Rethinking secularism:

Beyond The God Delusion

posted by Elaine Howard Ecklund

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.]

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6 Responses to “Beyond The God Delusion”

  1. Hi Elaine, nice to meet you here again in this virtual academic environment.

    I haven’t read your article in Social Problems (54:2, 2007) yet on religion among academic scientists, but if I understand you correctly you argue there that, just as with normal people, belief or disbelief among scientists is (largely) explained by demographic factors. You are probably right, considering your massive and no doubt precise work, but it sounds much more prosaic than the intriguing explanation by Rodney Stark. He attributed the much higher rates of religious disaffiliation in the social sciences (in particular anthropology) to the fact that the social sciences function as an alternative worldview.

    I wonder what you would find if you did a similar study in Europe. In the Netherlands, where I live, and in the rest of Europe in varying degrees too, many sociologists and anthropologists have (had) strong leftist, even marxist ideological views. There are strong links between the social sciences departments and non religious political parties. Judging from the situation here, I thought Stark’s explanation had the ring of truth: the social sciences have served as an alternative worldview, with consequences for policy, moral discourse, the organization of society, etc.

    I’ve had an interesting discussion on my own blog on Stark’s book For the Glory of God, which might interest you. You’ll find it here and here.

    Warm greetings,

    Marten van der Meulen

  2. avatar Cathy Robinson says:

    Um, I’m not a PhD, so please forgive my pertinence. But . . .

    What do you mean by “religion” and “religious”? Are all “religions” included by you in that term, or one specific religion? It would help if you were clearer and defined your terms and were consistent in their use.

    What do you mean by “Intelligent Design”? It’s dishonest that most “irreligious” academics now use “Intelligent Design” as a deliberate stand-in for what used to be simply “Creationism.” The two are not synonymous, and again, it would help if you defined your terms accurately and were consistent in their use.

    Failing that, your whole thesis and conclusions fall apart, invalidating your “study.” All your “work” becomes merely one more propaganda tool against the most persistent challenge to the established “irreligious” regime’s social engineering attempt hiding behind the rubric “science.”

    There’s not a single hint that irreligion may be wrong, in error in any way, or even a thoughtful admission that it’s not complete or even necessarily on the right track. There’s only “concern” through your “study” and commentary here that there are still “religious” people in the hard sciences, and what may be done to “correct” that troubling persistence of “unscientific” belief among academicians in the sciences.

    Don’t you find that just a tad disingenuous? Isn’t science supposed to be open to the truth, whatever the truth may be?

    How about if some of those “confused” instructors simply invited their students to actually study the differences between the two schools of thought, write a careful, thoughtful, accurate report, and give unbiased grades based on the accuracy of the information and conclusions reported on? Voila!

    But that might admit valid challenges to the status quo, and the “sciences” could never stand that, could they?

    The sciences have fallen to tragic lows when the very thing supposed to be pursued and established, truth, is feared, loathed, and rejected out of hand, to the extent that students and honest leaders in the sciences are punished for straying from the “approved” dogma.

    I think this fear of truth is the most telling clue of all, that behind your curtain, you’re afraid there just might be something to “religion” after all.

    If not, then why not just invite truth to scientifically “bring it on!”?

  3. I agree with Ms. Robinson that the categories of “religion” and “spirituality” in the study seem to be undefined. But my concern is different from hers. To judge by the very “religious” book, Life’s Solution by Simon Conway Morris (2003), scientists may have a different kind of religious outlook. For example, I don’t know how Conway Morris would answer a question like “Do you believe in God?” I have a better sense of how he would answer a question like, “Do you believe that there is a wonderful orderliness in the universe that materialism cannot account for?”

  4. avatar Elaine Howard Ecklund says:

    Thank you all for responding to the blog.

    To Marten: A brief note of clarification: I found, different from Stark’s work, that social scientists at top research universities are *not* less religious than their natural science counterparts. As I argue in the blog (and in the book manuscript I am currently writing) both types of scientists have a spirituality that is quite different than the general population, which–in some cases–provides them with a cohesive worldview that directs how they live their lives. Looking forward to being in further dialogue.

    To Ms. Robinson: I–like most social scientists–define religion in three kinds of ways: practices (whether a respondent is involved in a religious organization), identities (whether one is a Methodist or a Muslim, for example), and beliefs (in God, a deity, afterlife, etc.). You will find these three ways of defining religion reflected in the articles that I have written based on findings from the study. On one hand, you are right. Many scientists are openly negative towards the religious beliefs of their students. On the other, however, there are just as many scientists who are very open to topics related to religion and spirituality.

    To Mr. Ledewitz: Based on the 1646 surveys and 275 individual interviews I completed with scientists over the past three years, I agree with you completely. Scientists do indeed have a different religious outlook than many of those in the general population. I make this argument in this article.

  5. avatar John Stockwell says:

    I think that the comment regarding “secret spirituality” basically ignores the fact that there are a lot of other aspects of scientists’ lives that are also “secret.” These include the degree of scientists’ interests and participation in the arts and music, interests in sports, and other hobbies, as well as community and political participation. Colleagues may not be aware of any of these. So religion becomes another personal item that is also not known to a scientists’ colleagues.

    Indeed, a scientist may be married and have a family, with those facts only dimly known to that scientist’s colleagues. In this context, we are talking about a profession—a vocation for most scientists—which is consuming to the point that the majority of interactions between colleagues is about science and not about these other attributes of a given scientists life. For many scientists, on the job, science is “public” and all other aspects of that individuals’ live are “private.”

    No doubt, many of these characteristics lead to the stereotypes of scientists being in some sense different from the mainstream population, which may be viewed as anything from, at best, “nerdiness” to at worst “coldness and inhumanity.”

  6. avatar Bhaktivedanta Avadhoot says:

    I think that there is really no consequence worth examining here as regards affiliations and interests in religion per se, since to my mind the depth of such mainstream religions is weak. That is to say that they are not scientific. You may say ‘how can religion be scientific?’, but my reply is that you have not properly researched the whole matter. If science is repulsed by religions or removed then I should say bravo, as we need spirituality that is itself scientific to appeal to the mind of a scientist. What information is there about the soul, matter, God and existence from the mainstream religions that could possibly attract the mind of a scientist? But there is such scientific spirituality available in the world and I would think that such reason and logic would satisfy their curiosity much more. As one Indian sadhu remarked, “Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur.”

    The Bhagavad-Gita is not separate from the Vaishnava philosophy. The Shrimad Bhagavatam fully reveals the true import of this doctrine—that of changes of births for the soul.Christianity has disregarded the principle of change of births on the alleged ground that if it is accepted, men will not restrain their sinful propensities, rather they will indulge in vices at their sweet will in their present life, on the expectation that they will be able to make good their sins, guilts, and wrongdoings of this life in the course of the following ones. But the Shrimad Bhagavatam has crowned the principle with its true significance by means of a much fuller scientific and philosophical meaning, by instructing the urgent necessity for ardently taking up and culturing devotion to God even while the human form of life, not easily available in the after-lives, is at our disposal, without spending a single moment thereof in other useless pursuits. If we do not accept the doctrine of transmigration of the soul and adopt the instruction of the Shrimad Bhagavatam, we shall not be able to get over the all-devouring disaster of regarding matter as the sole object of our concern, which has kept its mouth wide open.

    Though most of the Christians do not admit transmigration, many of the intellectual giants of the Christian world have shown several instances of their acceptance of the doctrine. Even in the Bible in St. John 9.1.2, we find, “And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man who was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, “Master, who has committed the sin? This man or his parents, that he was born blind from his birth?” It is seen that even some Christian Fathers clearly gave instructions about transmigration. Origen said: “Is it not more in conformity with reason that every soul for certain mysterious reasons is introduced into a body and introduced according to its deserts and former actions?” And Goethe says, “I am sure that I, such as you see me here, has lived a thousand times and I have to come again another thousand times.”

    What the Greeks called metempsychosis and is called transmigration in the English language was at one time, more or less, admitted in ancient Greece, Egypt, and many places in the West. Some say that the apostles of Christ the Great, failing to reconcile their previous and subsequent conclusions with the doctrine of transmigration, were compelled to discard it. Yet no rationalist among the Christians has been able to refute the doctrine on the basis of sound reasoning; on the other hand, most of them have had to admit it. Herodotus, Pindar, Plato, etc. have all accepted it. Huxley, the illustrious scientist of the nineteenth century, has written in his religious work, Evolution and Ethics: ” None but very hasty thinkers will reject it on the ground of inherent absurdity, like the doctrine of evolution itself—that of transmigration which has its root in the world of reality and it may claim such support as the great argument of analogy is capable of supplying.”

    Professor Lutoloski has said, “I cannot give up my conviction of a previous existence before my birth, and I have the certainty to be born again after my death, until I have assimilated all human experiences, having been many times male and female, wealthy and poor, free and enslaved, generally having experienced all conditions of human existence.”

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