42% of biologists in the UK are female, with an average age of 37, and 47% are not from the UK. Not many labs keep a stock of funky pink lab coats, but the cartoon here is a reminder that the iconic picture of a Caucasian male (preferably with a mop of white fuzzy hair) is no longer representative of the average lab worker.
When sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund and her collaborators surveyed the population of British biologists, they found that gender, age, rank and institution seem to have no effect on whether a person is likely to feel a sense of religious belonging.* Some of the preliminary findings of this survey were presented at the Faraday Institute’s Uses and Abuses of Biology workshop in September, and it’s worth reading the full paper co-authored with Christopher Scheilte.
Ecklund’s earlier study on religion among scientists in the US showed that there are a significant number of scientists who describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’ (see earlier blogs). In the UK this group does not seem to exist. Perhaps, suggested Ecklund, the Church of England is so widely accepted as a cultural institution that people do not feel the need to distance themselves from religion.**
I was sad to find, however, that fewer UK-based biologists believe in God compared to the general population (53% and 82%, respectively). Perhaps these numbers are a sign that the Christians I know whose doubts about evolution led to them avoiding biology are not a minority. These statistics are a wakeup call for the church, particularly because the same paper provides evidence that working in a lab can bring experiences that might be called spiritual.
What stood out for me in this data were the examples of those scientists who have experienced a sense of awe in their work. One biologist explained how the things he saw in the lab helped his faith to grow.
… when I started studying science in a lot more detail, particularly biology, it seemed weird to think that all these very, very—I don’t even know how to say this—life is just so amazingly well adapted to whatever condition you could imagine on this planet. And it just seems so unlikely that things just happened by random that on occasions when I looked at my microscope and looked at these things, I do wonder if there wasn’t a creator after all. So controversial to general opinion … science … made me believe more and more in the idea of a higher conscience or a higher power than I ever did before.
I wouldn’t use this type of argument as ‘proof’ for God, and I suspect the biologist quoted would agree with me. What seems to have happened is that a more general sense of awe can make some people start asking big questions about meaning and purpose – even leading beyond science into philosophy or religion. I will be fascinated to see what Ecklund and her collaborators have found when they finish their study. How many people find that their work leads them in this direction?
*Though women are a little more likely to believe in God.
** Although 65% of biologists still did not belong to any particular religious group