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Ecklund, Elaine Howard. 2010. Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think. Oxford University Press, USA.
Science vs. Religion had the potential to be a substantial contribution to discussions about the intersections between science and religion by exploring the religious and spiritual views of scientists at elite universities. That potential is primarily the result of the data amassed for this project, which appears to be a solid dataset, obtained as part of a large Templeton grant. The data were collected from 2005-2008 and include both quantitative survey data (n=1,646) and qualitative interview data (n=275). The subjects are scientists in seven natural and social science disciplines (physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, economics, political science, and psychology) from the top 21 public and private universities in the U.S. The tables in Appendix A note a response rate close to 75% and the data appear to be a representative, random sample of elite scientists in the U.S. Unfortunately, there are a number of problems with the book that prevent it from living up to its potential as an insightful examination of the religious and spiritual lives of elite scientists.
One of the biggest problems with the book is that it fails to make clear what its aims are from the outset. The only goal that is stated up front – to encourage dialogue between scientists and religious non-scientists – is clear, but there is no clear and compelling argument made for why this goal is important. This goal is framed as being a pressing need for science (p. 74), and it is argued that science needs better spokespersons to achieve this (p. 140). However, the only argument given to support why this goal is important is so that “some parts of science among people of faith” are more widely accepted (p. 149). Furthermore, there is no evidence laid out to support the idea that such dialogue will actually lead to a wider acceptance of science among people of faith. Aside from this one ill-justified aim, there are a number of other unstated and unjustified assumptions that underlie the arguments in the book. Had the book begun with a chapter detailing these assumptions and building rationales for why they are justified I may have been more receptive to the arguments in the book. But, as currently structured, the assumptions are revealed only slowly, and they are not adequately justified.
One of these problematic assumptions is that all scientists should have nuanced views of religion (p. 144). If you accept the first assumption described above, that scientists have an obligation to dialogue with non-scientists, then having moderately nuanced views of religion may help them know which religious groups will be more receptive to dialogue or maybe it would provide insight on ways to approach religious groups. But there is no evidence presented that such nuance would help educate people about science. The book actually goes beyond just assuming scientists should have nuanced views and moves into criticizing scientists for their lack of complexity and nuance in their understanding of religion, as though all scientists should also be theologians (p. 27). Why should scientists, who spend lifetimes becoming experts in their fields, also spend their time becoming experts in religion? The division of labor in society demands that people specialize. If all scientists also became theologians, why have theologians?
It is also assumed that society would somehow benefit from scientists talking openly about religion in their college classes and on campus (pp. 76 & 92). This assumption is complicated by the fact that there are two ways to discuss religion in the classroom: (1) as an object of study and (2) as a personal view that you want to share with students (i.e., evangelism). These two ways of discussing religion are not disentangled in the book but are grouped together. Thus, the book suggests that scientists feel pressured not to discuss their personal religious views in the classroom (pp. 76-79), but it is then suggested just after this that talking about religion as a variable or object of scientific scrutiny is also frowned upon (p. 80). However, the book later points out that there is near universal support among scientists for examining religion in higher education, but only in classes designed for that (e.g., religious studies; see pp. 94 & 111) and only as an object of study. Scientists are not keen on the idea of personal religious views influencing scholarship or teaching and don’t like the idea of personal religiosity being discussed in the classroom (p. 95). So, scientists have nuanced views on how it is appropriate to discuss religion in the classroom, but the book seems to suggest both approaches should be acceptable. Additionally, the assumption that religion belongs in the classroom is not justified except to suggest that it prohibits dialogue between scientists and non-scientists. There is also no discussion of the obvious rebuttal: What other personal views of professors should be discussed in a classroom environment? Should a professor’s belief that extraterrestrials are on Earth and are experimenting on people be encouraged as well (this was a belief regularly expressed by a professor at a university I attended)? What about political, racist, or sexist views? If the personal religious views of scientists should be explored, why shouldn’t these?
One of the assumptions I have yet to fully grasp is an idea repeated a number of times in the book that science needs to be “translated” for the broader public (p. 45, 81, 88, and 108). If the book had used the word “simplified,” I think I would have been okay with this assumption. Science is complex and it does need to be simplified for non-scientists to understand it. But the idea of “translating” science is used in contexts that make me think the book means something besides simplifying, as when it is suggested that science should be translated for the religious (p. 108). I think what this is suggesting, and I could be wrong here, is that science should be reframed in ways that make it compatible with religion (p. 81). While that may be possible with some religious views, it certainly is not possible with most fundamentalist theologies. The only way to translate science for fundamentalists and even for many non-fundamentalists is to incorporate non-falsifiable or non-scientific beliefs into it (e.g., an intelligent designer into evolution). Why should that be the responsibility of scientists? Such efforts are outside the domain of science and scientists should take no part in them.
Another assumption of the book is that scientists bear a large portion of the responsibility for the low rates of scientific literacy in the U.S. (pp. 8, 129, & 141). I’m a bit more sympathetic toward this assumption as scientists bear some responsibility. However, there are at least two complicating factors here. First, the book notes that scientists are not rewarded for engaging the public; it is not a factor in tenure decisions (146). This is a great point and changing this might encourage more scientists to engage with the public. Second, the book suggests that scientists should approach the media to educate the public (p. 142). Unfortunately, since science doesn’t sell, I’m not very confident that the media hold the answer for educating the general public about science. Toward the very end of the book there is a brief discussion of the possibility that the low scientific literacy may not be just the responsibility of scientists. The book notes only in passing that religious fundamentalism is a threat to science (p. 153). It is also suggested that religions could invite scientists to come talk to their congregations, but only in the context of suggesting ways that science can be reconciled with religion (p. 151). Missing from the book is any suggestion that religions may be responsible for the anti-scientific views they teach. If what people believe instead of science is religious dogma, maybe the problem is religion and not science?
The book also assumes that science and religion are reconciliable (p. 50). While that is possibly true, the book never clearly illustrates what this must mean: that religion must accommodate science and not vice versa. In fact, the opposite – that science accommodate religion – is suggested (p. 109), though not explicitly stated. Religion must accommodate science rather than the inverse. Why? Because religion has traditionally asserted claims that have been disproven by science and not vice versa. The domain of religion is shrinking as the domain of science expands. By suggesting that the two are reconciliable, the book is basically advocating that all religion become very liberal, non-literalistic, and non-fundamentalist. Basically, the book is describing liberal Protestantism, which is, in many ways, reconciliable with science. That’s a reasonable assertion, but also a relatively unrealistic one at the moment; religious fundamentalism will not be reconciled with science any time soon.
Finally, the book assumes that there is an intentional effort to suppress religion in academia (pp. 43 & 79). This assumption is closely related to the assumption that professors should be allowed to speak openly about religion in their classes as the intentional suppression is argued to be the reason why open discussion is not occurring. This suppression is attributed to “strong cultures” at universities that discourage the open expression of religion, resulting in closeted faith (pp. 43-45) and even discrimination (pp. 44-45 & 116). However, the book offers evidence that contradicts this assumption. The book notes that secular scientists are quite positive about religious scholars who combine their religion and science (pp. 46 & 150) and many even advocate universities supporting personal religiosity outside the classroom on campus (p. 11). The book also is unable to point to many instances of discrimination against the religious (pp. 44-45 & 117) and, intriguingly, fails to even ask the non-religious if they have ever experienced discrimination as a result of being non-religious. Why are the religious asked about discrimination but the non-religious are not? For both groups, it is unlikely that they experience much discrimination as the prevailing attitude in academia is disinterest in religion (p. 72); so long as scientists don’t make it relevant, their colleagues don’t seem to care about their personal beliefs.
Despite having good data, there are problems with the interpretation and presentation of the data. To begin with, there are very few tables presenting the data (only about 10 tables or graphs are included in the entire book). Crosstabular data showing religious views and practices by discipline would have been nice, even if it was relegated to an appendix, especially since such information is mentioned in ways that are not immediately clear. For instance, on page 130 it is claimed that over 30% of biologists have a firm belief in god, yet according to Table 2.2, only 9% of elite scientists have a firm belief in god. As biologists make up 15.5% of the total sample, this means that only 6-7% of the other scientists can, on average, have a firm belief in god in order for the average of all scientists to be 9%, which is possible, but seems unlikely as biologists are often less religious than chemists and physicists. Crosstabulated data by discipline would mean the reader would not be forced to calculate these percentages.
In addition to the fact that very little data ends up in tables, there are also some interpretations of the data that are misleading. For instance, I counted three places (there may be more) in the book where it is suggested that “nearly 50% of scientists are traditionally religious” (pp. 6, 27, & 33). This claim requires a very liberal interpretation of the data. Table 2.1 shows that 53% of the respondents self-identify as nones, while 16% identify as Jewish (the largest affiliate group). However, in two separate places (pp. 15-16 & 33) the book notes that most of those who identify as Jewish do so “ethnically,” not “religiously” and that at least 75% of the Jews in the sample are atheists (p. 36). Thus, in reality, 65% of the respondents (53% of the total and 75% of the Jews, or 12% of the total) are nones; at best, 35% of the sample self-identify with a religious tradition. Why is the claim that nearly 50% of elite scientists are religious repeated multiple times when the data do not support this? This does seem like part of a broader effort to paint scientists as being more religious than they really are, despite the fact that the data presented suggest elite scientists are mostly irreligious (64% are atheists or agnostics and many more doubt) and if they are religious, they are very liberal (p. 35) and still often have trouble accepting what their liberal congregations teach (p. 41).
The problem with misleading interpretations of the data is also apparent in the discussion of spirituality. On page 53 it is claimed that nearly 60% of scientists are at least somewhat spiritual. But in the one table that presents data on this (Table 4.1) and in a footnote, this claim is called into question. For some reason, only two categories are presented in Table 4.1 – “not at all spiritual” and “spiritual” – even though the original question (4a in Appendix B) contains 5 categories (very spiritual, moderately spiritual, slightly spiritual, not at all spiritual, and no answer). The data in Table 4.1 are presented as a crosstab with grouped belief in god (everyone but agnostics and atheists are considered “believers,” even though most are really more along the lines of deists and questioning agnostics). Given the presentation, it’s unclear just what percentage of the respondents do consider themselves spiritual. But if you calculate this based on the data in the book (combining Table 4.1 data with Table 2.2 data), it turns out only 34% are spiritual, not “nearly 60%” (33% chose “no answer”). My calculations also more closely match the numbers provided in a footnote (p. 195) regarding the qualitative data that suggest at least 59% are not spiritual and the remaining 41% fall along a continuum of spirituality. Thus, neither the quantitative nor the qualitative data support the claim that nearly 60% of elite scientists are at least somewhat spiritual. By my calculations, somewhere between 30% and 40% may consider themselves at least somewhat spiritual.
Additional efforts are made to paint the scientists as being more spiritual than they likely are by simply allowing the scientists to define “spiritual” however they want (p. 55). While self-definition isn’t inherently problematic, the spirituality scientists describe is completely devoid of anything supernatural (p. 53), which the book and the scientists realize is not how spirituality is commonly used among the religious (p. 55). One of the respondents describes this quite well, “That feeling you get standing by the seashore looking out over the endless expanse of water. Or standing in the rain forest listening to the insects and the birds and their huge diversity and incomprehensibility. Or the feeling you get considering the age of all things in existence and how long it could go on. Sort of awe at the totality of things. If that’s what spirituality is, then I get it. But I have the feeling I am missing the point when I say things like that, because my Christian friends don’t talk that way. They seem to mean something else.” (p. 63). If what is described here is spirituality, which it may be, then my guess is that almost every single respondent in the study would have considered him or herself spiritual if it were framed this way in the survey and interview. While I support the decision to let the respondents define spirituality themselves, and I think the book does a decent job describing this secular spirituality, I also think it would have been worthwhile to contrast their understandings of spirituality with those of very religious individuals and to wrestle with definitions of spirituality. The end result would likely have been a clearer picture of the spiritual lives of scientists.
In order to illustrate that science and religion are compatible, the book argues that the 53% of scientists who have left the religions of their childhood (87% raised with religions; 35% still claim an identification) generally did not do so because of science (p. 22). However, the alternative reasons given for leaving (e.g., bad experiences with religion, philosophical arguments, religion being boring) are generally not supported by the evidence provided. In fact, after reading this section of the book, it seemed to me as though most of the scientists who had left the religions of their childhood did so because of science. And, in fact, the claim that science and religion were not a source of conflict for these scientists is actually countered by a later finding that the scientists who have retained their childhood religions did so despite experiencing conflict between their scientific interests and religion (pp. 29-30). The claim that non-religious scientists left for reasons other than conflict between religion and science fits into one of the assumptions of the book previously discussed, that science and religion are reconciliable. This is, in fact, one of the times when one of the assumptions in the book is actually laid bare, “The assumption that becoming a scientist necessarily leads to loss of religious commitment is not supported…” (p. 26). This seems like a case of interpreting findings so they fit pre-conceived assumptions rather than simply reporting the findings as they are.
Another claim in the book that is used to help justify the assumptions (that scientists should have nuanced views and discuss religion openly) are the claims that: students are very religious (more so than their professors; pp. 74-75), are interested in exploring spirituality (p. 89), and that religion on campus is experiencing a resurgence (p. 7). However, there is virtually no evidence that any of the above claims are true. It is widely known that college students are less religious than their parents: they are less likely to identify with religion, less likely to attend religious services, and less likely to believe. While there may be more organized groups on campuses offering services for students than there were in years past (p. 92), all this suggests is an increase in social movement activity (which is true of all social movements in recent years, not just these organizations; see Putnam’s Bowling Alone), not an increase in student interest. And the studies she does cite claiming high levels of religiosity and interest in spirituality are not directly relevant to the population of interest – students at elite universities. One of the studies cited doesn’t even include elite universities within the sample (Cherry, DeBerg, and Porterfield 2001), and the other is a general sample of students in the U.S. that uses terrible methodology and flawed question framing to inflate student religiosity and spirituality (Bonderud and Fleischer 2003). The book goes so far as to claim that religious students are pursuing higher education at the same rates as non-religious students (p. 154), which would seem to support her assumptions, but this claim is immediately contradicted in a footnote attached to this claim. Why claim something only to literally contradict it yourself within the same breath? Building a case that students are religious and interested in spirituality would support the assumptions of the book, if those were legitimate claims. But they are not, and are misleading at best.
Finally, the book illustrates a bias favoring religion over non-religion. The non-religious are depicted as nihilists who are not interested in questions about the meaning of life (pp. 17-18). Their lack of religiosity is also claimed to result in the non-religious scientists having little or no vocabulary for considering the moral implications of their work (p. 88), as though the only people who can consider the moral consequences of science are religious people. Secular scientists are also described as being concerned primarily with their own self-interest and it is suggested that this self-interest results in them playing favorites with their students or even undermining them, all in the interest of self-promotion (pp. 38 & 85). In contrast, religious scientists are depicted as being particularly caring with their students, treating them fairly and equally, and this caring ethic is claimed to result directly from their religious values (pp. 38 & 85). That the author finds this is not surprising considering she only asked the religious scientists how their religiosity makes them better scientists and people but didn’t think to ask the non-religious scientists how their morals and ethics make them better scientists and people. If you only ask the religious scientists what makes them good people, you’re only going to be able to report what they say. This reflects a bias in methodology that can only lead to biased interpretations. There is no way to depict non-religious scientists positively if you don’t bother to ask them to describe themselves in positive ways!
Ecklund’s book, if read very carefully, does provide a picture of the religious and spiritual views of elite scientists. But getting an accurate picture requires the reader to unpack assumptions and calculate statistics for him or herself.
(Note: A shorter version of this review was published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion here.)