“Americans have placed science on a precarious throne. In one sense, they know that they benefit immensely from it. They immunize their children, enjoy the benefits of technology, and clamor for new discoveries and breakthroughs. Yet at times they mistrust the very scientists from whom they expect miracle cures, especially when it comes to issues such as embryonic stem cell research, environmental degradation, and the origins and development of life.” –Elaine Howard Ecklund
Would it surprise you to learn that only two percent of scientists are evangelical, or are willing to identify as such?
This is what Laity Leadership Institute Senior Fellow Elaine Howard Ecklund found when she surveyed approximately 1700 natural and social scientists at top U.S. research universities and then conducted in-depth interviews with 275 of the survey respondents.
“In the interview portion, it would sometimes come out that folks had beliefs that would be considered evangelical, such as belief in the efficacy of the resurrection and the authority of scripture, but on the survey they would not identify as evangelical when I asked if they identify with a specific religious label,” Ecklund told The High Calling.
She attributes their hesitancy to the “fraught relationship” evangelicalism has had with politics and science in the public sphere.
“It’s very difficult for scientists to align with a specific faith community when they feel it takes a negative stance towards scientific research,” she said. “Those who are not people of faith often have never seen a person of faith who is a committed Christian and an evolutionist, for example. I don’t think that position is very widely talked about, and so it is difficult for scientists to see how it could be a possibility.”
In Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, Ecklund said about 40 percent of Americans believe creationist accounts of earth origins should be taught in public schools instead of evolution and 65 percent think some form of the Old Testament creation story should be taught alongside evolution, so this tension is perhaps not surprising.
Religious scientists tend to be more theologically liberal than non-scientists, she found, and scientists view themselves as more politically liberal than the rest of the American public.
Ecklund hopes her research will increase understanding between scientists and people of faith.
“In its very best form, research can dispel myths that we have about people by bringing data to the table. This kind of legitimate social scientific study does that to some extent. It helps us understand myths that many religious people—conservative Christians in particular—have about the scientific community,” she said.
A major myth Ecklund identified is that atheist scientists adamantly oppose religious people.
“Less than 10 of the scientists I studied were really against religion, even among the atheists,” she said. “That’s pretty remarkable given that 35 percent of my sample was committed atheists.”
Most of the atheists she interviewed either found it impossible to believe in God, had bad experiences with religion as a child, or have had low exposure to faith, she said. “Those are very different reasons than being adamantly opposed to religious faith.”
Another myth Ecklund’s research dispels is that there is little spirituality in the scientific community. She found instead “a kind of searching spirituality” among scientists. Approximately 70 percent see themselves as spiritual. “That’s very significant,” said Ecklund. “Even those who are outside of the faith community are looking for higher order meaning and purpose.”
Ecklund is helping to develop adult education materials for churches, in part because she thinks it is important for Christians to foster a more open understanding of science within their faith communities.
“I’m not always sure there’s the kind of reception to talking openly about science and struggles with science in religious communities,” she said.
So, is it safe to talk about science in your church?
Image by Matthias Rhomberg. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Christine A. Scheller. Opening quote taken from Elaine Ecklund's book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think.
Elaine Howard Ecklund is associate professor of sociology and director of graduate studies at Rice University in Houston, Texas. She studies cultural change in the areas of religion, immigration, and science. She is also a scholar at the Baker Institute for Public Policy and director of the Religion and Public Life Program at the Social Sciences Research Institute. Ecklund is author of two books:Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think and Korean American Evangelicals: New Models for Civic Life.