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A new book dispels myths about scientists and people of faith

Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund has devoted much of the last decade to dismantling common stereotypes about religion and science, largely by surveying scientists and people of faith to find out what they actually think. Still, whenever she gives an interview on her work, the first question is always, So, is there a conflict between religion and science?

“I’m continually surprised about how interested people are in the religion and science interface,” Ecklund says. “This kind of conflict motif, I think, does sell, so I don’t feel cynical when journalists keep asking questions about it. But it shows me that we haven’t brought sufficient attention to our research. There are conditions under which science and religion conflict — saying it’s otherwise is just putting one’s head in the sand. But does there have to be a conflict? No.”

Last year, Ecklund and West Virginia University sociologist Christopher Scheitle’s published the book Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think, a companion work that follows on Ecklund’s 2010 book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think. In the earlier work Ecklund analyzed in-depth surveys of scientists, and found that while elite scientists at U.S. universities were less religious than the general population, among people who worked in the sciences more broadly, three-quarters affirmed a religious identity.

The new book investigates what religious people think about science and scientists, drawing on 320 in-depth interviews with people from a variety of religious backgrounds, hundreds of observations made within religious communities, and a nationally representative survey of over 10,000 Americans. That survey was created with significant input from the Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, America’s largest science advocacy organization. Ecklund and her collaborators have already published 16 peer-reviewed articles analyzing aspects of the data.

WHAT CONFLICT?

What Ecklund and her colleagues found is that many religious individuals do not see an unbridgeable divide between religion and science. When it comes to their general interest in science, Jews, Catholics and Mainline Protestants are similar to the overall average level of interest found among all Americans. Only Evangelical Christians showed slightly lower-than-average levels of interest.

“Religious people across the board are indeed positive toward science,” Ecklund says. But this enthusiasm comes with concerns. “They do wonder,” Ecklund reports, “about whether or not scientists are sufficiently morally reflective about the increasing pace of technological development — something that  might have an impact on the meaning of being human. For these religious groups, these are spiritual questions, not merely scientific ones.”

The distinction between what religious people think about science and what they think about scientists was one of the most interesting findings of Ecklund’s surveys. On the whole even Evangelical Christians — the wariest group — still believe that science can make a positive contribution to society, although they viewed scientists as generally hostile towards religion.

But this belief does not translate into dislike of or hostility towards scientists. “Actually,” says Ecklund, “religious people tend to think scientists don’t like them.”

In the new book, Ecklund and Scheitle devote chapters to six “myths” about religion and science identified through their research, ranging from “Religious People Do Not Like Science” to “Religious People Are Climate Change Deniers.” After guiding readers through the relevant data, Ecklund and Scheitle conclude each chapter with practical advice tailored to both scientists and people of faith on ways to dispel or contextualize the myth in question.

DISCOVERING COMMON GROUND

Even Evangelicals, who are the most skeptical about scientists’ good intentions, are nonetheless enthusiastic about scientific discoveries, particularly in areas like medicine when there is obvious potential for human benefit.

Ecklund believes that this affinity can be harnessed to help religious people find common cause with scientists. “Many scientists are interested in technologies that aim to help alleviate poverty,” Ecklund says. “Well, many people of faith are interested in that too. Noting this, social scientists like myself then want to know: what are the conditions under which groups of scientists and groups of religious people might work together on something like poverty alleviation?” This mutual desire to work for justice might go a long way towards helping to build meaningful support between the two groups, especially if some of the unnecessary suspicions can be dispelled.

If social justice offers one obvious area of common cause between scientists and people of faith, beauty might, surprisingly, be another. “Scientists — even those who  embrace no religious tradition — can be very interested in the aesthetic dimensions of science,” Ecklund says. Those aesthetics encompass beauty and the related qualities of grandeur and the sublime — all of which can evoke feelings of wonder, awe and transcendence that have significant similarities to some types of religious experiences.

Ironically, the aesthetic  dimension of science is often less compelling to religious people (and to society as a whole), who tend to care more about research with direct, practical applicability. Here, scientists who are also religious — and there are many — may have the most to offer. “I think that scientists who are persons of faith — if they have an integrated worldview — think of basic research as discovering more about God’s creation, and they think there is a kind of beauty and potential for worship in that,” Ecklund says.

STILL CURIOUS?

Read Elaine Howard Ecklund’s books Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (2010) and Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think (2017)

Learn more about Rice University’s Religion and Public Life Program, which Ecklund directs

Explore religion-science dialogue efforts underway through AAAS/DoSER