I’m getting weary of Elaine Ecklund’s frenetic framing. As you may remember, Ecklund did a study on the religious views of American scientists, a study that showed, by and large, that those scientists are far more atheistic than is the American public at large. Her research, which of course was funded by the Templeton Foundation, was published as a book, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think.
At EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse has summarized Ecklund’s results, which include these statistics:
- 34% of scientists say that they have no belief in God, while another 30% agree with this statement: “I do not know if there is a God, and there is no way to find out.” That makes 64% of them who are in the atheist camp (or atheist/agnostic camp, depending how you define “agnostic”). Only 6% of the American public falls into these two groups.
- An additional 8% of scientists agree with the statement, “I believe in a higher power, but it is not God.” Total: 72% of scientists are non-theists. The figure for Americans as a whole: 16%.
- Only 9% of scientists say this: “I have no doubts about God’s existence”. Compare this to the 63% of Americans who are dead certain.
- 54% of scientists claim no religious affiliation, compared with only 16% of the general public.
- Only 2% of scientists say they are evangelical Protestants, while 28% of all Americans claim this label.
Ecklund did her study at “elite” universities, but if you look at “elite scientists,” i.e., those who have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the degree of disbelief is even higher: 72% are flat-out atheists and another 21% are doubters or agnostics, with only 7% accepting a personal god. (The NAS data are from an independent study.)
What else can one conclude but that American scientists are far more atheistic and agnostic than the American public, and that the more elite the scientist, the weaker the belief in God?
Well, Ecklund doesn’t conclude that, or, if she does, she buries it under her grand conclusion: scientists are far more religious (she also uses the weasel-word “spiritual”) than we previously thought! As she says,
Given the presence of religion in the scientific community, why do Americans still think scientists are hostile to religion?
The presence of religion? Is that all it takes to dispel that pernicious myth of atheistic scientists? A presence? How much less presence can there be in such a religious society? Would there still be a “presence” if only 1% instead of 9% of scientists had no doubts about God’s existence?
Ecklund’s posts, interviews, and opinion pieces touting this conclusion are all over the interwebz; the latest, “What scientists think about religion,” is at HuffPo. (It’s part of a new HuffPo series on Science and Religion, all dedicated to showing how compatible they are.)
If you want to see framing at its nauseating best, or worst, observe how Ecklund downplays the irreligiosity of scientists in favor of showing how “spiritual” they are, how few of them actually spend their time trying to destroy religion, and how “nearly one in five is actively involved in a house of worship, attending services more than once a month.”
What’s almost worse than this selective amnesia about the facts is what inference Ecklund and others draw from them. It is this: we need more dialogue—and more respectful dialogue—between scientists and the faithful to help bridge this gap. This conclusion will surely please the folks at Templeton who funded Ecklund’s study. As she says at HuffPo:
So if religious folks want their children to succeed (as a scholar of American religion, I have every reason to believe they do) and if scientists want more children to consider a career in the field (as a scholar of the American scientific community, I know they do), there needs to be a better dialogue between people of faith and the scientists among them.
We need real, radical dialogue — not just friendly co-existence between religion and science, but the kind of discussion where each side genuinely tries to understand why the other thinks the way it does and where common ground is sought. This dialogue should reach the rank-and-file in religious communities with the message of how to maintain faith while fully pursuing science. And it needs to reach the rank-and-file in the scientific community as well, providing them with better ways to connect with religious people.
How to begin? Maybe I won’t, because I’ve plowed this ground before. (I can’t help, however, being highly amused by Ecklund’s dictum that part of our job as scientists is to help religious people “maintain their faith while fully pursuing science.”)
Let me just say what comment I would put on Ecklund’s piece if it were submitted to me as a student essay:
I am sorry, but I don’t see how these conclusions follow from your data.
Or is it possible that this isn’t a conclusion at all, but a message that is completely independent of the data, and perhaps confected before the study was done?