702 Science Vs. Religion Interview, Part 2

we’re devoting stories in both ReadTheSpirit and OurValus.org this week to some of Elaine Howard Ecklund’s most important findings. You’ll find links to our entire series at the end of today’s Part 2 of our interview …

Highlights of ReadTheSpirit Interview
with Elaine Howard Ecklund, Part 2

DAVID: You’ve really opened a big doorway for future studies. I want to ask you about more of these new categories you raise in the book. One of those categories is “Boundary Pioneers.” The main example you name is Dr. Francis Collins, who scientists across the country point to in a positive way for his work in building bridges with religious people.

ELAINE: That’s right, scientists in my study mentioned Francis Collins most frequently. He was talked about—by both religious and nonreligious scientists—in the most positive light as encouraging dialogue. Richard Dawkins was mentioned by the scientists—again, both religious and nonreligious—as a negative force, cutting down on dialogue.

Holmes Rolston IIIDAVID: We’ve recommended books by a number of these Boundary Pioneers: E.O. Wilson, James Gustave Speth and we’ve had a lot of readers respond to an interview we published with Holmes Rolston III. Are these the kinds of people you’re describing as Boundary Pioneers?

ELAINE: Yes, this is the kind of person. A Boundary Pioneer has to be someone who is highly respected in the scientific community already for the excellence and importance of their own scientific work. These folks, like Francis Collins, are senior people. It’s much less likely that you’d find a true Boundary Pioneer doing work in a junior position somewhere. They wouldn’t be able to foster real dialogue in the academy and their work in this area might have consequences for their future work in science.

Who Are The “Spiritual Entrepreneurs”?

DAVID: Here’s another category you’re proposing: Spiritual Entrepreneurs. You write that these are “scientists looking for new ways to hold science and faith together yet still free of the constraints of traditional religion. These entrepreneurs have a spiritual impulse that is ‘thicker’ or more substantial, marked by a search for truth compatible with the scientific method, belief in a meaning that is greater than the individual, a coherence that unifies the various spheres of life, and, for some, engagement with the ethical dimensions of community living.” These men and women sound sort of like Thomas Edisons tinkering with the whole idea of spirituality, trying to invent new approaches to understanding the meaning of life.

ELAINE: About 65 percent of the respondents see themselves as spiritual to some extent and, out of those, a portion between 25 and 35 percent are what I would call Spiritual Entrepreneurs. These people are very disconnected from traditional religion but they want some spirituality that flows from their work as scientists that will give them a larger sense of meaning outside of themselves. They want a moral compass.

DAVID: You say that they’re different from people in the general public who say they’re “spiritual but not religious.” How are these scientists different?

ELAINE: They resist using religious terminology and don’t want to be connected to traditional religion. In the general public, people who say they’re spiritual actually tend to pick and choose from various existing religious traditions. They put together their spiritual lives from traditional religion. But these scientists are doing something different. I would say that they are drawing some of their ideas from the Transcendentalists like Emerson, but they’re not consciously talking about it in those terms. A few of them mentioned the Transcendentalists, but we need more research to see what’s happening with this group. I agree that it’s a very interesting group.

Father Thomas KeatingDAVID:  Well, I certainly jotted lots of notes in the margins in that section of your book. You point out, for example, that the Dalai Lama has lectured widely on “embracing meditation within science.” Here at ReadTheSpirit, we published a major interview with Father Thomas Keating, the co-founder of the contemporary Centering Prayer movement. Keating’s lectures regularly draw on physics and astronomy and medical research. I would say that Keating is a Spiritual Entrepreneur coming from the direction of traditional religion. I think this is one of the most exciting areas you’ve identified.

Where will you go from here?

Where Research May Take Us in Science Vs. Religion

ELAINE: There are many issues raised in this study that call for more research. One thing we question in this study, for example, is the common belief that a person goes to a university, studies science and that experience makes them lose their religion. That commonly repeated narrative is not borne out in this new data.

I’d like to know more about the lives of scientists. We do have indications that one’s background in life is very important. We didn’t study the lives of scientists over time, but I think there is a lot to study there. It might be that a certain kind of person with a certain kind of background will gravitate toward science.

I’ve already started working on a study funded by the National Science Foundation where I’m looking at highly successful scientists who are both men and women—trying to find out what actually made them go into science. For minority groups and women there are particular kinds of challenges. This kind of study may actually change the way we look at science and who studies science.

DAVID: Well, keep in touch with us as your work continues. I’m sure readers will be eager to hear what you’re finding in future research. Are you working on anything else?

ELAINE: Another project I would like to pursue is looking at different religious traditions themselves, trying to understand how they teach children and youth in particular about matters of science. Right now, most of our public conversations about religion and science are focused almost exclusively on conservative forms of religion. I think there’s a much larger range of ways that science is included in religion and religious teachings.

I’m also interested in cross-cultural understandings about religion and science and ethics. This study I’ve just published shows us that many of our common assumptions are wrong. Now, it’s clear: There’s so much more we need to know.

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

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

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