The religion-science relationship is in a strange place.
It can seem like those involved are either trying to inflame the tensions like bystanders egging on a bar fight, or insisting sweetly that it’s all a misunderstanding, and religion and science are really as compatible as sunsets and wine.
The conversation around a new book, Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think (which I haven’t yet read), exemplifies this polarized tendency. The authors, sociologists Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher Scheitle, conducted surveys and found that, contrary to stereotypes, religious believers see much common ground between science and their beliefs. These findings supposedly show that the conflict between religion and science—a clash many believe extends back to Galileo and beyond—is vastly overblown.
But are these findings really grounds for celebration, or are they dancing around deep and substantive fault lines? The fact is that a fully scientific worldview really does seem to rule out many religious truth claims, from the efficacy of prayer to personal immortality. The culture of science—at an informal level—reflects this incompatibility: American scientists are much less likely to believe in God than non-scientists. Pretending that everything is sun and roses does not seem like a reasonable option.
I’m not a neutral observer to this debate. In my day job, I’m a social scientist who uses cognitive and evolutionary methods to understand religion, ritual, and culture as natural phenomena. I reduce them to their parts, their evolutionary backstories—no supernatural explanations allowed. But in the rest of my life, I’m a person of faith, and I’m not talking about a kind of vague deism or Easter-and-Christmas cultural Christianity, either. I start and end each day with prayers, attend services once—and sometimes twice or more—per week, and take Lent seriously. I take the whole thing seriously.
And the fact is, the religious aspect of my life—which is really the central one, the one I’d give up last if I were forced to choose—is in stark tension with the work I do as a scientist and social theorist.
No matter what comforting assurances Ecklund and Scheitle offer, my peers and professional colleagues are overwhelmingly nonbelievers. When I occasionally mention at conferences or other meetings that I’m religious, the reactions from new acquaintances are typically some kind of more or less obvious, if polite, discomfort. In informal conversation, scientists I’ve only just met often say unpleasant things about religion. Many of my most respected mentors are positively infuriated by the fact that anyone thinks prayer could work.
In short, I’m a working scientist and a fairly strong believer, and I certainly feel a strong tension between religion and science. Ecklund’s and Scheitle’s work therefore seems to be missing something critically important about what’s actually happening on the ground, in the halls of science and temples of faith. If the conflict between religion and science is just a discredited narrative, why is it that the scientists I respect, befriend, and hang out with are generally irreligious? Why is it that many of the most committed religious believers in the United States reject modern evolutionary theory?
Scientists Really Are Less Religious
This isn’t just my personal experience. Scientists objectively do tend to be less religious than average. A large Pew study in 2009 found that only one-third of American scientists believed in God, compared with 83% of the general American public. More strikingly, a full 40% of scientists believed in neither God nor any kind of higher power—compared with only four percent of Americans at large. In other words, American scientists were ten times more likely than Americans in general to be atheists.
There’s more. Seventy-five percent of the American populace in 2009 were Christian, compared with only 30% of scientists. And while only 16% of the general population were atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular,” a full 48% of scientists identified with one of those categories.
No one needs a crash course in statistics to see that these are very big differences. They demonstrate concretely that scientists as people have very different responses, on average, to religious doctrines than non-scientists.