Friday, June 25, 2010

Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think

This is the title of a book just published (2010) by Oxford University Press USA, written by Elaine Howard Ecklund. The author had apparently received financial support to conduct an extensive survey of scientists (over 1600) at top American universities and to interview many of them (about 250) in order to find out how they viewed religion. The book based on the results is mostly the personal stories from the interviews. The book is therefore valuable for two main reasons. First, it demonstrates clearly something that many people, particularly in the conservative churches, do not seem to know: many scientists (roughly half) are spiritual or religious. Yet all of these scientists—even the most religious—agree that the major scientific theories (notably evolution) are completely confirmed by data from the natural world. The scientific community, therefore, does not reject creationism and ID as a result of a monolithic anti-spiritual bias. Second, this book lets us get to know these scientists (even though their identities are hidden unless they have published on the subject) as real people, many of whom think carefully about spirituality and religion. The readers will probably know these scientists better than do some of their own colleagues down the hall.

However, I found the title of the book misleading. It is not just about what scientists think. The author clearly has her own agenda—that scientists (apparently all of us) should actively involve ourselves in a creative interaction of religion and science. She presents the results of the interviews, honestly conveying what each scientist said; but the trajectory of the book clearly moves from anti-religious scientists whose view the author considers unhelpful, to the “boundary pioneers” who find a way to incorporate religion and spirituality into their work and whom the author considers to be the best scientists. She indicates that scientists who simply ignore religion, or who consider it to be a bad thing, are depriving science and science education of important elements. They follow what she calls the “suppression” model, a term that sounds negative even if it was intended to be neutral. For example, many students are religious, and we should not ignore this important part of their lives. She indicates that anti-religious scientists are depriving themselves of the benefits that spirituality and religion can provide to science itself, including an appreciation of the ethical dimensions of scientific research and even a source of hypotheses to investigate. For example, we should “foster [religious] dialogue on campus for the good of science.” I got the impression that the author wanted us to believe that scientists who ignore religion are just not as good at being scientists as those who embrace religion. There would be no problem with this, except that the title of the book should have been something like Why Scientists Should Embrace Spirituality and Religion. I say this even though it appears, from Ecklund’s definition, that I am one of those “boundary pioneers” who actively incorporate religious insights into my teaching and writing. In particular, I point out the Biblical prophetic tradition that defends the poor and the land that they live on against the oppression of the rich. I may personally share the author’s bias—but it is a bias.

Scientists who ignore religion in their research and teaching have good reasons for doing so, which Ecklund does not emphasize. It is just not our job. I do not teach Biblical doctrines in my classes, but I am pushing the limits of what I can do in the science classroom by quoting Bible passages that express the beauty of the natural world and the importance of protecting it. In some universities, many students would not want spiritual concepts mixed in with science. Where I teach, at a rural university in Oklahoma, many students do not want a science professor to mention spiritual concepts that fall short of a complete confirmation of fundamentalism. But my job, per contract, consists of teaching science, doing science-related scholarly activity, and service. My contract does not authorize (or forbid) me to do what Ecklund implies that all scientists should do. Scientists who are spiritual or religious, but who ignore religion in their work, are just doing the job that they are authorized to do.

Ecklund makes a useful distinction between religion and spirituality. Religion includes doctrine which is accepted by faith in the authority of religious traditions, documents, and leaders. Scientists, understandably, are uncomfortable with having dogma handed to them. Spirituality consists of an awareness of the connectedness of everything in the cosmos, and of its immensity, along with a firm belief in transcendental values. However, most or perhaps all of the scientists Ecklund interviewed believe in transcendental values. I doubt any of them would say that love and hatred are equally good, and our human preference for what we call good is merely an evolutionary accident. On what basis, then, does the author dismiss the spirituality of non-religious scientists as “thin” and the spirituality of religious scientists as substantial? She did have a point that some scientists, the ones with “thin” spirituality, have not given as much thought to spirituality as have others. The author suggested that spiritual scientists are more likely to look outside of themselves, to the larger society and universe, than scientists who are not spiritual. But I suspect she has switched cause and effect here: perhaps those scientists who have a psychological tendency to look outside of their own work are more likely to be spiritual.

At one point in the book, the author presented the same data set twice, making it look as though there were more data than there actually were. Figure 3.1 has the same numbers as Table 2.1. She also focuses preferentially on small bits of data. She admitted that fewer than eight percent of religiously-inclined scientists reported that they had experienced prejudice from their peers, but she then begins to discuss it as if it were a major problem to be solved.

Many of the non-spiritual scientists in Ecklund’s survey did not appear to have a problem with spirituality or even some forms of religion, but were reacting strongly against the attacks on science by creationists. This is what bothered many of them. This is not the scientists’ fault, however.

Ecklund’s data confronts us with an uncomfortable truth, the implications might have been beyond the scope of this book. According to Table 2.2, 34 percent of the scientists surveyed indicated that they did not believe in God—in contrast to just two percent of the general American population. Can this entire difference be attributed simply to scientific prejudice? Or could it be that scientists know that science can fully explain the universe, and most people do not know this? I refer not only to the cosmological and evolutionary history of the universe but to the way the brain works, and that the soul, if there is one, appears to just be a duplicate—a probably unnecessary one—of the brain. Scientists study things more closely than does the general population. The fact that so many scientists are atheists makes me think that they may be on to something, despite my own persistent spirituality.

There is clearly a problem here to be solved: fundamentalist attacks on science not only damage science but also damage religious credibility. But it is not scientific prejudice that keeps the problem from being solved. Most scientists are not hostile toward religion, according to Ecklund’s data. The AAAS has a DoSER (Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion) program. Scientists can help solve the problem, but we did not cause it. The chapter titled “What scientists are doing wrong that they could be doing right” therefore misattributes the blame.

I appreciate Ecklund’s work and, for what it is worth, I agree with it. But it is not the objective overview of “what scientists really think” that the title implies.

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