How Scientists Misunderstand Religious People

ecklundFrom Elaine Howard Ecklund, a professor of sociology and associate director of the Center on Race, Religion, and Urban Life at Rice University:

A few years ago, I watched a pre-screening of a documentary by biologist Randy Olson. The movie investigates how scientists confront religious people who are on the opposite side of the debate about teaching “intelligent design” in secondary-school classrooms. The premise of the film is that while ID has been completely refuted by the scientific community, it’s the scientists rather than ID supporters who are at risk of becoming a “flock of dodos.”
The problem: Scientists lack a spirit of dialogue—and, like the dodo bird that evolutionary theorists think became extinct because it was unable to fly, they’ll run into bigger problems if they do not learn how to adapt to the times. This means acting more respectfully toward those who disagree with them and working hard to present science in a more favorable, catchy, understandable light. It also means becoming less arrogant.
As the film ended, discussion began. I watched incredulously as some of the scientists in the room basically confirmed Olson’s accusations. They erupted with totalizing criticisms of religion and religious people, calling them “stupid fundamentalists,” oblivious to the fact that there were religious people—even religious scientists—seated in the room.
I am now beginning my third national study of top university scientists, and from 2005 to 2008, I conducted 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 (the results of which I discuss in great detail in Science vs. Religion: What Do Scientists Really Think?, my forthcoming book with Oxford University Press).
Two of my studies involved asking scientists what kinds of efforts they were making to translate their work for the broader public. I know from my research that scientists are deeply concerned about the public’s acceptance (or lack thereof) of science. And one of the issues that scientists who care about reaching the general American public are most concerned about is how to tackle religious challenges to science.
We know religious people often misunderstand scientists, but on the other side of the coin, scientists sometimes misunderstand religious people. Here, boiled down, is what they need to know:

1. Most religious people believe in religion and science.
Scientists are right in thinking that some religious people are fighting against science. About 40 percent of Americans believe that creationist (religiously informed) accounts of Earth’s origins should be taught in public schools instead of evolution, which is a linchpin of modern science. And more than 50 percent of Americans agree that “we depend too much on science and not enough on faith.” And yet, about 90 percent of Americans express interest in new scientific discoveries and new inventions and technologies. Often, simply saying “scientific studies show” is enough to gain a public hearing for a new product or idea.
According to a recent national survey, however, nearly 25 percent of Americans think scientists are hostile to religion, even though my survey also revealed that nearly half of scientists self-identify as religious. Religion—and more importantly, the intersection of religion and science—cannot be ignored by those who care about promoting greater scientific knowledge and literacy.

2. Basic stereotypes about religious people should be dispelled.
Generally speaking, religious people have as much education as nonreligious people. And they’re not all Christians. While the majority of recent immigrants to the United States are part of Christian religions—meaning they’re changing, in some cases, the racial and political character of American Christianity—a large number of immigrants are members of non-Christian religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. Scientists need to take the time to recognize how different religious traditions vary in their approaches to science, just as scientists differ widely in their approaches to religion.

3. Not all evangelical Christians are against science.
Scholars are finding that evangelicalism is not as much of an impediment to gaining scientific knowledge as they once thought. Evangelical Christians—those who believe in the authority of the Bible and salvation in Jesus alone—are quickly catching up to and surpassing other religious groups in terms of education level: Evangelicals now graduate from college at the same rate as most other groups of Americans (and researchers believe education levels are correlated with broad knowledge of science). While the majority of scientists are not evangelicals, there are several well-known scientists—like Francis Collins, Ken Miller, and John Polkinghorne—who are engaged in massive public efforts to help Christians understand that they don’t have to choose between their faith commitments and science. Scientists without faith might not agree with the religious premises of such arguments, but they can share with their religious peers the larger goal of transmitting the excitement, wonder, and facts of science to as broad an audience as possible.

Category: Expert Opinion


10 Responses

  1. Brint Montgomery says:

    You write that, “my survey also revealed that nearly half of scientists self-identify as religious.” This is a troublesome statistic, since far more than half of the U.S. population self-identifies as religious. Is there something about science training that makes people less likely to be religious, or is it that people who are already less religious more often go into science?

  2. Elaine Howard Ecklund says:

    This is a good question. We would need to follow scientists over time to really know the answer. My broader research shows that that scientists tend to be a bit more likely to be raised in homes where religion was practiced weakly or not at all.

  3. Thanks for responding. But now I am somewhat struck by your finding that “scientists tend to be a bit more likely to be raised in homes where religion was practiced weakly or not at all.”

    What then should one make of the study in Nature[1] which reports on the National Academy of Sciences–namely, that 72% of its members are outright atheists, 21% are agnostic and only 7% admit to belief in a personal God?

    I would be most surprised to find that there just happened to be a strong correlation between (1) a childhood home life of weakly practiced religion and (2) prestigious membership in the NAS! This would be especially so, given the average age of an NAS member, and the standard home life of the culture of the/their childhood upraising. So I’m skeptical such a correlation is to be found there; but, it is, afterall, an empirical issue–one that might tell advocates of religion something they may not want to know.


    [1] “Leading Scientists Still Reject God” Nature, 394(6691):313, 23 July 1998

  4. Karl Giberson says:

    This is a really critical question that needs more research. There seems to also be a very strong correlation between having Jewish influences and being a top ranked scientist.

  5. This is an excellent summary of what I keep coming across, particularly the part about the public’s ongoing interest in science. I think the most important message in this post is about continuing to communicate in respectful ways. The more all-encompassing publicity these matters receive, the better off we’ll all be.

  6. T M Davidson says:

    John Polkinghorn has long been at the front of the effort to show how sciene and religion can be reconciled.
    And “God and the new physics” by Paul Davies is a wnderfull read on this subject. Both authors are outstanding.

  7. Olugbenga Daramola says:

    science and religion can indeed be very great allies. This is the message we need to preach

  8. RELIGION & SCIENCE CONNECT!BIBLE CODE UNLOCKED!-According to the Bible the world has been created in six days,but according to the Science this process has taken billions of years.If we exclude the difference in time and we pay attention to the SEQUENCE,we will see that there is no contradiction between both,but only the question-why in the Bible things happened so fast?There is an answer and it`s in the Bible itself.Moses described the Creation from his own sight as an eyewitness.Where and when he saw It,how could he have seen something happen before his existence?Answer:For forty days he has been at the mount Sinai where he got information about the past,present and future.The Creation had been REcreated to him in six days there,he had seen how the already existing world had been made.The long process of evolution had been shown to him in the first six days and the SEVENTH day had been dedicated to human`s appearing.After that he had seen the difference between Adam`s origin and Eve`s one.Adam comes from the dirt in the process of evolution,but Eve comes from DNA material out his body,which marks another jump for the evolution or in other words-the”missing link” which Science is looking for.The Creation continue and The Next Jump Is Coming…2012 ?!

  9. Philip Elder says:

    I have no intention of discussing the historical reasons for the so-called division between science and religion. One of the biggest problem today is that people on both sides of the ‘divide’ are not listening to and therefore don’t understand the others’ point of view. Both sides are actually asking different questions and therefore shouldn’t be surprised when they get different answers.

    Another cause of the problem between the ‘sides’ is that many people of faith often treat their texts, eg the Bible, as scientific manuals while many scientists often approach their subject with more faith than it deserves.

    John Polkinghorn is a wonderful writer and definitely worth reading for anyone who is serious about learning more about the relationship between science and faith. Unfortunately, too many are blinkered and are too scared to consider other people’s points of view. I am a follower of Jesus or you may like to classify me as a Christian and I believe in the Bible as God’s Word to humanity but I am also committed to the scientific approach to understanding ourselves and the world around us. I see very little conflict between them and where there seems to be, I am happy to reserve judgement as I don’t believe we will ever have all the answers. Truth is important but humility and the possibility of being wrong is also vital if dialogue and understanding is to be promoted between any 2 parties and that includes the paths of science and faith.

  10. Robert says:

    “Most religious people believe in religion and science” and vice verse – that is really true. And this believe doesn’t hurt them. Even many famous scientists were religious but did their discoveries.

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