Survey Symposium Inspires Hope for Improved Science/Religion Dialogue

Panelists field questions at DoSER's 2014 AAAS Annual Meeting Religious Communities, Science, Scientists, and Perceptions symposium.
(L-R: Kay Husbands Fealing, Galen Carey, James J. McCarthy, Elaine Howard Ecklund, Eugenie Scott, Jennifer Wiseman)

View the full symposium video here. 

Building relationships on common ground rather than in the rough seas of controversy may be the best way to get beyond popular conflict narratives of science and religion dialogue, said speakers at DoSER’s 2014 AAAS Annual Meeting Symposium, “Religious Communities, Science, Scientists, and Perceptions: A Comprehensive Survey.”

Organized around DoSER’s joint survey project with sociologists at Rice University, four panelists referenced preliminary data that was introduced by principle investigator Elaine Howard Ecklund to discuss ways in which scientists and religious communities (particularly evangelical Christians) can move beyond misconceptions of one another and into productive conversation.

Previous social science research has focused on the views of academic scientists and those working at elite universities while studies of religous views of science have focused primarily on the issue of evolution, said Ecklund. The joint Rice/AAAS survey of nearly 10,000 Americans looks instead at the views of rank-and-file scientists— those working in industry and medicine, for example— and seeks to discern how evangelicals perceive scientists and science, and whether or not their views of evolution are representative of their broader views of science.

"When it comes to public understanding and support for science in the large and varied sector of religious communities, it is often the perception of the role of science and of scientists themselves — for example, what are their motives, expertise, and influence? – that often carries the most weight with people as they contemplate the role of science. Likewise, the perception of scientists toward religious communities greatly impact their effectiveness in science engagement," said DoSER director Jennifer Wiseman. 

48%

The portion of Evangelicals who said science and religion can work in collaboration.

31%

The portion of Evangelicals who said science and religion are in conflict.

21%

The portion of Evangelicals who said science and religion refer to different aspects of reality.

Breaking Down Communication Barriers

“Anything that we can do in this professional society to better serve society by helping to break down these communication barriers is worth it,” said James J. McCarthy, professor of biological oceanography at Harvard University and a former AAAS president. 

McCarthy and others were gratified to learn from the survey that 48% of American Evangelicals do not adhere to a conflict view of religion and science. For those who do see conflict between the two spheres, “it’s often not a conflict about the science, but a conflict about how the understanding from science might be used,” said McCarthy.

He sees in the data an opportunity in the area of communicating science to the public and highlighted lessons he learned from a meeting between scientists and Evangelicals several years ago.

The meeting began with the group divided across a table by their respective science/religion labels. Still, there was a sense of curiosity about what would emerge. As the participants began talking about how they thought about and related to the natural world, barriers lowered and shared environmental goals were identified.

“As we all left, I think we felt nothing but astonishment,” said McCarthy.

This group later issued a call to action on environmental issues. It said in part, “We happily discovered far more concordance than any of us had expected, quickly moving beyond dialogue to a sense of shared moral purpose.”

Fostering Mutual Respect

Incivility and intolerance can be a problem for both groups, said Galen Carey, vice president for government relations at the National Association of Evangelicals.

“Oftentimes we don’t do a very good job of listening to each other, and listening is such an important skill to discovering truth and to building relationships,” said Carey.

He also outlined ways in which both groups contribute to misunderstanding.

Evangelicals have lower science education and participation rates than the general population, suffer from a strain of anti-intellectualism within their ranks, are not always well served by a commitment to revelation over discovery, and possess undue trust in religious leaders—particularly in areas about which those leaders generally have little expertise, he said. Finally, Evangelicals are sometimes guilty of a “willful rejection of inconvenient truths” –truths that don’t fit well with either their theology or their politics, said Carey.

Scientists can be hindered in their communication efforts with Evangelicals by inadequate religious training or awareness, an overreliance on media stereotypes about Evangelicals, and the politicization of science.

40%

The portion of scientists who said science and religion can work in collaboration.

27%

The portion of scientists who said science and religion are in conflict.

35%

The portion of scientists who said science and religion refer to different aspects of reality.

“Both believers and scientists become caught by political forces. …Sometimes that pushes us into conflict that really need not be there,” said Carey.

He drew from various 2014 annual meeting symposia to highlight areas of shared interest between scientists and Evangelicals—international development, immigration reform, the environment, public health, and research funding among them.

The more than 2 million rank-and-file evangelical scientists in the U.S. can serve as bridge builders between the scientific and evangelical communities, Carey said—noting, however, that like scientists in general, this group may benefit from more specialized theological training in order to be effective cross-cultural ambassadors. 

Identifying and Developing Bridge Builders

One such bridge builder is Kaye Husbands Fealing, a self-described Evangelical and an economist who teaches in the area of science, technology, and public policy at the University of Minnesota.

“One of the main items that I take away from what we heard initially from Dr. Ecklund is that we need to know who we are. We need to know who we are as scientists, who we are as Evangelicals, who we are as evangelical scientists,” said Husbands Fealing.

She was not surprised to learn that evangelical scientists (59%) are similar to their non-evangelical peers (67%) in saying they are much more likely to consult a scientific source about a science-related question than a religious text or a religious leader (6% for evangelical scientists, 4% for non-evangelical scientists).

She saw this as affirmation for the goal of establishing facilitators who can promote engagement.

Noting that 40% of all scientist respondents saw room for cooperation between scientists and religious communities, Husbands Fealing said the challenge for them is to find out for themselves what Evangelicals actually know and believe.

“Investigate it. Don’t just take the nuggets and the sound-bites that you see from those who want to get in the media and on TV,” said Husbands Fealing.

Presenting Science and Religion as Different Spheres 

Even with an increase in unaffiliated adults, most Americans are religious, said Eugenie Scott, chair of the National Center for Science Education advisory council. Therefore, educators (whose goal it is to improve science literacy) should not alienate students by presenting science and religion as dichotomous.

73%

The portion of evangelical scientists who said science and religion can work in collaboration.

16%

The portion of evangelical scientists who said science and religion are in conflict.

12%

The portion of evangelical scientists who said science and religion refer to different aspects of reality.

“There are some religious views that do not accept, certainly, evolution and may not even be open to science at all. But we should not speak with one voice as if this describes all religion,” said Scott.

“Professors should be explicit about the nature of science, its strengths and limitations, and distinguish it from philosophical views that might be informed by science, but which are separable from science,” she said.

Likewise, fact claims derived from religious sources risk being tested by science, said Scott. 

“In the case of geological or biological claims made by creation science, they are proven wrong. When it comes to fact claims, science bats last,” she said. But, neither theists nor atheists "legitimately can claim that science is theirs alone."

Building Relationships With Evangelicals

Science advisors have recommended that AAAS seek to better communicate science with Evangelicals, said Wiseman.

“It is with this community that the greatest improvements and impacts could occur in the science/religion dialogue ... The desired results are that there would be greater awareness among the general public of the potential for dialogue between science and evangelical Christianity, to create lasting relationships, to equip communities to discuss these issues, and to make a notable difference in the target communities," she said.

View the full symposium video here. 

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Science magazine hosted a post-symposium live chat with Elaine Howard Ecklund, Jennifer Wiseman, and Galen Carey. 

Purchase audio of this session here.