THE UNEASY RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SCIENCE AND RELIGION IN THE US

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.

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6 Responses to THE UNEASY RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SCIENCE AND RELIGION IN THE US

  1. Pingback: World Spinner

  2. jay harrison says:

    hello dr peddie, this article seems to imply that scientists are no different from any one else in their belief in a higher power. So is science the weaker belief system as application of scientific method shows god to not exist?

    • peddiebill says:

      Hi Jay, I would have thought that what the article implied is that being a scientist doesnt automatically mean having no faith. Certainly many of the scientists I have worked with in the past do have a strong faith of some description and if you look at my essay on Einstein (also on this website) you will see there one famous example.
      I am however puzzled by your statement that the application of scientific method shows that God doesnt exist. My understanding of scientific method is that in order to explain some situation in the natural world or universe a theory is proposed which is then tested. The results of that testing are then examined to see if the theory is supported. What is noticed that is new is the progress. Just because we find the laws of nature and the nature of forces in the universe are different from what we originally may have thought we dont say nature is therefore disproved. The theories themselves may not necessarily last and most are quickly superceded, but the great thing about science is that we progressively discover more as a consequence of the testing of ideas. Because science in effects works in what we call the natural world our discoveries are about the natural rather than about anything beyond nature (the supernatural) and therefore the supernatural is possibly beyond testing. Although this testing can be used to test some aspects of religion (eg look at the article on the testing of prayer) also on this website finding that the workings of what we call God are not the same as what we were expecting could hardly disprove God. Perhaps that is why so many marvellous scientists are quite comfortable to admit they have a belief in God. For example Michael Faraday – or my own particular favorite Professor C A Coulson who was a successful professor in Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh Universities in three different areas, Chemistry (as a Quantum Chemist), Physics and Mathematics. He was also Vice President of the Methodist Church in Britain. He like many others I could name, saw no conflict between his science and his belief in God , although he would not necessarily think he was talking about the same sort of God as you might believe in.

  3. dave says:

    I suggest that (probably as long as there have been human beings!) there will continue to be these two sides in these situations, 1) those who appreciate nature is this wondrously complex, dynamic environment that we live in and that needs no ‘supernatural being(s)’ to somehow keep it running and 2) those that cannot accept that situation, which could arguably be called chaotic, and so there must be at least one supernatural being (not natural and yet influencing nature?) out there. In any cross section of humanity, I have no doubt there will be a percentage more prone to feelings of wonder and spirituality than others. I expect this even among a group of PhD’s. I count myself in that percentage feeling wonder and yet I have no need for the FSM. My concern (and the reason for this comment) is those not prone to those feelings might be so intolerant of those with those feelings and those prone to those feelings might be so intolerant of those not so inclined. This intolerance is divisive and clearly not healthy, for the individuals or for humanity.

  4. Andrew G says:

    “the true picture of what scientists think about religion and spirituality is more complex than popular conceptions.”

    Amen to that. There is an issue, maybe outside the context of this particular post, with how the topic is portrayed in media. If the dominant tool for spreading ideas to the masses is based on simple, short pieces of information, then it is very difficult to give complex ideas the room and consideration they deserve.

    It has serious effects on how the public sees the issue. It is easier to tell a polarized story (science vs religion) than a deep, interwoven story.

    Have you heard of Dr. Goodenough’s book — The Sacred Depths of Nature?

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