Colossian Blog
December 6, 2012 | Daniel Camacho

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

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 piers.[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.


Daniel Camacho is a Junior Fellow at The Colossian Forum.


Suggested Posts
Formed Through the Crucible of Conflict
October 12, 2016 | Michael Gulker
Formed Through the Crucible of Conflict
Our president, Michael Gulker, wrote an article for the recent CSE (Christian School Education) magazine about finding our way through conflict when teaching about faith and science. Enjoy! We had gathered in hopes of using tough, complex conversations like evolution as occasions to deepen faith and witness to the truth that all things hold together in Christ (Colossians 1:17). But things sure didn't feel like they were holding together as we factionalized into two groups--those insisting on the authority of Scripture and those insisting on the need to take science seriously and teach it with integrity. Things had started so well. We began the two-day retreat in prayer and worship, meditating on Mary's annunciation in Luke 1, reflecting on what it might mean for Christ to be born in us in the midst of a pressured conversation like evolution. Later, we read Psalm 22, the opening line of which Jesus quoted from the cross--"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" How are we to act when we, who have been given authority for both the intellectual and spiritual formation of our students, come face-to-face with challenging conversations that threaten to call our own faith into question? How are we to balance our teaching authority and our confidence in Scripture with openness and vulnerability to new learning? And what, in our culture, did students need to see most--a tidy answer or a faithful question to a God whom we can trust to see things through even we we can't? You can read the rest of the article from CSE here.
Certainty Isn't the Point
October 4, 2016 | Michael Gulker
Certainty Isn't the Point
Dear Friends, As you may recall, we’ve recently finished our first pilot of The Colossian Way. Since that time, we’ve been diligently compiling feedback from leaders, participants, and expert reviewers. We’re keen to make certain that what we share with our partners in this next revision be a deep and rich experience for Christian communities seeking to hold truth and love together in the midst of conflict. Thankfully, even in our striving, we have friends like you who remind us that true faithfulness lies beyond our attempts to achieve certainty in our work. Recently Rob Barrett, the primary author of The Colossian Way participant guide, stepped away from the piles of feedback and revision planning to spend an evening with one of our pilot group leaders. As they sat together on her front porch enjoying the sounds and smells of summer, Rob saw first-hand how deeply committed she was to her community as neighbors stopped in throughout the evening to share bits of their lives including their fears and hopes. Interspersed throughout these visits, this leader reflected on how she and her group experienced The Colossian Way—their ups and downs, their joys and sorrows, their delights and frustrations with the process itself. The future of this leader’s church community is uncertain and she was clear that The Colossian Way didn’t change that. Yet, she continues to pray for us and is eager to see how she can be involved in the next steps of The Colossian Way experience. Faithfulness to her community isn’t measured by certainty, but by friendship amidst uncertainty. How deeply grateful we are for her friendship and this timely reminder. We can so quickly forget that certainty isn’t the point as we follow Jesus in this polarized culture. Yes, we want to work hard to hone The Colossian Way, but even this effort won’t guarantee its success. Thankfully, our success has already been accomplished in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Now the Lord is inviting us to participate in his certain success by laying down our lives for our brothers and sisters while they (and we) are yet sinners, even when the shape of our future together is uncertain. What does that look like? For starters, each day we have the choice of putting tasks first or laying down our lives (starting with our precious productivity time) for those whom Christ has given us. I’m the first to admit that it’s tough to break free of the to-do list to offer significant time to folks who don’t move my personal or professional projects toward certain success (pray for me!). But if we take seriously The Great Commandment, it’s clear that success, in its deepest and most certain sense, means: (1) loving God and (2) loving our neighbor. I encourage you to be open to the Spirit’s prompting to lay down just a little bit of your life this month (yes, in the midst of the new routines and rhythms of autumn) for that person of whom you are just a little uncertain. This post is excerpted from our October prayer letter. To receive the prayer letter in your inbox, click on the button below. Subscribe! To the monthly prayer letter.