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Another Vapid Effort to Claim that Science and Religion Can Get Along


Sociologist Elaine Ecklund from Rice University is known for her constant stream of publications and talks promoting the compatibility of science and religion. Her work is, of course, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, whose goal to show that science and faith are mutually supportive. Ecklund’s spinning of her survey data to emphasize interdisciplinary comity—even when the data doesn’t really show it—is getting quite tiresome.  I’ve often written about Ecklund’s spin-doctoring, which always yields conclusions congenial to Templeton’s mission, but the distortions just keep on coming. Templeton dispenses some $70 million a year to get its soothing message out.

Now we have another article on Ecklund’s latest research: “New survey suggests science & religion are compatible, but scientists have their doubts.” This the third piece that the Huffington Post has published on this study since February 16 (the others are here and here), implying that this “compatibility” is of great interest to somebody. Further, Ecklund’s study was done in collaboration with the U.S.’s most important science organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science—an eternal blot on a group that should stay far away from religion.

In brief, Ecklund’s study canvassed 10,241 Americans: a mixture of scientists, “regular” Americans, and evangelical Christians. And her results, described in the latest HuffPo piece are absolutely predictable given Ecklund’s academic history: Science and religion are friends! People see them as compatible!

But the article starts off with something that doesn’t seem propitious for friendship:

Are science and religion incompatible? That seems like a rational conclusion, especially in the wake of last month’s combative evolution-vs.-creationism debate, which pitted “Science Guy” Bill Nye against evangelist Ken Ham.

Indeed, the latest Gallup poll shows that 46% of Americans think humans were created ex nihilo by God within the last 10,000 years. When it comes to our own species, nearly half of us are young-earth creationists. Another 32% believe that God guided the evolution of humans (“theistic evolution”), while only 15% accept the scientific view of unguided and purely naturalistic evolution. Doesn’t this show that, where the rubber meets the road—that is, where science and faith conflict—science loses out? That conclusion is supported by an 1996 Time Magazine poll showing that if a discovery of science were to conflict with one’s religious beliefs, 64% of Americans—nearly two-thirds—would reject the science and hold onto their false dogma.

But Ecklund has Good News: Americans don’t perceive much conflict!

But a new survey of more than 10,000 Americans (including scientists and evangelical Protestants) suggests that there may be more common ground between science and religion than is commonly believed.

The “Religious Understandings Of Science” survey showed that only 27 percent of Americans feel that science and religion are in conflict. In addition, it showed that nearly half of scientists and evangelicals believe that “science and religion can work together and support one another,” Dr. Elaine Howard Ecklund, the Rice University sociologist who conducted the survey, said in a written statement.

“This is a hopeful message for science policymakers and educators, because the two groups don’t have to approach religion with an attitude of combat,” Ecklund said in the statement.

I criticized the results of that study here, and gave other data, including some of Ecklund’s own, that aren’t so cheerful. They include these results:

  • A 2009 Pew Research poll showed that fully 55% of the U.S. public answered “yes” to the question “Are science and religion often in conflict?” As expected, the perception of conflict was higher among people who weren’t affiliated with a church (68%). Why the big differences between Ecklund’s survey and the Pew survey? Have American attitudes changed that much in four years? Or was there a difference in how the questions were asked, or in the composition of the survey sample?
  • Surveying American scientists as a whole, regardless of status, a different Pew poll showed that only 33% admitted belief in God, with 41% of scientists being atheists or agnostics. (The rest either didn’t answer, didn’t know, or believed in a “universal spirit or a higher power.”) Among the general public, on the other hand, belief in God ran at 83% and nonbelief at a mere 4%. In other words, the average scientist is ten times as likely to be an atheist or an agnostic than is the average American.
  • Further, a 2011 survey by the Barna Group, a religious polling organization, found that, among six major reasons young Christians leave the church, an important one is that they perceive their churches as unfriendly to science:

“Reason #3 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science.
One of the reasons young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith is the tension they feel between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is “Christians are too confident they know all the answers” (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that “Christianity is anti-science” (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have “been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.” Furthermore, the research shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.”

Finally, these data, from Ecklund’s own survey, give the lie to her claim that science and religion are compatible:

Nearly 60 percent of evangelical Protestants and 38 percent of all people surveyed believe “scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories or explanations.”

What? Miracles? Well, science used to consider them, but it never helped our understanding of nature. As Pierre-Simon Laplace supposedly replied when asked by Napoleon why there was no mention of God in one of Laplace’s works on astronomy, “Sir, I had no need of that hypothesis.” This story may be apocryphal, but it makes a valid point: modern science has no need to invoke miracles, for we’ve been able to explain things adequately without considering supernatural involvement.  Nor have we encountered phenomena that demand the miraculous intervention of a deity. Indeed, tests of whether miracles occur (studies of the efficacy of intercessory prayer, investigations of supposed miracles like the Shroud of Turin, and so on) have always shown no evidence that God stuck his hand in. But he could have: all he would have to do is, on one night, to rearrange the stars in a pattern that spelled out “I am who I am” in Hebrew. Science would have a tough time explaining that one! There are innumerable phenomena that would, if verified, convince scientists that a god existed. But no such things have been seen.

Because of this, we scientists have discarded the idea of considering anything divine in our work. This is not simply an a priori decision that we won’t have anything to do with the supernatural, for, after all, God could have existed. Petitionary prayer or religious healing might have worked, just as paranormal phenomena like ESP or telekinesis might have been found in laboratory studies. But we haven’t seen these “miracles.”  Science has therefore provisionally jettisoned divine intervention. Until we find evidence to the contrary, there’s every reason for science to ignore gods. 

The HuffPo piece does quote two scientists who disagree with Eckund’s conclusions.  One is Jason Rosenhouse, who agrees that the idea of scientists remaining “open to miracles” is ludicrous:

“Whether or not science and religion are in conflict depends on what you consider essential to religious faith,” Dr. Jason Rosenhouse, a mathematician at James Madison University and the author of “Among the Creationists: Dispatches From the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line,” told The Huffington Post in an email. “Science challenges religion both by refuting cherished dogmas, and by dismissing revelation and religious experience as legitimate sources of knowledge.” . . . [Rosenhouse] told HuffPost Science that the idea that evangelical ideas should be incorporated into scientific enquiry was “absurd,” adding that “religious beliefs ought to play no role at all in scientific practice.”

Physicist Lawrence Krauss also waves away the idea that science and religion are compatible:

In an email to The Huffington Post, [Krauss] called the survey’s findings “irrelevant,” adding that “science itself is incompatible with the scriptures and doctrines of all the world’s religions… It is all well and good to say that scientists and evangelicals can work together toward common goals, like preserving the planet etc., but ultimately those goals will in the end illuminate a universe that has nothing to do with the revelations of the Bible, and should rationally lead to a world where religious myths disappear.”

Yes, there can be a conversation between science and religion, but, contra Ecklund, it won’t be a constructive dialogue. It will be instead a destructive monologue, with science dispelling the truth claims of religion, and religion, as Krauss and Rosenhouse note, having nothing to contribute to science.

Indeed, the results of Ecklund’s survey are totally irrelevant, and for an important reason: you can’t settle the question of whether there’s common ground between science and religion, which is a methodological and philosophical issue, by taking polls. What Ecklund means by “compatibility” is simply whether someone can simultaneously hold in their head two completely disparate ways of thinking. One is science, based on reason and evidence; the other is religion, based on revelation, dogma, and faith (belief in the absence of convincing evidence). This disconnect was summed up by science writer Natalie Angier in her wonderful essay “My God Problem”:

I admit I’m surprised whenever I encounter a religious scientist. How can a bench-hazed Ph.D., who might in an afternoon deftly purée a colleague’s PowerPoint presentation on the nematode genome into so much fish chow, then go home, read in a two-thousand-year-old chronicle, riddled with internal contradictions, of a meta-Nobel discovery like “Resurrection from the Dead,” and say, gee, that sounds convincing? Doesn’t the good doctor wonder what the control group looked like?

If you hold Ecklund’s definition of compatibility, then all sorts of bizarre bedmates become compatible. Indeed, a poll of Americans taken 250 years ago would probably show that Christianity and slavery were seen as compatible. Does that prove that they are? No: it proves that people who called themselves Christians hold ideas profoundly inimical to the principles of Christianity.

The real reason that science and religion are incompatible, then, is threefold:

1. They both make truth claims about the universe, but only science has a way to settle those claims.  Except for deistic religions, or godless “religions” like Taoism or Unitarian Universalism, most religions make existence claims about gods, the nature of those gods, and how those gods want us to live. Christianity, for instance, argues that there is a single God (often tripartite with Jesus and the Holy Ghost); that he sent his son, born of a virgin, down to be murdered to atone for an original sin infecting all humans; that Jesus came back to life three days after he was killed; and that some day he will return to Earth, sentencing all of us to either eternal life or the flames of hell. Those are empirical claims about the universe: they are either true or false. But the problem is that they conflict with the “truth claims” of other faiths.  If you’re a Muslim, for instance, belief in Christ’s divinity will doom you to hell. Hinduism has many gods, Jews don’t believe in an afterlife, and Unitarians reject the Trinity. Almost all religious schisms, which eventually gave rise to the more than 10,000 Christian sects on Earth today, were based on irresolvable claims about what is true.

Religion has no way to settle its panoply of conflicting claims. In contrast, science can adjudicate empirical claims, for science is a toolkit: a way of thinking and doing that actually helps us understand the universe. There are thousands of religions, but there is only one science. Scientists of all faiths and ethnicities use the same methodology and agree on the same set of truths. Think of how far the unanimity of scientific understanding has progressed since 1500! Now think how far theology has progressed since 1500, at least in terms of understanding the true nature of the divine. It hasn’t budged an inch. We can’t even settle the issue of how many gods there are, much less if any exist at all. That’s what happens when you rely on faith rather than reason, and when you discern truth by listening to clerics or your own thoughts rather than by examining what actually exists out there in nature.

2. Science and religious “investigation” produce different outcomes. Religion’s search for “truth” could have resulted in the same things that science has discovered, but it never has. The Bible, or God, could have pronounced that washing your hands might curb disease, or that, instead of being created de novo, life evolved from very simple precursors.  But scripture didn’t say that, and science has repeatedly corrected the false conclusions of religious dogma.

The response of theologians is this: “The Bible is not a textbook of science.” Yet what they really mean by that is, “The Bible isn’t entirely true.” This then gives them license to decide which parts of the Bible are true (conveniently, they are the bits that science hasn’t yet disproven, or those that best align with modern morality) and which parts are false (for example, God’s approbation of stoning for adultery and death for homosexuality). This disparity in outcomes derives from the disparity of methods. Religion begins with conclusions that are comforting, and then picks and chooses evidence that supports those conclusions, ignoring the pesky counterevidence or fobbing it off as “metaphor.” In contrast, science is designed to prevent you from that kind of confirmation bias: it’s a method, as physicist Richard Feynman noted, that keeps you from fooling yourself and finding what you’d like be true instead of what’s really true.

3. Science and religion have different philosophical bases. After centuries of experience, science has discarded the idea of God because it’s never been useful in explaining anything. Most religions still cling to the idea of deities, even in the absence of evidence, for a bad reason: faith.  Although theologians weave a web of obscurantist verbiage around the word “faith,” it all comes down to believing something without good reasons. How can you possibly find out what’s true if you base your search for truth on confirmation bias and on assertions unsupported by evidence? How can you want to base your life on such assertions?  And, if you’re a Christian, Jew, or Hindu, how can you be sure that your religion is the right one, and that, say, the tenets of Islam are simply wrong? You can never know. Religion is incompatible not only with science, but also with other religions.

In the end, the conflict between science and religion can’t be papered over by polling people who don’t want there to be a conflict. After all, most religionists pride themselves on modernity, and don’t want to be seen as unfriendly to a science that has improved their lives immeasurably. The real conflict—the one that will be with us so long as religion pretends to find truth—is between rationality and superstition. It is a conflict between using faith to discern what is real as opposed to using reason and observation of the universe. Ecklund can conduct surveys until Templeton runs out of cash, but she’ll never turn religion into a way to find truth—or to help science find truth. And so the incompatibility will remain until we realize that faith is not a virtue.

Image via Shutterstock.