A majority of scientists say religion and science don't always conflict, according to new survey results released by Rice University.
The study, conducted over five years through in-depth interviews with scientists at universities whose fields range from biology and chemistry to social sciences like political science and economics, dispels the widely held notion that religion and science are incompatible.
“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,” said Rice sociologist Elaine Ecklund. Yet, a majority of the scientists Ecklund and her colleagues interviewed saw both religion and science as “valid avenues of knowledge” she said.
Ecklund and her team interviewed 275 tenured and tenure-track faculty members from 21 research universities in the United States. Only 15 percent of respondents said religion and science were always in conflict, while 15 percent said the two were never in conflict. The majority, 70 percent, said religion and science are only sometimes in conflict.
Those who were interviewed were pulled from a broader survey of 2,198 scientists. About half of those in the original survey population said they identified with a particular religion, while the other half did not have a religion.
The resulting report, “Scientists Negotiate Boundaries Between Religion and Science,” which was published in the September issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, comes as politicians have sparked conversations about the overlap between religion and science in the U.S. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican presidential candidate, for example, has caused controversy -- and gained fans -- for his statements that evolution is merely a "theory that's out there" and his belief that climate change is "all one contrived phony mess."
“Much of the public believes that as science becomes more prominent, secularization increases and religion decreases,” Ecklund said. “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.”
Through her interviews, Ecklund said she found that the way scientists view the compatibility of religion and science is influenced by how they view religion itself. Scientists who see the two fields are incompatible are more likely to have a narrow view of religion, identifying it most with conservative strains of American evangelical Christianity. Meanwhile, Ecklund said, scientists who say science and religion as never in conflict often were of the view that "science comes from God, and God created it ... or that science and religion are completely separate ways of viewing reality." Overall, those who said religion is compatible with science tended to have a broader view of religion that included non-institutionalized spiritual practices, such as meditation.
"For some scientists, maybe a particular strain of evangelicalism is conflict with science, but spirituality and other religions are not," Ecklund said.
In 5,000 pages of transcribed interviews, she said that scientists who view religion as compatible with their professions frequently cited religious scientists as examples of how the two fields can work together. Scientists most often spoke highly of Francis Collins, the physician and geneticist who is the director of the National Institutes of Health. Collins has spoken frequently about being a Christian and a scientist and released a book, "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief," on the topic in 2006.
Meanwhile, the scientist who interviewees most frequently discussed negatively was evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who is best known for being an outspoken atheist.
"Scientists didn't like the impact Dawkins is having on the broader public world of how people understand scientists. Scientists are very concerned about how the public views them because of how budgets toward science are being cut," Ecklund said.
The study also found that:
- Scientists who say they are spiritual or religious are less likely to see religion and science as being in conflict.
- Nearly all scientists interviewed, whether they are religious or nonreligious, said they did not agree with teaching "intelligent design" in public schools.
- The most religious scientists were, overall, described in positive terms by their nonreligious peers.
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Can Science and Religion Co-Exist?
By Jeffrey Marlow | April 1, 2016 8:05 am
A beam of light inside St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City. (Image: Flickr/Mzximvs VdB)
Science and religion have a notoriously fractious relationship, each spouting fundamental “truths” from either side of an ideologically inscribed line. But to Monsignor Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, this dichotomy is an unhelpful construct perpetuated by fundamentalists on both sides of the aisle. To him, faith and objectively vetted knowledge are the complementary pursuits of a curious mind. “If you have great faith, you are very interested in more knowledge,” he contends. “If you have great knowledge, you want to know more about faith.”
In a wide-ranging discussion, Sorondo demystified the supposed “culture wars”, stoked a few fires himself, and previewed some of the issues that the Academy will be taking up in future sessions.
With a refreshingly open understanding of the scientific enterprise, Sorondo argues against a literalist interpretation of Christianity’s foundational text. “Is the Bible a scientific book? No,” he says. “They used the knowledge of science they had at the time, but today we can use other forms.” Despite this willingness to incorporate new data, there is one non-negotiable plank of the platform: “The important thing is that things are created by God.”
Sorondo recently met with actor Morgan Freeman, who has spent much of the last year on a spiritual quest; the inter-demoninational findings of the walkabout are profiled in the six-part Story of God miniseries, which kicks off Sunday, April 3rd on the National Geographic Channel. As the two discuss the scientific and religious viewpoints on the origin of the universe, Sorondo finds no contradiction. “What happened before the Big Bang?” he asks rhetorically. “Creation has nothing to do with the Big Bang.”
Pope Francis – who occasionally charges the Academy with topics to study, but mostly keeps his distance – has been a strong supporter of efforts to limit the effects of human-induced climate change, which will disproportionately harm the world’s poor. And while the current pontiff has expressed this viewpoint with new passion, the idea itself is nothing new for the Vatican. “The idea that the human activity to use fossil [fuels] is the first cause of climate change and of global warming is an idea that the members of our Academy have said for 25 years or more,” says Sorondo.
Last year, the pope met with UN leaders and called on the international organization – which Sorondo characterizes as modern civilization’s most important institution – to strike all carbon-emitting fuels from the global energy portfolio. Regarding the criticism these meetings drew: “it’s only in the minds of some Tea Party people that don’t understand anything.”
Climate change – and particularly the social justice repercussions – remains a focus for the Academy, but it’s a crowded docket. Other items on the agenda include inquiries into sustainable development, energy, stem cells and genetics, and perhaps most intriguingly, artificial intelligence. Can robots have a conscience, and to what extent will their proliferation change what it means to be human? Sorondo’s initial take: “The human person is not only the intellect, but they are all of the components, like the will and the soul, and the soul is not changing if you have more instruments in your mind.”
Sorondo exudes a sense of scientific fatalism, if not unbridled optimism. He maintains that scientific knowledge and faith-based understanding are two sides of the same coin, and, indeed, that “modern science was born in the context of the Christian faith.” He recognizes that technology is advancing rapidly, and that many of the concomitant changes are demanding answers to longstanding philosophical and religious questions. By bridging the supposed divide between science and the church, Sorondo is hopeful that both perspectives can move forward in the mutual interest of better understanding the world around us.
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