The university classroom has become a battleground in the science and religion wars. In a controversial 2005 state of the university address Cornell University President Hunter Rawlings stated, “Religiously-based opposition to evolution…raises profound questions about…what we teach in universities and it has a profound effect on public policy.”
Later, University of California and other top schools began refusing to give incoming students credit for high school science courses that taught Intelligent Design. An association of Christian schools was not quiet, took their concerns to the courts, and brought a lawsuit against the University of California higher education system. The growing controversy over the role of religion in higher education led me to ask how top university scientists think they ought to respond to religiously based challenges to science.
I continued to raise this question as I crisscrossed the country over the past three years, completing 275 personal interviews with natural and social scientists at our nation’s top institutions of higher education. These interviews were a follow-up to a survey conducted with 1,646 scientists about their religious and spiritual beliefs and practices. I found that many scientists are not as anti-religion as volumes like evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion might lead us to believe.
Indeed there were the expected atheists and agnostics. Yet, a surprising number of those who teach the sciences at the nation’s top universities are also part of a religious tradition (about 50%). These scientists approach religion and spirituality in diverse ways-ways often different from the faith found among the general public.
Surprisingly the majority of scientists (over 65%) are interested in matters of spirituality. And although some—following in the footsteps of Dawkins and other outspoken scientists—appear nearly hostile to religion, the majority of scientists at these top schools are simply confused about how they should deal with students who raise religious objections to science.
Part of this conundrum stems from what I began to call a secret spirituality, where scientists with faith feel uneasy talking about this aspect of their lives because of the perception that everyone around them is irreligious. On a plurality of occasions I found a science professor who was involved in a house of worship or interested in matters of spirituality yet was sure there was no one else in her department concerned about such pursuits. I would interview the colleague of such a religious scientist only to find out that she too was religious, also sure she would be laughed at by those in her department if others were to find out. While the majority of scientists are not religious, there is unexpectedly more openness to religious practice and ideas among scientists than even scientists themselves suspect.
To be sure, among all the scientists I interviewed, religious and non-religious alike, there was not one who thought Intelligent Design should be taught alongside evolution in a biology classroom. Yet, some had come up with creative ways to be what I call boundary pioneers, those who successfully negotiate the tensions between science and religion while keeping the integrity of both.
For example, a chemist routinely points her students to a website by a religious scientist who talks about how he maintains his faith while doing research that shows that the earth is billions of years old. Such efforts by scientists are made in order to transmit science more effectively to their religious students.
Many of the scientists I talked with thought that more still needs to be done to address the public’s lack of scientific understanding. Some thought these efforts could start within science curricula, with attempts to address issues related to public science directly.
One such example is a course on science and society taught by Phil Hockberger and Richard Miller to Northwestern University graduate students in biology. Among other topics, the course provides a brief overview of the historical debates between religion and science, the lives of religious and non-religious scientists, public challenges to science, and how to discuss science with a believing American public.
Over sixty Northwestern University graduate students attended an event where Hockberger presented findings from my study about levels of religiosity among academic scientists, showing the interest in these issues among students pursuing advanced degrees. The next day I led a roundtable discussion with some of the students who attended the lecture, during which we talked about topics like: why religion persists given what we know about science, various ways that religion might have an influence on science ethics, how to translate science to a largely religious American public, and a host of other issues.
Courses like this one would be a popular addition to social and natural science curricula in undergraduate and graduate classrooms.
Astronomer Carl Sagan wrote in a 1989 article for Parade Magazine that, “Ignorance of science threatens our economic well-being, national security, and the democratic process. We must do better.”
America’s elite universities are the central places where our future societal leaders learn-either implicitly or explicitly-how to think about the connection between religion and science. The thought scientists give to engaging the students in their classrooms about matters of public science-particularly the connection between science and religion-may be the backbone of how scientists engage with the broader public outside the university.
[For more from Elaine Howard Ecklund on Religion and Spirituality among University Scientists, visit the SSRC's essay forum on the Religious Engagements of American Undergraduates, and a related online guide, intended as an overview for college faculty and administrators.]