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What Do Scientists Really Think? 2 (RJS)

We are looking at the recent book by Elaine Howard Ecklund Science vs Religion: What Scientists Really Think. The first installment is here. In chapter 5 Ecklund considers how religion is dealt with by professors in the University.

Issues of science, religion, and the broader public sphere are unavoidable in our secular Universities. This is where the inclusion of both social and natural scientists in the cohort studied by Ecklund can lead to some real insight. In the “hard” sciences religion seldom need come up. Evolution, Intelligent Design, and Creation bring the topics to the table on occasion – but these issues are limited in scope.  They loomed large at the time of Ecklund’s study, but the furor has died down.

In contrast religion is unavoidable in the social sciences. Ruling discussion out of bound (although some try) limits the quality and relevance of scholarship. Talk about “Ivory Tower” mentality. 

In Ch. 5 Ecklund presents two principle approaches to questions of religion – engagement and suppression. Suppression simply prevents the question from coming up – cuts it off at the pass. Engagement deals with the questions – either in response to positive environmental push (religion is important in our society) or in response to negative environmental push (religion is a threat to be countered).

How should religion be engaged in our secular universities? Does it have a place in the classroom?

How should science be engaged in our churches or seminaries? Is science to be suppressed? A threat to be countered? To be engaged with as a positive influence important in our society?

Consideration of the various ways issues at the intersection of faith and science – both social and natural science – brings insight into the way we deal with tough and complex issues in many different spheres. The various kinds of scripts used by scientists in secular universities are also used by seminary professors in confessional institutions, nonconfessional institutions, and by pastors, leaders, and teachers in the church.

So what are the scripts Ecklund identified and how do they play out?

Suppression: Scripts of suppression in the university are quite common – the topic is squelched with explicit or implicit ridicule:

My interview with one biologist caught me off guard: Although he thinks that religion should generally not be discussed in academic settings, he was so eager to talk about the negative connections … I asked him if religion ever comes up as a topic in his interactions with students. He adamantly replied that if a student does mention it, he tries hard to suppress such discussions. He specifically explained why he thinks students do not talk about religion very much: Since he “teaches advanced undergraduates and graduate students, by that time … the people who want to take [the kind of high-level courses he teaches] are just not religious in the first place.” In his words, “they’re certainly mature enough not to come up to you and start talking about creation or something.” One wonders how this biologist knows how religious his students are, since he squelches their religious talk or forces them to be considered not “mature.” (p. 78)

Negative engagement: Scripts of engagement can take two forms. In response to negative environmental push, countering a real or perceived threat:

A social scientist in her mid thirties … talked openly – and quite disparagingly about those in her field who study religion (for example, sociologists of religion, such as the one who was interviewing her). In addition, before she begins discussions in class where religion might come up, she offers students the following preface: “You don’t have to distance yourself from religion and think about it from an outside perspective, but you do if you want to succeed in this class. And so if you don’t want to do that, then you need to leave.” (p. 84)

A chemist notes:

he does talk about religion in his classroom and thinks that it ought to be discussed if it directly relates to the subject matter at hand, as intelligent design relates to chemistry. Consequently he actively brings up religion in his class, telling students he does not view the theory of intelligent design as science. (p. 83)

Positive engagement: Scripts of engagement can take a positive form as well – a response to positive environmental push. Both religious and nonreligious scientists feel a need to engage with the issues of the day. This need arises from a deep desire for quality teaching and from the mission of the university (yes many professors, even at elite universities, do care about teaching students).

Environmental push reveals that science does not operate in a social vacuum. Rather teaching is an inherently public social endeavor that requires that scientists react to worldviews and broader debates in the social environment outside the university. A talkative biologist told me how the intelligent design movement is pushing her to think more about the intersections between science and religion. An atheist … she is consistently surprised at how many of [the students] are very religious. In response, she makes a sincere effort to think of ways to present science so that religious students who take her biology class do not need to compromise their faith commitments. (p. 81-82)

Similarly, a psychologist who is an agnostic said that he views discussions about intelligent design as an important opportunity to help students think clearly about the connections between religion and science. … his priority is not a matter of supporting or debunking intelligent design but of helping students develop productive ways of talking about the role of science in society. “Students ought to think about what science contributes and what it cannot contribute to knowledge,” he explained. (p. 82)

What examples of these kinds of scripts have you seen at work within the church or the university?

A script of suppression may be seen when a seminary professor refers to those who disagree as “second class minds,” when a pastor talks about the godless professors at the university and ridicules them as immoral or un-American.

Scripts of negative engagement are even more common – in response to a real or perceived threat the goal is to dominate those who disagree and build up those who agree. Many blogs on both sides of the science and faith discussion are dominated by scripts of negative engagement. Many theological “attack blogs” also operate on scripts of negative engagement – not on science and faith but on issues of theological purity.

We need scripts of positive engagement. This doesn’t mean accepting all views as true. I certainly have views that I have thought deeply about and conclusions that I hold to be true. But the intent isn’t to thrust them down anyone’s throat to be accepted on my authority. The intent is to put forth ideas and engage with the ideas. This is hard work. How many pastors or professors or bloggers are really up to the challenge?

What do you think? How should we as a church deal with controversial or hard questions?  Should we aim for scripts of positive engagement? Are scripts of suppression or negative engagement ever appropriate?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

Comments read comments(18)
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posted May 18, 2010 at 8:58 am

I’m up for the challenge, let’s do it! :-)
The struggle I’ve experienced with positive engagement is that people seem so entrenched that all they ever seem to want to do is have an intellectual “battle to the death”. How do you have a positive engagement when one side says there’s nothing to debate and the other side says you’re not a true Christian if you believe differently than they do?
It seems to me that it’s the kids (junior high, high school, college) that end up falling through the cracks and hurt by the suppression and negative engagement. Essentially we’re asking them what pick a trench rather than helping them think critically and encouraging them to work towards some sort of “peace”.

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posted May 18, 2010 at 9:12 am

I will write a thoughtful reply later, but I could not get past your comment:
In contrast religion is unavoidable in the social sciences. Ruling discussion out of bound (although some try) limits the quality and relevance of scholarship. Talk about “Ivory Tower” mentality.
All I could think of was the punch line to a favorite joke, “assume a spherical cow in a vacuum.”

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posted May 18, 2010 at 9:16 am

How do you have a positive engagement when one side says there’s nothing to debate and the other side says you’re not a true Christian if you believe differently than they do?
You don’t. True conversation and engagement requires that both sides _listen_ to each other and be vulnerable to being convinced that the other’s viewpoint is correct. Since most people find this frightening, and in our culture have little opportunity to this, they don’t do it. Then “engagement” just becomes a shouting match, with both sides (accurately) accusing the other of close-mindedness.

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posted May 18, 2010 at 9:46 am

Pick a trench … a great image. This is where we land so many times.
So true. Positive engagement requires listening and interacting with the other position as it is, not as you imagine it to be. And it does leave some level of vulnerability – to be shown to be wrong.

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posted May 18, 2010 at 10:47 am

Putting together a little, might we say:
To engage positively means to listen, humbly and with some vulnerability, so that we are interacting with other positions as they are and not as we imagine them to be. This means seeking to understand the strongest arguments of other positions and acknowledging the weaknesses of our own, being self-critical and loving, understanding that the same Holy Spirit speaking to and guiding us is also at work in the lives of our brothers and sisters of other positions.

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posted May 18, 2010 at 11:51 am

RJS and JHM’s comments hint at an important area where Christians can make it a point to live and act differently:
We can remember that in any such discussion, we are engaging a person, not an idea in discussion. We can discuss the idea, but we are always discussing it with a full-orbed, many-faceted God-imaging person. This is a twist on the old classroom preface “We are discussing ideas, not engaging in personal criticism.”
This does involve vulnerability and accepting not only that I might be wrong, but also that the other person might know something I can learn, or learn from.
-There is something here about Rebecca M. Pippert’s story that the best opportunity to share the gospel with a friend, came when Rebecca was utterly devastated and vulnerable.
-I also think of a particular bruha-ha at the institution where I used to minister. A famous atheist was making a public issue of another professor’s links with ID, and most evangelicals were outraged and just as virulent in their response. A friend of mine, a Distinguished University Professor, invited his antagonist for coffee and a pleasant and reasonable conversation followed, and a relationship was built.
Randy G.

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posted May 18, 2010 at 1:21 pm

I agree that positive engagement is the way to go.
Having said that, I don?t understand how academia can deal with religious folks without making them out to be nut jobs. I just keep envisioning Plato?s cave and no one can relate?? I don?t believe that science class is a place to try and convince others of religious beliefs since then you would have to encompass all religious beliefs on the subject. Surely there will be some religion somewhere that teaches a person holding a watch on an Einsteinien train is somehow in a rapturous state and it is not actually relativistic time difference due to velocity?.I guess what I just did was negative engagement, right?
Negative engagement seems to be difficult to withhold from when the framework for the conversation is a scientific framework. I believe the scientific and religious frameworks are different.
Another example that I see is that I bet RJS has no problem gleefully talking about laws of motion when objects are sliding down ramps and coefficients of friction, or electrons is spdf configurations and staying within that framework despite knowing that the actual construct of our reality is different from what those frameworks suggest. You don?t say in every class that people need to consider that we may be 3D holographic projections on a whatever??.or itty bitty strings in multiple dimensions?.you just teach the science the way the science is framed.
So I think part of the key is the framework of the conversation.
In a religious setting, the framework is religious. So if we are to keep religion outside of scientific frameworks (for some of the reasons I gave) do we have to keep science outside the religious framework? If we let a scientific framework into the religious engagement, which scientific framework do we allow? Is it just F=ma or do we have to go all the way?
It seems to me that the face of science to religion, and the face of religion to science are inherently negations of the frameworks they each represent. So to say there exists another way of viewing the world that is different from the way my framework views the world is almost necessarily a negative or suppression engagement in some sense every time. Even when it is attempted in a positive way.
More thoughts will come?.

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posted May 18, 2010 at 2:30 pm

I don’t think that it should be hard to have an attitude of positive engagement. As a Christian and a scientist I find these views compatible, not opposed. But I can have an attitude of positive engagement with an atheist view point, as with some of the commenters on this blog on occasion. Positive engagement doesn’t mean that I am agnostic on the existence of God. Rather it means that I will engage with the fact that real people have these opinions and I am not in a debate to score points, but a search for truth.
Suppression never lets the conversation start. It uses ridicule and putdown to avoid any kind of real engagement.
Negative engagement sees the other as enemy and sets about to win an argument “by any means necessary.” Much of the discussion of creationism, ID, and evolutionary creation follows this model. I can point you to YEC, ID and TE blogs that operate largely out of this model of negative engagement with occasional forays into suppression.
In an attitude of positive engagement I wish to teach, to persuade, and to learn. There is a possibility (however slight) that I may be proven wrong – if so … so be it.

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posted May 18, 2010 at 3:10 pm

I grew up in a University town–the child of a scientist–all my friends’ dads were scientists too. There are many churches there and most of us attended church were confirmed, etc. Using my Dad as an example–he was quite introverted and when i would try to talk religion with him he’d say that was too personal. I knew my Dad believed in God, but he’d been put off by his more fundamentalist upbringing–which conflicted with his field of biology and genetics.
I know that my Dad would have never tried to supress any student’s beliefs–since he never tried to supress mine. That generation of professors has now died.
I just got back from Whitworth University’s graduation weekend–they talk about the “narrow ridge” that they walk as a Christian University to uphold both an orthodox Christian faith and open intellectual inquiry. Their biggest building project is now the new science building.–I’m sure there are many who see them as too “liberal.”

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R Hampton

posted May 18, 2010 at 3:14 pm

Suppression makes sense to me because it prompts what people really are asking for; a Western Philosophies class. So put the conversation (argument) where really it belongs and a lot of this tension will subside.

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posted May 18, 2010 at 3:25 pm

R Hampton,
There are situations where a neutral suppression makes sense. It is not the right time, place, context.
But suppression is often negative – as in the sample quote. Where even bringing up a question brands one as “immature” or “second class mind.” I don’t think that there is ever a place for negative suppression.

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R Hampton

posted May 18, 2010 at 3:45 pm

Those are two different issues: suppression and stigma. Suppression is necessary because you simply do justice to the discussion within a single lecture/class period. Hence the need for a separate philosophies course.
Stigma is a reasonable complaint, and it too should be suppressed. Certainly negatively labeling a curious mind is unfair and counter-productive, but I suspect a good portion of the stigma was/is applied only after the student was being obstinate (not a valid excuse, but an understandable human reaction).

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posted May 18, 2010 at 3:56 pm

I’ll tell you what scientists really think. They think this $%*@^ reject of the last message I typed lost my message……
Relax, breathe…

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posted May 18, 2010 at 4:25 pm

R Hampton
Discussion in a classroom is an entirely different context than the blogosphere, every-day discussion, or popular books in the general field of science and religion. I don’t think RJS is making a call to do a thorough, positive engagement, treatment of models of origins in say her General Chemistry class.

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John W Frye

posted May 19, 2010 at 9:40 am

Randy (#6) comes the closest to my thinking: “We can remember that in any such discussion, we are engaging a person, not an idea in discussion. We can discuss the idea, but we are always discussing it with a full-orbed, many-faceted God-imaging person.”
As a very broad generalization, I think that most evangelicals are willing to engage the science and faith issues more than ‘unbelieving’ scientists are willing to. All of RJS’s blog posts as evidence as well as theologians wrestling with Genesis 1-11 and science issues. Yes, there are hard-core fundamentalists who rant harshly about science, but that is balanced by ‘unbelieving’ scientists who are willing to positively engage religious issues.

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posted May 19, 2010 at 10:52 am

As a Christian who actively works in science, I’m not sure about John Frye’s (#15) generalization about who is willing to constructively engage issues. I think people like RJS are the exceptions among evangelicals, and there is less hostility from scientists than is often assumed in the church.
There are actually two related questions:
1) Fraction doing constructive engagement. That may be higher among evangelicals (though still pretty small), because among most unbelieving scientists it just isn’t seen as an interesting or relevant area of discussion.
2) Fraction doing destructive engagement (warfare, like Ken Ham or Expelled or Uncommon Descent, or the New Atheists on the other side). I think evangelicals have a much higher percentage in this destructive category, especially if you count those who, while not actively participating in the warfare, have it as an underlying paradigm. Scientific warriors like Richard Dawkins get a lot of press, but they are a minority.
Don’t hold me to the numbers, but I’d see the percentages about this way:
Among Evangelicals:
60% destructive engagement
30% indifference
10% constructive engagement
Among unbelieving scientists:
10% destructive engagement
85% indifference
5% constructive engagement
Kudos to those like RJS and Biologos and the ASA and Tim Keller and Bruce Waltke who in various ways are trying to move more evangelicals into the “constructive engagement” category. And to the unbelievers (Michael Ruse, or Steve Gould was another example) who oppose the voices of warfare on that side.

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posted May 19, 2010 at 11:53 am

There is no way to comment on the “calling a terrorist a Muslim terrorist” article. So I’m writing here so that maybe someone can fix the problem over there.

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posted May 19, 2010 at 1:39 pm

I too like the idea of remembering that you are engaging another human, but with an explanation.
There are many times in science and religion where the objective of someone is to tell what they know and to support that position. My wife used to say to me, “what makes you think you are always right?”. I respond that I just get tired of saying, imho, or imo before every statement. I would actually do that for awhile until she got the idea that I was just stating my opinion, not that I thought it was the final word. (I need to figure out a better way to do that).
So I think that for many scientists and religious folk they can’t always be saying imo before each sentance, even if that is what they think.
I have also come to realize that most people in the world (non-scientists) take it personally when someone says something that is in conflict with what they think. To a scientist the whole idea is to challenge the idea, but for most people that means you think they are a bad person and consider it an affront and are offended.
So, IMHO (after many years of being beat up about stating my opinion I have about 6 years of experience in stating it a little more softly now) I think that it is better to suppress the conversation with people who are affronted by dialog. In universities the idea should be to teach people how not to be affronted by dialog so there it should be done in a supportive way, not surpressed.
I think I heard Tom Wright say, “In my humble and accurate opinion….”, I certainly cannot make that claim

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