The Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Eckland, talking to a recent AAAS gathering on December 15 has suggested on the basis of a survey and subsequent interviews she conducted amongst approximately 1700 natural and social scientists in the US that the standard view of science being opposed to religion is not the straightforward situation of popular thinking. 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.
While 30% of the scientists surveyed categorised themselves as atheists, 22% of this fraction described themselves as having feelings of wonder and spirituality about nature and its mysteries.
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. It is true that some expressed views that religion was “irrational and dumb”, with one physicist going as far as to say he had been infected by religion as a child but in adulthood he considered himself to have developed immunity. He saw this infection as being passed on by one generation to the next.
She also found be looking at other surveys that as many as one half of the non-scientist sector of the community considered there was too much dependence on science and not enough on faith with 40% wanting creationism taught in schools. It is intriguing that despite the relatively high proportion of scientists claiming a secular attitude only of the order of 2% of these claimed to come from evangelical protestant backgrounds.
On the other hand almost 50% of her sample of scientists were happy to identify with a faith label, and some said that they down played their religious beliefs considering that given the apparent antipathy to science in the community and given that some scientists were suspicious of scientists motivated by religious belief. As one physicist put it:” it is really hard to be a religious academic because the public opinion is that you are either religious or you’re a scientist. To say that you are religious might mean other scientists would question your work.”.
Eckland spoke of the typical narrow views of what constituted religion and it could be that her work needs to be reexamined in the light of the current sociologists’ studies suggesting Christians can be classified as following four main perceptions of God and the way in which the self claimed Christians can apparently be classified by five main ways of incorporating religion in life.
Eckland considered that the religious community was placing obstacles for the scientific community and in effect letting down scientists. For example she used the example of the scientist who had said that whenever he asked a difficult question of those holding a faith position he was simply told to believe. A more positive attitude according to Eckland would be to use such questions to help grapple with the serious issues of faith. She also considered that her research showed that scientists were under the impression that the religious community assumed that to be a scientist was to move outside a faith position. The stereotype of many religious communities is that “it’s just frankly impossible to be a scientist at a top research university and be religious.”
She suggested that such issues should be seriously faced by those holding faith positions.It should go without saying that the US has its own characteristics as a society and there is no reason to assume that Eckland’s findings will be replicated in other countries. Nevertheless her work is interesting in that it suggests areas for sociological research.