My review of Elaine Howard Ecklund’s Science vs. Religion is online and will be in the print edition of your Washington Post this Sunday. I’m unaccustomed to reviewing books in 300-400 words, so there’s a bunch I’d have liked to say but couldn’t, and I felt like I should wait to blog the book until the Post review was out.

The very short version of the review is that the book is good. It’s written mostly as guidance for scientists trying to sort out to deal with science and religion in their own lives, but there’s valuable insight for nonscientists as well. I rather like the opening:

Americans are almost evenly divided between those who feel science conflicts with religion and those who don’t. Both sides have scientific backers. Biologist Richard Dawkins rallies atheists by arguing that science renders religious faith unnecessary and irrational. Geneticist Francis S. Collins (before becoming NIH director) organized evangelical scientists to offer a vision of science and faith reinforcing each other.

Rice University sociologist Elaine Ecklund offers a fresh perspective on this debate in “Science vs. Religion.” Rather than offering another polemic, she builds on a detailed survey of almost 1,700 scientists at elite American research universities — the most comprehensive such study to date. These surveys and 275 lengthy follow-up interviews reveal that scientists often practice a closeted faith. They worry how their peers would react to learning about their religious views.

The “evenly divided” line is based on results from a Pew survey last summer, which found 55% of Americans thought religion and science are “often in conflict,” though 61% say science does not conflict with own faith. The result was only strengthened yesterday, when Virginia Commonwealth University released a new survey finding that 42% of people say evolution conflicts with religion and 43% find no conflict. We really are a nation divided on this issue, and the detailed work Ecklund did is a valuable guide to understanding how we got here and how to change things.

Ecklund makes no bones about thinking scientists can and should do more to reach out to religious America, but her book’s goal is not polemic. She lets the scientists speak for themselves about the value they do or don’t see in outreach to religious communities, and about the difficulties they’ve found in such outreach.

Most remarkable are the moments when scientists pause while talking about their own religious views, literally lacking the vocabulary to express how they think about these issues. Academic culture, especially in the sciences, places little weight if any on discussion of religious issues, leaving scientists literally at a loss for words when such issues arise. And they do arise, whether scientists are addressing creationist attacks (a common theme in her interviews), or controversies over stem cells, global warming, bioethical implications of synthetic biology, or a host of other contentious social issues rooted in science. When scientists cannot address these issues, or can only address them by saying “God is dead, get over it,” it doesn’t help.

Don’t believe me that it doesn’t help? Geoffrey Munro of Towson University reports a study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology that bears on the matter. In “The Scientific Impotence Excuse: Discounting Belief-Threatening Scientific Abstracts,” he finds that people were more likely to reject science outright when confronted with a scientific claim that conflicted with their own deeply held beliefs. In the study, people were presented with scientific evidence that would either confirm or disconfirm their belief in a link between homosexuality and mental illness. They were then asked to evaluate whether science was capable of addressing such a link, and those whose beliefs were disconfirmed tended to be less confident in science’s ability. Then the researchers asked whether science could address a range of unrelated questions, from clairvoyance to the death penalty, and again, people’s confidence in science’s ability to address those unrelated issues declined when they were simply confronted with a disconfirmation of their beliefs.

Does this mean no one should ever debunk anything? Of course not. But it does mean that such debunkings should take account of where the audience is. In the creationism/evolution debate, the belief that evolution and religion are incompatible is a major stumbling block, and efforts to educate people about evolution that specifically do not challenge people’s deeply held religious views might be less likely to cause people to reject evolution and all of science than a more forthright approach. But if, as Ecklund suggests, scientists lack the experience with religious believers and with religious vocabulary to understand which beliefs are deeply meaningful to religious people, and how to address issues that might butt up against those beliefs, their outreach efforts could backfire and undermine not only the immediate issue of scientific literacy at hand, but acceptance of science as a way of learning about the world more generally.

For what it’s worth, about half of scientists identify with a religious tradition, and half (not quite the same half) attend religious services periodically. Those religious scientists are not all theists (only a third of scientists are theists in any sense, the remaining two thirds are evenly split between agnostics and atheists), and they often feel that their religious beliefs isolate them in professional settings. They fear that mentioning their religious beliefs or practices would cause colleagues to treat their research with less respect, even though half of their colleagues, on average, also have religious beliefs or practices. This self-ignorance of academics about their colleagues’ religious practices contributes to the depauperate religious conversation among scientists, and the incomplete engagement of scientists with the broader religious public.

Ecklund’s advice to scientists is simple and sensible. To quote the Washington Post piece again: “the bottom line is recognizing and tolerating religious diversity, honestly discussing science’s scope and limits, and openly exploring the disputed borders between scientific skepticism and religious faith.”

Comments

  1. #1 John S. Wilkins
    May 29, 2010

    As always, measured and correct…

  2. #2 Larry Moran
    May 29, 2010

    There are many atheists who speak out about religion and belief in the supernatural. Some of them are philosophers, writers, actors, or bankers. Many of them rely on science to bolster their case. They are interested in changing society.

    You don’t usually attack these atheists or suggest that they should tone it down. However, as soon as a *scientist* speaks out about this issue the rules seem to change. You need to understand that, on the issue of atheism vs belief in supernatural beings, a scientist has just as much right to express an opinion as a banker or an actor. Some scientists also want to change society for the better. It’s not “science vs religion” it’s rationalism vs superstition.”

    Scientists will never accept wearing a muzzle just because they are scientists. And they will never accept your view that just because they are scientists they have to view the entire conflict in society nothing but science vs religion.

    Ecklund’s advice to scientists is simple and sensible. To quote the Washington Post piece again: “the bottom line is recognizing and tolerating religious diversity, honestly discussing science’s scope and limits, and openly exploring the disputed borders between scientific skepticism and religious faith.”

    I’m a scientist so that advice is directed at me. I recognize and tolerate (and enjoy) religious diversity. If you or Ecklund are implying otherwise, then you are being deeply insulting, and stupid. Furthermore, I honestly discuss science’s scope and limits. Just because I disagree with you does not mean I’m being dishonest. That’s also insulting … and stupid. I believe that I’m “openly exploring the disputed borders between scientific skepticism and religious faith.” Just because I reach a different conclusion than you or Ecklund is no reason to imply that I am close-minded.

    When you say, “Only through a genuine dialogue between scientists and the broader public can these divisions be bridged,” what, exactly do you mean? I think I’m engaged in a genuine dialogue and I think that Richard Dawkins, and PZ Myers, and Jerry Coyne are doing an excellent job of dialoguing with the general public. Are you implying that their interactions don’t count as “dialogue” or is it that they don’t count as “genuine”?

  3. #3 Sam C
    May 29, 2010

    Of course many atheist/agnostic scientists are not keen to talk about religion, any more than they are keen to talk about astrology or other issues they regard as irrational and nonsensical.

    It is not the job of every scientist to reach out to religious people. Of some scientists, yes, but it’s not part of the job description.

    Equally it’s not the average scientist’s job to come up with confections to reconcile science with religious beliefs. That’s religion’s problem. And how much effort does organised religion make to understand the natural world? Not much!

    As for those scientists who are not keen to discuss their religion at work, well, why should they be? Any more than, say, to discuss their sexuality or other private matters with work colleagues?

    For myself, if a colleague says they’re a churchgoer, I’ll be politely interested and not mock their beliefs, but if they press me hard on my position, I’ll tell them that firmly that I’m not superstitious and I don’t believe in any of that nonsense. I think that’s reasonable; it’s a tit-for-tat strategy!

    The moral of the book seems to be: if you want to reach out to people, understand where they are now. And if you want them to listen, talk their language and address their concerns. Basic communication really. Framing, anybody?

  4. #4 Rob Knop
    May 29, 2010

    Larry — it’s very difficult to have a difficult job when you’re poised to take offence, and when you’re poised to give offence, as you so aptly demonstrate in your comment. It starts defensive, and quickly goes into implying that Josh might be stupid. That’s not a genuine dialog. That’s the kind of polemic ranting that is characteristic of PZ Myers, and that does not help the discussion at all.

  5. #5 Duder
    May 29, 2010

    I am tired of having to respect religious views when my own views are constantly belittled by religious groups. The time of respect for religion is passing and I, for one, will no longer tolerate religious proselytizing at me. I do not respect anyone that is clinging to a set of beliefs penned by bronze age intelligences, I am better than that and so are you. If you want to claim that your religion is reasonable and rational you have a lot of questions to answer, stop getting upset when someone asks them.

  6. #6 John Farrell
    May 29, 2010

    Nice work, Josh. How did you get connected to the WPost? Wouldn’t mind sending them an article or two…

    :)

  7. #7 Mal Adapted
    May 29, 2010

    I’m a scientist so that advice is directed at me. I recognize and tolerate (and enjoy) religious diversity. If you or Ecklund are implying otherwise, then you are being deeply insulting, and stupid. Furthermore, I honestly discuss science’s scope and limits. Just because I disagree with you does not mean I’m being dishonest. That’s also insulting … and stupid.

    Uhmm, OK, Larry. Don’t take it personally. Just because you’re a scientist, doesn’t mean it’s all about you.

  8. #8 Larry Moran
    May 29, 2010

    Mal Adapted says,

    Don’t take it personally. Just because you’re a scientist, doesn’t mean it’s all about you.

    So, which scientists do you think Josh is referring to? Would it be Francis Collins, Ken Miller, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Francisco Ayala, or Eugenie Scott? Are any of them intolerant, dishonest, or close-minded?

  9. #9 Pierce R. Butler
    May 29, 2010

    Judging by the above (and the linked review), it seems like Ecklund treats “science” and “religion” as monoliths – fuzzy, flexible monoliths, but discrete and clearly defined entities nonetheless.

    Bah, also humbug.

    The polls cited reveal a vast amount of public confusion – which said polls reinforce by questions so simplistic they call for a hearty spanking and bedtime without supper.

    … people were more likely to reject science outright when confronted with a scientific claim that conflicted with their own deeply held beliefs.

    Wanna make any bets what would happen if people were “confronted” with news reports/movies/direct physical evidence/celebrity opinions that challenged their personal shibboleths? This study does little but confirm the vast need for better (any!) epistemological education.

    … such debunkings should take account of where the audience is.

    Uh huh. Because “the audience” is monolithic too. Must everything addressed to the public be [gag] framed for a fundie Sunday school for the mentally handicapped?

    … “the bottom line is recognizing and tolerating religious diversity, honestly discussing science’s scope and limits, and openly exploring the disputed borders between scientific skepticism and religious faith.”

    But in this disputed borderland, only one side is allowed to use artillery (or even to discuss the other’s “scope and limits”)? Maybe Elaine Howard Ecklund is not a concern troll, but so far no evidence to contradict that hypothesis has been presented.

  10. #10 J. J. Ramsey
    May 29, 2010

    Pierce R. Butler: “This study does little but confirm the vast need for better (any!) epistemological education.”

    Looks more like the study shows how far people can go to try to protect their beliefs from disconfirmation.

    Pierce R. Butler: “Must everything addressed to the public be [gag] framed for a fundie Sunday school for the mentally handicapped?”

    Strawman much?

  11. #11 Deepak Shetty
    May 29, 2010

    Science is pretty clear where its boundaries are. If only Elaine and co. could convince the religious where their religion’s boundaries end.

  12. #12 Matti K.
    May 29, 2010

    “the bottom line is recognizing and tolerating religious diversity…”

    Are (new) atheists/scientists problematic in this respect? Or is “tolerance” here a code-word for “limiting critical analysis”?

    “…honestly discussing science’s scope and limits…”

    Aren’t the “strident” atheists (“new atheists?”) always expressing their sincere opinions about this matter? They seem to listen and comment opposing views as well. Where is the problem?

    The accommodationists, on the other hand, seem to have decided beforehand that, in principle, the aspects handled in main-stream religions are off-limits for scientists. Or at least it sounds so.

    “…and openly exploring the disputed borders between scientific skepticism and religious faith.”

    Again, I think the (new) atheista are very activie in this matter. It is only the accommodationists who suggest toning down the discussion in order to sell science to the religious. Especially anti-religious conclusions should be avoided, even if they have a logical basis.

  13. #13 SLC
    May 30, 2010

    Re Larry Moran

    Interestingly enough, I saw a comment on another blog which claimed that Prof. Ayala gave an interview to a Spanish newspaper in 2000 where he, the former Catholic priest, admitted to being a non-believer.

  14. #14 Josh Rosenau
    May 30, 2010

    Pierce: Read the book. She’s actually very specific about not setting up science or religion as monoliths, but in taking her interviewees’ understandings of those terms at face value.

    Larry: That advice is not directed at some subset of scientists, but at all scientists. An honest reading of the post would make clear that I wasn’t trying to single anyone out in particular with that comment.

  15. #15 Mal Adapted
    May 30, 2010

    Larry:

    So, which scientists do you think Josh is referring to? Would it be Francis Collins, Ken Miller, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Francisco Ayala, or Eugenie Scott? Are any of them intolerant, dishonest, or close-minded?

    Don’t take them, or yourself, so seriously. How many scientists are there in the world? None speak for all.

  16. #16 Matti K.
    May 31, 2010

    If NOMA, there are no “disputed borders between scientific skepticism and religious faith.” In that case there it makes no sense to explore these borders.

    Isn’t NOMA enough for accommodationists? Or should scientists forget NOMA when trying to reach religious audiences?

  17. #17 red pepper
    May 31, 2010

    I saw a comment on another blog which claimed that Prof. Ayala gave an interview to a Spanish newspaper in 2000 where he, the former Catholic priest, admitted to being a non-believer.

  18. #18 Phaedrus
    June 1, 2010

    I have yet to see this idea that people are more ready to accept scientific ideas that conflict with their religion if the ideas are put forth with more understanding of religion.
    The defense mechanisms of the mind are startling and resourceful. I’d like to see some evidence, Josh. What percentage of non-scientific folk are won over with a kinder, gentler tone? Is that worth the inevitable fuzzification of the science that results?
    I would accept even anecdotal evidence at this point – I have butted heads with conservatives on this enough to develop my own ideas of just how incoherent their views become when questioned (whether nicely or antagonistically). I just don’t see the tone making a difference.

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