Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays by …

Other historical examples invite the reader to consider the political ramifications of much of the discourse about the sciences and their bearing on religion.

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Sociological studies (e.g., Ecklundt 2010) have probed the religiousbeliefs of scientists, particularly in the United States. Theyindicate a significant difference in religiosity in scientistscompared to the general population. Surveys such as those conducted bythe Pew forum (Masci and Smith 2016) find that nearly nine in tenadults in the US say they believe in God or a universal spirit, anumber that has only slightly declined in recent decades. Amongyounger adults, the percentage of theists is about 80%. Atheism andagnosticism are widespread among academics, especially among thoseworking in elite institutions. A survey among National Academy ofSciences members (all senior academics, overwhelmingly from elitefaculties) found that the majority disbelieved in God’sexistence (72.2%), with 20.8% being agnostic, and only 7% theists(Larson and Witham 1998). Ecklund and Scheitle (2007) analyzed responsesfrom scientists (working in the social and natural sciences) from 21elite universities in the US. About 31.2% of their participantsself-identified as atheists and a further 31 % as agnostics. Theremaining number believed in a higher power (7%), sometimes believedin God (5.4%), believed in God with some doubts (15.5%), or believedin God without any doubts (9.7%). In contrast to the generalpopulation, the older scientists in this sample did not show higherreligiosity—in fact, they were more likely to say that they didnot believe in God. On the other hand, Gross and Simmons (2009)examined a more heterogeneous sample of scientists from Americancolleges, including community colleges, elite doctoral-grantinginstitutions, non-elite four-year state schools, and small liberalarts colleges. They found that the majority of university professors(full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty) had some theistic beliefs,believing either in God (34.9%), in God with some doubts (16.6%), inGod some of the time (4.3%), or in a higher power (19.2%). Belief inGod was influenced both by type of institution (lower theistic beliefin more prestigious schools) and by discipline (lower theistic beliefin the physical and biological sciences compared to the socialsciences and humanities).

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But that’s just one idea. There are many others—or make up your own. But they are all just theories. None has been empirically tested. A team of psychological scientists at Queen’s University, Ontario, is now offering a novel idea about the origin of religion, and what’s more they’re delivering some preliminary scientific evidence to support their reasoning. Researcher Kevin Rounding and his colleagues are arguing that the primary purpose of religious belief is to enhance the basic cognitive process of self-control, which in turn promotes any number of valuable social behaviors.