701 Science Vs. Religion Interview: Elaine Howard Ecklund

The Washington Post’s coverage of Elaine Howard Ecklund’s landmark book, “Science Vs. Religion,” summed up the importance of her research this way: “Though ‘Science vs. Religion’ is aimed at scientists, her myth-busting and her thoughtful advice can also benefit nonscientists. For Ecklund, the bottom line is recognizing and tolerating religious diversity, honestly discussing science’s scope and limits, and openly exploring the disputed borders between scientific skepticism and religious faith.”

We agree with the Post, which is why we’re devoting stories in both ReadTheSpirit and OurValus.org this week to some of Elaine’s most important findings. You’ll find links to our entire series at the end of today’s Part 1 of our interview …

Highlights of Interview With Elaine Howard Ecklund on
“Science Vs. Religion,” Pt 1

DAVID: Let’s start with the big news in your book that’s attracting attention nationwide: You found that—rather than 1-in-10 scientists believing in God—more than a third believe in God and fully half of them are religious. That’s startling. Were you surprised yourself?

ELAINE: Yes, I was very surprised. As I began this research five years ago, I bought into the conventional idea that, when people learn more about science, they throw off the shackles of religion. I also bought into the conventional idea that there is conflict between religion and science. So, yes, I was personally quite surprised by what I found.

Scientists are more religious than I thought they would be, but in different ways than I anticipated. I was surprised, for example, to find so many scientists interested in spiritual matters, but not associated with religious organizations.

DAVID: You began by conducting a large survey. Then, the initial data raised these surprising insights. That led to the hundreds of personal interviews that allowed you to dig deeper into the lives of scientists. Is that a fair summary?

ELAINE: Yes. When I started the survey in 2005, I grouped the questions in the same way we group them in studies of the general population. But, I did make one change: I didn’t include the skip patterns we usually use in surveys. Normally, if a survey participant says that they do not believe in God, for example, then we skip the question about whether you attend church. We assume that, if you don’t believe in God, then you’re not part of a congregation. But I didn’t use those skip patterns in this study.  That led to my discovering, for example, that there are atheists and agnostics among scientists who also are quite involved in religious organizations. And, I found that there are atheist scientists who also consider themselves spiritual. I didn’t expect that at all.

Because the survey findings were emerging in such unusual ways compared with the general public, I decided that I should go out and interview people face to face. So, I took another scientific sample of 275 scientists and I interviewed them in person. That whole process took over two years. This was a big collection of data. In the end, I had more than 5,000 pages of transcribed materials to examine. I did most of this work as a post-doctoral fellow at Rice between 2004 and 2006 and we actually had a team of about 12 undergraduate students and some graduate students as well who helped me analyze all this data.

DAVID: Here’s one of the biggest questions that I kept asking myself as I read your book: Why is this surprising? There must be some major disconnect here. Why are our assumptions about scientists’ religious lives so far off the mark?

ELAINE: A big reason is that scientists generally don’t talk about religion. You need to remember, too, that I did the initial work in 2005 and this is when there were a lot of public debates in the news about whether evolution should be taught in public schools. So, in general, scientists are unlikely to talk publicly about religion and, on top of that, some of those news stories scared them. Most scientists are worried about being perceived as anti-religious.

DAVID: Why worry? There are big names like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and others writing best sellers attacking religion.

ELAINE: Many scientists don’t want to be perceived as having any connection with the new atheists. Many regard Dawkins, Harris and the others as having a negative reputation with much of the public, so even atheist scientists aren’t eager to be associated with them. The situation backfires, because the loudest voices then tend to be the most negative and the general public assumes those are representative of all scientists. That cuts down on the dialogue even more.

Who Are The “Spiritual Atheists”?

DAVID: Let’s talk about some of the really fascinating religious groups you discovered among scientists. Let’s start with “Spiritual Atheists.” In your book, you point out “in the general population, spirituality is almost inherently linked with some conception of God.” But a significant minority of scientists consider themselves both atheist and spiritual. You found that these men and women have many different explanations for this, but there are at least two groups among them. One group finds spiritual value in nature and in the awe-inspiring discoveries of science. Another group draws heavily from Eastern religions like Buddhism and, of course, Buddhism doesn’t require a belief in God.

ELAINE: Yes, this is one of the most interesting parts of the study. It could be that there are more people in the general population who are part of this group, but we just haven’t been asking the right questions to find them. Or, people haven’t been talking about this in public.

DAVID: Yes, you could be picking up religious movements like Buddhism, which is relative small in the U.S. And, it’s not just Buddhists who don’t see God as an essential belief. There’s a movement within Judaism also that doesn’t believe in God, called Humanistic Judaism. That’s a small but important movement that holds Judaism is a spiritual and moral tradition that should be preserved, but a belief in God isn’t essential.

ELAINE: Yes, a few people in our study did identify with a Jewish identity but not a belief in God. So, there are existing groups in the world that might hold these two positions.

DAVID: As a group, these scientists really are—well, you use the term “pioneers.” Although they’re hesitant to talk in public about religion, they’ve got some very interesting viewpoints.

ELAINE: These scientists are particularly interesting, I think, because of the nature and status of elite scientists. Top scientists at leading institutions feel they have a special kind of authority. They feel they have a kind of liberty to define things in new ways.

DAVID: You’ve opened a big doorway for future studies. I want to ask you about more of these new categories you raise in the book. (CONTINUED IN PART 2.)

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

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

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