On the Front Lines of the Culture Wars

Are there irreconcilable differences between faith and science? Not in the opinion of prominent scientists who participated in a five-year study by Rice University.

Researchers there found that only a minority of scientists questioned at major research universities say that religion and science required distinct boundaries.

“When it comes to questions about the meaning of life, ways of understanding reality, origins of Earth and how life developed on it, many have seen religion and science as being at odds and even in irreconcilable conflict,” says Rice sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund.

On the contrary, a majority of the scientists interviewed said they view both religion and science as “valid avenues of knowledge” that can bring broader understanding to important questions, says Ecklund.

She summarizes her findings in “Scientists Negotiate Boundaries Between Religion and Science,” in the September issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Her co-authors are sociologists Jerry Park of Baylor University and Katherine Sorrell, a former postbaccalaureate fellow at Rice and current Ph.D. student at the University of Notre Dame.

They interviewed a scientifically selected sample of 275 participants, pulled from a survey of 2,198 tenured and tenure-track faculty in the natural and social sciences at 21 elite U.S. research universities. Only 15 percent of those surveyed said they view religion and science as always in conflict. Another 15 percent said the two are never in conflict, while 70 percent said they believe religion and science are only sometimes in conflict.

Approximately half of the original survey population expressed some form of religious identity, whereas the other half did not, according to Ecklund, who is the author of Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think,published by Oxford University Press last year.

The study was supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation with additional funding from Rice University.

“Much of the public believes that as science becomes more prominent, secularization increases and religion decreases,” she says. “Findings like these among elite scientists, who many individuals believe are most likely to be secular in their beliefs, definitely call into question ideas about the relationship between secularization and science.”

Many of those surveyed cited issues in the public realm (teaching of creationism versus evolution, stem cell research) as reasons for believing there is conflict between the two. The study showed that these individuals generally have a particular kind of religion in mind (and religious people and institutions) when they say that religion and science are in conflict.

Other findings in the study: 

Scientists as a whole are substantially different from the American public in how they view teaching “intelligent design” in public schools. Nearly all of the scientists – religious and nonreligious alike – have a negative impression of the theory of intelligent design.

Sixty-eight percent of scientists surveyed consider themselves spiritual to some degree.

Scientists who view themselves as spiritual/religious are less likely to see religion and science in conflict.

Overall, under some circumstances even the most religious of scientists were described in very positive terms by their nonreligious peers; this suggests that the integration of religion and science is not so distasteful to all scientists.

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