Scientists in the pews

By Elaine Howard Ecklund sociologist On Easter Sunday, Christians from the nominal to the devout attended religious services. They went … Continued

By Elaine Howard Ecklund

On Easter Sunday, Christians from the nominal to the devout attended religious services. They went to church for all kinds of reasons–some biblical, some spiritual and some communal–but bridging their faith with science generally was not one of them.

Why not? A number of believers–including Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and former director of the Human Genome Project, and Francisco J. Ayala, a renowned professor of biology and recent winner of the Templeton Prize–have called for an intelligent dialogue between science and faith. Where should that dialogue take place if not at our places of worship?

Concerned conservative Christian parents have argued that it ought to take place in high school biology classrooms; they worry that secular scientists are taking their children away from their faith. But such assumptions overlook the scientists with faith who are sitting in the pews. Let’s not ignore them.

I am now beginning my third national study of top university scientists, and from 2005 to 2008 I conducted the most comprehensive study to date of what scientists think about religion. I surveyed nearly 1,700 natural and social scientists and extensively interviewed 275 of them in their labs and offices.

It turns out that nearly 50 percent of scientists identify with a religious label, and nearly one in five is actively involved in a house of worship, attending services more than once a month. While many scientists are completely secular, my survey results show that top scientists are also sitting in the seats of our nation’s churches, temples and mosques.

Unfortunately, because of the controversy and conflicts surrounding the evolution-creation debate, stem cell research and other topics related to science and faith, most religious scientists do not feel comfortable talking about their scientific lives within their faith communities. They think discussing science within their house of worship might offend fellow parishioners who are not scientists. So they do not bring it up. Instead, they practice what I call “secret science.” And everyone in the community loses out.

The most dangerous result of this reticence is a lack of role models for youth who might want to go into science but fear science might lead them away from faith. According to a recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. schoolchildren receive poorer science education than do students in most other industrialized nations. Other research shows that how students experience science in elementary and secondary school–as well as how well their science abilities evolve–helps predict not only whether they’ll enter a career in science, but also whether they’ll attend college and enter higher-status fields (like engineering). Better science skills and understanding often correlate with greater overall success and socioeconomic stability.

Yet, another poll shows that 25 percent of Americans think scientists are hostile to religion. In a country where most people have a religious identity, if a large proportion of the populace believes science is hostile to religion, our science education system is in serious trouble. If religious people want their children to succeed–and as a scholar of American religion, I have every reason to believe they do–they need to learn how to utilize the resource of the scientists in their midst. And these scientists need to become ambassadors for their field within their faith communities.

Scientists who work at the nation’s top universities shape the views of our future politicians, CEOs and public-opinion leaders. (Research shows that half of America’s corporate heads and nearly as many governmental leaders graduated from one of 12 highly selective universities, a list that includes Princeton, Harvard and the University of Chicago.) It is these very leaders who will make decisions about future science policy, such as how much funding science should receive and what types of research should be funded. If we want students of faith to attend the nation’s top universities and to succeed in America’s top institutions, then we need to encourage them to thoughtfully examine modern scientific theories and dispel misconceptions and stereotypes about science. Scientists with faith could be bridges.

How might religious leaders utilize the scientists in their pews? It would help for them to better mentor and involve scientists within their faith communities, which in turn would help religious leaders join with scientists to sponsor intelligent discussions about science within their houses of worship. Faith leaders might also provide scientists with a forum for discussing the connections between their faith lives and their work lives. They might invite scientists to be teachers in adult religion classes or to take on other prominent roles within their congregations.

Scientists should not be required or compelled to leave behind their professional identities and ideas when they come to the altar.

Elaine Howard Ecklund is a sociologist at Rice University and the author of “Science Vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think” (Oxford University Press, 2010).

  • JeffreyLVaughn

    I’m sorry to say, but at most any conservative church, an honest scientist will be called a compromiser, false teacher, or heretic.Being quiet means keeping peace. Being open and honest means looking for a new church.

  • RevTonyBreeden

    The previous commenter seems to have falsely equivocated science with evolution. While it’s true that an evolutionist scientist might find he will have to attend a liberal church that compromises on Biblical authority in order to accomodate evolution, a Bible-affirming scientist would be most welcome in a conservative church! In fact, I know quite a few Bible-affirming scientists who have an active religious AND scientific voice in church.