Book of the Week: Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think

A godless Universe? Not among the US' elite natural philosophers, as Andrew Briggs discovers

September 16, 2010

The attitudes of practising scientists to religion show far greater variation than is commonly supposed. There are, I am reliably informed, some scientists who have made a career of advocating an inalienable incompatibility between scientific knowledge and religious belief. There are others who use Darwinian evolutionary theory as a basic component of their professional toolkit, but who are also articulate about their faith in God. Rather as the public perception of risk can be demonstrably at variance with the statistics of accidents associated with any given human activity, so it is possible for descriptions of the relationship between science and faith to bear little relationship to what scientists actually think.

In an endeavour to provide an accurate picture, from 2005 to 2008 a study was conducted under the title Religion among Academic Scientists. This book, by the researcher who led the study, presents the findings. It was an all-American study that concentrated on the top 21 universities in the University of Florida's annual report, Top American Research Universities. Elite institutions were chosen on the grounds that they were more likely to influence the pursuit of knowledge.

A questionnaire was sent to 2,200 randomly selected scientists in the disciplines of physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, economics, political science and psychology. The survey asked questions about religious identity, belief and practice, together with questions on spiritual practices, ethics and the intersection of religion and science in the respondents' disciplines. Some of these were replicated from other surveys for comparison. Questions were also asked about academic rank, publications and demographic information. Of those approached, 1,650 responded. Of that group, 5 (again randomly selected) were interviewed in person.

The responses manifested little support from practising scientists for approaches that are sometimes put forward elsewhere. For example, a model that enjoys some popularity in the US among Christian believers who are not scientists is so-called "intelligent design". This advocates that there are some aspects of life that are too complicated to have arisen by a process of Darwinian selection, and which are therefore attributed to an intelligent cause.

Curiously enough, if such examples could be found, they could equally well be attributed to our existing in a giant simulator, as expounded by Paul Davies, a physicist and Templeton laureate. Another Templeton laureate, John Barrow, has pointed out that most simulators break down at some point because of the discreteness of the calculations and the approximations used, so if gaps in evolution could indeed be found that were not amenable to natural selection, then they could be evidence that we are living in a flawed simulator. I know of no scientists who are persuaded that this is the case.

Although Elaine Howard Ecklund reports disagreements over whether intelligent design should be taught in schools (presumably as an exercise in how scientific reasoning is done), none of the scientists she interviewed, religious or irreligious, thought that such theories had scientific merit.

Some respondents supported keeping science and religion compartmentalised. A famous advocate of this approach was Stephen Jay Gould, who defined what he called "non-overlapping magisteria". Coming from an avowed atheist, this seemed like an attractive way of defusing any perceived conflict between science and religion. But closer examination revealed its deficiencies.

The magisterium of religion needed to have all factual content removed, together with any other evidence base for the beliefs held (and somewhat curiously, all aesthetic values as well). But such an emaciated concept of religion has little to commend itself to those whose faith springs from a passionate concern for truth. The majority of religious scientists whom Ecklund interviewed reported having experienced a sincere struggle that had brought them to a deeper understanding of how science and religion connected for them personally.

Some of the findings of the survey may come as a surprise. It was the younger, not the older, scientists who proved to be more likely to believe in God and to attend religious services, and the proportion of younger scientists with religious beliefs had increased relative to a comparable survey conducted 35 years earlier. In the responses to the survey, the proportion of scientists describing themselves as evangelicals was smaller than in the general population, but in interviews Ecklund found that many who fitted that description simply didn't like using the term: "More important for them than labels were beliefs and practices."

Perhaps most surprising of all was the high proportion of scientists who did not identify with orthodox faith, and yet who saw themselves as spiritual. So significant were these in the survey and interviews that Ecklund devotes a whole chapter to "spiritual entrepreneurs", which she defines as scientists looking for ways to hold science and faith together, yet still free of the constraints of traditional religion. Nearly 40 per cent of the scientists she found via interview to be spiritually minded had not attended religious services in the preceding year. Perhaps this is a key finding of the book: that there are many who do not belong to any organised faith group who nevertheless take concepts of spirituality seriously.

The questions on which Science vs. Religion is based are given in appendices, together with a statistical analysis of the responses. Some histograms and tables are presented in the main body of the text. But in the end, belief or disbelief in God goes so deep that it is the stories of their experience and their thinking, as told by the individuals themselves, that are most informative and persuasive.

It would be fascinating to see comparable studies for other countries. In the UK, the debate is shifting from biology to physics, with Stephen Hawking writing: "It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going." Scientists from all three Abrahamic faiths have rejected Hawking's assertion. Lord Sacks, the UK's Chief Rabbi, summed up the opinion of many when he said: "Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation. Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts them together to see what they mean. They are different intellectual exercises."

Some of the writings of the most committed contemporary atheistic scientists have met with the law of unintended consequences. It was an easy mistake to think that public confidence in science is so great that if one could only show that science and religion are incompatible, then it would be possible to convince the public to abandon religion in favour of science. But for those with deep religious convictions, the opposite can happen, so that in holding fast to their faith they reject science. All those in the sciences, whether believers or not, find that an outcome to be regretted.

In the final two chapters, Ecklund concludes that all scientists, however much or little faith in God they have themselves, have a common cause in ensuring that no one is lost to science because of misinformation about the relation between science and religion. Her book will provide an excellent starting point for those who want to know what scientists in the US really think.


Elaine Howard Ecklund, an assistant professor of sociology at Rice University, is also a Rice scholar at the Baker Institute for Public Policy, focusing on science and technology policy, and leader of the Program on Religion and Public Life at the Institute for Urban Research.

She received her doctorate in sociology after study at Cornell University. Her work examines how science and religion intersect with areas such as public life, immigration and gender.

Dr Ecklund, who serves on the governing boards of three learned bodies concerned with sociology and religion, is directing three national research projects. The Religious Immigrant Civic Engagement Study (RICE) examines social change resulting from immigration. Religion among Academic Scientists looks at spirituality among scientists at research universities. The third concerns female academics in biology and physics.

Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think

By Elaine Howard Ecklund

Oxford University Press

240pp, £16.99

ISBN 9780195392982

Published 1 July 2010

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