Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

Myths widen the science-religion divide

By Elaine Howard Ecklund
Is a dialogue between science and religion possible — or even necessary?

The American Association for the Advancement of Science recently welcomed NASA astrophysicist Jennifer Wiseman as the new director of its Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion. The task ahead: encourage communication between scientific and religious communities. What could be wrong with that?

On the face of it, such an effort seems sensible and admirable. Who doesn’t want civil dialogue rather than hot-headed diatribe?

Yet some critics argue that these kinds of efforts run the risk of co-mingling science and religion which, in the most benign sense, are two very different ways of looking at the world. In the most dangerous sense, scientists getting involved in “dialogue” with religious people, they say, could bias and taint scientific work.

If you are concerned about the advancement of science, you must ask yourself whether a dialogue between science and religion is worthy of promotion and engagement or staunch opposition. Here are some things to consider in making your decision.

The myths

While conducting studies of religion in America, I spent intensive time among conservative evangelicals, liberal Protestants and moderate Muslims. Most recently, I completed a survey of nearly 1,700 natural and social scientists at the nation’s top universities and spoke with 275 of them in depth in their offices and laboratories. I found that the conversation between science and religion is besieged by misunderstanding and myths on both sides.

Some of the assumptions of the present science-religion debates simply do not hold up under the weight of research data. Dispelling myths about religious and scientific communities could lay the groundwork for a new kind of dialogue — one based more on serious thinking and scholarship than caricature.

For example, many in the religious community hold scientists at arm’s length, believing that they are all atheists who are interested in attacking religion and the religious community.

While 30% of the scientists I studied consider themselves atheists, a much larger percentage than in the general population, fewer than 6% of atheist scientists are working against religion.

In fact, nearly half of scientists said they consider themselves religious; one in five was involved in a house of worship. Top scientists are sitting in our country’s churches, temples and mosques.

We also need to dispel the myths scientists hold about religious people. Indeed, there are 14 times more self-identified evangelicals in the general population than among the scientists at our nation’s top universities. And it is true that some within Christian communities have posed a threat to the teaching of evolution and embryonic stem-cell research.

Yet scholars are also finding that evangelical Christianity is not as detrimental to acquiring scientific knowledge as they once thought.

In fact, evangelical Christians are quickly catching up and surpassing other religious groups in terms of education levels. And some scientists, including Francis Collins, a Christian who heads the National Institutes of Health, have engaged in massive public efforts to help Christians understand that they don’t have to choose between their faith commitments and science.

Even so, based on international comparisons, U.S. schoolchildren receive poorer science education than do students in many other industrialized nations, and many young Americans may not be learning what they should about science because their religious upbringing poses a barrier.

What should be done?

Those in the scientific and religious communities who care about our nation’s progress need to do a better job of communicating the importance of science to religious people. Studies show that what kids learn about science in elementary and secondary school, and how well their science abilities are encouraged, help predict their overall success down the road. Those who have a better understanding of science and stronger science skills also tend to have greater socioeconomic stability.

How can we persuade Americans to provide better long-term funding for science?

Start early.

After all, future politicians, business leaders and opinion-makers are currently sitting in the classrooms on America’s top campuses. These are the people who will make decisions about future science policy.

Education and funding are two good reasons we should care about the conversation between scientific and religious communities if the advancement of science is an aim.

More and more, it seems, scientists are beginning to recognize that they need to engage with people of faith if they want to garner broad civic and financial support for their scientific endeavors.

It doesn’t help to have science and religion as warring factions. If greater public support of scientific research is a goal, we should encourage some scientists to become “boundary pioneers” who civilly reach out to religious communities in search of common ground and potential allies.

Besides, this enduring battle doesn’t advance the cause of science — or religion.

Elaine Howard Ecklund, a sociologist at Rice University and a Baker Institute Rice Scholar, focuses on the study of public science. She is the author of a new book, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think.

Source: USA Today

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