Elaine Ecklund publishes more Templeton-funded accomodationism: “many scientists aren’t atheists”

The sociologist Elaine Ecklund is on a mission, one funded by Templeton: to show that scientists are more religious than most people think, and that the general perception of a conflict between science and religion is overblown. I don’t care so much about the perception of conflict (though according to a recent Pew poll, 59% of American adults see religion and science as conflicting), but I do care about how, using lots of Templeton money, Ecklund produces paper after paper claiming that scientists are basically religious. And that, she thinks, proves comity between science and faith.

I’ve written about Ecklund’s crusade several times on this site (for a compilation of posts, go here), and I and others have called her out for saying things that simply aren’t supported by her own data.

For example, in her book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, Ecklund claimed that nearly 50% of “elite scientists” (those at the universities Ecklund deems “elite”) are “religious in the traditional sense.” But her data showed no such thing. As Jason Rosenhouse pointed out on EvolutionBlog, Ecklund’s data showed that 72% of scientists were nontheistic (compared to 16% of the general public), while only 23% of scientists said they had either no doubts about God’s existence or believed in God but sometimes had doubts. (Ecklund didn’t ask scientists about being “religious in the traditional sense,” so Jason did a generous estimate). Overall, the data in that book showed a stark difference in religious belief between scientists—particularly ones at “elite” universities—and “regular” Americans.

Ecklund has also claimed that “the majority of scientists at top research universities consider themselves ‘spiritual'”, but the real figure is not a majority but 26%! And if you look at her paper on this, you’ll see that even many of these “spiritual” scientists are nonreligious and see contemplating science itself as a spiritual experience.

Ecklund has twisted her data repeatedly, producing a message amiable to the public and much welcomed by Templeton. After all, who but a captious nonbeliever would actually look at the data?

Now, according to Rice University’s publicity website—a university where Ecklund’s osculation of faith has earned her a named professorship and directorship of a “Religion and Public Life” program—she and her colleagues are at it again, of course supported by Templeton.

Her New Big Finding: if you survey scientists all over the world, you get the surprising result that most of them are not atheists!  (Ecklund and her colleagues surveyed scientists in France, Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, Turkey, the US and the UK; I can’t find the paper on this survey on her c.v., either in press or submitted, so I’m not sure whether or where this has been published.) Well, in the US most scientists are nonbelievers, and I suspect they are in the UK, too, but this is what the Rice University blurb says:

While it is commonly assumed that most scientists are atheists, the global perspective resulting from the study shows that this is simply not the case.

“More than half of scientists in India, Italy, Taiwan and Turkey self-identify as religious,” Ecklund said. “And it’s striking that approximately twice as many ‘convinced atheists’ exist in the general population of Hong Kong, for example, (55 percent) compared with the scientific community in this region (26 percent).”

The researchers did find that scientists are generally less religious than a given general population. However, there were exceptions to this: 39 percent of scientists in Hong Kong identify as religious compared with 20 percent of the general population of Hong Kong, and 54 percent of scientists in Taiwan identify as religious compared with 44 percent of the general population of Taiwan. Ecklund noted that such patterns challenge longstanding assumptions about the irreligious character of scientists around the world.

I’m a bit curious about the Hong Kong/Taiwan result, and perhaps readers would have an explanation.

All I see in the data is a >50% claim for the religiosity of scientists in 4 of the 7 countries; and of course India, Turkey, and to a large extent Italy are religious countries. This is not a global generalization, though the puffery makes it seem like one.

And pardon me if, given Ecklund’s history of playing fast and loose with her categories, I take even these results with a grain of salt. I’d like to know what she means, for instance, by “identifying oneself as religious.”

Because Ecklund can’t show (with the possible exception of Taiwan and Hong Kong) that scientists are even close to being as religious as nonscientists, she has to sell her results as being surprising because, she claims, they overturn the impression is that most scientists are atheists. Well, in fact that’s probably true in most developed Western countries, so showing that most scientists aren’t mostly atheists in 4 countries (three of them religious) is hardly a stunning result. But this is the way you must sell your data to get Templeton dosh.

To make her results seem even more important, Ecklund claims that they have IMPORTANT IMPLICATIONS for the conduct of science and how we structure the relationship between science and religion. Here’s an “implication” for ethics:

In addition to the survey’s quantitative findings, the researchers found nuanced views in scientists’ responses during interviews. For example, numerous scientists expressed how religion can provide a “check” in ethically gray areas.

“(Religion provides a) check on those occasions where you might be tempted to shortcut because you want to get something published and you think, ‘Oh, that experiment wasn’t really good enough, but if I portray it in this way, that will do,’” said a biology professor from the U.K.

Well, besides the phrase “nuanced views” (always a red flag for a bad argument), this is pure nonsense. As if scientists have to rely on religion to keep them from distorting their data! (It hasn’t worked for Ecklund.) Since most scientists are honest, and most are atheists, at least in the U.S., there must be something else keeping them honest. Could it be . . . secular morality? And really, isn’t it better to rely on your own sense of the right thing to do rather than fear of retribution by a Celestial Dictator? It’s a sign of Ecklund’s desperation to soft-sell religion that she even uses quotes like this.

Oh, and there’s this:

Ecklund said that the study has many important implications that can be applied to university hiring processes, how classrooms and labs are structured and general public policy.

“Science is a global endeavor,” Ecklund said. “And as long as science is global, then we need to recognize that the borders between science and religion are more permeable than most people think.”

This is also bogus. She brings in the phrase “science is a global endeavor” because she wants to claim that although Anglophone scientists aren’t as religious as ones from, say, India and Turkey, we have to effect general changes in things like “university hiring processes, classroom and lab instructions, and public policy.” And what exactly is she recommending here: hire more religious scientists? Talk more about religion in the science classroom? The mind boggles.

As for “the borders between science and religion being more permeable than most people think”, what the data show—if she’s representing it correctly—is that in some countries most scientists are religious. But that doesn’t show that religion somehow oozes into science, or vice versa, although science has caused some of the faithful to abandon untenable dogma (e.g., creationism).

I’ll await the paper by Ecklund et al., if there is one, before commenting further. I wrote the Rice PR site to get a reference, but they haven’t answered me. Just let me show you the kind of money Ecklund’s raking in from Templeton for this stuff:

Ecklund’s current grant support from Templeton:

2012-2015 Ecklund, Elaine Howard, PI, “Religious Understandings of Science (RUS),” John Templeton Foundation ($1,087,000).

2012-2015 Ecklund, Elaine Howard, PI (Kirstin R.W. Matthews, Steven Lewis, Co-PIs), “Religion among Scientists in International Context (RASIC) – A Supplement Request for Including Scientists in India,” Templeton World Charity Foundation ($366,714).

2012-2015 Ecklund, Elaine Howard, PI, (Kirstin R.W. Matthews, Steven Lewis, Co-PIs), “Religion among Scientists in International Context (RASIC),” Templeton World Charity Foundation ($2,057,000).

Got that? It’s $3,510,714! Real scientists would kill for that kind of funding! Note that the Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF) differs formally from the John Templeton foundation, with the TWCF being more philanthropic and religious.But all the dosh comes from Sir John’s legacy. Here’s part of the TWCF’s aims (my emphasis)

TWCF supports projects with a positive outlook, and does not fund projects with a substantially negative focus. For example, TWCF is interested in projects studying love, forgiveness, and generosity; it is not interested in the study of hatred, grudge-bearing, and cruelty, except where such study is done in order to bring added dimensions to the development of the positive qualities put forward by Sir John.

Showing that science and religion are in conflict is, of course, a “substantially negative result,” at least in the eyes of Templeton.

Note this, too:

TWCF typically does NOT fund:

  • advocacy of any particular religion or dogma;

  • proselytising activities that seek to curtail freedom of belief and open-minded inquiry;

  • projects that only involve the study of religious texts;

  • projects aimed at hostility towards religion, or that promote reductionist materialism

Sounds like a pluralistic version of the Discovery Institute.


  1. Erp
    Posted December 6, 2015 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    I would also be wary of language differences both for the word ‘scientist’ and for the word ‘religious’. For instance does the latter in that particular language or dialect have the connotation of ‘ethical’ (with or without supernatural overtones) or the former be equivalent of ‘scholar’ (I can remember one speech I heard where the translator from Russian to English used ‘scientist’ but it was obvious from the context that the speaker meant ‘scholar’).

    • Paul Beard
      Posted December 6, 2015 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      Some I have come across include economists, philosophers and doctors as scientists. On Hungarian television a few years ago the presenter of a discussion programme included theologians! He was quickly put right by a real scientist.

      Does anyone have any first hand information about countries like India which have a very different religious landscape to Europe and the americas?

      • rickflick
        Posted December 6, 2015 at 11:50 am | Permalink

        I have no first hand knowledge of the issue in India, but from my Indian friend, it seems that being religious may have a somewhat weaker connotation than in Abrahamic cultures. Hinduism in India is so integrated into the rest of culture that asking if you are religious might come across as asking whether you celebrate holidays. Hindu myths are recognized to be just that by the educated class.
        I hope a cultural Hindu will correct this if I am wrong.

      • Diane G.
        Posted December 6, 2015 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

        Aargh, IME including doctors could significantly skew the data in the wrong direction!

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted December 6, 2015 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      In a university, ‘scientist’ will also include faculty who are engineers, and engineering departments are often rather large. Although religiosity declines with advanced education, it is well known that it remains somewhat elevated among advanced professions like engineers.

      • Filippo
        Posted December 6, 2015 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

        Yep, I’ve read a few times here and there on the internet comments by engineers starting out to the effect, “I’m an engineer, and I recognize [intelligent] design [in nature] when I see it.” (I might listen to a biomedical engineer – who necessarily has to take some biology (and organic chemistry?) – about that topic, but not, e.g., a civil engineer.)

        I gather that engineers don’t worry themselves with a given [“just a”] “theory.” They effectively accept it as a fact. (Is there such a thing as “engineering theory”?) I don’t see how engineers can be skeptical about the science (and math) on which their designs are based.

        (I’m reminded of the preacher’s favorite [“impossible”] aerodynamic trope, the bumblebee.)

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted December 8, 2015 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

          I’m an engineer (civil variety, but I know and use a fair bit of mechanical and electrical). (OK past tense, I’m retired now).

          Getting the maths correct is of course extremely important in design, though often it’s reduced to ‘follow the rules’.

          But either way, I can’t think of anything in engineering which is either (a) supportive of, or (b) incompatible with, God. If God had created everything 6000 years ago, it would make no difference at all to the practice of engineering. (Or if it would, I can’t think of an example).

          For many examples of very clever biomechanical ‘design’ in Nature, one need look no further than J E Gordon’s fascinating books The New Science of Strong Materials and Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down.
          (I hasten to add that Gordon is NOT an ID-er!).

          But anyway, that IMO is why a depressingly large percentage of engineers are religious. There’s no incompatibility.


  2. Diana MacPherson
    Posted December 6, 2015 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Given her history of category violation and extreme data misinterpretation, I question her definition of “religious” and “scientist”. Who knows what she has put in those categories.

    I also find it heartening that there is such money, energy and deceit put towards trying to show that scientists are secretly religious. It gives a booming voice to the raspy whispers inside the minds of Templeton adherents and that voice is shouting: there are no “other ways of knowing”; only science is the way to know truth!

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted December 6, 2015 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      If Ecklund’s work is the best they can come up with to show religion and science are compatible, they really are desperate. It’s not likely to convince anyone unless they want to be convinced, and as soon as that person tries to use her data/findings in an argument, they’ll be ripped to shreds. (And am I being mean when I say it’ll serve them right!)

  3. tubby
    Posted December 6, 2015 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Without the questionnaires and data my honest guess concerning what she reports for Hong Kong and Taiwan is that she used general census data for religiosity of the population then had a questionable questionnaire for scientists that’s further tortured to give the answer she wanted. If her report held true through other studies my jump wouldn’t be that religion and science are BFF’s after all, but rather there’s something inherent in those religions, societies and the scientists interviewed that results in that higher percentage of religious scientists. She could even be very selective with the interviewees- Isn’t religiosity higher in fields like mechanical engineering?

    • bric
      Posted December 6, 2015 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      My experience of Chinese families (my partner is Chinese) is that ‘religious’ often just means respecting your ancestors, and religious terms are notoriously difficult to translate.

      • Ken
        Posted December 6, 2015 at 11:57 am | Permalink

        I have collaborated with many scientists from Taiwan and China over the last 15 years and yes they are respectful of their elders and ancestors, deeply honest in their research…but religious…few to none.

        3.5M what a waste of money

      • Tim Harris
        Posted December 6, 2015 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

        I should say that the same is true in Japan. One problem with types like Ecklund is that they lazily, and unscientifically, assume that all religions resemble at base the Abrahamic religions and make the same demands on ‘believers’. They don’t. She should study a bit of anthropology.

  4. reasonshark
    Posted December 6, 2015 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    I find it consistently lame when people think that showing religious scientists demonstrates that both religion and science are compatible. It’s saying motivated reasoning is compatible with intellectual measures designed to weed it out, a claim that is itself a product of motivated reasoning.

  5. Posted December 6, 2015 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    I think a major factor in the results of religious countries is the social aspect. In Catholic countries, for example, much of life is spent dancing around religious rituals. Baptism, communion, marriage, funerals- and many good schools/universities are or were religious. Often non-religious people play along and participate in religious traditions just because we’re part of that specific socio-cultural group.

  6. Posted December 6, 2015 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    I once heard a very clever and memorable comment that saying science and religion are compatible because some scientists are religious is like saying that Catholicism and pedophilia are compatible because some priests are pedophiles.

    I wish I could remember who said that.

  7. Randy schenck
    Posted December 6, 2015 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    I was remembering from my years living in Texas, some folks I knew from Texas A&M telling me about one of their cheers they would use at Rice football games. I cannot repeat the cheer here but is seems appropriate for the good job they did in hiring Ecklund.

  8. Stonyground
    Posted December 6, 2015 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    I really hate the word spiritual as it is now used. It really has no clearly defined meaning so that anyone can claim to be spiritual without ever being called out on it.

    Also this:

    “Science is a global endeavor,” Ecklund said. “And as long as science is global, then we need to recognize that the borders between science and religion are more permeable than most people think.”

    Science is a global endeavor and it is the same whatever your creed happens to be. There is one scientific method, not a different version of science depending on where you grew up. So some scientists are religious, this may well be true, but science only works if you leave your religious baggage at the door.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted December 6, 2015 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      Exactly! My immediate thought when I read that sentence you quote above was “Why?” I just can’t see how that follows. In fact, as scientists the world over have shown their ability to cooperate despite religion (and often politics too), surely that shows that it’s NOT religion that has the potential to bring peace to the world, and it’s better to be ignored, just like it is when assuming there’ll be no supernatural intervention when experiments are run.

      That last sentence was a bit long, but I’m sure you can all cope. Without God’s help. 🙂

  9. colnago80
    Posted December 6, 2015 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    It should be pointed out that only 8% of the members of the US National Academy of Science believe in a personal god.

  10. DrBrydon
    Posted December 6, 2015 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Given the major retrogression in secularism in Turkey and India, it’s hardly surprising that scientists would either be wary of saying they were not religious, or that hiring processes discriminate in favor of the religious.

  11. Shwell Thanksh
    Posted December 6, 2015 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    “TWCF supports projects with a positive outlook, and does not fund projects with a substantially negative focus.”

    Ooh! Sounds to me like a metastudy of the logical evisceration of Leibniz’ original theory on this subject, beginning with the critiques of Voltaire and Russell, would be a scholarly pursuit right up their alley.


  12. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted December 6, 2015 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps Hong Kong and Taiwan academics self-identify as being Buddhist, at least by tradition.

    • Posted December 7, 2015 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      As I recall, the Chinese Nationalists (as they were often called) included a fair number of Christians (including Chiang Kai Shek, I think) And Hong Kong was British for a while, so …

  13. JJH
    Posted December 6, 2015 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Whack a mole; or why won’t this canard die?

    Let me be unscientific for moment. I could care less what percentage of scientists (however that is defined) consider themselves religious, spiritual, etc. (however that is defined), or what statistical data was used to determine it.

    Yes, great scientists can be religious or spiritual, or subscribe to any other superstition in their off-time and it doesn’t change anything.

    Newton did brilliant work with mechanics, but he also spent a great deal of time working on alchemy and Biblical numerology (both of the latter proved futile). That is not say he wasn’t, perhaps, the greatest scientist of the modern era (back off Darwin aficionados, I qualified it with “perhaps”). That doesn’t make science and religion compatible; it just means cognitive dissonance isn’t fatal.

    So what exactly is Templeton’s goal? If you want to show me science and religion are truly compatible, have a large group of discoveries made by divine revelation and then confirmed by observation and experiment. Man, that would get me to rethink a lot of things. If Newton had been an uneducated, illiterate, but very religious toddler, and suddenly wrote down the laws of motion and calculus maybe you got something. But, I have to think that spending millions of dollars to state the obvious, has an agenda beyond the furthering of knowledge.

  14. Posted December 6, 2015 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Nina's Soap Bubble Box and commented:
    Consider the Funding Source always when reviewing any study’s conclusion.

    people confuse “scientists” with “technicians”

    science seeks knowledge while techs seek to arrange it

  15. ladyatheist
    Posted December 6, 2015 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    And in other news, many fashion designers wear plain or ugly clothes.

  16. Kevin
    Posted December 6, 2015 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    Jesus Cristo. The exploratory science you could do with that money! What a waste of human resources.

  17. harrync
    Posted December 6, 2015 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    What really bugs me is that I am paying higher taxes because about a billion dollars of Templeton money comes from the result of him renouncing his US citizenship to avoid taxes.

  18. Steve Gerrard
    Posted December 6, 2015 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

    While I understand the complaint, isn’t it the case that the foundation is now legally obligated to continue carrying out the wishes of John Templeton? I don’t think they have the legal basis to change the way the foundation works at this point.

    Perhaps the actually wording from John Templeton is not being followed correctly. Other than that, though, I’m not sure any one can change anything.

  19. Lurker111
    Posted December 7, 2015 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    If you’re talking about scientists and atheism, and you have to say, “many scientists aren’t atheists,” you have already lost the argument.

    • Posted December 7, 2015 at 8:22 am | Permalink

      It’s the refutation to her own claim. If atheism and science aren’t BFFs because many scientists aren’t atheists, then religion and science aren’t BFFs because many scientists aren’t religious.

  20. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted December 8, 2015 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

    “many scientists aren’t atheists”

    This is probably correct, counting according to the sociologists’ algorithm:

    One, two, many…



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