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]att.net

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