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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., $33.95

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Amy Reynolds and Catherine H. Crouch


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Modest progress on science-and-religion.

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This pursuit of nontraditional spirituality is accompanied by a remarkable ignorance about most religious traditions—ignorance amounting to "religious illiteracy," as Ecklund calls it. While élite scientists have a highly nuanced understanding not only of their fields but also of many other areas, accompanied by a correspondingly rich vocabulary, many display a highly restricted vocabulary when it comes to religion. Rather than recognizing the diversity of religious views that exist even within Protestant Christianity, many scientists stereotype all religious people as "fundamentalists" and have a caricatured understanding of what that means. As Ecklund keenly observes, these scientists' lives and the prevailing culture of the academy allow such stereotypes to persist largely unchallenged. Many lite academic scientists rarely interact substantively with anyone outside of the academic community, and, as Ecklund documents in chapter 3, "Voices of Faith," many of their believing colleagues are silent on campus about their beliefs.

In our view, Ecklund's most important—and most sobering-—finding concerns the roles that scientists think religious faith should play on campus. A little over a third (36 percent) think that religion has no positive role on campus. Tellingly, Ecklund writes that this is true even for those ideologically committed to religious pluralism:

[Ironically], those scientists I interviewed who most prize the vision of the university as committed to plurality are actually the most opposed to the éentre of diverse religious views into the fabric of the intellectual life of universities. In particular, it is difficult for these scientists to figure out how they will engage with religion without appearing intolerant of one and supportive of another.

Of the slightly larger percentage (42 percent) willing to grant religion a positive role, it is primarily in one of two ways: as part of the broader responsibility universities have to nurture students in their personal lives, and/or as part of the academic study of religion within a religious studies department. Only a very small fraction (as best we can gather, 10 percent of those 42 percent, or about 4 percent) saw religiously informed perspectives as having a legitimate role in academic discussions outside a religion department or center for the study of religion.

Ecklund frames the book by beginning and ending with the story of Galileo's conflict with the Catholic Church, and in the concluding chapter, points out that the popular story of this conflict is more myth than reality. She clearly wishes to cast her own findings about the contemporary science/religion conflict in the same light (her final chapter is entitled "Shattering Myths, Toward Dialogue"), suggesting that she sees today's conflicts as fueled substantially by misunderstanding. Her list of "myths religious people believe" (including "atheists are all hostile to religion" and "there are no religious scientists") and "myths scientists believe" (including "ignore religion and it will go away," "all religion is fundamentalism," and "all evangelical Christians are against science") accurately captures perceptions both of us have observed; indeed, her research conclusively disproves them.

To overcome the prevailing conflict, she recommends that scientists who are also people of faith have a special responsibility to overcome the first set of myths by offering their stories as scientist-believers to their nonscientist fellow believers, while non-believing lite scientists must actively seek to ameliorate their "religious illiteracy" and find ways to respectfully interact with religion in the classroom and on campus. We wholeheartedly affirm her recommendations.

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