For years, sociologist Elaine Ecklund has made a career at Rice University by surveying religionists, scientists, and religious scientists, and twisting her survey data to show that science and religion are compatible. Science are “spiritual,” she says, and there are surprisingly more religious scientists than we think. (Go here to see the many posts I’ve written about her devious ways of spinning her data.) And she has pretended that her agenda is neutral: that she has no overt objective. After all, a sociologist must assume the mantle of objectivity when doing such surveys. But I suppose that’s hard when one is funded by the John Templeton Foundation, as is Ecklund. Templeton, after all, wants certain results.
But now Ecklund’s totally dropped the mantle of objectivity. That’s clear from both a video I’ll put up tomorrow as well as a news release from her university outlining her latest research: “Misonceptions of science and religion found in new study.”
Apparently that new study hasn’t yet been published, but I’m sure it’s forthcoming as a Templeton-funded book, and Ecklund talked about it last week at the AAAS meetings here in Chicago (I’ll show the video from that meeting tomorrow). Ecklund has now openly admitted that her aim is to show that science and religion are compatible, that people who think they aren’t are mistaken, and that we must promote such compatibility so that religious people will not be afraid to become scientists and government funding agencies won’t cut science because they see it as a vehicle for atheists. In other words, she’s driven by an agenda. That takes the “scientist” out of her status as “social scientist.”
What are the “misconceptions” in her latest work? This: “that science and religion can’t work in collaboration.”
Ecklund apparently surveyed garden-variety scientists (as opposed to the “elite” scientists of her previous work), as well as the general population and, especially, evangelical Christians. What she found, as described in the study, is this:
We found that nearly 50 percent of evangelicals believe that science and religion can work together and support one another,” Ecklund said. “That’s in contrast to the fact that only 38 percent of Americans feel that science and religion can work in collaboration.”
The study also found that 18 percent of scientists attended weekly religious services, compared with 20 percent of the general U.S. population; 15 percent consider themselves very religious (versus 19 percent of the general U.S. population); 13.5 percent read religious texts weekly (compared with 17 percent of the U.S. population); and 19 percent pray several times a day (versus 26 percent of the U.S. population).
The latter implies that scientists are just as religious as “regular” Americans, and, as I’ll show in a minute, that’s not quite the case. Ecklund has claimed this before, but, as Jason Rosenhouse noted, she had to finagle her data to reach that conclusion. But let me first note Ecklund’s lack of objectivity, as seen in her own words:
“This is a hopeful message for science policymakers and educators, because the two groups don’t have to approach religion with an attitude of combat,” Ecklund said. “Rather, they should approach it with collaboration in mind.”
In principle, her job is not to find a “hopeful message,” but to find the facts, be they hopeless or hopeful. But of course Templeton isn’t funding her to find opposition to science and religion.
Here are some other facts that Ecklund doesn’t mention:
- A 2009 Pew poll showed that 55% of the U.S. public answered “yes” to the question “Are science and religion often in conflict?”As expected, the perception of general conflict was higher among people who weren’t affiliated with a church (68%).
- Surveying American scientists as a whole, regardless of status, a 2009 Pew poll showed 33% who admitted belief in God, with 41% atheists or agnostics (the rest either didn’t answer, didn’t know, or believed in a “universal spirit or a higher power.” Among the general public, on the other hand, belief in God ran at 83% and nonbelief at 4%. In other words, the average scientist is ten times as likely to be an atheist or an agnostic than is the average American.
- The degree of scientists’ nonbelief goes up with their professional status. Ecklund’s own earlier work found that 62% of scientists working at “elite” universities were atheists or agnostics, with only 33% professing belief in God. And, considering members of America’s most elite scientific body, the National Academy of Sciences, we see that only 7% believe in a personal God and 93% are atheists or agnostics. These figures, and the correlation of nonbelief with professional achievement, are well known.
- Finally, a 2011 survey by the Barna Group, a religious polling organization, found that, among the six major reasons young Christians leave the church, an important one is that they perceive their churches as unfriendly to science:
Reason #3 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science.
One of the reasons young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith is the tension they feel between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is “Christians are too confident they know all the answers” (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that “Christianity is anti-science” (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have “been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.” Furthermore, the research shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.
What Ecklund is doing is simply ignoring these obvious signs that there is indeed an air of combat, or at least of incompatibility. What Ecklund sees as “compatibility,” however, seems to be that both religionists and nonbelievers can work together on issues of “common good”:
“Most of what you see in the news are stories about these two groups at odds over the controversial issues, like teaching creationism in the schools. And the pundits and news panelists are likely the most strident representatives for each group,” she said. “It might not be as riveting for television, but consider how often you see a news story about these groups doing things for their common good. There is enormous stereotyping about this issue and not very good information.”
Well, given that 46% of Americans are young-earth creationists, and almost all of those are religious, I’d say that scientists and believers are considerably at odds about teaching creationism in the schools. In fact, in a 2005 Harris Poll, 55% of Americans thought that creationism, ID, and evolution should all be taught in public schools, 23% creationism only, and 4% ID only. That makes 82% of Americans who want some form of religious-origin stories taught in public schools. Distressingly, only 12% wanted only evolution to be taught! Is that working together for the common good?
And of course “common good” could mean values that some atheists and believers have in common, including issues like gay rights or fighting poverty. But we don’t need surveys to do that; we form alliances based on our interests and perceptions of our allies, not on sociological polls. I’ll tell you this, though: if I wanted to give medical care to sick Africans, I’d rather work with a secular organization like Doctors Without Borders than with a religious organization, simply because the religious groups often proselytize.
Finally, here are some more signs that Ecklund considers “counterintuitive” and hopeful (my emphasis on the first point):
- Nearly 60 percent of evangelical Protestants and 38 percent of all surveyed believe “scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories or explanations.”
- 27 percent of Americans feel that science and religion are in conflict [note that her figures are about half that of other recent surveys]
- Of those who feel science and religion are in conflict, 52 percent sided with religion. [JAC: that's near the results of a 2006 magazine poll of Americans showing that 64% of them thought that if a fact about science contradicted a tenet of their religious beliefs, they'd stick to those beliefs and reject the facts.]
- 48 percent of evangelicals believe that science and religion can work in collaboration.
- 22 percent of scientists think most religious people are hostile to science.
- Nearly 20 percent of the general population think religious people are hostile to science.
- Nearly 22 percent of the general population think scientists are hostile to religion.
- Nearly 36 percent of scientists have no doubt about God’s existence.
Notably missing here is the crucial figure: the proportion of scientists (comared to the general public) that are atheists and agnostics. To me, that disparity clearly shows a conflict between the religious and scientific mindset, reflecting either a penchant for nonbelievers to go into science or an erosion of religious belief when one becomes a scientist. (It’s undoubtedly both, but there is clear evidence that the latter is often the case.)
Finally, the press release shows a bit of irony. Ecklund finds that evangelical Christians who work in science are actually more religious than their evangelical brethren who don’t work in science. Why is that? Here’s Ecklund’s explanation:
“Evangelical scientists feel that they’ve been put under pressure or they find themselves in what they view to be more hostile environments,” she said. “They potentially see themselves as more religious, because they’re seeing the contrast between the two groups all the time.”
Does she not realize that that undercuts her whole thesis? If science and religion are pals, where does the “hostility” come from?