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Scientists and Belief

Elaine Howard Ecklund's Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think
Scientists and Belief

Elaine Howard Ecklund, a sociologist teaching at Rice University, has done an exhaustive study of the faith of scientists in millennial America (with a smattering of British input), but this book is so much more than a chronicling of the religious lives of scientists. Taking as her cue two experiences Ecklund had fifteen years apart, she examines the current climate of argument, when scientists dialogue about religion, and presents “the scientists whose voices have been thus far overlooked in the science-and-religion debates and who might have powerful contributions to add to the cause of translating science to a broader public audience, especially a religious audience” (Location 54 of 5120, e-book version).

Ecklund’s first experience was a debate between Phillip Johnson, the U.C. Berkeley Law professor who often lectures in defense of intelligent design and William Provine, a Cornell professor of evolutionary biology. They differed greatly on many points and argued vigorously, but they treated each other with respect and courtesy. The second event was a screening of the film Flock of Dodos, which presented scientists in the present day (Dodos came out in 2006) as failing miserably to listen to one another and discuss their differences on the basis of evidence. Ecklund writes, “As the film ended, discussion began. And I watched incredulously as some of the scientists in the room confirmed Olson’s accusations. They erupted with totalizing criticisms of religion and religious people…” (54)

This book is not so much an exploration of what has happened in the intervening years as it is a scientific study of what scientists themselves believe today; as she puts it “how religion and spirituality enter the lives of scientists at the nation’s best universities” (145). Her research involved the “views of elite scientists from seven natural and social science disciplines at the nation’s top research universities” (145). For four years, she surveyed nearly 1,700 scientists, conducting one-on-one interviews with 275 of them. She also attended public lectures and events where scientists discussed matters of faith.

From this data, Ecklund has delivered a volume that divides into two parts. The first examines the personal faith of scientists, giving the lie to what she calls “a caricature, a thought-cliché” (155), i.e. the insurmountable hostility between science and religion. In the second half of her book, the sociologist investigates “Society and Broader Publics”, exploring how scientists handle religion in the classroom, the involvement of scientists in efforts to create a purely secular university, how the campus is making room for faith, what scientists are doing wrong “that they could be doing right” (2574), concluding with a chapter entitled “Shattering Myths, Toward Dialogue”.

This book is written in a fresh and engaging manner, and, though its scholarship is well-documented and thorough, it is as readable for the non-scientist as it is for the working scientist. If you work with scientists or are interested in the current dialogue between scientists and religion for any reason, Science Vs. Religion is a must read. It would make an excellent guide for a discussion group on this topic of almost any form.

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