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A Sociologist and a Journalist Assess How Science and Religion Get Along

Although nearly a quarter of Americans think scientists are hostile to religion and about 30% of scientists surveyed by a Rice University sociologist consider themselves atheists, the true picture of what scientists think about religion and spirituality is more complex than popular conceptions, the sociologist told a recent AAAS gathering.

Elaine Howard Ecklund, who surveyed nearly 1700 natural and social scientists at leading research universities and conducted in-depth interviews with 275 of them, said that nearly half of the scientists identified with a religious label and even 22% of the atheist scientists in her survey expressed feelings of spirituality about nature and the mysteries of the world.

Ecklund spoke at a 15 December session co-sponsored by the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion and the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology. She was joined by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, religion correspondent for NPR, who spoke of her own experiences covering science and religion and discussed what she viewed as some similarities between scientists and journalists in their approach to religion.

“Americans have a love-hate relationship with science,” Ecklund said. She noted their admiration for figures such as Albert Einstein and their interest in new scientific discoveries. But surveys have also shown that as many as half of Americans believe that “we depend too much on science and not enough on faith” and 40% would like to see creationism taught in public schools.

Elaine Howard Ecklund

As for the scientists, there has been a small but vocal group of confirmed atheists who speak of religious belief as “irrational” and “dumb.” A physicist in Ecklund’s survey told her that “as a child I was infected by religion, but now I am immune.” He said his view was shared by other scientists “who are all astonished at this sort of viral nature of faith-based thinking [which] only exists because parents infect their children and then there’s a new generation and they go on to infect more.”

Given such attitudes, some scientists who are religious tread softly on the topic of faith when they are in the scientific environment, Ecklund said. Another physicist told her that “it is really hard to be a religious academic because the public opinion is such that you’re either religious or you’re a scientist. To say you are religious might mean other scientists would question your work.”

Still, there are some scientists with deep religious beliefs, such as National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, who have managed to straddle both worlds and were mentioned frequently by participants in Ecklund’s survey.

Ecklund, author of Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (Oxford University Press), said she undertook her research because previous scholarship on scientists’ attitudes was incomplete and often relied on narrow measures of religiosity.

In her survey, which garnered a strong 75% response rate from the 2200 scientists contacted, Ecklund found that 30% of the respondents identified themselves as secularists with no religion; just under half identified with a religious label and 1 in 5 of those were actively involved in a house of worship; and 20% of respondents described themselves as spiritual, although not religious.

Among the secular scientists, 13% were raised in homes without religion. Among the 50% who called themselves religious, just 2% were evangelical Protestants, compared to 28% of the U.S. population, Ecklund said.

Just like scientists, Hagerty said, journalists also tend not to be evangelical Protestants or conservative Catholics. Surveys have found that only about 2% of journalists consider themselves to be evangelical Christians, she said.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty

Accordingly, journalists often portray conservative Christians in a one-dimensional fashion, Hagerty said. She recounted a flap that occurred in 1995 when an NPR commentator mocked belief in the Rapture, which many evangelicals hold to be the time when all saved Christians will ascend into the sky to meet Christ. The radio network received some 40,000 letters of protest, Hagerty said, and decided several months later to establish a religion beat.

“This added a dimension to our overall coverage that we had never had before,” Hagerty said. “We realized that people’s religious beliefs shape their world view” and that can help explain much of what happens on the political scene, including the ongoing cultural war over gay marriage.

Still, as Hagerty has found in her reporting, religious believers tend to be fans of science. One survey found that 80% think it has had a mostly positive impact on society. Even 63% of biblical literalists had a very favorable view on science, she said.

Hagerty had some cautionary words of her own about her profession, which she holds partly responsible for a perceived “vicious conflict between religion and science.” Journalists like stories with conflict, she said, as do some scientists who have taken a very aggressive stance in opposition to religion.

But both Hagerty and Ecklund said it is important to arrive at a more nuanced view of the interplay between science and religion. In fact, Hagerty noted, there are many shades of religious belief. “Not all Christians are evangelicals,” she said, and not all evangelicals are biblical literalists.

Scientists need to realize that conservative Christianity is diverse and that—as Ecklund noted—70% of the U.S. population does not identify as evangelical. They also should recognize that a strategy of simply ignoring the religious public is not working, she said.

Much as NPR did 15 years ago, scientists may need to find ways to better understand and engage with religious believers, Hagerty said. While many scientists say they just should be doing science and consider religion to be irrelevant, Ecklund said, a small segment of those she surveyed did feel that religion’s impact on the public’s view of science is so large that it is impossible to ignore.

For religious communities, Ecklund said, there also is a message: Scientists can ask difficult questions that can force believers to grapple in a more open way with their religion. She urged religious believers to respond to the concerns of one of the biologists in her survey who felt religion had let her down. “When I asked hard questions I was told just to make a decision to believe,” the biologist told Ecklund. In her experience, she said, religion “was a way that judgment was passed on people who are different.”

Stereotypes about science also persist in religious communities, Ecklund said, including the notion that “it’s just frankly impossible to be a scientist at a top research university and be religious.” Her research demonstrates that is not the case, she said.

More generally, Ecklund said, her research findings “complicate what we think about secularization, the idea that as our society learns more about science, it necessarily becomes less religious.” When asked whether science ultimately will trump religion, Ecklund responds that it is more appropriate to ask in what areas science holds sway and it what areas religion holds sway. “We need to move beyond narrow conceptions of secularization,” she said.

Hagerty, too, was skeptical of talk that science might eventually replace religion as a dominant force in American life. “America continues to be incredibly religious and successful,” Hagerty said. While noting the rise of secularism in Europe, Hagerty said, “I think it will be a long time, at least in this country, for science to supplant religion.” People derive too much good from it, she said, including transmission of moral values from one generation to the next.

In seeking areas of common ground, Ecklund noted that science can be seen as a vocation or calling, a view that might resonate in religious communities. She suggested that religious scientists act as ambassadors to religious constituencies that may be having difficulty understanding aspects of science and how it is pursued. Both speakers agreed that in these kinds of efforts, it is important for scientists to begin to feel free to speak more openly about their various religious beliefs.

On that score, Jennifer Wiseman, the director of the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion, said the program’s goal is to foster mutual understanding between the scientific and religious communities. In one initiative, she said, “we are working with seminaries to bring more science into seminary education so that religious leaders and authority figures are comfortable with science” and with talking about science-related issues with their congregants. She said the program also is working with scientists on how to discuss science more deftly with religious communities.

Jennifer Wiseman


Learn more about the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion.

Watch a video of Jennifer Wiseman discussing the future of the science and religion dialogue.