699 Great Summer Reading: “Science vs. Religion”

TODAY and throughout this week, ReadTheSpirit brings you news about one of the most startling non-fiction books on religion published this year: “Science Vs. Relgion: What Scientists Really Think.” The “startling” news is this: Religion is a much bigger part of scientists’ lives than most Americans think. In other words: Our stereotypes about scientists are wrong.

Sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund conducted years of research into the lives of 1,700 leading U.S. scientists and now her conclusions are published by Oxford University Press. This new book is so compelling that University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker, who writes www.OurValues.org, was surprised by strangers who stopped him during a recent business trip to ask about a copy of Ecklund’s book he was reading. “That kind of thing doesn’t happen to me,” Baker said, “and it turned out that people had very interesting things to say about this subject.” So, all this week, Baker also is writing about “Science Vs. Religion”—and we welcomes your dailiy comments at OurValues.org.

What did Ecklund find that is such a jolt? Until now, the main body of data on the religious attitudes of “leading” or “top” or “elite” scientists comes from a Nature article in the late 1990s. That study concluded that “disbelief” was “almost total” among leading scientists. Less than 1 in 10 were “religious” in the typical way we understand that term—including belief in God and an afterlife. This kind of report in Nature fueled the idea that religion and science are locked in an eternal war of values.

Ecklund’s surveys were longer, she provided more options to describe one’s faith and she wound up spending time talking at great length with a sample of 275 scientists to understand their beliefs and practices in greater depth. She found that top scientists, as a group, are quite different than the general population when it comes to religious life. One big difference is that 28 percent of Americans are evangelical Protestants, while only 2 percent of elite scientists define their religious lives that way. Considering that evangelicals tend to narrowly define the terms “Christian” and “believer,” it’s not surprising that most scientists don’t look properly religious to millions of Americans. However, when Ecklund asked scientist to talk about their lives, she found that half of them were, indeed, “religious in a traditional sense.”

Stay with us throughout the week, because ReadTheSpirit and OurValues.org will explore Ecklund’s findings in greater depth. You’ll meet Ecklund herself in our weekly interview. Beyond her conclusion that scientists are more religious than we think, her book is packed with other findings about the exciting connections between faith and science.

Here are a few words from Ecklund’s book that introduce some of the fascinating categories and social forces she has found in American scientific life—using phrases like “environmental push,” “closeted faith,” “boundary pioneers” and “spiritual atheists.”

Excerpt of “Science Vs. Religion” by Elaine Howard Ecklund

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. The “insurmountable hostility” between science and religion is a caricature, a thought-cliche, perhaps useful as a satire or groupthink, but hardly representative of reality. Scientists face a plethora of religious challenges, both public and personal, and employ just as many diverse responses to those challenges. Some, pressed by the needs of—and their concern for—their students, engage the topic of religion in their classrom. This is what I call environmental push, when events outside the university challenge scientists to reexamine the barriers between science and religion. Some scientists were raised apart from a religious tradition, have had bad experiences with religion, or simply know very little about different religious traditions or the variety of ways that religion and science might relate. They have not necessarily rejected religion because they are scientists. Others who do practice a religious tradition anticipate—whether rightly or not—hostility from their colleagues and so practice a closeted faith. Nearly all, from the atheist to the devout, think about how to interact with the increasing number of religious students who are flowing into their classrooms. Some scientists eventually become boundary pioneers; because of their institutional legitimacy as elite scientists and their deep commitment to religious ideals they are able to cross the picket lines of science and religion, introducing a measure of kinship to the controversy. And others are what I call spiritual atheists, who practice a new kind of individual spirituality—one that has no need for God or a god—that flows form and leads into science. … These spiritual atheissts are creating something new, outside of religious organizations and conventional religious understandings.

 Read all the parts of our “Science Vs. Religion” Series:

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(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)

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