Colossian Blog
December 6, 2012 | Daniel Camacho

Book Review – Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think


Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think by Elaine Howard Ecklund. Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. 228       

December 6th, 2012                                                       
By Daniel Camacho


Once upon a time, Galileo was tortured at the hands of the Inquisition in a moment that would come to exemplify the age-long conflict between science and religion—at least, this is how the story often goes. But Elaine Ecklund, a sociologist from Rice University, argues that this recounting of the story is more of a myth. Not only was Galileo never tortured but misconceptions about religion and science continue to abound in contemporary discourse. In order to better explain the relationship that scientists have with religion, Ecklund turns to today’s elite scientists and examines their religious lives.

Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think is the culmination of an unprecedented study that tracks the religion and spirituality of scientists at America’s elite universities. Over a span of four years, Ecklund surveyed nearly 1,700 natural and social scientists, personally interviewed 275 of them, and visited public events where scientists addressed matters of faith. The one thing that became clear to her after four years of research was that much of what we believe about the faith lives of elite scientists is wrong.      

Ecklund’s findings sketch a portrait of a scientific community that is much more religiously diverse than previously thought. While there are still significantly more scientists who are atheists in comparison to the number of atheists in the general U.S. population (34% vs. 2%), about half of scientists identify with some type of religion. Additionally, a little over 20% of scientists see themselves as spiritual but not religious in a traditional sense. In terms of age, her study also found that younger scientists were more likely to believe in God and attend religious services.

The majority of religious scientists practice what Ecklund calls a “closeted faith,” rarely sharing their views with their colleagues due to strong cultures of suppression surrounding religious discussion within departments. Interestingly enough, many of these same scientists find it difficult to open up about their work in their houses of worship. However, there are a smaller number of scientists whom she would describe as “boundary pioneers.” These are scientists who are willing to talk openly about how they have successfully reconciled religion and science. Among the spiritual but not religious, Ecklund found “spiritual entrepreneurs,” and even “spiritual atheists,” whose spirituality meaningfully engages their science without reference to God or organized religion. On the significance of all of this, Ecklund writes:

[div id=”blockquote”]Scientists have been perceived as carriers of the secularist impulse, a group responsible for building the modern research university and undermining religious authority by their success in deciphering the mysteries of the natural order without recourse to supernatural aid or guidance. But I argue here that elite scientists who are boundary pioneers and spiritual atheists might actually be carriers of a new religious impulse, one characterized by a deep commitment to the scientific enterprise and the achievement of elite status among their scientific peers.[end-div]Ecklund’s groundbreaking research is aided by her nuanced approach to religion. Instead of using a singular definition of religion or reducing religion to traditional markers, she allowed respondents to define religion in their own terms. This enabled her to uncover a greater degree of complexity in the religious lives of scientists.

In the course of her research, Ecklund was able to shatter some common myths held by religious people about scientists. First, atheist scientists are not always hostile to religion. Only a small proportion of atheists and agnostics in the study were hostile and actively opposed to religion. This reveals that the hostility expressed towards religion by some scientists (think Richard Dawkins)—which may loom large in the public imagination—is actually far less representative of what most scientists believe. Second, spirituality is still often important for a number of scientists who do not identify themselves as religious. While not traditionally religious, these scientists express a quest for truth and a wonder for the universe that is an important part of their work. Lastly, for non-religious scientists, science is not the major cause of unbelief. Bad experiences with religion, issues over the problem of evil, and one’s upbringing (i.e. parent’s religious commitment) are more likely causes.

In addition to shattering myths about “godless” scientists, Ecklund also discovered that some scientists held views about religion that were simply inaccurate. For one, many scientists expressed a low level of religious literacy. In other words, they would often reduce all religion to fundamentalism. Secondly, many scientists assumed that all evangelical Christians were against science—not knowing sometimes that some of their colleagues at school, who were also included in the study, were evangelicals.

Going beyond scientists’ personal beliefs, Ecklund also spends some time showing how scientists’ different conceptions of the university and of the scientific enterprise itself play an important role in how they understand religion. For example, some see science as the only valid way to knowledge while others are much more willing to admit the limitations and biases that factor into science. Beliefs on these matters are just as crucial and happen to be as diverse as the personal religious beliefs of scientists.

One of Ecklund’s main goals in writing Science vs. Religion was to promote a more productive dialogue between religious nonscientists and scientists (religious and nonreligious). She shows that there is a greater amount of complexity and factors at work in the religious lives of scientists than is commonly assumed. She also persuasively argues that a lack of dialogue and understanding is a loss for everyone. On the one hand, religious people should not believe the popular caricatures that misrepresent scientists. On the other hand, if scientists truly want to communicate better with the general public then it will require a greater degree of sensitivity to the religious diversity that exists in our society.

Read the rest of our archived book reviews here.

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