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Busted: The myth that scientists hate religion

Professor ELAINE HOWARD ECKLUND is the Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences and Director of the Religion and Public Life Programme at Rice University, Houston, Texas. She talks to Nigel Bovey about her groundbreaking research into the religious beliefs of scientists

It is very powerful to think that you are living for something beyond yourself

Professor Ecklund, what is sociology?
Sociology is the study of group behaviour. Psychology looks at the mind of an individual; sociology presupposes that people behave differently in a group from the way they do when they are alone.

Why did you become a sociologist?
I am interested in the world of ideas and the way in which people live out their lives, particularly their faith. I came to the interface of science and religion as a sociologist of religion. I wanted to bring the scientific concepts of observation and recording the natural world into understanding people’s everyday experiences and practices of religion.

How does sociology define religion?
To some extent, religion is inherently based in community, so the sociological lens on religion would be focused on how religious communities behave and the impact they have on individuals. I think there are some truths in religion that are not just about group behaviour.

What measures do sociologists use to define a particular group behaviour as ‘religious’?
Sociology differs from the disciplines of religious studies and theology in that they have assumptions of what constitutes religion. That said, it is impossible to study a phenomenon from no starting point. For example, I bring all the experiences I have had as a practising Christian to my studies of religion as a sociologist.
Primarily, sociologists look at things from the ground up. Methodologically, if the people being studied say that a certain activity is an expression of religion, sociologists tend to believe them and proceed to study the phenomenon as a religion. 

In the 2001 UK census, some 390,000 people identified themselves as following a Jedi creed, as portrayed in the Star Wars films. Many others around the world identify their religion as Jediism. Does sociology recognise this as a religion?
In the sense that those people say they are doing religion, then yes. But, following the insight from the social thinker Max Weber, sociologists also use the common understanding of what people regard as religion and observe how religion plays out in the real world to build an ideal image of what constitutes a religion Generally speaking, religions try to serve someone – a form of God or gods – that is outside of themselves, a greater authority. Religions have meaning-making systems that have a sense of transcendence, often related to the supernatural. They have regularised practices and symbols that point followers to the sense of transcendence. Religions talk a lot about having a life beyond the material world, with dreams, visions and images. Without these constituent parts, identified by studying how religion manifests itself around the world, Jediism would not be defined sociologically as a religion.

Covering every aspect of life and seemingly omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient, is science the new religion?
Science seems to provide a sense of ultimate purpose and community, which are religion indicators. But because it does not provide a sense of the transcendent or a moral framework scientists need to seek these things outside of science itself. I do not regard science as a religion, and most scientists would not either. 

Historically and geographically, why has there been, and continues to be, so much religion across the world?
Sociology says that meaning-making systems serve a valuable role in our lives. In functional terms, people are happier and healthier when they live beyond themselves. Even if this were not the case, I think religion would still play a social role. The kind of reasons and purpose people gain through religion gives societies – under many conditions – regularised order.

To what extent does religion benefit society?
In the United States, sociologists study the consequences of being religious versus the consequences of not being religious. Being religious brings physical benefits to a person. There are social benefits of being in a religious community. These are utilitarian reasons. But across various cultures and faiths, religion gives people a sense of who they are and allows them to live through difficult personal circumstances.
Marx saw religion as the opiate that kept people from getting involved in tackling the world’s tough problems. I have learnt a great deal from Marx and enjoy teaching Marx. But more recent thinkers say this is not the case.They maintain that sometimes people are motivated by their belief in the non-material world to do something about the injustices in the material world.

A common accusation is that religion is to blame for the world’s wars. To what extent does religion harm society?
There can be unhelpful ‘group-think’, where an organised set of religious people get together, uphold an idea and invest it with religious reasons. It is very powerful to think that you are living for – and directed by – something beyond yourself. It can be used for good or for bad. Just as a sense of transcendent power can motivate one group to fight for justice, so it can lead another to fight for injustice. For example, there is injustice and discrimination against women, racial and national minority groups and many other marginalised groups for so-called ‘religious’ reasons.

In the so-called Post-Modern 21st century, religion is a global phenomenon. Why hasn’t secularisation worked?
Some commentators argue that it has worked, in the sense that in most Western societies people are not completely governed in their everyday life by religious authorities. When they are sick, for example, people look to a medical doctor not a witch doctor.
I reject, though, the idea that as science increases, religion decreases. We have new forms of religion that are more endemic to our everyday experiences; I would argue that is still religion. Secularisation hasn’t worked because science, for all its benefits to the likes of healthcare, does not give people a sense of the transcendent – even if it gives them a sense of awe and beauty.

For 11 years, you have been studying what scientists think about religion. What made you start?
My husband is a particle physicist and he attends church. When a research funding opportunity came up, he said I should go for it because people at church stereotype scientists and don’t describe his colleagues as he knows them, and the scientific community stereotypes people of faith and doesn’t describe his co-worshippers as he knows them. I thought about it, retrieved the crumpled-up grant details from the dustbin and ended up doing a three-year study on scientists in the States.
In the course of that study, I asked an Indian immigrant scientist working in the States if he thought there was a conflict between religion and science. He didn’t understand why I would even ask the question. He said that in India the question never arose; rather, scientists asked how their faith related to science. I began to wonder whether the idea of conflict was an American notion and decided to look at attitudes in other countries.

How extensive was the study?
I led a team that surveyed 22,525 physicists and biologists in eight regions – France, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Taiwan, Turkey, the UK and the USA. More than 9,500 scientists responded to our survey. We then took a sample of them and, from those, carried out 609 in-depth interviews.

What have you found?
We are still analysing the data. The initial findings from our survey show that scientists are more likely to view religion and science as either independent – referring to different aspects of reality – or to view religion and science as having the ability to collaborate.
We also find that there are various kinds of collaborations that Western Christianity doesn’t take into account. In the West, we tend to think of science and faith as abstract ideas rather than practices, but an Indian Muslim interviewee emphasised the way that the practice of praying five times a day helped him to do better science – the regularity of prayer maps well onto the regularity and discipline of his work as a scientist.
The scientific community tends to perceive itself as having a public neutrality that doesn’t allow for people to have so-called ‘perceived emotive experiences’. In the States, it sees itself as austere and separate from the commonplace demands of daily life.
The idea that religion and science are, in the words of Stephen Jay Gould, ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ is all very well in the realm of ideas, but in real life that’s not how it works.
We’ve found that in the scientific community there is a big flow of people from one country to another. This means that when a group of scientists enter a new country, they bring their religion with them and change the host scientific environment.

What have you found out about scientists in the UK?
The biggest proportion (47 per cent) regard religion and science as independent ways of looking at reality. Thirty-five per cent see science and religion as being in conflict and identify themselves as being on the side of science in that conflict. In terms of collaboration, 12 per cent say science and religion can work collaboratively. Nearly one fifth (19 per cent) said that working in science has made them less religious.

Why is there a narrative of conflict between science and religion?
There’s a conflict because people say there is a conflict. The conflict narrative serves certain interests. There’s a lot of misinformation of what scientists think about religion – much of it in bestselling books by new atheist authors, such as Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. The general public then believes that there is a conflict and that the majority of scientists are atheists, simply because the few they hear about are atheists.

What light does your research throw on the conflict narrative?
In general, 35 per cent of scientists think that science and religion are in conflict. That is a significant minority. But it is a minority. In interview, though, they admit that the conflict narrative is hard to live out.
My sense is that if we were to interview the general public in those eight regions, they would say that a greater proportion of scientists regard religion and science as being in conflict than actually do. In fact, I carried out a study of the American public, and they think that almost all scientists think there is a complete conflict.
Rather than the conflict view, I emphasise the independence and collaborative views, because against the backdrop of new atheist voices, these are findings that surprised me and even personally changed me. Before this research, I bought into the stereotypes as well. It’s always good as a researcher to be changed by the results of your research.

The War Cry 18 February 2017

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