Anglicans and Scientific Frontiers, Part Two

Further to the August 16 posting “Anglicans and Scientific Frontiers”,   a recently published study out of Rice University has shown that a majority of scientists, Anglican or otherwise, say religion and science don’t always conflict.

After five years of in-depth interviews with scientists at universities whose fields range from biology and chemistry to social sciences like political science and economics, sociologist Elaine Ecklund observed that, “findings among elite scientists, who many individuals believe are most likely to be secular in their beliefs, definitely call into question ideas about the relationship between secularization and science.”

Ecklund and her team interviewed 275 tenured and tenure-track faculty members from 21 research universities in the United States. Only 15 percent of respondents said religion and science were always in conflict, while 15 percent said religion and science were never in conflict. “The majority, 70 percent, said religion and science are only sometimes in conflict”, Ecklund pointed out.

The full report of Ecklund and her colleagues is titled “Scientists Negotiate Boundaries Between Religion and Science” and was published in this month’s issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Ecklund pointed out that half of those who were interviewed in the original survey population said they identified with a particular religion, while the other half did not have a religion.

“Much of the public believes that as science becomes more prominent, secularization increases and religion decreases. Findings like these among elite scientists, who many individuals believe are most likely to be secular in their beliefs, definitely call into question ideas about the relationship between secularization and science”, the report concludes.

One important key to the study’s findings is the way scientists are influenced by how they view religion itself. Scientists who see the two fields as incompatible are more likely to have a narrow view of religion, identifying it most with conservative strains of American evangelical Christianity. Current Republican presidential candidates like Texas governor Rick Perry have a remarkably negative effect in this regard. His statements that “evolution is merely a ‘theory that’s out there'” and his belief that “climate change is ‘all one contrived phony mess'” reveal a remarkable uninformed pandering to public ignorance and popular Christian fundamentalist anti-intellectualism. Let’s hope it doesn’t spread to Canada!

Meanwhile, scientists who see science and religion as never in conflict often were of the view that “science comes from God, and God created it…”or that “science and religion are completely separate ways of viewing reality”. Overall, those who said religion is compatible with science tended to have a broader view of religion that included non-institutionalized spiritual practices, such as meditation. “For some scientists, maybe a particular strain of evangelicalism is in conflict with science, but spirituality and other religions are not,” Ecklund said.

After analyzing 5000 pages of transcribed interviews, Ecklund said that scientists who view religion as compatible with their professions frequently cited religious scientists as examples of how the two fields can work together. Scientists most often spoke highly Francis Collins, the physician and geneticist who is the director of the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. Collins, an Evangelical,  has spoken frequently about being a Christian and a scientist and wrote the book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2006). Unfortunately the angry atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins get all the attention in the popular press – a body which must bear much of the blame for public ignorance in the whole arena of the nature of science-faith relationships.

“Scientists didn’t like the impact Dawkins is having on the broader public world of how people understand scientists. Scientists are very concerned about how the public views them because of how budgets toward science are being cut,” Ecklund observed. The study also found that scientists, religious or non-religious do not agree with teaching “intelligent design” in public schools, and that religious scientists are, overall, described in positive terms by their non-religious peers.

As Anglicans, we owe it to our children, particularly those in secondary school or pursuing post-secondary education or careers in any field, to be in dialogue about these issues both in the home and in various church settings. We can’t let our young people be victims of popular misconceptions perpetrated in the press and in popular writings such as those by Dawkins and Hitchens. Rather, we must facilitate engagement with those writings and with the whole area of science-faith relationships in a positive context of open intellectual and spiritual exploration.

Source: “Religion and Science Can Coexist, Scientists Say in New Survey”, The Huffington Post, September 21, 2011.

Steve Bailey is a deacon at St. Laurence, Coquitlam, and one of the blogmasters at nwanglicanblog. Your comments and observations are always welcome.

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