Elaine Ecklund is making more hay out of her Templeton-funded research than I would have thought possible. Author of the book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, she has spent her post-publication time distorting her findings as loudly and as often as possible, and spinning them to claim that they show the need for a consilience of science and faith. Templeton could not have gotten more bang for their bucks.
Her latest piece, “Science on Faith“, is in The Chronicle of Higher Education. (It’s behind a paywall but I got it from the library.) Once again Ecklund emphasizes the many scientists who “identify with a religious label,” (these, of course, include atheists like Jason Rosenhouse and me!), and who “see themselves as spiritual.” After cannily making her readers think that many atheist-scientists are actually “spiritual” folk, only a hairsbreadth from accepting Jebus, she reaches her familiar point: university scientists need to talk more about religion in and out of the classroom:
Talking with these scientists, I have found that many of them simply don’t know what to do when their students bring up issues related to religion. Academic scientists want models that involve more than just asking students to compartmentalize their thinking. . .
According to my findings, a sizable minority of natural and social scientists—about 20 percent, some religious and some not—now think that although the scientific method ought to be value-neutral, religion can meaningfully intersect with the implications of their research and the education of their students. A scientist’s faith might motivate her to fight global warming, for example, or to decline research grants from sources that support nuclear proliferation.
Or, one might add, call into question the modern theory of evolution, cast doubt on global warming, or, in the case of Francis Collins, go around lecturing that human morality is not an evolved or secular phenomenon, but ironclad proof of God’s existence. Of course, Ecklund never mentions the possibility that a scientist’s faith could lead her to activities that are not quite as congenial to liberals as battling global warming.
Having established the dire state of disparity between science and faith in universities, Ecklund then tells us scientists what we must do. She has three prescriptions:
1. Learn moar religion. As Ecklund says,
First, academic scientists must acknowledge religious diversity. While scientists have an elaborate vocabulary for the subjects they deal with in their own fields and subfields, those without a religious identity (more than 50 percent) have limited experience, knowledge, or interaction with religion and religious people. (Thirteen percent of scientists were raised with no religious tradition, and those who were raised in religious homes were mreligious in name only.)
Scientists need to understand that different religious traditions intersect with science in distinct ways. Just as not all biologists study the same biological systems, not all religious people have the same beliefs or apply their beliefs in the same way. (For example, many Christians have no problem accepting evolution, while certain Christian groups reject it.)
Academic scientists have a particular intellectual responsibility—in the face of public conflict between religion and science, as well as because of the increasing diversity of their own student populations—to deepen their understanding of religion.
Well, of course many of us have other claims on our time, but I am doing this, Dr. Ecklund! But not for the reasons you think!
2. Get rid of our pervasive scientism!
Second, we need to acknowledge the limits of science. Scientists should be willing to discuss what science is and what it is not, which is very much in keeping with Gould’s idea of nonoverlapping magisteria. Philosophers of science and scientists themselves have discussed what they call scientism, a disciplinary imperialism that leads scientists to explicitly or implicitly assert that science is the only valid way toward knowledge, and that it can be used to interpret all other forms of knowledge.
Scientists who want their colleagues to do more to advance the public transmission of science—particularly those who think their colleagues are already doing a poor job in this regard—mention rejecting a form of scientism that has no room for meaning and morality.
Yeah, I’m really going to take up a lot of classroom time discussing this one! And doesn’t Ecklund know that some people see “science” as more broadly construed, as one species of rationality—a rationality that can also apply to those other unspecified “ways of knowing?” And others, like Same Harris, see the very roots of morality—and its applications—buried deep in science. Finally, Dr. Ecklund, is it really a slur on university science teaching that we “leave no room for meaning and morality”? As humans, we do have codes or morality, and do find meaning in our life (much of which is involves studying the universe). Our job, though, is not to foist our personal beliefs on our students, but to teach science. Let the philosophy department teach students how to think critically about these other things!
Some day I’m going to make a list of accommodationist code words, and what they really mean. “Nuanced” is one, and now “scientism” is another.
3. We should talk more about science and religion. Ecklund’s explanation here is really funny:
The third stage is a willingness of scientists who are religious to talk publicly about the connections between their own faith and their work as scientists. These “boundary pioneers,” as I call them, can show students that it is possible, under certain conditions, to view science and religion as compatible. And they can provide colleagues with a model for how to discuss the ways in which science and religion interact. These individuals must be well-respected scientists, yet outgoing and savvy enough to connect with nonscientists.
Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian, is the most recognized example of a boundary pioneer, among others who are less well known.
When you read stuff like this, you begin to suspect that Ecklund is either blinded by the infusion of Templeton cash or is completely disingenuous. For what makes her think that those of us who follow her advice are going to promote a harmony between science and faith? Collins may be one “boundary pioneer,” but what on earth makes Ecklund believe that when more rational scientists learn about faith and begin discussing it, they’re all going to show that science and faith are compatible? What about those atheistic “boundary pioneers” like Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, and Victor Stenger—not to mention smaller fry like me? If a student came to me outside of class and asked for my honest opinion about faith and science, I’d tell him, in a civil fashion, that the two areas are completely incompatible, and then explain why.
After all, what would happen if America’s leading scientists started broadcasting their views about science and faith? Remember these data, published a while back in Nature by Edward Larson and Larry Witham:
Our chosen group of “greater” scientists were members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Our survey found near universal rejection of the transcendent by NAS natural scientists. Disbelief in God and immortality among NAS biological scientists was 65.2% and 69.0%, respectively, and among NAS physical scientists it was 79.0% and 76.3%. Most of the rest were agnostics on both issues, with few believers. We found the highest percentage of belief among NAS mathematicians (14.3% in God, 15.0% in immortality). Biological scientists had the lowest rate of belief (5.5% in God, 7.1% in immortality), with physicists and astronomers slightly higher (7.5% in God, 7.5% in immortality).
And, as that link shows, the atheism of NAS scientists has grown steadily since 1914. Ecklund should be careful what she asks for.