Scientists who put their faith in heavenly power

When it comes to God, a surprising number of scientists are with Galileo. "I don't read the Bible to find out how the heavens go, but how to go to heaven," said Donald Bruce yesterday, quoting the legendary astronomer.

Mr Bruce describes himself as a "believing chemist" - and not such a rare commodity, it seems. As director of a Church of Scotland project entitled Society, Religion and Technology, he was comforted to learn that 40 per cent of scientists believe in God and an afterlife. The figure, reported in the latest edition of the revered journal Nature, has reopened the debate about whether religious belief and scientific pursuit are compatible.

On the one hand, there are figures such as the former Archbishop of York, John Habgood, a trained scientist, and the Bishop of Leicester, Tom Butler, an electrical engineer. And on the other, high-profile atheist scientists, such as Richard Dawkins.

Significantly, the number of God-fearing scientists has not changed in the last 80 years - despite the leaps of discovery made in that time. In 1916 a landmark survey by the eminent researcher James Leuba found that 60 per cent of American scientists did not believe in God. The result caused a sensation at the time, prompting warnings from politicians about the evils of modernism.

While Leuba's prediction that non-belief among scientists would increase in the future has not come true, there has been a significant shift in the views held by practitioners of the three fields surveyed - mathematics, biology and physics/astronomy.

Although biologists were the biggest doubters in Leuba's day, physicists and astronomers are now the leading disbelievers, with 77.9 per cent denying the existence of God. Mathematicians were the scientists most inclined to believe in God today, a total of 44.6 per cent.

Edward Larson of the University of Georgia and his colleague, Larry Witham from Maryland, questioned 600 scientists listed in the 1995 edition of American Men and Women of Science.

Professor Dawkins, Reader in Zoology at New College, Oxford, and author of The Selfish Gene, is one of the scientific community's most vocal atheists. To him, God is simply a rival hypothesis that he deems wrong. In his book River out of Eden, he wrote that the discovery of the genetic code revealed: "there is no spirit-driven life force, no throbbing, heavy, pullulating, protoplasmic, mystic jelly. Life is just bytes and bytes of digital information."

But a spokesman for the Catholic Church dismissed such notions, pointing out that the Vatican employed its own scientists. "In the past scientists were seen as atheistic because they raised questions about God and the universe, but science and religion are becoming more reconciled now. The idea that scientists don't believe in God is a bit of a myth." Clare Garner