What if religions and science focused less on their differences and more on what they share? What if science isn’t really an enemy of religion? What if religious people focused more on the facts and less on fiction about science? What if scientists focused more on the facts and less on the fiction about religion?
Like spectacular fireworks in a night sky, flash points periodically flare within our social structures and leave residues, some lingering only briefly, others persisting longer term in memory and mindsets.
Throughout past centuries and right up to today, flash points have burned in public arenas – the misunderstood history of Galileo and the Catholic church, Scopes versus Tennessee public schools, stem cell research raising big questions within several faith traditions, resistance to the COVID-19 vaccine by groups of white Evangelical Christians who tend to watch one specific news source, to name just a few. Flaring in headlines, government hearings, and court cases … these flash points are assumed by many to exist between science and religion. Throughout time, they capture our attention and create the perception that religion and science are locked in inevitable conflict.
But is this perception of inevitable conflict a reality? Is it really that simple? How do people in various groups today really think about religion and science? Why do they think as they do? And how do these beliefs affect how they live in society?
These are topics that fascinate researchers Elaine Howard Ecklund, Ph.D., professor of sociology and director of the Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University, and John H. Evans, Ph.D., professor of sociology and co-director of the Institute for Practical Ethics at the University of California, San Diego.
According to these experts, too little is known about how everyday people actually see the relationship between religion and science. We know very little about how group affiliations – community, family, friends, gender, race, ethnicity, profession, religion, and so forth – affect our views and the behaviors that result. This knowledge void, they contend, is an unfortunate oversight – a great unknown that sociology, as the scientific study of people in groups, is uniquely capable of investigating.
“Sociology is about explaining human behavior, not by anything within the person themselves, but by their relationships with other humans,” explains Evans. “Groups teach us beliefs. Groups enforce beliefs. And groups produce identities in which having particular beliefs become markers of identity within the group … a way to get by in society.”
“Both religion and science are ways people test the natural world and make meaning of it,” asserts Ecklund. “As social scientists, we want to understand how contemporary people do both of these things. We want to understand the conditions under which there really are tensions as well as the conditions under which there is a sense of compatibility and community between groups of people who are religious and people who are scientists.”
Evans agrees. “There are groups that disagree with each other, and that’s part of living in a pluralistic society. But we need to be well aware of what everyone actually thinks instead of what we think that they think … Science and religion aren’t always in conflict over all issues across all time and space. What is important is to determine when they conflict and when they are in agreement and work together.”
In recent research, both Ecklund and Evans have already discovered some interesting facts that discredit popular opinions of unmitigated conflict between religion and science. Ecklund co-authored a 2019 book, Secularity and Science: What Scientists around the World Really Think about Religion, that presents survey findings showing religious belief among scientists around the globe is more common than we might think. Moreover, her 2021publication, Varieties of Atheism in Science, with David Johnson, reveals that even some atheist scientists see a spiritual dimension in scientific pursuits. Evans’ 2020 book, Morals Not Knowledge: Recasting the Contemporary U.S. Conflict between Religion and Science, reveals that, with few exceptions, even the most conservative religious Americans accept science’s ability to make factual claims about the world. What many take issue with, however, is the morality promoted by some endeavors of science, such as human gene editing.
With funding from the Templeton Religion Trust, in partnership with Issachar Fund, Ecklund and Evans are now leading an initiative to generate broad-based evidence of how group identities such as race, social class, and gender intersect with a person’s religious beliefs to shape their attitudes toward science – and vice versa.
Using sociology’s investigative tools and methods such as surveys, interviews, participant observation, and quantitative analysis, a group of 19 researchers — including early and mid-career academics as well as senior scholars — received funding from this grant to explore diverse topics within this research framework.
The overall goal is to gain knowledge about the complex, sometimes collaborative, sometimes conflictual, and connected relationship of science and religion in contemporary groups. Some of the questions being explored include:
As science continues to advance and societies become more interconnected throughout the world, these researchers are convinced that it’s more important than ever to dispel stereotypes and instead increase our evidence-based understanding of each other. This, in turn, can become a basis for meaningful action to confront contemporary challenges such as those related to the environment, to suffering, to the pandemic, and technologies that influence what it means to be human.
“One of my greatest hopes is that we will discover pure knowledge we don’t currently have, and that we may bring help to some of the most pressing social problems facing our modern world,” says Ecklund. “Common ground has never been more needed.”
Aligned with concurrent endeavors in psychology and anthropology under the overarching theme “Science and Religion in Context,” this initiative establishes a new network of researchers exploring contemporary dimensions of age-old debates. Over time, their work may help move public attention away from the spectacle of flash points that amplify opposition to instead focus on more constructive interaction, extending the pathway that leads to a truer and deeper understanding of identity and belief in today’s world.