RELIGION

"Science vs. Religion" discovers what scientists really think about religion

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Sunday, May 30, 2010

SCIENCE VS. RELIGION

What Scientists Really Think

By Elaine Howard Ecklund

Oxford Univ. 228 pp. $27.95

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.

Fully half of these top scientists are religious. Only five of the 275 interviewees actively oppose religion. Even among the third who are atheists, many consider themselves "spiritual." One describes this spiritual atheism as being rooted in "wonder about the complexity and the majesty of existence," a sentiment many nonscientists -- religious or not -- would recognize. By not engaging with religion more fully and publicly, "the academy is really doing itself a big disservice," worries one scientist. As shown by conflicts over everything from evolution to stem cells to climate policy, breakdowns in communication between scientists and religious communities cause real problems, especially for scientists trying to educate increasingly religious college students.

Religious groups -- creationist movements in particular -- are not without blame here. Creationist attacks on evolution "have polarized the public opinion such that you're either religious or you're a scientist!" a devout physicist complains. Indeed, the National Science Board recently spiked a report on American knowledge about evolution, claiming that it was too difficult to tell the difference between religious objections to evolution and questions raised about the state of the science.

Only through a genuine dialogue between scientists and the broader public can these divisions be bridged. To her credit, Ecklund avoids editorializing even while encouraging such dialogue. She gives voice to scientists, relaying and synthesizing their experience. Though "Science vs. Religion" is aimed at scientists, her myth-busting and her thoughtful advice can also benefit nonscientists. For Ecklund, 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.

-- Josh Rosenau


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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