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What Scientists Really Think: Shattering Myths, Toward Dialogue

2010

Shattering Myths, Toward Dialogue

I began this book with the story of Galileo. Many of the scientists I talked with gave Galileo's torture at the hands of the Inquisition as a central piece of evidence that religion and science are in an entrenched conflict. But really, Galileo was never tortured; that's a myth. Misconceptions about religion and science abound.

The best research is often deeply surprising, because it dispels common myths that we believe about ourselves and the world around us. Research cann

ot tell us how to live. But, interpreted through our own values, it can help free us up to live in ways that more closely align with our own view of the world. So far, we have listened to the voices of myriad scientists. We have discussed statistics revealing what scientists think about religion and religious people and how scientists incorporate religion into their own lives.

But here I trade in my scholar's hood for the robe of an arbitrator. My goal is to see religious nonscientists and scientists (both religious and nonreligious) engage in more productive dialogue. I would like to see their conversations lead to more acceptance of some parts of science among people of faith and, among scientists, toward a better understanding of the diversity of religion. So I would be remiss if I did not directly point out how some of the assumptions of the present religion-science debates simply do not hold up under the weight of research data. I then offer possible recommendations for other scientists and religious people who share my goal of productive dialogue.

 

Myths Religious People Believe

Both scientists and religious nonscientists have been to blame for the misconceptions that have fostered the antipathy of the religion and science debates. For some religious people, atheists are held at arm's length as the complete "other," those who are mostly interested in attacking religion and religious people. Religious people might think that atheists are misguided, but it is equally misguided to have a wrong impression about who atheists really are.

Atheists are always hostile to religion. Indeed, there are certainly some atheists who—like Arik, a physicist we met earlier—made it clear that they are completely hostile to religion. Their sentiments are that religion should not exist at all.

But the majority of atheist scientists and agnostic scientists I talked with were not hostile to religion. Indeed, only five (!) of the atheist scientists I talked with were so hostile that they were actively working against religion. I discovered many spiritual atheists, those who think that key mysteries about the world can best be understood spiritually. Other atheists and agnostics were parts of houses of worship, completely comfortable with religion as moral training for their children and for alternative forms of community. If religious people understood the full range of atheist practice and the way that, for some, it interfaces with religion, they might be less likely to hold such negative attitudes towards scientists who are atheists. Richard Dawkins aside, many atheist scientists have no desire to denigrate religion or religious people.

Spirituality doesn't matter. Whether efficacious or detrimental, this sense of being able to pick and choose from various traditions in a syncretistic fashion is what some scholars think makes spirituality—when compared to traditional forms of religion—so appealing to so many people and so compatible with American individualism. Americans cherish their freedom of choice, and, scholars have argued, they desire to extend it into the creation of their own spirituality. Implied in these conceptions is the assumption that the search for spirituality in general is necessarily disconnected from the larger search for ultimate truth and often from actual religious practice. Consequently, a religious person who is deeply involved in a house of worship might find this sense of spirituality thin and misguided.

Yet there is clearly a group of scientists who are neither traditionally religious nor completely secular. And a significant minority (about 40 percent) of the interviewed scientists who considered themselves spiritual tried to integrate their spirituality with their science. For some of them, spirituality and science were actually linked through their search for truth. Spirituality allows for searching because it is broader than religion—not broader in the sense of being relativistic but more tolerant of genuine inquiry. It's not institutional, so in their perception, not trammeled—as religion is—by boundaries called doctrines. Those in the general public who adhere to certain forms of religious practice might find this group of scientists more open to conversation than they had thought, especially to discussions about how science might offer spiritual insight or the possible connections between religion and science ethics.

Science is the major cause of unbelief. It is important to remember that many scientists forgo religion for reasons that have little to do with science per se, such as an argument with God or a lack of childhood experience with religion. It is not always science that has pushed God away. Understanding this has pointed implications for how intellectual religious people might enter into dialogue with scientists. Religious leaders need to listen more carefully to scientists. The most effective intuitive middle ground between science and religion for many scientists might be the same ground that we all face: the struggle for purpose, the search for meaning, the disenchantment of a childhood where religion was handled poorly, and struggles with the problem of evil in the world. Scientists like Evelyn have had bad experiences with religion or none at all; their main exposures to faith are the national headlines, such as the portrayals of fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam in the New York Times. Given this, it should come as no surprise that scientists often react negatively toward public, institutionalized religion, wanting to turn instead to spirituality.

There are no religious scientists. The survey I conducted among scientists revealed that nearly one in five is actively involved in a house of worship, attending more than once a month. This means that top scientists are sitting in the pews of our nation's congregations, temples, and mosques. And just as religious scientists have (usually) a closeted faith within their science departments, they sometimes closet their science within their religious communities. So their colleagues don't know they're religious, and their fellow believers don't understand their scientific convictions.

Dispelling stereotypes of atheists, reaching out to the spiritual-but-notreligious scientists, and mentoring and involving scientists within faith communities would mean that leaders within houses of worship would need to do a better job of integrating science and scientists within congregational life. Provide scientists with a forum in their religious communities to discuss the connections between their faith lives and their work as scientists. Invite them to be leaders in adult religious education and to have other public roles that will provide them a more prominent voice in their religious communities. They must not be required to leave behind their identities as scientists when they come to the altar.

And religious scientists must take the lack of scientific understanding found among some in their religious communities as a wake-up call. They might have a special calling to be boundary pioneers for science within their religious communities. Cognitive scientists mention the specific power of stories in the development of cognitive schema (interpretive frameworks, such as a scientific understanding); when concepts and ways of thinking are bundled within stories, they are easier to believe, apprehend, and remember? Science is the major cause of unbelief It is important to remember that many scientists forgo religion for reasons that have little to do with science per se, such as an argument with God or a lack of childhood experience with religion. It is not always science that has pushed God away. Understanding this has pointed implications for how intellectual religious people might enter into dialogue with scientists. Religious leaders need to listen more carefully to scientists. The most effective intuitive middle ground between science and religion for many scientists might be the same ground that we all face: the struggle for purpose, the search for meaning, the disenchantment of a childhood where religion was handled poorly, and struggles with the problem of evil in the world. Scientists like Evelyn' 'have had bad experiences with religion or none at all; their main exposures to faith are the national headlines, such as the portrayals of fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam in the New York Times. Given this, it should come as no surprise that scientists often react negatively toward public, institutionalized religion, wanting to turn instead to spirituality.

There are no religious scientists. The survey I conducted among scientists revealed that nearly one in five is actively involved in a house of worship, attending more than once a month. This means that top scientists are sitting in the pews of our nation's congregations, temples, and mosques. And just as religious scientists have (usually) a closeted faith within their science departments, they sometimes closet their science within their religious communities. So their colleagues don't know they're religious, and their fellow believers don't understand their scientific convictions.

Dispelling stereotypes of atheists, reaching out to the spiritual-but-notreligious scientists, and mentoring and involving scientists within faith communities would mean that leaders within houses of worship would need to do a better job of integrating science and scientists within congregational life. Provide scientists with a forum in their religious communities to discuss the connections between their faith lives and their work as scientists. Invite them to be leaders in adult religious education and to have other public roles that will provide them a more prominent voice in their religious communities. They must not be required to leave behind their identities as scientists when they come to the altar.

And religious scientists must take the lack of scientific understanding found among some in their religious communities as a wake-up call. They might have a special calling to be boundary pioneers for science within their religious communities. Cognitive scientists mention the specific power of stories in the development of cognitive schema (interpretive frameworks, such as a scientific understanding); when concepts and ways of thinking are bundled within stories, they are easier to believe, apprehend, and remember?) From a faith

Science is the major cause of unbelief It is important to remember that many scientists forgo religion for reasons that have little to do with science per se, such as an argument with God or a lack of childhood experience with religion. It is not always science that has pushed God away. Understanding this has pointed implications for how intellectual religious people might enter into dialogue with scientists. Religious leaders need to listen more carefully to scientists. The most effective intuitive middle ground between science and religion for many scientists might be the same ground that we all face: the struggle for purpose, the search for meaning, the disenchantment of a childhood where religion was handled poorly, and struggles with the problem of evil in the world. Scientists like Evelyn' 'have had bad experiences with religion or none at all; their main exposures to faith are the national headlines, such as the portrayals of fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam in the New York Times. Given this, it should come as no surprise that scientists often react negatively toward public, institutionalized religion, wanting to turn instead to spirituality.

There are no religious scientists. The survey I conducted among scientists revealed that nearly one in five is actively involved in a house of worship, attending more than once a month. This means that top scientists are sitting in the pews of our nation's congregations, temples, and mosques. And just as religious scientists have (usually) a closeted faith within their science departments, they sometimes closet their science within their religious communities. So their colleagues don't know they're religious, and their fellow believers don't understand their scientific convictions.

Dispelling stereotypes of atheists, reaching out to the spiritual-but-notreligious scientists, and mentoring and involving scientists within faith communities would mean that leaders within houses of worship would need to do a better job of integrating science and scientists within congregational life. Provide scientists with a forum in their religious communities to discuss the connections between their faith lives and their work as scientists. Invite them to be leaders in adult religious education and to have other public roles that will provide them a more prominent voice in their religious communities. They must not be required to leave behind their identities as scientists when they come to the altar.

And religious scientists must take the lack of scientific understanding found among some in their religious communities as a wake-up call. They might have a special calling to be boundary pioneers for science within their religious communities. Cognitive scientists mention the specific power of stories in the development of cognitive schema (interpretive frameworks, such as a scientific understanding); when concepts and ways of thinking are bundled within stories, they are easier to believe, apprehend, and remember?) From a faith

 From a faith perspective, we would call these stories testimonies. Religious scientists from various traditions may thus need to do a better job of telling their own stories or testimonies of how they personally reconcile being a scientist with being a person of faith. Scientists opening up about how they resolve the connections between religion and science will go a long way in opening dialogue between scientists and members of the general public.

One biologist in the Midwest (introduced in Chapter 3), whose mother was a choir director in a Presbyterian church, had given lectures at his church about the compatibility between science and religion. He spoke positively of the experience, explaining that this was a time for scientists within his church to come together in sane dialogue. He wishes that these discussions would happen more regularly, because the lack of consistent discussion puts him out of practice: "I'm not perhaps articulating to you as well as I could if I had these conversations on a regular basis". Increased discussions will not only help scientists with faith to connect with one another, they will also provide the nonscientists in their congregations with role models for working out a peace between faith and science. Just as scientists might be more likely to respect religious individuals who are also scientists, nonscientists within religious communities might be more likely to accept scientific ideas from fellow parishioners. So as religious scientists are more outspoken in their religious communities, the people in the pews will find a place for scientific ways of knowing within their understanding of truth.

 

Myths Scientists Believe

Ignore religion, and it will go away. As we have discussed, there are 14 times more evangelicals in the general population than among top scientists. And only 9 percent of scientists are Catholic, compared to 27 percent of the general population. More than 50 percent of Americans agree that "we depend too much on science and not enough on faith" and that "scientific research these days doesn't pay enough attention to the moral values of society." And according to a recent national survey, nearly 25 percent of the American public thinks that scientists are hostile to religion. Religion and (more important) the intersection between religion and science cannot be ignored by scientists who care about the public's knowledge of science and its propagators. These scientists should set forth an agenda for dialogue and bringing discussions about religion out of private confines and into the open, an agenda that emphasizes a more nuanced view of religion and a more realistic view of the limits of science.

Yet as we have also seen, those who want to talk with members of the general public about science face something of a language deficit. Since they did not learn a religious vocabulary as children, they find themselves without the right tools with which to engage religion. (What does Genesis really say about the earth's origins anyway? Does Qur'an 21:30 describe the big bang?) Such scientists do not need to become religious believers to have more productive discussions about science with people of faith. But they do need to know more about religion—at least basic facts about the variety of the world's traditions—so that they might more effectively engage with a variety of religious people in a way that advances science, perhaps preserving some of its public funding.

All religion is fundamentalism. It is true that in some ways, religious fundamentalism has posed the biggest threat that science has ever faced. We have recounted this many times. And so have the nation's major newspapers. The plethora of articles published about the perceived threat of religious fundamentalism to science can lead scientists to think that there are many more people with these views than there really are. Yet fundamentalism is not all there is in the great scheme of religion. Scientists who do not believe and those who have little experience with religion must be careful not to build caricatures of religious people based only on the loudest current religious voice. Besides, your respected colleague just one office over could be a closeted person of faith and you don't even know it. Scientists who wish to speak meaningfully about topics related to religion and science could learn more about the diverse ways in which different religions approach science by reading the works of religious philosophers and poets whose higher purpose and sense of religious meaning have borne up under science.

And basic stereotypes about religious people should be dispelled. For example, generally speaking, religious people have as much education as nonreligious people. And they're not all Christians. The majority of recent immigrants are part of Christian religions, meaning that they are changing the character of American Christianity. But there has been extensive increase in the number of non-Christian religions, too, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, as a result of recent immigration. Understanding how different religious traditions approach matters of science and faith can go a long way toward dispelling stereotypes from both sides. Scientists should take the time to recognize diversity among religious traditions in their approaches to science, just as there is diversity among scientists in their approaches to religion.

Such understanding might even compel scientists to reach out to religious leaders, looking for allies in unexpected places. Scientists may even play a supporting role in the efforts of religious activists who are sympathetic to science. For instance, Jim Wallis, head of Sojourners, an evangelical Christian ministry focused on social justice, has worked to dispel the idea that science and religion can't get along in what he calls a "post–religious right America". Leaders like Wallis could be crucial support in helping scientists reach out to large groups of religious people for the sake of science.

In the classroom, scientists who do not hold a personal faith still have a responsibility to interact respectfully with religious students and not require them to hide their worldviews on philosophical, moral, or aesthetic issues. But many scientists adopt a dismissive or pejorative stance toward religious students, even suppressing discussion of religion altogether. Recall Raymond, a physicist we met earlier, who said that the views of religious students should not be considered because "they're in the big time now". Bear in mind also the implications of those sentiments expressed by the social scientist" who tells her students to put aside their religious beliefs if they want to succeed in her class. She seems to assume that studying religion from a scientific worldview is necessarily at odds with having personal faith—as if faith somehow dilutes or softens the brain—so much so that one's religion must be put aside in order to engage in analytic and systematic science. If she wants her students to abandon religion in favor of science, her approach is counterproductive. Her nonreligious students will simply be encouraged to buy into the myth of science-religion conflict, and her religious students might abandon certain important scientific tenets (such as evolution) in an effort to maintain their faith.

These negative ways of approaching religion in university classrooms often stem from lack of understanding of the diversity of religion. As pointed out in Chapter 2, a substantial portion of scientists have little present positive exposure to religion. We may even go so far as to call some religiously illiterate. One step toward religious literacy would be to find out more about the various faith traditions of their students. The levels of religious commitment among their students most often will mirror those of the general public, since religious and nonreligious persons now generally seek higher education at the same rate. I am not saying that scientists need to advance religion or religious causes they disagree with. Rather, they should be open to learning about the perspectives from which their students come. Other approaches to religious literacy might include exploring the ways in which various religions relate to science, or the role that religion has played historically in the academy. And still another way to broaden religious literacy would be to make efforts toward dialogue between secular and religious scientists.

A broad benefit of religious literacy will also be scientists reaching the general public—most of whom are religiously involved—with the results of their research. The religious demographics of the American public leave scientists with a responsibility to consider how they engage with religious individuals.

In fact, many grants from the federal government now require that scientists devote part of their funding to public science—that is, engaging the American public with their research. And to communicate well with this public, scientists need to be able to speak their religious language.

All evangelical Christians are against science. Scholars are also finding that evangelicalism is not as detrimental to gaining scientific knowledge as they once thought. Evangelical Christians—those who believe in the authority of the Bible and salvation in Jesus Christ alone—are quickly catching up to and surpassing other religious groups in terms of education levels. Evangelicals and members of other traditional religions now graduate from college at the same rate as most other groups of Americans. And those who call themselves "evangelical" come from a variety of Christian denominations, most of which are not advocates of all aspects of a "religious right" political agenda. Further, there are several scientists, such as Francis Collins, who are engaged in massive public efforts to help a Christian constituency understand that they don't have to choose between their faith commitments and science. Secular scientists might not agree with the religious premises of such arguments, but they can share with their religious peers the larger goal of transmitting science to as broad an audience as possible. And to this end, they might draw on the resources of the religious scientists in their midst.

Philip E. Hockberger and Richard Miller are engaged in exciting and novel efforts at Northwestern University through a course on science and society they teach to biology graduate students. Among other topics, the course provides a brief overview of the historical debates between religion and science, the lives of religious and nonreligious scientists, public challenges to science, and how to discuss science with a believing American public.

More than 60 Northwestern University graduate students attended an event where Hockberger presented findings from my study about approaches to faith among university scientists. This relatively high attendance at a nonrequired lecture shows the interest in these issues among students pursuing advanced degrees. The next day, I led a roundtable discussion with some of the students who had attended the lecture. We talked about why religion persists given what we know about science, about various ways that religion might influence science ethics, how to translate science to a largely religious American public, and a host of other issues. Courses and events like these would be a popular addition to social and natural science curricula in undergraduate and graduate programs. Although such courses are already being taught in some science-studies departments, they would be just as relevant to the fields of biology, physics, and chemistry.

Well-trained young scientists who can lead thoughtful religious dialogue might well be our nation's next great science breakthrough.

Elaine Howard Ecklund, Science vs. Religion. What Scientists Really Think (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 149-155.