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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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However, we feel that by framing her analysis in terms of the public controversy over origins, she portrays the conflict between science and religion as intrinsically simpler than her own findings attest. Her surveys and interviews reveal that there are many diverse areas where contact between science and religion engenders conflict, including ethical issues raised by scientific research (particularly biological research) and conflicts intrinsic to the contemporary practice of the social sciences, but her discussion implies that these many facets of the conflict are all equivalent.

This lack of differentiation is related to another important finding of Ecklund's: that the believing scientists she studies carry out their scientific research in the same way as the nonbelievers, although they see their faith as influencing how they treat their colleagues and coworkers, and sometimes influencing their choice of research questions. Consequently, conflicts that are primarily about scientific findings play out very differently from conflicts related to ethical implications or assumptions about the nature of human beings. Such assumptions are central to the social sciences but can be skirted in most of the natural sciences.

As a natural scientist, I (Catherine) agree that I design and carry out experiments and analyze data in ways no different from my nonreligious colleagues, except insofar as I try to bring an attitude of worship into my work. This consensus on methods results in the tremendous consensus that Ecklund reports among both believing and nonbelieving scientists about evolution and other questions of origins. These particular questions arguably are the easiest to resolve by a thoughtful understanding of both Scripture and the nature of science. Ecklund's recommendations are likely to encourage progress, at least as far as it is possible for scientists to contribute to that progress.

The ethical questions raised by growing scientific and technological capabilities, especially related to biotechnology, are far thornier. Scientists typically lack training and sophistication in ethical reflection, perhaps in part because the highly competitive and time-consuming nature of élite science careers makes it difficult for scientists to invest the time to become ethically sophisticated thinkers. But many scientists also fail to acknowledge the ethical complexity of their work. As Ecklund's interviewee Ethan, a biologist, explains exasperatedly in Chapter 7, "Scientists are notoriously bad at caring anything about this." These arenas call for substantive engagement that will certainly be helped by Ecklund's recommendations but must go far beyond them.

As a sociologist who is also a Christian, I (Amy) also employ methodological tools similar to those of my colleagues, and rely on many of the same bodies of theory to analyze social phenomena. However, while I am convinced that the social sciences can be practiced in a manner infused with and informed by a Christian worldview, tensions can easily arise. What it means to value human dignity or human rights is influenced by underlying values about the moral order. Value-laden systems, such as capitalist markets, often remain unexamined in terms of their foundational values, which I would argue often conflict with those of religious traditions. Understandings of the individual agent can disallow space for the divine. Such issues are at the heart of the social sciences. By combining natural and social scientists in her discussion, Ecklund brushes over some of the serious challenges faced by religious practitioners of these disciplines.

Finally, the conflicts between science and religion play out in a tremendous range of settings, while the majority of the lite scientists Ecklund interviewed live immersed in academia. Thus, we feel her findings are most relevant to thinking about how to address these issues as they play out on college and university campuses. Here, we find it sobering that although Ecklund calls for scientists to find ways to respectfully engage with religion in the classroom, her interviews reveal almost no models for genuine, substantive, respectful engagement of the academic disciplines from a perspective formed by a religious tradition. She finds two lone examples: a culturally Jewish (but not especially religious) political scientist, who devotes class time to teach students how to discuss controversial issues constructively, and a science and society course offered to Northwestern University biology graduate students.

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