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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., 58.0

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Amy Reynolds and Catherine H. Crouch


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Modest progress on science-and-religion.

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.

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.

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.

The shortage of models for engagement revealed in Ecklund's work extends from the classroom to disciplinary scholarship itself—which is no surprise, given how few of Ecklund's respondents see religious faith as legitimately informing scholarly thinking. If religious scientists are to make a compelling case to nonscientists—especially students and non-academics—that their work can be fundamentally in harmony with faith, they will have to demonstrate thoughtfulness about how their faith appropriately shapes their work, and how academic work can be a worthwhile enterprise within the values of religious traditions.[1]

We agree that dispelling myths is an important step towards a more productive relationship between religious and scientific communities; Ecklund's pioneering work offers critically important information toward dispelling those myths. However, when it comes to addressing issues of religious voices within colleges and universities—where her data and our experiences suggest some of the most significant and complex conflicts occur—there are fewer easy answers, and fewer examples of success, than her concluding chapter might suggest. As secular and religious scientists seek to more accurately understand the natural world and human society, both will be able to better serve students and conduct more honest research if such dialogue occurs. We hope to see Ecklund and other scholars pursue these questions in the future.

Amy Reynolds is assistant professor of sociology at Wheaton College. Catherine H. Crouch is associate professor of physics at Swarthmore College.

1. Here John Schmalzbauer's People of Faith (Cornell Univ. Press, 2003) would be a helpful resource; he profiles scholars actively and publicly engaged in asking how their religious worldviews shape their scientific endeavors (albeit, often at religious or less élite institutions).

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