Myths We Believe … (RJS)

Today we conclude our look at the recent book by Elaine Howard Ecklund Science vs Religion: What Scientists Really Think. The earlier installment are here: first, second, third and fourth. The book relates various insights about science and religion that emerged from her interviews with 275 scientists in seven departments at 21 “elite” universities. This book is worth serious consideration by both Christian and non-Christian scholars. It will prove invaluable for any one involved in campus ministry or a church near a university campus.

In chapter 8 Ecklund discusses what the scientists in her survey see as ways to improve (or not) the interaction between science and religion. In chapter 9 she pulls it all together. Stepping out of the role of objective observer she looks for ways forward, for ways to engage in more productive dialog.

One important myth is that many if not most scientists are actively working against religion, deeply hostile. Yet of the 275 interview conducted, only 5 were actively hostile. This is ~2% of the cohort.

Another myth is that there are no religious scientists, especially at our elite Universities. Yet Ecklund found that 18% of the scientists attended religious services at least once a month. About 7% are conservative to moderate Protestants or Catholics, about 17% are liberal Protestants or Catholics.

On the other side … some scientists seem to think that all religion is “fundamentalism” and that all evangelicals are against science. There is no appreciation for the depth of thinking or diversity of views. Caricatures dominate the face of religion. Bradley Wright, in a soon to appear book: Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told, presents sociological research dealing with this myth and presenting a more accurate view of Christians (Scot “blurbed” the book).

And another critical myth: If we ignore “it” – “it” will go away. But the religious public cannot afford to ignore science, and the science community cannot afford to ignore the impact of religious belief in our society.

So what could we or should we be doing?

Ecklund suggests – from her conversations with scientists – that there are many things that scientists are doing wrong but could be doing right. One of the major errors is thinking it is enough to “just do science”, talk primarily with one another, and present a fait accompli attitude to the general public.

[One biologist] said rather strikingly that he is “really pissed off at [his] colleagues for behaving like scientists, for behaving so arrogantly in response to [religious challenges to science].” Then I asked him what specifically he thinks his colleagues could be doing better:

I would want them to try to sell science on its true merits, which is the skeptical improvement of all knowledge. That’s what science is all about – resting it on the evidence. And the evidence is never perfect. Every fact can be overturned, and we all know this. But when it comes to talking publicly about creationism … suddenly evolution is a fact. Darwin is completely right.

By this he means that scientists should be honest with the public about the uncertainties of science but that many aren’t. (p. 132)

Another error arises from either misunderstandings or disagreements about the limits of science. Some scientists do take a view that scientific ways of looking at the world are ultimate and that meaning or purpose are non sequiturs. One neuroscientist in Ecklund’s study:

[He] took his beliefs about science being the only type of knowledge worth pursuing to their logical conclusion. Because science is capable of comprehending the totality of life, humans are separate entities pursuing their own rational outcomes. Higher questions of meaning and purpose are not important. Human life is no more noble than that of a cockroach. (p. 18)

Now the comparison to a cockroach was made in a joking manner – but the point is clear. Meaning and purpose are questions without base. Because they are not reducible to laws of chemistry and physics they make no sense.

Many of the scientists in Ecklund’s study took objection to this kind of thinking. One political scientist noted that “science [should] not pretend to solve spiritual or ethical problems and not pronounce on things it has no authority to pronounce on.” … He really wants to see people “reject the scientist mentality as opposed to the scientific.” (p. 138)   Several biologists expressed views questioning the purely biological answer to the meaning of life … we are not simply here to make more copies of our genes. We are here to make the world a better place – in quality, not quantity. To mix purely biological answers concerning mechanism with philosophical and religious questions of ethics is to make science address questions it is incapable of answering.

What is the bottom line? Both Christians and Scientists are complex groups of people with a broad range of positions and opinions.  The groups also overlap with some 24% of scientists at these ‘elite’ instutions claiming some kind of Christian position – conservative to liberal. An adversarial approach is championed primarily by those at the extremes of both groups.

Speaking as a scientist, the adversarial approach empowers and legitimizes those who take extreme anti-science positions. An adversarial approach also endangers the scientific quest for knowledge by undermining societal
support for science.

Speaking as a Christian, an adversarial approach hinders the spread of the gospel by attaching it to unnecessary defeaters, enabling persons to easily dismiss the whole for the failure of a portion. It falls into the trap discussed by Augustine a mere 1600 years ago or so in “The Literal Interpretation of Genesis”:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, … If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?  (Vol. 1, CH. 19:39).

Ecklund has some specific suggestions for scientists – but I would like to turn this around here.

What approach should we, as Christians, take toward science? What is an appropriate approach, consistent with the aim of the preaching and teaching of the NT?


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