Religious Scientists?

Chapter 4 of the new book, Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think, by Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher P. Scheitle looks Christians active in the sciences. Elaine Ecklund’s earlier book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think focused on scientists at elite universities. It is clear that this population is far less religious than the general US population. It is not clear that the primary reason for this is conflict between science and religion. We can consider several different reasons:

Education removes the reason for God. If God is simply an explanation for gaps in understanding this is a plausible explanation and should influence scientists at all levels.

Education introduces a dissonance, a conflict, between the evidence and the faith. Young earth, evolution, and old testament studies are all places where this comes into play. Again, this will influence scientists in many walks of life, not only elite universities.

The University environment may be hostile to faith. There can be pressure, both overt and subtle leave the faith. To lose the respect of one’s peers is a severe and real possibility. Peer pressure at the university – this will vary across institutions and vocations. This leads to another reason.

The group may be self-selected. Perhaps pursuit of graduate education itself doesn’t cause loss of faith – rather people of faith tend to pursue other career paths.

The sometimes hostile environment may lead to other career choices. I have spoken with a number of Christian graduate students for whom this was true – while originally interested in academic careers, they didn’t want to step into this hornet’s nest. In Religion vs. Science Ecklund and Scheitle note that when it comes to religious belief the disparity between elite University professors and the general population isn’t confined to the sciences. It is true across disciplines.

In Science vs. Religion Ecklund reports that many of those who came from a religious tradition noted that religion was not very important in their families as children. Those from families where religion was important are much more likely to retain faith as adults. For one specific sample group of young scientists Ecklund notes that it appears that ~85% retain faith. This is a substantial percentage. However, this is a small portion of the total sample surveyed. Perhaps those from strong religious backgrounds self-select out of careers at elite universities. Given the commitment of time and effort involved and the fact that religious people may devalue the workaholic approach to life, this is a real possibility.

Education doesn’t cause loss of faith – rather loss of faith precedes education. Ekclund relates stories by several scientists who comment on bad experiences growing up in the church. No place for honest, inquisitive, hard questions and a real or perceived hypocrisy led to loss of faith for all three here – science was involved only peripherally. It was not the facts, it was the attitude.

What about scientists in general? In the present book Ecklund and Scheitle look at a much broader range of scientists in careers outside of academia. Something like 3 to 4% of Christians are what they call rank-and-file scientists (see the book for their definitions and classifications). This is true of evangelicals, mainline protestants, and Catholics. A higher percentage of Jews, those from non-Western religions, and the unaffiliated are rank-and-file scientists. However, when adjusted for other factors such as region of residence, race, education, and income the differences vanish. “These differences are mostly a result of other social and demographic differences between the groups, especially discrepancies in education.” (p. 60) Overall rank-and-file scientists look very much like the general population.

In their survey and interviews Ecklund and Scheitle found that like their colleagues at elite universities, religious rank-and-file scientists feel a squeeze between the expectation at work that scientists are not (supposed to be) religious and the perception at church that Christians in the sciences are dangerous and suspect. (No one can love two masters.) They also find that “evangelical rank-and-file scientists are … significantly more likely than their evangelical peers to think that scientists are hostile to religion.” (p. 65) Ecklund and Scheitle suggest (and I agree) that this is because they are more likely to have heard informal negative comments.

Lessons for the church. The best approach to dispel the atmosphere of conflict is to bring scientists in the church to the conversation. The scientists in the pews, known to the congregation will generally have the biggest impact. It can be useful to bring in “big names” for special lectures or presentations, but engage the locals in the conversation as experts in their fields. In the process, however, it is important to have a well-defined approach for dealing with potentially divisive issues. Ecklund describes a Scientists in Congregations program at her church – where many scientists in the congregation were initially quite wary – but overall convinced by the end that the program was a success for them personally as well as for the congregation at large. Although we have not had a formal program at our church, I have found the same to be true. To be engaged in open conversation is good for me and for my fellow Christians.

Do you know any Christians working and highly educated in scientific positions?

How do they think about the “conflict” between science and faith?

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One Response to Religious Scientists?

  1. What Is God Really Like? says:

    I didn’t realize for years how I was contributing to the problem by not being open-minded to different interpretations of the creation story in the Bible. Growing up in the church, I certainly didn’t get exposed to different views, as you suggest in lessons for the Church, other than the traditional literal interpretation of Genesis.

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