Friday, August 06, 2010

Bridging the Gap: Science and Religion

Is the gap between science and religion unbridgeable? There are people who hope so. There are scientists who are as afraid of religion (in particular Christianity) as there are Christians who are afraid of science. Each side fears that the other is determined to destroy them. While this is a sad state of affairs, there is more room for optimism than one might think.

Elaine Howard Ecklund has written a very interesting book, Science vs.Religion: What Scientists Really Think, (2010: Oxford University Press). Over four years as part of the Religion among Academic Scientists Study, she surveyed nearly 1700 scientists and conducted 275 one on one conversations with scientists at 25 of the top research universities in the US. The book contains some fascinating information. Today we can only touch on a very few items.

When scientists were asked about their belief in God, 34% said they did not believe in God (vs. 2 % of the US population). Nine percent of scientists “have no doubts about God's existence” (v 63 % of the US population). Thirty percent of the scientists surveyed are agnostic (v 4% of the US population). And here is the interesting figure, 27% of scientists say “I believe in a higher power, but it is not God” or “I believe in God sometimes” or “I have some doubts, but I believe in God” (V 31% of the US population). (Ecklund, 16)

So 36% of scientists at elite universities believe in God or some sort of higher power. That is a sizable percentage and more than I would have guessed.

Regarding the religious affiliation of scientists, not surprisingly, 53 % have no religious affiliation and only 2% are Evangelical Protestants. However, 14 % are mainline Protestants. (Ecklund, 15).

Sometimes people assume that serious engagement with science causes people to lose their faith. Ecklund's work suggests otherwise. While there are some scientists who lose their faith because of their training in science or because of damaging religious experiences, most non-believing scientists come from non-religious or nominally religious families. (Ecklund, 13-27) These scientists did not lose their faith, because for all intents and purposes they had no faith to lose.

This is important to recognize because this means, among other things, that these scientists have limited experience with Christians. They do not know the range of Christian belief with respect to science. All they know are the extreme caricatures of Christianity that are present in society. This also means, that these scientists lack the language, the vocabulary to speak with people of faith. They don't know who we are or how to talk with us.

Two more bits of data:

When these scientists were asked their opinion about religious truth, 26% agreed with the statement “There is very little truth in any religion. Three percent agreed with the statement, “There is the most truth in only one religion. But 71 % agreed with the statement, “There are basic truths in many religions”. (Ecklund, 35) There are a substantial number of scientists who are willing to acknowledge that religious truths exist.

Approximately 28% of scientists are part of a religious tradition but do not know if they believe in God or not. Scientists may self identify as agnostic because as scientists they have been trained to seek a high level of certainty in their beliefs. The level of “evidence” required for a scientist to claim certainty may temper their statements of belief. (Ecklund, 36)

Ecklund makes two other interesting observations (actually, there are many interesting observations in her book and I am just mentioning two). Scientists who are Christians feel very alone at work. They feel that their colleagues would not approve if their faith were known. They are concerned about ridicule and harassment. They are concerned that their work as scientists would be devalued if their faith were made public. There is a perceived culture of religious intolerance in science departments at elite universities. (These same scientists are also often uncomfortable in church, thinking that their fellow believers disapprove of science.)

But interestingly, Ecklund also discovered, “What religious scientists fail to realize, is that a significant proportion of their colleagues, although not religious themselves, are open to talking and thinking about matters of faith. Some are even looking for scientists with faith traditions to help them connect better with a religiously believing American public. These “open but non believing” scholars are looking in particular for models like Francis Collins- even though he is an outspoken evangelical- to serve as boundary pioneers leading the way crossing the picket lines of the science and religion debates. But because religious scientists rarely talk candidly about their faith in the science environment, they are not aware of these open but non believing scientists. The actions, then, of both groups end up perpetuating closeted faith, further hardening an embedded custom that religion should not be discussed in universities and science environments." (Ecklund, 48)

What Ecklund found is that the people most able to bridge the gap between science and religion, religious scientists, feel that they cannot be open about their faith. There are many scientists who lack the basic information they need to seriously engage people of faith because they come from non-religious or nominally religious backgrounds. In addition, there are also non-believing scientists who are interesting in discussing the ways science and religion interact.

My question to us in the mainline church is, “How can we facilitate this discussion between scientists?” Is there a way for us in the mainline protestant churches in particular to create safe places for conversation? How do we support the scientists in our congregations? What do you think?


ty said...

I guess a start would be to engage the scientists, and engineers already in the congregations. Although academicians in both the sciences and theology have well entrenched positions, neither could be called representative of the plurality within either group. Additionally, within the Christian faith as well as within the sciences, there are highly divergent understandings of what this truth is, let alone across these two groups. Who should the scientist engage? The Pope?, The Moderator of the PCUSA? Who should the theologian engage - the Physicist studying subatomic particles, or the scientist finding new ways to clean-up sewage? Neither Theology or the Sciences could be considered a monolith of belief. Both actually seem to drift through different understandings through time. A clean starting point is the acceptance by both sides that a Universal truth exists, and both sides are seeking earnestly to understand it. The common language of each is reason. Both have some unknown mystery that can't be explained, and both try valiantly to explain that mystery through the use of this thing - reason. As a Christian who studied the sciences, and has earned a living in them for several decades, I've found there is very little interest within the church for anything scientific and probably less than an interest by scientists in matters of faith. I'm often amused by theologians who rail against scientists through a microphone, (a scientific invention) or the internet, and also scientific atheists, who on tight deadlines, pray their experiments will work :)

John Edward Harris said...

My fear is that the majority of people in the US, including those in our churches, are as scientifically illiterate as they are biblically illiterate, and would be no more interested in discussing or able to consider cosmology as they are theology.

Doug Hagler said...

I'm afraid that science and religion conversations are too often posed as fights - maybe very polite fights, but fights nonetheless - which must have a winner and a loser. I almost never hear a religious person talking about science unless it is to try to debunk particulars of science or trying to explain another "God of the gaps" argument they've come up with.

On the other hand, almost everything I hear from the scientific community regarding religion comes from scientists very publicly trying to debunk religion in some way.

Most of the time, the fight is about evolution.

I am so desperate for conversations that are not also one side trying to hard-sell the other side, or hard-sell the audience whoever they may be, on their position. This is part of why I am progressive - progressive Christianity is the only venue I've ever found where I can just have these conversations and not feel like I am in a fight.

If mainline Christians want to have this conversation, if we want to support the scientists and engineers and technicians in our congregations, we have to forget about "winning" for once and just listen.

Nancy said...

Thanks all of you for your comments. ty, I agree scientists in congregations would be a good place to start perhaps by exploring and discovering some common ground. John your raise a good point also, we are pretty content to be illiterate in science and theology. I supose we have to being with the little group that is interested in learning and growing.
Doug, yes! Learning to listen and talk without fighting, without winners and loosers is critical to this and it takes some practice because our models are "debates" between science and religion, not dialogue.