A Point Raised from Dawkins’ “storm in a teacup”

Richard Dawkins recently posted a detailed response to various responses he got on Twitter when he (unsurprisingly) wrote something that could have (and was) taken as offensive to Muslims. Dawkins (as well as various other atheistic academics) have been under fire lately for being particularly scrutinizing of Islam and it would appear this hasn’t stopped Dawkins from being, well, a bit of a Twitter troll.

While much of what he says in the post I agree with (Muslims are not a race, faith based education is counter intuitive to excellent learning, etc) he makes one point which I’ll quote in it’s entirety below:

“How many Nobel Prizes have been won by atheists?

Now that’s a really interesting question, one that I would sincerely love to see answered. I suspect that the truculence with which the question was posed might turn out to be misplaced – and that’s an understatement. Polls of the US National Academy of Sciences and of the Royal Society of London give almost identical results and suggest that an overwhelming majority of elite scientists (and a lesser majority of scientists as a whole) have no religious faith, although many might nominally be recorded as, say, baptised Christians or Bar-Mitzvahed Jews. I would love to see a well-conducted study of the beliefs of Nobel prizewinning scientists. My guess is that a large majority would self-describe as atheist or agnostic. And a further substantial number would say something like “I might characterise my awe at the universe as ‘spiritual’ but, like Einstein, I have no belief in a personal god and follow no religion.” I’d be very surprised if a single prize-winner were to say “I believe Jesus was born of a virgin and rose from the dead” or “I believe Mohammed rode through the sky on a winged horse”. But those are all conjectures and I would love to see the research done.”

I believe Dawkins is missing his own point, or at least missing a point that he would benefit from greatly, that being that his assumption that most atheists were not raised atheists. While a comprehensive study on how many scientists (and how many Nobel Prize winning scientists are atheists) I believe a better way of framing the question would be how many scientists, and how many Nobel Prize winners have differing beliefs and religious practices from how they were raised to such an extent that one could not reasonably say that they are still of that belief set or religious faith. To put this differently, instead of asking how many scientists are atheists we should be asking how many scientists have departed from their religious upbringing?

I would very much suspect that for someone who was raised in a devout family and taught from an extremely early age to accept the family’s belief system to depart and perhaps even renounce said belief system would have to be very bright. Religious education for children does not reinforce critical thinking and for a young person (or even an old) to turn their back on what has in all respects been delivered to them as the Truth would require quite a bit of critical thinking skills (and depending on the family, some courage).

As a personal aside, I am not implying as an atheist myself that I must be particularly bright (no, this isn’t one of those “Haha! Atheists are smart, everyone else is dumb!” arguments). I was brought to church and Sunday School as a child, but it is important to note that as most children do I approached my mother (my father did not go to church with us, which clearly bolstered my position) and told her I did not want to go to church anymore, my mother responded that she didn’t want to either and I never went to church again (my mother would attend holiday services for a few years after, albeit to appease my grandmother only). It is also worth noting that I was born and raised in Toronto, which even by Canadia-and-religion standards is quite liberal. I’ve noticed that what would typically be minor teenage rebellion in many more homogeneous societies against family religious beliefs has turned into full fledged denunciations. It’s a lot easier to turn your back on a religion when literally none of your friends even attend the same church as you.

My question above does offer an interesting issue however, that is, out of all the scientists who have departed or renounced the religion that they were raised by, how many of them became atheists/atheistic? How many converted to a different religion? How intense was their religious upbringing (as in, were their parents like mine or were they extremely devout)? Dawkins main point is that Islam appears to him to have a detrimental effect on education of its practitioners so I would think that those who have converted to Islam would have to be not included in the Nobel Prize count (which is none).

However interestingly enough from a bit of research on the four Muslims who have won the Nobel Prize (removing those who have one for Peace) two have certainly departed from their family’s traditions (Naguib Mahfouz and Orhan Pamuk, both for literature, Pamuk explicitly claims to be an atheist, but identifies with Muslim culture) while Ahmed Zewail (for chemistry) appears to be at least not completely a fundamentalist but rather an advocate for youth groups in Egypt currently (as in, not working with the Muslim Brotherhood or it’s more fundamentalist rivals). Abdus Salam (for physics) appears to be the only extremely faithful who has won the prize.

While Dawkins extended question may be “Why aren’t there more people like Abdus Salam?” which is certainly contentious, it is unsurprising that there aren’t more people like Mahfouz or Pamuk. If you are a Muslim in this world, statistically speaking you have a very high chance of being raised in a highly devout family that lives in a religiously homogeneous society that is equally as devout there is a good chance that no matter how bright you are, you are going to believe what your family and society believes. Just as I am sure there is a good chance I would be a Christian if both my parents insisted I go to church and we lived in a small predominantly devout Christian community somewhere in middle-America and if this small Christian community taught me that evolution is wrong and Christ truly was the product of a virgin birth and rose from the dead, I would bet there’s a very low chance that I would ever win the Nobel Prize for anything.


2 thoughts on “A Point Raised from Dawkins’ “storm in a teacup”

  1. Great post. As I read it, I couldn’t help pondering the absurdity of the question. It’s like asking “How many X-Factor champions (or masterchefs) were atheists?” – implying that their lack of belief in a Creator had something to do with their winning. As though there was ‘causality’. Dawkins’ question (and part of your conclusion about children raised in religious families) – seems relevant to me only if Atheism helped them excel in their fields and will continue to help more people win Nobel Prizes (only if they will denounce monotheism).

    Setting aside the fact that humanity’s achievements are measured by more things than 100 years of a Swedish prize, if his sole point was that more atheists win the Nobel Prize – it’s quite predictable. As avowed disciples of Evidence, most scientists would keep from subscribing (at least, publicly) to what we, believers, call miracles. It feels like the only way to reconcile the vast inexplicable part of our lives and the universe to their strict code of rationality. On a philosophical level, it seems to be like saying “I can’t understand / prove / theorize this – so it must be false.”

    I’m glad you introduced religious culture into the equation. Perhaps politics, conflict and economic development have had roles to play too. Thanks for a very interesting post.



  2. My great great grand uncle won the 1909 Nobel Prize for Physics and was renown for his devotion to Anglicanism.

    One of his quotes:
    “In my opinion true Science and true Religion neither are nor could be opposed.”

    (BTW, I am agnostic. Love Dawkins for his books on evolution but his ill informed views on religion appall me).


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