I’ll soon be debating a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) on the topic of whether science and religion are compatible, and to prepare I’ve been trying to find out something about how the church regards science. Like other liberal faiths, ELCA is basically okay with science (including evolution) and appears to take the accommodationist line of “separate magisteria,” with God having set up the laws of science. But it’s hard to find information on the church’s official stand, and so I’ve been reading Covalence, the church’s online science-and-religion magazine.
The October 2011 issue of the magazine features not only a blurb on the church’s grant from the Templeton Foundation (surprise!!), but then touts the research of Elaine Ecklund, another Templeton-funded researcher who has made a career of surveying American scientists and then characterizing the data (often in very dubious ways) to show that scientists are pretty happy with religion. But, in fact, her data show quite the opposite, and it takes some fast talking to claim otherwise. (For a few of my posts on Ecklund’s distortions, see here, here, here, here, and here). I must say that, although I don’t read much social science, I’ve been appalled at how Ecklund manages to turn black into white about the religious attitudes of scientists. And I’m disturbed that the reviewers of her papers don’t look very hard at how whether her data support her conclusions. Further, Templeton keeps throwing money at Ecklund: they apparently don’t care whether her data support her conclusions so long as she gets the conclusions they want.
And those conclusions—which are invariably that science and religion are compatible, and that scientists aren’t as atheistic as everyone thinks—are widely touted in the popular press, whose writers apparently can’t be bothered to read her original papers. The ELCA site falls into the same trap. Have a look at what they say below (my emphasis):
. . . This month Covalence looks at an innovative grant program funded by the John Templeton Foundation that pairs up pastors and scientists in order to educate parishioners on scientific topics and how science relates to religion. It’s a challenge and it’s uncommon and it really is unprecedented in the Templeton Foundation’s history since it has traditionally funded universities to enable them to offer public events, research and unique classes to university students.
The reach of the Scientists in Congregations grant, though, will be much wider. Educational materials are being worked on for grades six through high school, while adult forums are looking at science in relation to upcoming lectionary readings and artificial intelligence.
Should this program take off it could have a strong impact beyond the 37 congregations that were awarded grant monies. Of this group at least four of the congregations are within the ELCA and are working closely with nearby universities to bring professors and scientists into the congregation.
Also in the area of inspiration and education, the ELCA Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology is in the process of developing a three-session confirmation module dealing with creation and science. The Alliance is looking for congregations willing to field test the confirmation module, a module that is designed to help students explore how scientific theories and biblical creation stories can go together as we consider God’s world and the human place in it.
The Alliance member and pastor taking the lead on the confirmation module project is Rev. George Murphy, who is both an ordained pastor and a PhD. physicist — a rarity in any denomination.
But as more pastors are taking an interest in science themselves and befriending their local astronomers, philosophers, doctors and researchers, it seems that scientists too are less antagonistic toward religion than previously thought. Only 15% of scientists at major research universities see religion and science always in conflict, according to a Rice University study that was recently published in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
Rice sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund contradicts the idea that most people in understanding reality and origins of Earth and how life developed see irreconcilable conflict in religion and science, because a majority of scientists interviewed by Ecklund and her colleagues viewed religion and science as “valid avenues of knowledge.”
It’s the recognition of validity of both faith and scientific fact as valid avenues of knowledge that makes life today a little more interesting whether you are sitting in the pew, active in the pulpit or making discoveries in the lab.
Well, Ecklund’s conclusions are wrong or misleading on several counts, and the writer of the Covalence piece, Susan Baretto, either hasn’t read the paper of Ecklund et al. that she cites, has read it and doesn’t understand it, or does understand it but goes along with Ecklund’s distortions.
The paper, by Ecklund, Park, and Sorrell, was published in 2011 in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (reference below; free download); it’s called “Scientists negotiate boundaries between science and faith.” I won’t go over the paper in detail, but want to point out why the characterization above is simply wrong. The “spiritual” part of Ecklund et al. is covered in greater detail in a past guest post by reader Sigmund.
Ecklund et al. surveyed a smallish sample (275) of American scientists at “elite” universities, asking them about their views on spirituality—which Ecklund and the Templeton Foundation take as a synonym for “religion”. Here are the exact questions the scientists were asked.
I’m going to use the words religion and spirituality interchangeably here, recognizing there is a lot of public discussion about the differences between these terms. Could you say a bit about how you understand the terms religion and spirituality?
- How do religion and spirituality come up, if at all, in the course of your discipline?
- How about in teaching, does religion or spirituality come up at all in interactions with students or teaching and in what kinds of ways?
- I’m also interested in the relationship between religion and your work as a scientist. How does religion (or spirituality) influence the work you do as a scientist?
- On the other hand, how does being a scientist (social scientist) (if it does at all) influence how you think about or view religion?
- Some say there is a “conflict between science and religion.” How would you respond to such a statement?
- How about now for you personally, how would you describe the place of religion or spirituality in your life?
- What religious or spiritual beliefs do you hold (religiously or spiritually speaking)?
- If you have a religious tradition, in what specific way does being part of that religious tradition influence your life now? What kinds of things do you do to practice being part of that religious tradition?
Note that there is nothing about whether scientists viewed religion and science as “valid avenues of knowledge”!
Here are the distortions in the ELCA characterization above, and in the paper of Ecklund et al.:
- While 15% of scientists saw religion and science as always in conflict, 70% saw them as sometimes in conflict, and another 15% as never in conflict. In other words, 85% of scientists saw some conflict between science and religion. As the paper notes:
When asked about their own views on the relationship between religion and science, respondents fell into three categories. About 15 percent of scientists who completed in-depth interviews said that religion and science were always in conflict. Another 15 percent said they were never in conflict. About 70 percent of those interviewed gave specific contexts in which religion and science are in conflict and others where they are not. The narratives of all three groups of scientists provide important insights into issues related to boundary negotiation.
To concentrate on only the 15% who see “no conflict,” while omitting the other 85%, is dishonest on the part of Baretto. It’s understandable that many scientists would see religion as only “sometimes” in conflict with faith, for of course some claims of some religions don’t conflict with science at all! Some of these are moral dicta, like “love they neighbor,” and those can’t conflict with science. In other cases, liberal faiths fully accept the findings of science, even evolution, and there’s no conflict there, either.
- The 15% who see “no conflict” contain some scientists who are uncomfortable with the “methods” of religion. Ecklund divides this group into two classes, those with “porous” boundaries between science and faith, and those with “rigid” boundaries. She gives no data about the relative proportions in these two groups! The “rigid” group saw science and religion as so separate that they could not be in conflict. As the paper notes:
. . . [these] respondents said that religion and science are not in conflict for them because they are not religious. 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 answered “only sometimes in conflict” include “spirituality” as a kind of religion. Note that this tactic was actually promoted by Ecklund et al. in the first question above when they asserted, “I’m going to use the words religion and spirituality interchangeably here, recognizing there is a lot of public discussion about the differences between these terms.” And this rather shady move lead to a higher proportion of scientists than expected seeing science and religion as “compatible.” As the paper notes,
. . . Respondents who viewed religion as only sometimes in conflict with science tended to manage the science-religion relationship by changing the definition of religion. Specifically for them, religion most compatible with science would be best defined as spirituality. On the whole, scientists were more spiritual than we had expected. Across all disciplines, 68 percent surveyed considered themselves spiritual to some degree. They used this label to mean a variety of things, from a vague feeling of something outside themselves to a deep and compelling, other-centered worldview that directed how they conduct research and interact with students. To an extent, this mirrors what Robert Wuthnow and others have found among the general public (Wuthnow 1998).
But, as Ecklund et al. implicitly recognize, “spirituality” covers a huge range of emotions, including simple awe at the wonders of the universe that has nothing to do with religion. If you are of that stripe, then of course you see no conflict between science and “religion”. This deliberate conflation of religion and spirituality leads Ecklund et al to their conclusion:
. . . On the whole, scientists are more spiritual than we had expected and scientists who view themselves as spiritual are also less likely to see religion and science as in conflict. By broadening the definition of what constitutes religion to include noninstitutionalized forms of spirituality—scientists are drawn from within the realm of science into the realm of religion. These scientists use a redefinition of religion as about spirituality; the boundaries between religion and science become porous and the nature of science is also redefined.
- No scientist, much less a majority of them, said that “science and religion are both “valid avenues of knowledge!” I looked in vain for survey results showing this, since it is so surprising, and in fact there isn’t anything to support the claim that a majority of scientists see a religion-science comity. That is simply made up by the author of the ELCA blurb.
The “statistic” apparently comes from what two scientists said, and the “avenues of knowledge” quote comes from Ecklund et al. themselves. As the paper notes (my emphasis):
As one Episcopalian chemist explained:
“As a scientist you’re always on the cutting edge … . I expect religion to kind of work the same way, so the idea of something just stable and fixed, that you can’t really have any new ideas … . Things that we’ve learned in the past 2000 years, that has to be factored into those old truths. Religion has to be dynamic. There has to be research and new ideas and sometimes as a scientist you participate in creation.”
What is most interesting about this quote is the overlap between boundaries that it exemplifies. This chemist essentially afforded science and religion the same knowledge structures. New discovery was experienced through both, and for both there was even the possibility of creation. Science and religion each should be expected to change as new experiences provide them room to do so. This respondent saw both religion and science as valid avenues of knowledge, able to bring broader understanding to valuable questions.
A sociologist who described himself as a practicing Unitarian Universalist said, in response to being asked whether science and religion are in conflict:
“Such a statement is typically made by someone who’s a partisan on one side, not someone who is trying to find all of the tools that are available to explain the character of our world and the place of humans in it. There’s just too much evidence of people being very thoughtful and creative working on both sides or working with both traditions of the inquiry … . I think it leads people to reject forms of learning … . It is much more productive to say that we should use all the tools that we have available, religious and scientific to address these profound questions, not use that to drive wedges between us.”
Notice, similar to the Episcopalian chemist quoted above, this respondent sees both religion and science as providing valid forms of knowledge and tools to answer important kinds of questions. He even sees science and religion influencing one another.
So there’s no “majority of scientists” who believe this—only these two quoted in the paper. There may be a few more—after all, there will always be a handful of religious scientists who take this stand—but this is not a majority by any means! The statement that “a majority of scientists interviewed by Ecklund and her colleagues viewed religion and science as ‘valid avenues of knowledge’” is either a lie or an unwitting distortion.
Perhaps I’ve belabored this too long, and I certainly am not saying that the ELCA always engages in this kind of distortion. Indeed, the distortion may be due to ignorance rather than duplicity. What I am saying is that religious people will grab onto any straw, no matter how thin, to support their claim that science and faith are compatible. And when they see a sociological “scientist” making such claims, they don’t examine them too closely. Susan Baretto misled her readers, and misled them toward what they wanted to hear.
What is more worrisome, I think, is the way that Ecklund repeatedly distorts her findings and pitches the distortions to the public (see her PuffHo pieces), trying to minimize the very real atheism that permeates the scientific community. And most worrisome is the way that the Templeton Foundation gives Ecklund (and others) oodles of money to reach such conclusions, and doesn’t seem to care too much whether those conclusions are sound.
Ecklund, E. H., J. Z. Park, and K. L. Sorrell. 2011. Scientists negotiate boundaries between religion and science. J. Scientific Study of Religion 50:552-569.