Quaker Universalist Conversations

Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think by E. Ecklund: A Review by Larry Spears

E. Ecklund, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (Oxford University Press 2010)

By Larry Spears

Why do Quakers care about what scientists think about religion and reality?

This book, E. Ecklund, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (2010), describes the fullest survey of the religious beliefs of scientists ever conducted in the United States.

The book is based on a survey of 1,700 natural scientists and social scientists at 21 major universities regarding their views on religion and science. From this pool, the author conducted an additional 275 personal interviews with a representative sample of these scientists. The survey and interviews focus on how these scientists interact with colleagues and students and the general public regarding religion. The study is described in detail in Appendix A. The web and telephone surveys are described in Appendix B. The long interview procedure is described in Appendix C. The book includes a good index, a full bibliography and ample endnotes.

Elaine Ecklund is a professor atRiceUniversity, Director of the Program on Religion and Public Outreach and the recipient of several awards for her work in the area of science and religion. From this disclosure, the reader will know from the outset that her solution to the problem of science and religion will be outreach to the public.

The title of the book is combative and the hardcover is deceptive. The title does not reflect the quality of the analysis in the book. The book cover image of the double helix attached to a rosary is poorly descriptive of the book and shows an uninformed marketing judgment by the publisher. The proper title would be, Science and Religion: What Scientists Think about Science and Religion and How Patient Civil Dialogue in University and the Public is the Answer. This is not a book about science versus religion. It is a book about what scientists think about religion and science in the academic context.

The notable conclusion from this book is that scientists as a group are ordinary people and reflect little about religion and when they do, they reflect a broad spectrum of views. About half of the elite scientists surveyed have no religious tradition, but well more than half do self identify as involved with spirituality. Most scientists keep their distance from cultural (denominational) forms of religion. Yet, a surprisingly substantial minority of scientists is personally and actively engaged in addressing issues of faith and spirituality in some concrete way. Within this group, there is a substantial number (25%) who identify themselves as having a spiritual life, but often without any identified religious affiliation. She calls these people, unfairly in the view of this reader, “spiritual atheists.” Among those 25%, she found a range of views, including views that she designates as “intelligent design,” “creationism” and “evolution” in proportions substantially similar to the U.S.population at large.

Compared to the general public, higher education includes a higher percentage of atheists and agnostics in science fields. However, many atheists identify with spirituality. Few are hostile towards religion. And most who identify as atheists moved away from organized religions in their lives before becoming scientists, which contrasts with the myth that science makes people reject religion.

Much of the book is focused on the academic culture and function of universities and colleges. University scientists reflect a wide range of views regarding to what extent they were transparent about their religious convictions with colleagues and students and whether they bring their personal religious reflections into the classrooms or keep them private. The author believes that all scientists should be more open and take more initiatives to engage with colleagues and students regarding religion.

Quakers are referenced only in passing. This book is of particular interest to Quakers because it points out that scientists do not have a uniform view of either religion or religious experience. Their spiritual experience is as mixed and individual as the general population. There is no clear scientific view of reality, although there is a general rejection of the widespread idea that different, conflicting truths are, and should be, accorded equal validity. There is no universal standard derived from this study.

To destroy shallow stereotypes, in the final chapter Ecklund tries to “shatter myths” like the myth that all atheists are hostile to religion, that there are no religious scientists, that religion will go away if you ignore or suppress it, that science makes people reject religion or that all religion is fundamentalist. Scientists are people with diverse voices and depths of perception of reality. Science is a place for beneficial vocations, which can be an important message for Quaker youth.

Ecklund assumes that the full recognition, expansion and toleration of religious diversity in the university is beneficial. She advocates for open discussion and exploration of frontier areas between scientific skepticism and religious faith. She encourages “boundary pioneers” among college teachers to take the initiative to engage in these conversations. She is moderately optimistic and hopeful about the future in this direction.

This book is scientifically reliable, fair minded and nuanced. The author’s bias toward dialogue regarding religion in the academy is clear. Scientists distrust religion and are concerned about secular orthodoxy on campuses and limitations of “diversity.” She allows individual voices to speak through apt quotations in order to mark this diversity.

From a universalist perspective, this book is encouraging in its implicit pointing to a common human experience of a common reality. However, this common experience is expressed in richer or poorer language and differentially linked to faith and practice in individual lives.

Comments

I will buy and read the book, not least to see if it disaggregates scientists by speciality. Earlier research has found differences, with biologists being more sceptical of religion than physicists, who note the strange coincidences of natural constants that permit chemistry and life to occur. Differences also exist in the profession with doctors being less sceptical of religion, perhaps because of their regular contacts with the transition into life and death.