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Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think
Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think
Elaine Howard Ecklund
Oxford University Press, 2010
240 pp., $27.95

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Amy Reynolds and Catherine H. Crouch


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Modest progress on science-and-religion.

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Editor's note: Science in Focus is on vacation in July, so we're going to the archives for science-related pieces from the pages of Books & Culture. This week we're featuring a piece by Amy Reynolds and Catherine H. Crouch from the September/October 2010 issue.

"After four years of research, at least one thing became clear: Much of what we believe about the faith lives of elite scientists is wrong." So Elaine Howard Ecklund begins the summary of her findings in Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think. Reporting the results of a carefully designed study, she provides a fascinating look into how scientists approach religion and spirituality, significantly improving on the state of knowledge in the field. Through research conducted at élite institutions, she corrects the myth that all scientists are opposed to religious people and ideas, and that science and religion are fundamentally irreconcilable. In doing so, she hopes to bring forward the voices of those scientists more open to respectful dialogue with people of faith.

Ecklund's work aims to support "the cause of translating science to a broader public audience, especially a religious audience." Her research documents three important matters: the religious demographics of élite scientists, the noteworthy lack of knowledge of many élite scientists about religious traditions, and their opinions about the proper role (if any) of religion on campus. Given that she perceives the conflict to exist primarily between religious non-scientists and non-religious scientists, she makes recommendations to both communities for how to pursue more constructive dialogue—as well as identifying the important role of "boundary pioneers," religious scientists who declare their faith publicly.

While her findings offer a rich trove of data on this understudied topic, Ecklund covers such broad ground in her interviews and surveys that her analysis blurs many important distinctions. As a result, some of the most challenging issues at the intersection of science and religion are neglected. For example, as a Christian natural scientist, I (Catherine) see the public conflict over the teaching of evolution in K-12 schools as calling for a very different, and in many ways simpler, response than ethical issues raised by science and technology; yet Ecklund's framing stories and her recommendations are focused on the conflicts over evolution. Furthermore, we would argue that there are significant differences between the natural and social sciences, with some of the most difficult conflicts between academia and religious commitment existing in the social sciences. Finally, the challenge of giving religiously informed views an appropriate voice on campuses and in academic societies is profoundly different from religiously sympathetic communication of science to the general public. Ecklund's analysis and framing focus on the public issues, but her data illustrate the depth of the challenges faced on campus.

On its own, documenting the religious and spiritual demographics of élite scientists is an important contribution of Ecklund's work. The research itself is well executed; she obtained survey responses from over 1,600 social and natural scientists at élite academic institutions (a respectable 75 percent response rate), and conducted 275 in-depth interviews. In contrast to the idea that all scientists are non-religious, she reveals a substantial rate of self-declared religious affiliation. Almost half, or 47 percent, declare some kind of faith commitment, far more than a conflict paradigm might suggest, though far fewer than those in the U.S. population as a whole. Her most significant finding is how profoundly the distribution of religious preferences among lite scientists differs from the general population. In addition to the non-religious being overrepresented, Jewish scholars are also found in high numbers (making up 16 percent of élite scientists). Although those of other religions (7 percent) and mainline Protestants (14 percent) are represented at rates similar to the general population, other Christians are strikingly underrepresented. This includes Catholics (9 percent of élite scientists), evangelicals (2 percent), and black Protestants (0.2 percent); although only a small minority in élite institutions, these three groups make up almost two-thirds of the U.S. population.

Ecklund finds that élite scientists are vitally interested in questions of meaning at the same time that a significant majority do not hold traditional religious beliefs. Although 47 percent report a religious affiliation, only 36 percent report believing in God. Pursuing questions of meaning has led 20 percent of scientists to claim a spiritual but not religious identity. About 8 percent of scientists, or almost half of the spiritual group, are what Ecklund deems "spiritual entrepreneurs." She describes this kind of spirituality as differing from the "thin," individualized religion we find in Bellah's Habits of the Heart (and among roughly 12 percent of the scientists she interviewed). As she states, "the effort of the spiritual scientists is more about pursuing reality and discovering the truthful aspects of spirituality that will be most in line with science." They are identified with a deep spirituality, engaged in spiritual practices and a search for meaning that they find coherent and reasonable—which traditional religion, they would argue, is not.

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