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Elaine Howard Ecklund - How Religious Are Scientists?
Posted: 07 May 2010 12:06 PM   [ Ignore ]
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It’s hard to think of an issue more contentious these days than the relationship between faith and science. If you have any doubt, just flip over to the science blogosphere: You’ll see the argument everywhere.

In the scholarly arena, meanwhile, the topic has been approached from a number of angles: by historians of science, for example, and philosophers. However, relatively little data from the social sciences has been available concerning what today’s scientists actually think about faith.

Today’s Point of Inquiry guest, sociologist Dr. Elaine Ecklund of Rice University, is changing that. Over the past four years, she has undertaken a massive survey of the religious beliefs of elite American scientists at 21 top universities. It’s all reported in her new book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think.

Ecklund’s findings are pretty surprising. The scientists in her survey are much less religious than the American public, of course—but they’re also much more religious, and more “spiritual,” than you might expect. For those interested in debating the relationship between science and religion, it seems safe to say that her new data will be hard to ignore.

Elaine Howard Ecklund is a member of the sociology faculty at Rice University, where she is also Director of the Program on Religion and Public Life at the Institute for Urban Research. Her research centrally focuses on the ways science and religion intersect with other life spheres, and it has been prominently covered in USA Today, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and other prominent news media outlets. Ecklund is also the author of two books published by Oxford University Press: Korean American Evangelicals: New Models for Civic Life (2008), and more recently the new book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (2010).

http://www.pointofinquiry.org/elaine_howard_ecklund_how_religious_are_scientists/

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Posted: 07 May 2010 03:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Basically Elaine’s premise reflects the thinking of many friends I have in the faculty of several universities around the world. But as usual, social sciences approach to the issue is based on the accumulation of trivia. It is impossible to condensate a life of thoughts in a few answers to questions which cannot extend beyond a very limited scope. It is not the quantity of discreet data which will give you the idea of what goes in the consciousness of those individuals who comprise our faculties. It is the quality of the thought that it is found in those individuals. The reality is that the scientific community is discarding beliefs at a faster pace than ever in favor of what we could call spiritual hypothesis. As that, the framework of the traditional religions is incorporated as metaphors for the human consciousness, undressed from any ritualistic or theological meaning. And that is more evident in the thinking of those who work in the field of Biology. Those spiritual hypothesis are being analyzed, researched, studied, and discussed, without any rush to show conclusions like those demanded by a media in love with sound bites. The fact that the media have focused on propositions from a large group of individuals who make their living out of the field of science, both atheist and theist, doesn’t mean that on this subject they are doing science. At best, it appears to most of us like classical examples of what we try to avoid: Pseudo-science. I won’t pretend to make this a factual conclusion. It is only a personal perception born of numerous and lengthy discussions with friends who qualify as members of such universe. And we haven’t found a decent scientific explanation showing how human consciousness is begotten and what it is. Metaphors and allegories are just hints which some day might help us to find those answers. Meanwhile, we are too busy trying to stay on top of our real scientific concerns, to entertain the guests with this type of polite (or not so polite) conversation.

[ Edited: 07 May 2010 03:49 PM by rommey ]
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Posted: 08 May 2010 09:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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rommey - 07 May 2010 03:37 PM

The fact that the media have focused on propositions from a large group of individuals who make their living out of the field of science, both atheist and theist, doesn’t mean that on this subject they are doing science.
At best, it appears to most of us like classical examples of what we try to avoid: Pseudo-science.

A fair point, though the interview was interesting and seemed worthwhile.  You got me to wondering if the term “Pseudo-science” isn’t being over used and over extended.
OK Ecklund and that field may not be doing “science” in the traditional sense of the concept - but, “science” was conceived and developed around observing solid stuff and processes.
Seems to me “real science” is impossible in some fields of intellectual study, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valid learning, nor that the broader principle of science can’t be applied in an ad hoc manner to fit the reality of ones study.

rommey - 07 May 2010 03:37 PM

And we haven’t found a decent scientific explanation showing how human consciousness is begotten and what it is.
Metaphors and allegories are just hints which some day might help us to find those answers.

Do you think a decent scientific explanation re human consciousness is even possible?
Perhaps fine tuning metaphors and allegories is the best we do.

rommey - 07 May 2010 03:37 PM

Meanwhile, we are too busy trying to stay on top of our real scientific concerns, to entertain the guests with this type of polite (or not so polite) conversation.

would you mind elaborating?

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Posted: 08 May 2010 10:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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citizenschallenge
Posted: 08 May 2010 09:50 AM

rommey - 07 May 2010 03:37 PM
The fact that the media have focused on propositions from a large group of individuals who make their living out of the field of science, both atheist and theist, doesn’t mean that on this subject they are doing science.
At best, it appears to most of us like classical examples of what we try to avoid: Pseudo-science.

CC: A fair point, though the interview was interesting and seemed worthwhile.  You got me to wondering if the term “Pseudo-science” isn’t being over used and over extended. OK Ecklund and that field may not be doing “science” in the traditional sense of the concept - but, “science” was conceived and developed around observing solid stuff(?) and processes.
Seems to me (?) “real science” is impossible in some fields of intellectual study, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valid learning, nor that the broader principle of science can’t be applied in an ad hoc manner to fit the reality of ones study.

OK, why stuff? Looks that you got nothing to add or discuss, so you play devil’s advocate?

CC: would you mind elaborating?

No.

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Posted: 08 May 2010 11:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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rommey - 08 May 2010 10:46 AM

CC: A fair point, I thought the interview was interesting and seemed worthwhile.  You got me to wondering if the term “Pseudo-science” isn’t being over used and over extended. OK Ecklund and that field may not be doing “science” in the traditional sense of the concept - but, “science” was conceived and developed around observing solid stuff(?) and processes.
Seems to me (?) “real science” is impossible in some fields of intellectual study, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valid learning, nor that the broader principle of science can’t be applied in an ad hoc manner to fit the reality of ones study.

OK, why stuff? Looks that you got nothing to add or discuss, so you play devil’s advocate?

Excuse me, OK “Matter”  Beyond that, can’t I try to extract a little more info?
I wasn’t trying to play devil’s advocate, ... though I’m not sure why that would be worth flipping over.

rommey - 08 May 2010 10:46 AM

CC: would you mind elaborating?

No.

Another, excuse me to you.  Your sentence is basically a quick rant, a rant that has probably has some foundation and reasoning behind it. 
I asked if you cared to elaborate because I was curious what you meant - and no it isn’t self evident… this is a discussion forum

rommey - 08 May 2010 10:46 AM

Meanwhile, we are too busy trying to stay on top of our real scientific concerns, to entertain the guests with this type of polite (or not so polite) conversation.

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Posted: 08 May 2010 11:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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My first thoughts after listening to this podcast twice while mowing the lawn on Saturday (besides this is a great way to mow the lawn…) is that Chris is very good at what he does, both familiarizing himself with the material and letting the interviewee explain things and engage the audience.

Another must-read….

Good job touching on Templeton Foundation question—I still am concerned that it is some Trojan Horse.

Two questions after listening to the interview:
1.  why doesn’t/didn’t Ecklund use the questions posed to the National Academy of Science in the earlier survey Chris Mooney refers to
[links
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_atheism
Nature paper : http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/news/file002.html ]
as a ‘control’ to understand how her population is different when given the same questions (which showed only 7% of NAS members believed in God). This also tests whether there is something in how she is wording her questions or asking the questions which is affecting the answer.
2.  A 75% response rate is very high. Ecklund and maybe Mooney also noted this.  Was there something special in the inquiry which resulted in such a response rate? It seems like it is so high that there has to be a reason, and some explanations would undermine the results.

I also wondered about scientists at industrial research labs, and also whether Ecklund is interviewing tenured faculty, junior faculty, or post-docs and graduate students.  I’ll have to check notes but I think it is ‘faculty’.

[ Edited: 08 May 2010 01:30 PM by Jackson ]
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Posted: 08 May 2010 01:13 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Good questions Jackson. I hope she will come onto the forum and answer them.

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Posted: 08 May 2010 02:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Hello,
I had actually started working on the following well before the above exchange and other things pulled me away. 
I was impressed with the interview, listened to it last night and over the course of today a second time in more detail.  Simply because it resonates with my perspective.
In a way rommey is right, I have nothing to add.  But me thinks, so what, I’m the student here.

But, I do have a sense of what is important to the portions of the discussion that interest me. 
So, I’ll share my thoughts usings E.H. Ecklund’s words:

(3:40)
“Scientists were surprisingly more religious than I thought they would be, but in some different ways than I thought they would be.”
Most surprising finding: that people who do not consider themselves at all religious, and are scientists, see spirituality as very attractive.

(26:35)
“Scientists who have a very cohesive idea about what it means to be spiritual -
but not one that they want to attach, at all, to a religious community.”  No woo!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

(28:00)  {Ladies and gentlemen in this corner we have:}  
“(These scientists) want something that is totally consistent with science
and something which even gives them a kind of moral frame for the ways in which they apply their science. 
Something which gives them a sense of meaning and purpose outside themselves, which is not science but yet is completely compatible with science.”

Chris M : “... so in a sense the scientific spirituality you’re talking about is sort of synonymous with the wonder of nature expressed by someone such as Carl Sagan…”

(29:20)  {In another corner we have:}
There are a group of Atheists who are total modernists. . . if you think that science really has all of the answers, even to things, like love and beauty, the soft things we usually think of religion as having more access to than science.  Then, religion is just not necessary.  So its very much a pervasive modernist mindset. 

EE: “But, there are still these scientists who are spiritual, who see these things very differently. 
Who see something that’s different than science, but complimentary, that’s not religion. 
I think that’s very different.”

(30:15)
CM: Why are you using the word “spiritualist”*, why not wonder and awe.
EE: ~ Good question: it* was actually built out of the questionnaires however the interviewees themselves brought the term* back into the study results.

Jackson - 08 May 2010 11:56 AM

1.  why doesn’t/didn’t Ecklund use the questions posed to the National Academy of Science in the earlier survey Chris Mooney refers to

I looked at those links and it sure seems like it’s getting time to repeat that survey.  But, it seems to me that Ecklund was after a different “resolution” on the topic,
a worthy one at that, in my humble opinion     wink

ps Chris nice interview, thoughtful questions, good tempo, info packed, easy to listen to repeatedly
  cool smile

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Posted: 08 May 2010 02:41 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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citizenschallenge - 08 May 2010 02:10 PM
Jackson - 08 May 2010 11:56 AM

1.  why doesn’t/didn’t Ecklund use the questions posed to the National Academy of Science in the earlier survey Chris Mooney refers to

I looked at those links and it sure seems like it’s getting time to repeat that survey.  But, it seems to me that Ecklund was after a different “resolution” on the topic

Chris Mooney has his own blog which I need to track more.
He commented on this question on May 3
http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2010/05/03/ecklund-vs-larson-witham-on-religion-among-elite-scientists/
and got some discussion….

I don’t think the explanation is that she asked different questions just because she wanted different answers (which would be really bothersome), and from the interview I think she did a lot better job than that.  We all know from surveys how frustrating it can be if our true answer doesn’t exactly fit any of the choices, and maybe all of the religion-and-science surveys have weaknesses in that way. 

Now I wonder about the response rate for the NAS survey.

Possible explanations in Chris’ blog responses:
1. NAS narrow sample (one commenter says Ecklund includes “social scientists” in the survey)
2. different questions—how is god defined on the surveys
3. 7% number in NAS is low because people scared to admit they believe in God (“7% was always rubbish”)

I think the survey results would have been much stronger if she had both redone the NAS type survey, as a baseline {maybe on a subset—she had such a high response rate} and then done the 2nd survey.

Even the comments on Chris’ blog show this chasm between “metaphorical Christians” and “literal Christians”—it is very hard for an atheist to relate to what a metaphorical Christian “believes in”... (i.e. the Daniel Dennett “belief in belief” loop..)

[ Edited: 08 May 2010 03:59 PM by Jackson ]
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Posted: 08 May 2010 03:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Jackson - 08 May 2010 02:41 PM

I think the explanation that she asked different questions because she wanted different answers is really bothersome

Ouch!  I think that’s an unfair spin.  Should astronomers be limited to the visible spectrum?  I know that’s not particularly fair either wink
but, I have achieved my level of incompetence on this topic so I’ll sit back and just listen for a while.

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Posted: 08 May 2010 04:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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citizenschallenge - 08 May 2010 03:54 PM
Jackson - 08 May 2010 02:41 PM

I think the explanation that she asked different questions because she wanted different answers is really bothersome

Ouch!  I think that’s an unfair spin.  Should astronomers be limited to the visible spectrum?  I know that’s not particularly fair either wink
but, I have achieved my level of incompetence on this topic so I’ll sit back and just listen for a while.

errk I edited it ... I don’t think the explanation is that she asked different questions because she wanted different answers (which would be bothersome)...

my quota of posts…

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Posted: 08 May 2010 04:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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LOL
fair enough

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Posted: 08 May 2010 04:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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I don’t know enough about the previous study. Were they allowed to be anonymous? Were they also anonymous to the surveyor, or was it just the result that was made anonymous? If it was anonymous, why would any one scientist be overly concerned about the results of their input into the collective result. I’m putting it badly I know, but what she is saying about the results of the previous survey isn’t making sense to me. If you presume you are one theist in a sea of nontheists, why would you worry that stating your theistic views would bring derision from your coworkers, especially if it were an anonymous survey. If it turned out that there were 50% of you who thought they were the ‘one theist’, it should have shown up. How does she know that the ‘change’ in results doesn’t have more to do with the changing political landscape, rather than the wording of the questions in the previous survey?

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Posted: 09 May 2010 08:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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- I’m trying to find the questions that were used and to try to understand how the survey was conducted. (ie. there is a difference in believing in the possibility of an impersonal god or god-like being, believing in some as yet undefined or unexplained interconnection between people or living things or just matter in general as a collective god-experience OR believing in a personal God as put for the various religions including the major ones). If someone has a link to a good abstract of the survey I’d love to read it.

- I think there should be made, a distinction between “Science vs. Religion” and “Science vs. Fundamentalism”. Science and Religion may have some grounds to work out together (though my bias is that Religion will continue its historic trend and draw closer to Science not visa versa). However, I think there is not doubt that there IS an all out war between Science and Fundamentalism which seems to be hopelessly buried in its own dogma and will relentlessly twist and distort the work of Science and individual scientists in order to hang on to the wreckage of literal interpretations of ancient myths and obsolete scriptures. Cruise any of the ICR articles such as this one http://www.icr.org/article/5353/ to find the intellectual dishonesty of fundamentalist groups co-opting the work of scientists and falsely re-framing it to serve their purposes (like a drunk man uses a lamp post- for support rather than illumination). My hypothesis is that a proper survey would show that scientists writ large are NOT fundamentalist and that science at it’s core is at odds with fundamentalism (of any kind, in any faith) where dogma persists in the light of and in spite of new and compelling evidence. To be a fundamentalist is to be unteachable.

- There is a more fundamental question though which infringes on the “non-overlapping magesteria”  concept, which I think is a cop out and here is why. Science conceived of black holes, dark matter and dark energy before we had evidence of their existence. We, as of yet, do not have a way to study these phenomena directly, however, we CAN study them by studying their effect on the environment around them. As a result we have verified their existence, measured their influence on their surroundings and learned a lot about them though in actuality no one has ever “seen” them. God and/or the “spiritual world” either has an effect on the environment around it or it doesn’t. If it does, then that effect should be able to be measured, quantified and brought into sync with a scientific method of study. If it has no measurable effect, then even if it exists, it as good as doesn’t because it is not only non-overlapping, it is impertinent. I would suggest that we have already done and are doing these studies and that such studies (on prayer, “religious health” and such things) have come up empty handed in terms of establishing that there is a measurable effect to begin with (or has not distinguished any such effect from the placebo effect). These studies look no different than those on ghosts, UFO’s, homeopathy, acupuncture etc. We seem to really want these things to be real, but they keep telling us they are not. Which may mean that the “spiritual” sensation that we may all have in some way or another, is really just a reaction to the shared consciousness, born of the evolved phenomenon of self-awareness that we have regarding some relatively universal set of valued morals and behaviors, our respect for the past, our hopes for the future and the mixture of grandeur, awe, fear and helplessness with regard to the present. I personally don’t think that this very naturalist description of “spirituality” diminishes in the least its meaning to at least me, if not us all individually.

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Posted: 09 May 2010 09:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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About 10 years ago I subscribed to the NOMA view as it seemed to both make sense, and as a strategy to reach an accord (or at least a true) between “science” and religion. “Let science explain how, and leave religion to the why” was kind of a mantra for me.

Upon reflection, I think the do conflict on a number of issues. For most individuals it comes down to the competing claims made for the following:

[1] Claims to the way the world works: the pillar of religious authority

Methodological naturalism is in direct conflict not just to fundamentalist claims (ie. six day creationists) but even the most universal clam of all religions: that we are spiritual beings with an immortal “soul”. The latest neuroscience and research in the philosophy of mind directly challenges that.

It’s not simply a case of “how old is the earth”, but it’s even more essential than that/ “Who are you? And what are you?” is the fundamental question being addressed. The old mind/body dualism has been dealt a serious of blows that has essentially discredited the idea that we possess a “soul”. The “I” we think of us our consciousness is not the executive decision maker we once thought, but our minds seem more the product of emergent properties. Intelligence, consciousness and memory are far more malleable and less concrete than we thought.

This is a direct challenge to the idea proposed by most religions that posit we are the “captains of our soul” and possess free will (oh now here comes the dreaded free will debate!). The point is, everything we thought about the world and ourselves as posited by religious thought is not so.

[2] Claims to morality: knowing how the world works, allows religion to say how we should live in it

Claiming how the world works gives the religious authority to then speak about how we should act. Saying the world is only 6000 years old, and was created especially for us by a creator allows the fundamentalist Christian to make claims for how we should act as well.

Remove the authority of being able to interpret “creation” in such a manner, and you remove one of the powerful crutches religion rests upon. It positions itself as having a deeper insight into the world. If the Christian is not right on the age of the world, and the manner in which it was created, on whose authority can they speak? Not gods, as they have been removed from the picture as creator and caretaker.

Religion myths such as Genesis posit the universe as the stage for a cosmos and moral drama. We, as moral agents play upon this stage with the backdrop of a loving but vengeful god.

This is why creationists strive so hard to discredit science: we are saying the play does not exist. Your actions are fruitless. No one is watching. That we are responsible only to each other (the actors are the audience) is deeply terrifying.

The same with neuroscience. Learning that we cannot always control our actions due to deeper psychological or evolutionary inheritance challenges religions claim to modify and control social behaviour.

Ultimately, science challenges religious authority on every level.

Sure, for the more liberal religious person god retreats into an even more abstract and absent role (the law maker, or the one who set the universes initial conditions).

But the loving, interventionists god (who also send us to hell for being naughty) is explicitly excluded from the formation of scientific hypothesis. Yes, some people don’t like having their world view challenged, but science says the universe is not the sandpit god created for his creatures to play in.

[ Edited: 09 May 2010 09:20 PM by Mike from Oz ]
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Posted: 09 May 2010 09:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Mike (Bill too)
nice post, but I think it doesn’t apply,
you’re overlooking the rejection of Religion explicit in EE’s results.

Spiritual “minus the religion” was the provocative point.

You know, that freaky fuzz in our telescope upon our world… as we perceive it.
(and that I’ve tried describing in some of my other recent posts)

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