How Many Nobel Prize Winners Believed In God?

If you listen to some commentators today, you get the impression that science has replaced religion as the only credible way of learning about the world, and that few academics now believe in God. So what then do we make of Prof John Lennox’s claim, made in a recent Radio 4 interview, that over 65% of Nobel prize winners between 1901 and 2000 believed in God? Could such a surprising statement really be true, given what we know of the culture around us?

The statistics were taken from Baruch Shalev’s 100 Years of Nobel Prizes (Los Angeles, 2005)1 and, far from being over–stated, the number of theists may even have been higher still, as the he records that just over 65% of the overall winners identified as Christian,2 whilst over 20% were Jewish and just under 1% were Muslim.3 Although the author’s methodology is not explained in detail, it is certainly significant if the Nobel Laureates identified as such, even though some may have been associating themselves with a religion in more of a nominal or cultural sense. The Jewish figure is particularly striking, as they only represented about 0.02% of the world’s population, whereas, by contrast, Muslims made up around 20%. Just under 11% of the winners had no belief in God (e.g. atheists and agnostics), although, interestingly, far more of them were in the field of literature (around 35% of winners), than in scientific disciplines (7% of winners in chemistry, 9% in medicine and 5% in physics).

Indeed, one of the fascinating features of the research is some of the differences across the subjects. Rather than being less represented in the scientific disciplines, Christians made up just under two–thirds of those receiving the physics and medicine awards (64% and 65% respectively), whilst the figure was even higher for chemistry, as they accounted for nearly three–quarters of the winners (74%). As for the peace prize, if you exclude those going to organisations, 78% of them went to Christians, 11% to Jews, 4% to non–believers, 2% to Buddhists, 2% to Muslims, 1% to Quakers and 1% to those holding Shinto beliefs.4

The study certainly raises all kinds of interesting questions about how we account for the differences, as it is important to acknowledge, for example, the way in which the prize is awarded, how people identify themselves, as well as factors like the age and location of the recipients. Nevertheless, although the findings do not include the past two decades, they do at least support John Lennox’s contention that science and religion are not considered to be opposed to one another, and that, up until very recently, many of the world’s most eminent academics believed in God.

[For more on this topic, see John Lennox’s latest book Can Science Explain Everything?]


1: See B. Shalev, 100 Years of Nobel Prizes, 3rd edn (Los Angeles, 2005), pp. 57–61.

2: Those included were those who identified as Anglicans, Baptists, Calvinists, Catholics, Christians, Congregationalists, Dutch–Mennonites, Dutch–Reformed, Eastern Orthodox, Episcopalian, Greek Orthodox, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterians, Protestants and Unitarians.

3: 5 of the 654 recipients were Muslims, whilst Buddhists and Hindus numbered only 7 and 3 respectively.

4: These and other figures are rounded to the nearest percent, so in this particular case the total appears to come to 99%.



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