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?