Oct 21, 2009
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.