Thursday, November 29, 2012

Does physics make you less religious?

I'm sure that this has never crossed your pure and innocent minds, but as a godless physicist, I fit into a sort of godless physicist stereotype.  But is there any truth to the stereotype?  Does studying physics tend to make you less religious?

Nope!  At least, not undergraduate physics.  According to this longitudinal study, studying biological or physical sciences has no overall effect on the religiosity of students.  Humanities and social sciences have a negative effect.  Education and business have a positive effect.  Or that's what the summary says.

I looked at the paper too, and as you'd expect there are a few more wrinkles.  It seems that studying physical sciences does have a slight negative effect on the self-assessed importance of religion, but no significant effect on religious attendance, whether the church should have less influence, or other religious measures.  For some reason engineering causes people to think the church should have less influence, and that less should be left up to God, but there was no significant effect on other measures.

This is in addition to a larger background trend where average religious attendance declines 12% in the 5-6 years after high school.  It also ignores the selection effect where the kind of people who enter into certain majors are more or less likely to be religious in the first place.

The study does not report raw religiosity scores in different majors (presumably it was reported elsewhere), but it does discuss how religiosity affects what majors students switch into.  Higher religiosity scores predict a higher probability of switching into education, humanities, biology, and a lower probability of switching into social sciences.  There appears to be no significant affect on switching to physical sciences.  Higher religiosity also increases the chance that people will go to college.

So on average, science doesn't make people less religious, and we have the evidence to show this.  If it seemed otherwise, that was an illusion caused by your limited and biased sampling of reality.


Anonymous said...


But - as I assume that the study is American - you don't really think it's a representative sample of the world's physicists, do you?

miller said...

They aren't physicists, they're undergraduates pursuing science degrees.

I'm american, so more global trends aren't personally relevant to me.

Isaac said...

I thought Physics made one more religious and Biology made one less religious, but this is only an impression. It's also my impression that Letters studies make a gay student more likely to come our than Sciences studies. Is there any study relating studies and open homosexuality?

miller said...

If you find one, you can tell us.

If it were true, I would guess it's because science students are less likely to talk about it in relation to their studies.