
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3 Answers

up vote 41 down vote accepted

There have been several studies over the years on the rates of atheism in the top scientists in various fields, the people who are recognized as being highly accomplished. This is a letter in Nature in 1998 describing the findings of the most recent iteration of this study.

In 1998, members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences were polled on their beliefs in human immortality and a personal god. Only 7% of the respondents reported belief in a personal god. In earlier versions of this study (in 1914 and 1933), with different groups of "greater scientists," rates of belief in a personal god are always less 30%.

Moving down a step in terms of scientific street cred, there was also a 2007 paper which surveyed 1,646 academic scientists at 21 top universities on their belief in god. Their findings show rates of atheism at about 30% and agnosticism also at 30%, and find that the rates are not dependent on academic discipline; academic scientists in the natural and social sciences have similar rates of atheism.

In contrast to the high rates of atheism among academic professionals, there was a study carried out by The Pew Forum on religious belief in the general population along with several other social factors, including education. 17% of American adults surveyed identified as "unaffiliated" and only 1.6% of the population said that the were atheists and 2.4% agnostic. The ~4% of the general population that identify as non-believers is clearly significantly different than the ~60% of professors and ~90% of top scientists who are non-believers. The Pew study also shows that in the population of adults with at least a high school diploma, rates of atheism do not increase with increasing educational attainment.

This neat plot, from a Discover Magazine blog post graphs the amount of Biblical literalism in a specific religion vs the amount of postgraduate education level of its adherents found in the Pew Forum survey.

As for students in the sciences going through a change from theism to atheism, a 2009 study of 26,200 college students over 6 years actually showed that students in the social sciences and humanities are more likely to become less involved in, and lose interest in, their religion than students in the physical sciences. The explanation the authors give for the lack of change among science students is two fold: 1) Religions have already effectively worked to integrate belief in science with belief in religion, so learning about science doesn't change the way a student views the world and 2) There's a lower level of religiosity in science students to start with. Very religious students are drawn to humanities and social sciences degrees, and have more potential for a significant change in their religiosity than the less religious students in the physical sciences.

Bottom line: Becoming a scientist doesn't seem to make you an atheist, but badass scientists tend to be atheists.

(This has been a guest answer by my wife, an atheist pre-badass scientist, who refuses to sign up for anything)

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Please thank your wife, and reassure her that Stack Exchange sites allow you to contribute questions and answers and earn reputation, without signing up. And even if you do sign up, it can be completely anonymous. Also, tell her I love the idea of "scientific street cred"; it evokes images of a street gang suddenly backing off, apologising and running away, when they realise the person they are harassing has a high h-index. –  Oddthinking Apr 20 '12 at 5:28
Give your wife mad props! Her answer kicks the snot out of mine! –  Larian LeQuella Apr 20 '12 at 7:16
+1 I think the fact reports showed 30% of people are agnostic to be quite interesting. Bare in mind being agnostic doesn't always mean a 50/50 split. A lot of scientists, by definition, refer to themselves as agnostic, as claiming there is 100% no god, without proof, doesn't fit within scientific reasoning. An agnostic could believe the chance of there being a god being as likely as a "flying spaghetti monster", but they cannot disprove this. Therefore claiming to be an atheist would be unscientific. –  Curt Apr 20 '12 at 8:52
@Curt And I just mean that I've never met an atheist who defined atheism that way. How does not believing in any gods imply that you're 100% certain that no gods exist or could possibly exist? This something that seems to come up a lot, but does anyone actually claim to believe that? And what's the point of redefining atheism so that it doesn't exist? –  Brendan Long Apr 20 '12 at 22:46
Curt, I think you missed the point of that blurb on Dawkins. The graphic below describes why atheism is completely reasonable. Atheism means not believing gods exist, agnosticism is believing that we can't know with certainty that they do not exist. Atheism and agnosticism are orthogonal; you can be both. Claiming agnosticism really just says that the person reporting they're an agnostic instead of an atheist doesn't know the real difference between the two labels. Agnostic atheism is the position most in line with science. –  Tacroy Apr 21 '12 at 1:37
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This question will be very difficult to answer to the standards that this site demands. That is mostly because it is so difficult to actually come to a coherent definition of an atheist, as well as to actually determine what different reports say and mean... There is a joke on some atheist community forums that the word atheist means: "The only people who really are concerned what the word atheist really means." As I said in the comment section, it's hard to even pin down the basic spectrum of where someone falls.

So even having this image as a guide (which is still a way over simplification of things, which goes to show that it's even harder than this!), we still have the difficulty of people identifying themselves in one area or another.

Spectrum of belief and non-belief

For instance, concerning the god of the bible, or koran, I consider myself a gnostic atheist because that god has failed every claim made in those books. However, if someone starts talking about a deistic type of deity, then I must admit that I am an agnostic atheist, because such a god hypothesis doesn't materially affect our universe in any way, and as such there is no testable criteria to put that hypothesis to.

Now, in regards to your specific question, let's have some fun! Lets go to a website called "god and science" (a christian apologetic site). They introduce their page by saying:

In the early 20th century, studies showed that scientists were less likely than the general population to believe in the existence of God.1 A survey conducted in 1969 showed that 35% of scientists did not believe that God existed.2 In contrast, recent surveys on religious belief have shown that 90 percent of Americans believe in God and 40 percent attend a place of worship weekly.3 Is a lack of belief in God among scientists due to their higher intelligence and knowledge?

Of course, their conclusion leaves a great deal to be desired (emphasis mine):

It is true that scientists believe less in the existence of God than the general population of the United States. However, the recent study by Ecklund, and Scheitle reveals that the most important factors in belief were related to upbringing and family status, and not area of expertise. The fact that social scientists as well as those in the natural sciences expressed nearly the same disbelief in God suggests that rejection of God's existence is not a result of knowledge in any particular area of expertise. It is likely that those who have rejected religious morality (i.e., those who were cohabiting) wanted to justify their behavior by saying that there was very little truth in any religion.

Okay, enough fun, how about serious studies? Well, one scientist comes right out and asks why scientists in his field are atheists. Sean Carrol of CalTech concludes in a paper:

The question we have addressed is, ''Thinking as good scientists and observing the world in which we live, is it more reasonable to conclude that a materialist or theist picture is most likely to ultimately provide a comprehensive description of the universe?'' Although I don't imagine I have changed many people's minds, I do hope that my reasoning has been clear. We are looking for a complete, coherent, and simple understanding of reality. Given what we know about the universe, there seems to be no reason to invoke God as part of this description. In the various ways in which God might have been judged to be a helpful hypothesis --- such as explaining the initial conditions for the universe, or the particular set of fields and couplings discovered by particle physics --- there are alternative explanations which do not require anything outside a completely formal, materialist description. I am therefore led to conclude that adding God would just make things more complicated, and this hypothesis should be rejected by scientific standards. It's a venerable conclusion, brought up to date by modern cosmology; but the dialogue between people who feel differently will undboubtedly last a good while longer.

Donald Simanek of Lock Haven University summarizes a great number of the studies that are out there. He does add in some observations about the general difficulty of getting a straight answer in such a hyper religious country such as the US (which seems to be a statistical anomaly amongst first world nations), that also harbours many prejudices against atheists. It's basically the same paper that was mentioned in a comment to another answer.

As to the specific answer again, it's hard to find anything that says one thing or another definitively because we aren't privileged to see the raw data. A Rice University article states:

Natural scientists are less likely to believe in God than are social scientists

However, in reading the entire article, it doesn't do a great deal of analysis. It does state:

Nearly 38 percent of natural scientists surveyed said they did not believe in God, but only 31 percent of the social scientists gave that response.

Among each of the two general groups, one discipline stood out: Forty-one percent of the biologists and 27 percent of the political scientists said they don’t believe in God.

These numbers are higher than the percentages given in the general US population (which have been reported as anywhere from 3% to 15% depending on who you ask. Lies, damn lies, and statistics...).

I am attempting to locate another study which did a more thurough breakdown of specific fields of study and belief in god, whoever I am unable to locate it at the moment. The basic conclusion from that study was that mathematicians were the most likely to believe in a god, followed by engineers, and physicists least likely. However, that study is escaping my google-fu.

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I disagree with your first bit, which is armchair/d&d philosophy/oversimplified. It also assumes a single God hypothesis, which is a wrong assumption. I like the second part :-) –  Sklivvz Apr 20 '12 at 6:57
To be clear, most atheists I know subscribe to some form of Theological noncognitivism which doesn't have a place in your 2x2 diagram. –  Sklivvz Apr 20 '12 at 6:59
@Sklivvz agreed, it is an over simplification. Which further goes to show that getting any sort of accurate assessment of an answer to the question is all the harder! –  Larian LeQuella Apr 20 '12 at 7:11
I am not sure whether the gnostic/agnostic division even makes sense for atheism. Imagine a belief that there is a teapot revolving around the Sun. Do I have a 100% proof it isn't there? No. Do I consider this hypothesis likely, do I spend any time contemplating it? No. So does this make me a no-space-teapot gnostic or a no-space-teapot agnostic? Would you classify an average person as a no-space-teapot gnostic or a no-space-teapot agnostic? –  Viliam Búr May 21 '13 at 13:11
@ViliamBúr it's a spectrum. Those aren't hard lines. Furthermore, those really aren't all the levels of knowledge and theism either. It's a simplified diagram. IGnosticism isn't there. As well as Pantheism. As well as many other permutations. The human condition can never really be simplified, but this graphic captures a large number of people on the position of god(s). And Russell's teapot was more about placing the burden on the claimant (as it should be) which the religious constantly ignore. –  Larian LeQuella May 22 '13 at 1:57
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Here are some figures: http://www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/sci_relig.htm

But, it's a tricky question, and this is why.

Being religious requires having beliefs which are not based on valid evidence - being a scientist requires abandoning all belief altogether, and forming opinions that are based on valid evidence.

So, the scientific mind set is fundamentally incompatible with the religious mindset. Science does not require one to believe or not to believe in God/Gods - it only requires that, if one forms an opinion about the topic, one bases that opinion on evidence, and make the evidence public, ready to be scrutinized and put to the test of time.

Thus, it's not surprising that great many scientists are atheist.

Note that being an atheist simply means not believing in a deity or deities. Being a scientist requires you to go a step beyond that - science recognizes that noting is 100% certain, so, a scientist cannot truly be a gnostic atheist.

One can, however, make claims about the existence of a specific kind of God (the Christian God, Allah, Zeus...), and form an evidence-based opinion.

This is why any scientist who claims to be a believer is essentially living by double standards. In that sense, 100% of scientists are atheist. Some small X% of them don't seem to know it. :D

EDIT: I've been asked to expand on this, so here.

However, note that my point was that such figures don't really answer your question - the question is fundamentally ill-posed. None who values the principles of modern scientific thought (form models based on available valid evidence) can honestly claim that is simultaneously religious in the same sense religious people are (who form models of reality based on invalid "evidence", essentially hearsay).

It's what being a scientist is by definition. (science, scientist)

The article I linked to shows some figures, for 1914, 1933, 1998:

 BELIEF IN PERSONAL GOD          1914   1933    1998

 Personal belief                 27.7    15       7.0
 Personal disbelief              52.7    68      72.2
 Doubt or agnosticism            20.9    17      20.8

 BELIEF IN IMMORTALITY           1914    1933    1998

 Personal belief                 35.2    18       7.9
 Personal disbelief              25.4    53      76.7
 Doubt or agnosticism            43.7    29      23.3

Note: The 1998 immortality figures add up to more than 100%. The misprint is in the original. The 76.7% is likely too high.

Note high percentages for non-belief. But, how was the study done?

Larson and Witham present the results of a replication of 1913 and 1933 surveys by James H. Leuba. In those surveys, Leuba mailed a questionnaire to leading scientists asking about their belief in "a God in intellectual and affective communication with humankind" and in "personal immortality". Larson and Witham used the same wording [as in the Leuba studies], and sent their questionnaire to 517 members of the [U.S.] National Academy of Sciences from the biological and physical sciences (the latter including mathematicians, physicists and astronomers). The return rate was slightly over 50%.

Ask yourself this: are this questions good? The word "belief" is problematic - as it doesn't have the same meaning for religious and opinion-based belief. So, what does a scientist mean when by "personal belief" or "personal disbelief", exactly? Are they talking about the concept of God (creator, ultimate cause) in general, or is it a deity with more specific characteristics? Is there doubt in disbelief?

My point is, studies like this don't paint a representative picture. If the right questions were asked, the percentage would be much lower (now that's an unsupported claim - but different at least). If a scientist would provide evidence for God, and this evidence was confirmed, and most scientists started "believing" that there in fact is a God, this wouldn't classify them as theists - as their "belief" would actually be an opinion based on factual evidence.

And yes, they could be wrong. But science doesn't forbid you to be wrong - it only asks of you to admit it when you are presented with contradicting evidence. Religion, however, does - if you doubt, you're doomed. And that is just not compatible with science.

Those few who have religious beliefs would never apply such reasoning to scientific research, and if they did, they would be laughed at, as that is not science, and they wouldn't be able to defend their claims. So such people have double standards.

Another thing: creationists and the like are not scientists - not because of their claims, but because of invalid (even fabricated) evidence, and because of flawed logic they use to support them.

I know many of you won't like this answer - but there you have it, and it's all yours to judge.

OK. Maybe this answer is not quite adequate, but that's because the question, as posed, doesn't really make sense - at least not without first precisely defining terms like "belief", "atheist", and even "scientist".

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Welcome to Skeptics! This may shock and surprise you, but some people have different views of religion from you. I realise this must mean they are surely wrong, but in the mean time, if you can't provide some references to empirical data to support your claims, please remove them. Your opening sentence may turn out to be useful. Please expand on what is at that link. –  Oddthinking Apr 20 '12 at 23:37
I'm going to have one more try. (a) Despite being not religious, you clearly have some strong views about religion. These need support, as others disagree. (b) Let's take an example: I have a dear friend who works in research at a university, funded by scientific research organisations, using the scientific method to write papers that are published in scientific journals. She is clearly a scientist, by the cited definition. And she believes in some elements of the supernatural. So running through your argument: –  Oddthinking Apr 21 '12 at 2:09
"being a scientist requires abandoning all belief altogether" - clearly not true, by counterexample. "the scientific mind set is fundamentally incompatible with the religious mindset" - not true, by counter example. "Some [...] don't seem to know it." You are claiming to know better about what someone believes than they do. "So such people have double standards." Okay, we are getting somewhere here; but what if many people had double standards and had some areas of their belief that were not subject to scientific scrutiny. Wouldn't that undermine your whole argument? –  Oddthinking Apr 21 '12 at 2:13
In essence, you are applying the "No True Scotsman" fallacy, to define scientists as only those people who apply the scientific method to their religious beliefs, and having done so, draw the same conclusions you do. If you loosen the definition to those who formally practice science for a living, and acknowledge that as humans they are not all rational all of the time, your arguments become inapplicable. –  Oddthinking Apr 21 '12 at 2:16
I have down voted you because a large part of your answer is misinterpreting facts. Please limit your answer to them and be careful about your wording. Take the facts and stick to them: if 7% of scientists are believers, it's possible, by facts, to be both a scientist and a believer and your statements about "requirements" and "fundamental incompatibility" are factually wrong statements. Please stick to facts and facts only on this site. –  Sklivvz Apr 21 '12 at 8:17
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