Aug 14, 2009
Currently, I live in Texas. I have been involved in religious communities much of my life. I am a social scientist, and my husband is a scientist.
In 2005, when Judge Jones told the Dover Area School Board that “intelligent design” could not be taught in any science classroom within the district, I felt uncomfortable. My unease did not come from being a firm proponent of ID. I am not. It came from realizing that even the most thoughtful religious people and the most tolerant scientists are misunderstanding one another at every turn.
This same sense came up again in March, when the Texas State Board of Education voted on changes to high school textbooks and curriculum. A passionate group of religious leaders argued that the textbooks ought to point out aspects of the fossil record that they think undermine the theory of evolution, and again, the debates raised areas of intense misunderstanding based on misconceptions and stereotypes rather than empirical evidence.
As a scholar, I have led or been a part of three national studies of religion in America, which involved conducting interviews and sitting in houses of worship with those from a range of religious perspectives. I have spent time among conservative evangelicals, liberal Protestants, and moderate Muslims. From personal and professional interactions, I know that religious people are sometimes ill-informed about what scientists actually think about religion. These areas of misunderstanding manifest themselves in debates about things like whether ID should be taught in public schools—which sometimes make it seem as if science and religion must stand in opposition to one another. As a consequence, most of us completely miss the truth about what scientists think about religion and what religious people think about science and scientists.
We need “radical dialogue,” when scientists and people of faith become truly open to learning from one another. Such radical dialogue would never have convinced Jerry Falwell and it won’t convince Richard Dawkins. But my research shows that most religious people do not take after Falwell, and most scientists are not like Dawkins.
From 2005 to 2008, I completed the most comprehensive study to date of what natural and social scientists think about religion. I surveyed nearly 1,700 scientists and conducted in-depth interviews with 275 of them. We already know that not all scientists are atheists, but I found that almost 50 percent identify with a religious label and about one in five is actively involved in a house of worship, attending services more than once a month. While many scientists are completely secular, my survey results show that top scientists are also sitting in the pews of our nation’s churches, temples, and mosques.
How might religious leaders utilize the scientists in their midst? It would help for them to better mentor and involve scientists within their faith communities, which in turn would help religious leaders to better integrate science within their houses of worship. Faith leaders might also provide scientists with a forum for discussing the connections between their faith lives and their work lives, and they might invite scientists to be teachers in adult religion classes or take on other prominent roles within their places of worship. Scientists must not be required to leave behind their professional identities and ideas when they come to the altar.
It is also important to remember that not all atheist scientists are hostile to religion. Indeed, only five (!) of the atheist or agnostic scientists I had in-depth conversations with were actively working against religion. I discovered many atheist or agnostic scientists who think that key mysteries about the world can be best understood spiritually. Others attend places of worship, completely comfortable with religion as moral training for their children and an alternative form of community. (I’m currently working on a book about scientists’ religious views with Oxford University Press.)
If religious people better understood the full range of atheistic practice—and the way that it interfaces with religion for some—they might be less likely to hold negative attitudes toward nonreligous scientists. The truth is, many atheist scientists have no desire to denigrate religion or religious people.
What is lost when scientists and people of faith don’t have intelligent dialogue or an accurate understanding of each other’s perspectives? A lot.
According to a recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. schoolchildren receive poorer science education than do students in most other industrialized nations. Other research shows that students’ experiences with science in elementary and secondary school—as well as how well their science abilities evolve—not only help predict whether they’ll enter a career in science, but are also valuable when it comes to predicting whether they’ll attend college and enter into higher-status fields (like engineering). Better science skills and understanding often correlate with greater overall success and socioeconomic stability. So if religious folks want their children to succeed—and as a scholar of American religion, I have every reason to believe they do—they need to learn how to be in better dialogue with the scientists among them. For their part, religious students must be encouraged by their faith leaders, educators, and parents to ask difficult questions of science and their beliefs.
It is not strategic for religious people to ignore the religious perspectives of scientists because scientists who work at the nation’s top universities shape the views of our future politicians, CEOs, and public-opinion leaders. (Research shows that half of America’s corporate heads and nearly as many governmental leaders graduated from one of 12 highly selective universities, like Harvard, Princeton, and The University of Chicago.)
It is these very leaders who will make decisions about future science policy, such as how much funding science should receive and what type of research should be funded. If we want students of faith to be seated in the classrooms of the nation’s top universities and succeed in America’s top institutions, then we need to encourage them to thoughtfully examine modern scientific theories and dispel misconceptions and stereotypes of scientists’ religious views.