Elaine Howard Ecklund has a new paper out, building on her survey of scientists’ views on religion, research she reported in a book last year, and in a series of papers over the last few years. In this paper (press release for those of you who haven’t got access to the journal), she looks specifically at how scientists perceive the relationship between science and religion.
As she reported in the book, 15% of scientists she and her colleagues interviewed reported seeing an inherent conflict between science and religion. Another 15% saw no conflict at all, while the remaining 70% saw some conflict sometimes, but not an inherent conflict.
You may have noticed that many of the loudest scientific voices on the topic of science and religion tend to fall into that first 15%, who see conflict everywhere. Ecklund’s account (co-authored with Jerry Park and Katherine Sorrell) squares with my own sense of these folks’ attitudes:
the group of natural and social scientists who saw religion and science as irreconcilably in conflict saw religion in direct opposition to their work as scientists. On an institutional level, science and religion were utterly incompatible epistemologically, and on a personal level, these scientists could not embrace religion because it ran counter to their ways of understanding truth. In most cases, these scientists had a restricted, fundamentalist notion of religion. Scientists who adopted a conflict perspective tended to see science in an ideal-typical Mertonian form (Merton 1973), rather than having a particular version of science related to their specific discipline. Indeed, as with religion, we found no broad differences between the natural and social scientists in terms of views on science. Those who adhered to an unwavering conflict position held religion under the light of science, and religion failed. In addition, beyond just seeing science as attached to empiricism, these respondents saw empirical knowledge as the only true kind of knowledge.
Among those who see no conflict, she found two groups. One adopted some version of Stephen Jay Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), holding science and religion to be so conceptually distinct as to be unable to interact. These folks were generally not religious themselves:
For these individuals there is a barrier erected between the two; science and religion are not in conflict because religion is outside of and—according to many in this group—generally “irrelevant to” science. Religion and science were separate, with science being a far superior form of knowledge than religion. In this way, these respondents were somewhat similar to those who fell in the “always in conflict” category because they saw science and religion as separate and inherently different. Yet, we placed them in the “no conflict” category because they came to a different conclusion about the connection between science and religion. Rather than perceiving a battle between the two, which science will inevitably win, as it disproves religious dogma through further scientific discovery, these respondents often saw science and religion more as nonoverlapping magisteria (Gould 1997). They were so irrelevant to one another that they were not even in conflict. Those who espouse the idea of nonoverlapping magisteria view religion and science as inherently dealing in two different kinds of truth, with science grounded in empirical truth and religion in meaning. They therefore had a hands-off approach to religion.
While I think most scholars working on science/religion issues pooh-pooh NOMA, Gould’s essays on the topic may be the only texts on science/religion issues that these scientists have read. Unlike the first group, Gould’s approach clicked for these folks. I recognize a lot of myself in that account, especially in regarding religion as personally irrelevant, though not in the emphasis placed in Gould’s views.
The other group of scientists in this “no conflict” 15% (Ecklund doesn’t report the relative sizes of these groups) tend to be religious, and see an interplay between science and religion across a “porous border”:
those who are religious and who view religion and science as without conflict often have a fairly uniform way of understanding the connection between the two; both religion and science are important forms of knowledge, able to bring broader understanding to valuable questions but cannot be completely compartmentalized. Individuals professing this view were generally religious but came from a broad range of religious perspectives, including traditional Catholics as well as Unitarians. While those who thought that religion and science were always in conflict or those who saw science and religion as nonoverlapping magisteria sometimes saw science as limitless, respondents who did not discern a conflict because they saw science and religion as equal sources of knowledge generally posited limits to scientific understanding, limits that religion (and particularly certain forms of it) had the ability to illuminate.
Regular readers will know that I have some sympathy for this view, as well. While I don’t personally get any benefit from religion, I know other people who do find personally relevant insights in their religious practice, and many see their scientific and religious work as mutually beneficial, each informing and deepening the other.
But for all that, if I had been interviewed, I’d have placed myself in her 70% who see no inherent conflict, but recognize the potential for conflict. I know that some people choose to set science and religion at odds, either from the perspective of setting science above religion as with the small minority of scientists Ecklund described above, or the sizable and influential chunks of religious communities who choose to reject scientific findings that they see conflicting with their religious teachings. This includes creationists, advocates of some forms of alternative medicine, and thus not just traditional religions like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism, but new age groups of various sorts. I know too many religious people who don’t create such conflicts to claim that such conflict is inherent, but I also know too many people who do see that conflict to claim that it’s nonexistent or idiosyncratic.
Very much paralleling my own sense of the dynamic, Ecklund writes:
those who indicated that religion was sometimes in conflict with science generally had in mind a particular kind of religion (and religious people and institutions) that conflicted with science and a particular kind of religion that didn’t. In comparison, the group who thought that religion and science were always in conflict had a very restricted notion of religion as being uniformly fundamentalist forms of Christianity. Hence, that first group only defined religion in those terms. Instead, the group who thought that religion and science were sometimes in conflict had a more nuanced and context-dependent notion of religion.
The interviewees used distinct clusters of descriptors for different sorts of religion, and “These descriptors emerged in positive and negative clusters, which the respondents often labeled as characteristics of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ religion.” The distinctions are fairly predictable: evangelical and fundamentalist religions (the terms were apparently used interchangeably) were bad, while Buddhism stood out as a “good” religion. Good religions were adaptable, worked from principles rather than commands or dogma. Good religion operates within its domain, while bad religion intrudes into other fields, especially (since she was talking to scientists) into science.
Ecklund’s paper focuses mainly on how scientists locate the boundaries of those domains. While philosophers have been struggling off and on with the demarcation problem (how is science defined), Ecklund’s approach is to let the scientists speak for themselves. A biologist who describes himself as spiritual but not religious explains how he sees the conflict playing out:
If you’re talking about organized political movements, if they’re associated with some organized religion, then there’s obviously conflict. …I wouldn’t generalize other than that. …for some people, it might be that they feel conflict but some do not see any conflict at all between having a spiritual life and a science … I guess in my idea of spiritual life there’s nothing that isn’t in my idea of scientific life.
Scientists like this use an expansive definition of “spirituality” to sweep in the good aspects of religion, the matters of personal inspiration and connectedness and openness to novelty, and exclude the bad aspects, the authoritarianism and rigidity and dogma. As Ecklund says, “ideas of religion are informing spirituality, giving [these] scientists an alternative language to talk about scientific discovery. For others too, spirituality not only flows from science but flows into science, providing actual scientific insight.”
Other scientists, rather than redefining religion, simply referred to their scientific colleagues who are religious. While the scientists who Ecklund found employing this method were often not religious themselves, they would point to examples of religious scientists (including Ken Miller, Francis Collins, and a website on radiometric dating by Keith Miller) to show the possibility of non-conflicting approaches to science and religion. These scientists especially seemed to find those examples useful in talking about science and religion with students or nonscientists with concerns about science and religion.
Many of the scientists seem not to have thought much about these issues until confronted by events like the convergence of creationist events in 2005 (when the surveys were conducted), and were using “intentional talk,” seeking public discussions (in their classrooms or in other public venues) to explore this issue, recognizing that it was necessary to engage these issues to be effective teachers, scientists, and indeed citizens. Ecklund finds “as debates over intelligent design and stem cell research have taken on a moral tone, scientists have found themselves compelled to respond in innovative ways when dealing with science and religion. Unlike some respondents who simply chose to ignore the broader debates about science occurring in other societal sectors, respondents who used intentional talk as a strategy to discuss the relationship between science and religion addressed the controversies surrounding their profession.”
Most encouragingly, she reports: “Our findings suggest that scientists who are willing to be pushed by such public debates to actually engage students can find productive areas of dialogue that only serve to increase the cultural authority of science.”
While Ecklund, Park, and Sorrell express surprise at some of the ways their conversations went, the results match my own experience of conversations on the blogs and at universities across the country. The analysis provides a useful taxonomy of scientists and their approaches to religion, and provides useful data for the often-heated conversations that this topic generates.
(Pre-emptive reply: Yes, the research was funded in part by the Templeton Foundation, and no, I don’t care. Even if Templeton were as bad as some folks claim – and there’s little if any evidence to sustain those charges – no one has alleged or given reason to suspect that Templeton interferes in how researchers conduct their studies or report their results. Feel free to pick apart the methods and the logic used to reach conclusions, but I’ll regard comments of the form “this is funded by Templeton and therefore suspect” as the rankest trolling, and will respond accordingly.)