Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: Science vs. Religion by Elaine Ecklund. [Vol. 3, #24]

“The Closeting of Religion?”

A Review of
Science vs. Religion:
What Scientists Really Think
By Elaine Ecklund.

Reviewed by David Anderson.

Science vs. Religion:
What Scientists Really Think
Elaine Ecklund.
Hardback: Oxford UP, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Elaine Ecklund - SCIENCE VS. RELIGIONThe TV medical-crime series Bones is about a forensic anthropologist, Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan, who works at a Smithsonian-like institution and helps FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth solve gruesome murders. Brennan also writes best-selling crime novels when she’s not confusing Booth with medical terminology. The series’ writers make Brennan and some members of her team into almost a parody of rational, just-the-facts-and-no-assumptions scientists, and Brennan’s own complete lack of social graces combined with high intelligence comes close to savantism. Booth, on the other hand, is a former Army Ranger sniper, has a son he adores, wears funky ties and socks, and is a believing Catholic. And herein lies the seed for many of the conflicts of this pretty average guy with the rationalist scientist Brennan.

“Where’s a guy, a normal guy who believes in intuition and the soul and good and evil and God, Where’s a guy who doesn’t believe in all this arithmetic supposed to stand?” (Booth)

The Kulturkampf between science and religion has gotten hotter in the last decade with the escalating skirmishes between political and religious groups as well as “ordinary citizens,” on the one side, and scientists, on the other. The struggle usually is over whether creationism or intelligent design should be taught alongside evolution in public schools—and even if evolution should be taught at all, or, if it is, if it should bear the disclaimer that it is “just a theory” (like germ theory and atomic theory are “only theories”?).

In her book Science vs. Religion, sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund, based at Rice University in Houston, presents the results of a three-year study of scientists’ attitudes towards religion. To summarize and oversimplify her multi-layered findings: only a minority of scientists are atheists or agnostics, and even those generally don’t want to help Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens pull the tumbrels; 36 percent believe in God or a higher power and 20 percent view themselves as “spiritual” but not traditionally religious; but most disturbingly, 36 percent don’t think religion has any place in higher education, and the vast majority refuse to, are afraid to, or generally just don’t wanna talk about religion—not only in their classrooms, but in their offices, their coffee shops, or anywhere else on campus.

Ecklund sampled her scientists at what she calls “elite universities”; this ranking is based on research funding, doctorates given, undergrads’ SAT scores, and the like. These universities tend to be found on both coasts, as one would expect. The South is represented by only two: Duke and UNC–Chapel Hill. The Midwest has several, but you won’t find Ohio State, Purdue, or Indiana. Elites apparently don’t flock to the states between Missouri (Washington University) and Minnesota (the University of Minnesota) and the West Coast. Universities that still have a strong religious affiliation also aren’t very elite: Fordham, Georgetown, and Notre Dame (just to list major Catholic universities) are missing from the list.

At these schools Ecklund surveyed and conducted one-on-one interviews of faculty in the natural sciences (biology, chemistry, physics/astrophysics) and a few branches of the social sciences (economics, political science, psychology, sociology). For reasons she doesn’t explain, anthropologists like the fictional Dr. Brennan weren’t on her list. One would think that anthropologists would be more sympathetic than, say, sociologists perhaps to at least discussing religion with their colleagues and students.

(Pointing at a font in a church) Brennan: “Magic water?” Booth: “Holy water.” Brennan: “The terminology makes it real?”

I said at the beginning of this review that the socially maladroit Dr. Brennan was portrayed as single-mindedly fixated on “rationality,” but after reading Ecklund’s account of some of her discussions with these “elite” scientists, Brennan’s portrayal doesn’t appear to be too far from reality. To put an unsympathetic interpretation on Ecklund’s findings, these people need to get out more, and it would be a big first step for them if they would talk to members of other departments at their own universities or read the campus newspaper. Many don’t know (or care) that their university has programs and interdisciplinary courses on religion. They hear “religion” and think white Protestant fundamentalism, and what they know about it they read in the national media. Their lack of knowledge about religion and what belief systems their students are bringing to class is truly shocking.

“I’m a rational empiricist all the way. Unless you talk to my mother. Then I’m Lutheran.” (Brennan’s grad assistant Zack Addy)

Seeing as so many of these scientists are totally uninformed about the spectrum of religious belief found in America today, it’s probably just as well that they refuse to discuss it with either their students or their colleagues. The attitude of some of them towards their students, quoted by Ecklund, is beyond condescending. Students seem to be receiving precious little help in reconciling their religious beliefs with a career in science. Luckily, the author has found that younger faculty tend to be more religious and more open to talking about it. Students who head off to school eagerly anticipating a spirited exchange of ideas with their teachers may actually get it.

But these scientists refuse to discuss religion not just with their students but with each other as well. This closeting of religion is probably due to two factors, and both boil down to money. I think that scientists are scared to death, and Ecklund says this as well, specifically of the right-wing political movements, especially those that want to ban stem cell research and put intelligent design in the classroom. Also, political appointees, who often hail from the “rank and file,” process applications for research grants, and they are more likely to insist on ideological purity than their political masters. In any time of upheaval, with the barbarians at the gates, the best thing to do is keep your head low, do your research, and don’t be quoted.

The second factor is one that Ecklund tiptoes around and mentions by name all of three times by my count: tenure. Younger scholars must play the game and obtain tenure if they hope to support their families, snare research funding, and not end up as wandering scholars. And tenure has gotten incredibly difficult to achieve. If senior figures in science departments see religious belief as incompatible with scientific research, then of course young assistant professors aren’t going to talk about it. The barbarians aren’t only at the gates, they’re in the office next door.

It sounds like the truth ‘cause it’s so rational. (Booth)

Ecklund’s book is enlightening about what really goes on in university science departments and the continuum of religious belief and attitudes towards the beliefs of others found there. She offers suggestions for how scientists might try to connect and help educate non-scientists; many of the same suggestions are made by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum in their book Unscientific America (not in Ecklund’s bibliography). This book is a bit of a dry read, but hopefully some of the authors’ “elite” scientists and others will read it and decide that the state of affairs she describes has got to change at these institutions, however elite, that are supposed to be devoted to knowledge and a free exchange of ideas.


David Anderson is a senior science reviewer for Publishers Weekly. He tweets on religion at www.twitter.com/dvdandrsn.


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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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