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Hamblin & Peterson: The supposed 'war' between religion and science and its casualties

Published: Saturday, May 17 2014 10:55 p.m. MDT

Is there really a "war" between science and religion? On the whole, no. But to the extent that one exists or is thought to exist, it harms both religion and science.

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In her 2010 Oxford University Press book “Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think,” Elaine Howard Ecklund confirmed some common assumptions about religious attitudes within the scientific community but cast doubt on others.

Between 2005 and 2010, Ecklund, a sociologist at Rice University, conducted a statistical survey of randomly selected American researchers in seven distinct scientific disciplines. There were 2,200 faculty members at 21 elite research universities who received questionnaires; a rather impressive 1,646 of them responded, answering detailed questions about their own religious views and about the relationship between religion and science. Following up, Ecklund and her associates then interviewed 275 of their respondents, digging deeper into their opinions and attitudes.

At first glance, Ecklund’s results were unsurprising. As a group, for example, scientists tended to be less religious than the general populace. Roughly 64 percent of the scientists surveyed described themselves as either atheists or agnostics, compared with approximately 6 percent of the population at large. The other 36 percent admitted to at least some sort of religious leaning, ranging from tentative belief in a vague “higher power” to “no doubts” about God.

More than 60 percent of the general public claims to have no doubt about God’s existence; only about 9 percent of the scientists surveyed reported the same confidence. Roughly 18 percent of scientists attend religious services at least once a month; approximately 46 percent of the general population does.

However, there was surprisingly little evidence of rigidly doctrinaire opposition to religious faith among the scientists. The idea of an “insurmountable hostility” between religion and science proved to be a distinctly minority view. Only 15 percent of the surveyed scientists believed in the “conflict paradigm” — that there exists “no hope for achieving a common ground of dialogue between scientists and religious believers.”

On the basis of her research, Ecklund further argued that scientists seldom become irreligious because of science as such. “Rather, their reasons for unbelief mirror the circumstances in which other Americans find themselves: they were not raised in a religious home; they have had bad experiences with religion; they disapprove of God or see God as too changeable.” She contended further that the high percentage of nonbelieving scientists (as contrasted with the broader population) results from self-selection: Irreligious people seem more likely to become scientists.

In subsequent research based upon even larger surveys, Ecklund has found that 13.5 percent of scientists read religious texts every week, and that 15 percent consider themselves “very religious.” Intriguingly, scientists who identify themselves as evangelical Protestants are actually more religious than American evangelicals who aren’t scientists.

Other data, though, are somewhat worrisome. Fully 22 percent of American scientists think that most religious people are hostile to science. Strikingly, the same percentage of the general population believes that scientists are hostile to religion; 27 percent of all Americans feel that science and religion are at war with each other, and, of those, 52 percent side with religion.

This isn’t healthy. It’s not healthy for the future of American science, since the perception that scientists are hostile to religious faith almost certainly dissuades some religious believers from studying the sciences and embarking upon scientific careers. It may also affect public funding of science, as religious people might understandably be reluctant to dig into their pockets in order to support supposed enemies of their most cherished beliefs. And it’s not healthy for religious communities to be estranged from science and suspicious of scientists.

During a 2006 lecture in New York, Alister McGrath offered a directly relevant comment about Richard Dawkins, the famous British evolutionary biologist and vocal “New Atheist”: “I love the sciences,” remarked McGrath, who earned an Oxford doctorate in molecular biophysics before proceeding on to another Oxford doctorate in theology. “I think they are wonderful, but, if you say, as Dawkins does, that science entails atheism … then actually what you are going to do is persuade a large body of religious people that science is off-limits, and I don’t think that’s right. I think that the position of science in our culture is so precarious that if you actually imply that it’s antireligious, then it’s going to lose its support at a moment in history when it needs all the support it can get. And, therefore, I want to say that Richard Dawkins is doing science a disservice by portraying it in this way.” (McGrath’s remarks are transcribed in Eric Metaxas, ed., “Life, God, and Other Small Topics.”)

Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation, and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.

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