Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think

Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think

Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think

Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think


That the longstanding antagonism between science and religion is irreconcilable has been taken for granted. And in the wake of recent controversies over teaching intelligent design and the ethics of stem-cell research, the divide seems as unbridgeable as ever.

In Science vs. Religion, Elaine Howard Ecklund investigates this unexamined assumption in the first systematic study of what scientists actually think and feel about religion. In the course of her research, Ecklund surveyed nearly 1,700 scientists and interviewed 275 of them. She finds that most of what we believe about the faith lives of elite scientists is wrong. Nearly 50 percent of them are religious. Many others are what she calls "spiritual entrepreneurs," seeking creative ways to work with the tensions between science and faith outside the constraints of traditional religion. The book centers around vivid portraits of 10 representative men and women working in the natural and social sciences at top American research universities. Ecklund's respondents run the gamut from Margaret, a chemist who teaches a Sunday-school class, to Arik, a physicist who chose not to believe in God well before he decided to become a scientist. Only a small minority are actively hostile to religion. Ecklund reveals how scientists-believers and skeptics alike-are struggling to engage the increasing number of religious students in their classrooms and argues that many scientists are searching for "boundary pioneers" to cross the picket lines separating science and religion.

With broad implications for education, science funding, and the thorny ethical questions surrounding stem-cell research, cloning, and other cutting-edge scientific endeavors, Science vs. Religion brings a welcome dose of reality to the science and religion debates.


As a college sophomore at Cornell University, I witnessed a debate between William Provine, a Cornell professor of evolutionary biology, and Philip Johnson, a U.C. Berkeley professor of law. They were there to debate the merits of the theory of evolution and the theory of intelligent design, and the two men clearly disagreed vehemently with one another. In attendance were committed evangelical Christian students (who agreed strongly with Johnson) and committed atheist students (who agreed strongly with Provine). And there were many students, like myself, who were not really sure what they thought about these issues and had simply come to listen. A wide-eyed collegian, not raised in an intellectual environment and having never heard such ideas expressed so persuasively before, I was struck by how civil the men were to each other and to the students gathered. They stayed there for three hours, debating and answering questions. Even after the formal lecture ended, each man continued in informal discussions with interested students. I came away thinking that discussion about controversial topics surrounding science can happen. I felt enlivened and eventually embraced a career in social science myself.

Fast forward to nearly 15 years later. I was sitting on the opposite side of the room now, as a faculty member, watching a prescreening of Flock of Dodos, a film that investigates the differences between scientists and religious people who are on opposite sides of the debates about teaching intelligent design in secondary school classrooms. The premise of the film is that while most scientists find the intelligent design movement unequivocally wrong, it appears that those who support intelligent design have a greater spirit of dialogue than the scientists who act instead like a “flock of dodos.” (The dodo was a bird native to the island of Mauritius that evolutionary theorists think became extinct because it was not able to fly and hence could not escape from European explorers and the animals they brought with them.) Filmmaker Randy Olson, a trained biologist, implicitly argues throughout the film that scientists too will . . .

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