Wishful Thinking

Russell Blackford

Secularity and Science: What Scientists around the World Really Think about Religion, by Elaine Howard Ecklund, David R. Johnson, Brandon Vaidyanathan, Kirstin R. W. Matthews, Steven W. Lewis, Robert A. Thomson Jr., and Di Di (New York, Oxford University Press, 2019, ISBN 9780190926755). 352 pp. Hardcover, $29.95.


Elaine Howard Ecklund is a sociology professor based at Rice University, where she specializes in investigating the religiosity—or otherwise—of scientists. Supported by a stream of Templeton grants, she has conducted large-scale, doubtless expensive, studies that have spun off numerous publications. These invariably conclude that scientists, as a group, are surprisingly religious (or at least “spiritual”).

As usual, Secularity and Science was supported by Templeton funding: first for the research that it was based on and then for crafting the book itself. On this occasion, Ecklund and her collaborators investigated how scientists from a wide variety of locations across the world—well, the northern hemisphere—understand the relationship between science and religion. The team conducted extensive surveys, consulted other survey material, and interviewed over six hundred individual scientists from a range of countries and so-called regions: the United States, the United Kingdom (not including Northern Ireland), France, Turkey, Italy, India, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Most of these have been given their own chapters in Secularity and Science, although Hong Kong and Taiwan are treated together in the same chapter as a proxy for the Chinese region. The authors avoid referring to Taiwan as a country, despite its de facto independence, because its territory is claimed by the People’s Republic of China.

The choice of countries to be surveyed was, to an extent, driven by arbitrary factors such as the expertise and linguistic skills of the researchers involved. It is most obvious that no African, Latin American, or Eastern European countries were included. Still, the results are inherently interesting, and there’s enough variety (and enough detail in each case) for some fascinating comparisons. For example, there appears to be a rather hostile attitude toward religion among French scientists compared to the cultural, and often more than cultural, religiosity of scientists from Italy.

Lengthy appendices set out the details of the authors’ methodology, and these show the unavoidable difficulties in conducting such a comparative project. One problem was finding a defensible standard across different countries as to what counts as “elite” academic institutions, because the authors wished to compare scientists working in institutions at different levels of prestige. They appear to have tackled such problems in good faith and to have done about as well as could be expected in making them tractable. I have no real criticism here.

Secularity and Science offers numerous conclusions about the countries that were studied. With the United States, for example, the conclusions are, first, that American scientists are often hostile toward religion because of an exaggerated sense of the fundamentalism of the American religious public and, second, that discrimination against religious scientists undermines American science. But these claims are, to say the least, impressionistic and conjectural. No worthwhile evidence is presented for the second claim, which would be explosive if it were true. As we’ll see, American scientists are markedly less religious than the general public in the United States, and that would have been the most obvious conclusion to report.

The book also offers four overall conclusions, not relating to any particular country:

  • Around the world, there are more religious scientists than we might think.”
  • Scientists—even some atheist scientists—see spirituality in science.”
  • The conflict perspective on science and religion is an invention of the West.”
  • Religion is not kept out of the scientific workplace.”

Little of this is helpful if we hope to deepen our understanding of the relationship between science and religion. The claim that scientists see spirituality in science sounds impressive, but almost anyone who is doing interesting work could find a “spiritual” element in it according to one or another conception of spirituality. As the authors note, the scientists concerned see this spirituality as different from conventional religion. Thus, the problem with this claim is not so much that it is false as that it verges on the trivial. Even a forthright atheist could find something vaguely “spiritual”—an experience of awe and wonder perhaps—in the practice of science and the advance of human knowledge.

Likewise, the claim that religion is not (usually) kept out of the scientific workplace does not amount to much. All this really means is that (in most countries) religion is not a taboo topic of conversation in scientific settings. It’s not obvious, however, why anyone would have thought it might be, except, perhaps, in the most aggressively secular cultures such as that of France. (In this case, however, it would have been interesting to see some research on mainland China or a few of the formerly communist states of Eastern Europe.)

The claim that a conflict model of science’s relationship with religion is merely “an invention of the West” is more provocative, and this is one of the most important findings reported by Ecklund and her team. Indeed, an understanding of science and religion as opposed to each other did arise mainly in Western Europe and other countries that constitute the West (most obviously the United States). But there’s a sleight-of-hand in using the word invention. Why not call the conflict model a discovery of the West, rather than an invention, because nothing in Secularity and Science demonstrates that the perception of conflict is actually false? Or why not look for a more neutral way of making the point?

For all Ecklund and her collaborators tell us, some degree of conflict, or at least tension, between science and religion might be almost inevitable. This might be a genuine problem for the ongoing viability of religious faiths, even if it was first identified in Western countries and has, so far, received little recognition from scientists in Asia.

I don’t doubt that large numbers of scientists, especially in non-Western countries but also in the West, have no sense of conflict between their personal religious views and the practice of science. Nonetheless, whatever might be the perceptions of any particular scientist, the procedures and epistemic standards used by science in its efforts to obtain knowledge are very different from those used by religions. Science relies on the ordinary methods of rational inquiry, augmented by more precise techniques such as mathematical modeling, instruments that extend the human senses, and sophisticated equipment for conducting experiments. It often employs, without necessarily being defined by, hypothetico-deductive reasoning. By contrast, religious claims to knowledge are based on the words of holy scriptures, the compatibility of new doctrines with those currently accepted, purported revelations delivered from gods and other supernatural beings, and direct experiences of what is understood as a transcendent order of things. Science and religion have radically different epistemologies.

If the true religion’s procedures and standards led reliably to true claims about the universe and humanity’s condition within it, we might have a situation in which science, despite its very different methods, produced findings consistent with the claims of that particular religion. Thus, a difference in epistemology need not necessarily lead to a difference in truth claims. In practice, however, it has not turned out that way. Science has not, via its own methods, confirmed the truth claims of any religion.

In the past, and still today, religions made numerous empirical claims that conflict with well-established science. To the extent that they offer explanations of how the world came to be, or came to be as it is today, religions now appear, in the light of science and its advance over the past four to five centuries, to have drawn conclusions on inadequate evidence and with unreliable methods. As a result, science has created a pressure for various religions to adapt and especially reduce their claims about the natural world. This process might not be apparent to a scientist whose current religious beliefs are not in conflict with any well-established scientific findings. And yet the process is clearly visible to anyone who considers the larger picture.

That being so, science does not leave the credibility of the world’s religions unchanged over time, and it is likely, in many or most societies, to continue to erode literal belief in the supernatural. No information contained in Secularity and Science seriously challenges this picture. Accordingly, the book’s authors do not earn their insinuation that the “conflict perspective” is merely an invention. Here, Ecklund and her collaborators are engaged in wishful thinking.

The most important claim in Secularity and Science is that there are more religious scientists than we might think, although the authors fail to produce any evidence as to what “we” might, or do, think. Be that as it may, how religious do scientists appear to be when we examine the survey data presented in the book? In some cases, the results are not conclusive, but it is overwhelmingly clear that scientists in, at least, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Italy are dramatically less religious than those countries’ general populations.

For example, 34.6 percent of scientists in the United States state bluntly that they do not believe in God, compared to only 2.8 percent of the general population. An additional 29.4 percent of scientists—compared to 5.0 percent of the general population—take the classic agnostic stance that they don’t know whether there is a god and don’t believe it is possible to find out. Only 10.7 percent of U.S. scientists (and only 8 percent in elite institutions) believe in God without doubt, compared to 61.3 percent of the general population.

France and the United Kingdom are considerably less religious countries than the United States, but their scientists are even less religious than their general populations. For example, 42.9 percent of British scientists state that they do not believe in God, compared to 18.3 percent of the general population. In secular France, the equivalent figures are 50.6 percent for scientists and 22.1 percent of the general population. Even in pervasively Catholic Italy, 20.2 percent of scientists state that they do not believe in God, compared to 5.9 percent of the general population. Furthermore, only 16.7 percent of Italian scientists claim to believe in God with no doubts, compared with 41.0 percent of the general population.

Similar results were obtained in these four countries for such questions as whether survey respondents pray, attend religious services, and consider themselves religious. Based on their answers to these questions, scientists in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Italy are considerably less religious than those countries’ populations. Unfortunately, Ecklund and her colleagues did not obtain data for belief, or otherwise, in core doctrines that are specific to Christianity, such as the Holy Trinity, original sin, Jesus’s virgin birth, the sacrificial atonement, the Resurrection, an afterlife with destinations in heaven or hell, and the prophesied Second Coming. Such data might have revealed even more disparity in the beliefs of scientists and general populations. In any event, the data obtained from questions about belief in God—as fundamental a Christian doctrine as any—show that scientists in a range of traditionally Christian countries are far less likely than others in those countries to subscribe to Christian orthodoxy.

In highly religious Turkey, a Muslim country currently ruled by an Islamist government, the picture is different in that only 6.3 percent of scientists do not believe in God. Yet even this is more than three times the 1.9 percent of atheists in Turkey’s general population. Furthermore, 13.3 percent of Turkey’s scientists, versus only 0.7 percent of its general population, profess no religious affiliation. Only 61.3 percent of Turkish scientists believe in God without doubt, compared with 93.1 percent of the general population; 40.3 percent of Turkish scientists, versus 25.4 percent of the general population, never or practically never attend religious services; and 17.3 percent of Turkish scientists never pray, versus 3.6 percent of the general population. It’s clear that few Turkish scientists are outright atheists at this stage of history, but Turkish scientists are considerably less religious than Turkey’s general population.

To be fair to Ecklund’s team, a higher proportion of Turkish scientists—28 percent—stated that their scientific knowledge made them more religious, against 22 percent who said it made them less so. It would be interesting to dig more deeply into what underlies this statistic and especially to establish in what sense these scientists consider themselves “more religious.” For example, are they referring, in the main, to increased awe at what they understand to be God’s creation, or does the practice of science really make them more convinced of specifically Islamic doctrines? The latter is not impossible, but it’s implausible.

Ecklund and her colleagues do not provide data for belief in core doctrines that are specific to Islam. No questions were asked about belief in Muhammad’s status as Allah’s final prophet, the belief that the Qu’ran is Allah’s definitive revelation, or that its content was revealed to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. Nor were questions asked about Islamic doctrines relating to eschatology or the content of divine law.

Likewise, when the authors turn their attention to India, they present no data on the beliefs of scientists, compared to the general population, in respect of such ideas as transmigration of the spiritual self, karmic residues, the complementary ideas of samsara and moksha, the existence of particular Hindu gods, or any other doctrines that are specific and central to certain traditions within Hinduism. About the most that we learn is that many scientists in India are hostile to Hindu astrology.

The situation in Hong Kong and Taiwan is more complicated, given the presence in each case of several major religions, much nonbelief within the respective populations, and ubiquitous folk beliefs about supernatural beings and forces. This makes a comparison between scientists and others difficult, because scientists seem to be drawn from social and family backgrounds that skew away from the populations of Hong Kong and Taiwan as a whole. For example, we learn from Secularity and Science that attendance at religious services once a week or more for scientists in Taiwan is 11.6 percent, whereas for the general public it is only 7.8 percent. Taken in isolation, this might suggest that Taiwan’s scientists are unusually religious compared to Taiwan’s general population. As the authors acknowledge, however, the difference is likely to be because a disproportionately high percentage of Taiwan’s scientists come from Christian backgrounds—in which case formal religious services are likely to be important to them—whereas a far higher percentage of the island’s general public practices folk religion.

From the overall data provided, scientists in Hong Kong and Taiwan are probably less religious than their respective general publics, but it would have been helpful to learn more. For example, to what extent do scientists from Buddhist backgrounds in Hong Kong and Taiwan embrace belief in classical Buddhist doctrines, such as anatta (no-self), samsara, and nirvana, and in other doctrines accreted by varieties of Buddhism since its distant origin in India? How do scientists from Buddhist backgrounds compare with the generality of people in Hong Kong and Taiwan from those backgrounds?

In most of the countries studied by Ecklund’s team, scientists are clearly less religious than the general population. Scientists at elite universities are even less religious than scientists at other institutions. Meanwhile, the general populations of some countries are drastically less religious than they once were. Yet Ecklund and colleagues de-emphasize all this and make no serious attempt to explain it. Why, for example, are Italian scientists less religious than the general population of Italy? How should we explain the decline in religiosity experienced in so many countries during the same centuries in which science has advanced?

The authors do not address the general decline of religiosity in Western Europe, and in fairness this was not within the scope of their project. But the relatively high levels of irreligiosity among scientists in most of the countries studied cries out for explanation. Here, however, a problem becomes obvious with the less quantitative aspects of the research—that is, with the conduct and interpretation of the interviews. Such a large number of interviews can be cherrypicked, even unconsciously, to draw biased conclusions. Drawing on interview material selectively—perhaps filtering it through certain preconceptions—enables the authors to ignore, or even criticize, interviewees with whom they disagree, while sympathetically quoting others.

In this respect, various small issues accumulate in a way that I cannot discuss comprehensively here. For example, in their chapter on France, the authors chide one interviewee for objecting to the dogmatic nature of Catholic teachings. They claim that Catholicism lacks an extensive tradition of reading the Bible literally and that most Catholic teachings are not presented as infallible dogma. But this is quite misleading. Saint Augustine, for one, insisted that the Bible be read, in the first instance, literally, even though it also had symbolic meanings. Moreover, Catholicism has a long history of insisting on its key doctrines and attempting to suppress whatever it regards as dangerous ideas. Perhaps the authors have in mind some technical concept of infallibility, but the Catholic Church has been more than dogmatic enough to merit its reputation for intolerance whenever it exercises political or social influence.

As another example, the U.K. chapter devotes much attention to the role of Richard Dawkins as a science communicator and forthright public atheist. The statistics suggest that many British scientists are atheists and that many are, to some degree, hostile toward religion. Nonetheless, the authors make a point that forty-eight of the scientists who were interviewed brought up Dawkins’s name and that, of these, thirty-eight disagreed with his approach to science and religion. This suggests that a fair proportion mentioned Dawkins without expressing disagreement, but still, thirty-eight out of forty-eight might be taken to indicate a certain level of disquiet. This was, however, a self-selecting group, so it should not be surprising that it consisted largely of individuals who mentioned Dawkins for the purpose of distancing themselves from him.

Worse, one scientist who is quoted sympathetically offers a negative view of Dawkins despite stating that it is an impression based on news reports, not on reading Dawkins’s relevant books. For many years now, Richard Dawkins has been something of a whipping boy for the British press—he is evidently seen by many journalists as someone who is rocking the social boat and needs to be stopped. It’s hardly surprising, then, that some people are forming a negative impression of him based on reading news reports. More surprising is the fact that the authors of Science and Secularity would quote something like this, because it is hardly to the credit of the scientist being quoted.

As far as I can discern from all the quoted or paraphrased interview material, it seems that many scientists who reflect on religious belief find it variously incredible, unnecessary, or repugnant to the spirit of science. Others conclude that some kind of thinned-out religion, with little in the way of truth claims, is compatible with science, whereas strict traditional religion is not. Still others might not engage in this kind of reflection at all, and some who do reach different conclusions. For example, some are persuaded by ideas such as Non-Overlapping Magisteria—the thesis that religion and science possess entirely separate domains of teaching authority—whether or not such ideas are well-founded. Some scientists might hold to a nonliteral, largely cultural, form of religion that does not, in fact, make claims that could conflict with those emerging from science. There are doubtless varied historical and cultural contexts that shape scientists’ reflections, or in many cases lack of reflection, on religion, and those contexts will continue to change along with changes in cultures themselves.

The closest Secularity and Science comes to explaining the irreligiosity, and even hostility toward religion, of many Western scientists is by referring to what the authors see as an exaggerated fear of evangelical Christianity (especially in the United States) and an unwarranted fear of Islam (especially in the United Kingdom). Such fears, exaggerated/unwarranted or not, may indeed explain some hostility toward religion. They are unlikely, however, to explain the percentage of scientists who are atheists, the number who are not outright atheists but have doubts about God’s existence, and other manifestations of scientists’ irreligiosity when compared to others from similar cultural backgrounds.

Finally, although I have emphasized what I see as an obvious pro-religious bias—and a certain amount of wishful thinking—throughout Secularity and Science, the large amount of money that went into the book from Templeton’s coffers was not entirely wasted. This book does provide important information for scholars to pore over and consider. Secularity and Science is a resource, among many others, and I’m not sorry to have had the opportunity to read it. I certainly intend to make further use of its extensive information, notes, and bibliography. It just has to be read with a critical mind, and its conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt.

Russell Blackford

Russell Blackford is a conjoint senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle (Australia) and a regular columnist for Free Inquiry. His latest book, The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism (2019), is published by Bloomsbury Academic.

Secularity and Science: What Scientists around the World Really Think about Religion, by Elaine Howard Ecklund, David R. Johnson, Brandon Vaidyanathan, Kirstin R. W. Matthews, Steven W. Lewis, Robert A. Thomson Jr., and Di Di (New York, Oxford University Press, 2019, ISBN 9780190926755). 352 pp. Hardcover, $29.95.   Elaine Howard Ecklund is a sociology professor …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.