Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Thursday, December 16, 2010

What Do Scientists Believe?

I attended an extremely interesting discussion last night, sponsored by the Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER) group within AAAS, entitled "What Do Scientists Believe?" The discussion was led by Elaine Howard Ecklund of Rice University, author of the recent book "Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think," and Barbara Bradley Hagerty of NPR, author of last year's NYT's bestseller, "Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality," which I reviewed last year.

Ecklund, a sociologist, presented the results of her recent study of the spiritual and religious beliefs of scientists. The complete results can be found in her book, published earlier this year by Oxford University Press, but she shared with us some of her very interesting data. The study ran from 2005-2008 and she surveyed 2200 US university scientists at what she referred to as "leading" universities (such as Harvard, Stanford, etc.) Her survey produced an astonishing 75% return rate for her questionnaires and she followed up with 275 in-depth interviews.

The basic results show that an astounding 70% of those surveyed considered themselves either religious (50%) or spiritual (20%) while only 30% of these scientists consider themselves secularists. This latter group includes atheists, agnostics and a large number of scientists who say they know nothing about religion and don't think about it much.

Ecklund used diverse indicators for religious and spiritual beliefs and activities and surveyed both religious and non-religious scientists. She believes the group who self-identify as "spiritual" is an interesting new demographic, often finding their spiritual experience to be centered in nature rather than an abstract concept of God.

Her book contains more complete data and analysis (and I have it on order already!) but here are a few tidbits I scribbled into my notebook as she talked:
  * Among the 30% of scientists who call themselves secularists, many say they felt religion had "let them down" as young people when they asked hard questions, so they felt they had to leave in order to pursue the truth.
  * 13% of these secularists were raised in households where religious activity was not important; Ecklund found that scientists are three times more likely to be raised in homes where religion did not play a large role.
  * Only 2% of scientists in the 50% "religious" group say they are evangelical Christians; this contrasts starkly with the rate in the general US population, where 28% self-identify as evangelicals.
  * Similar disparities are found for Catholics: only 9% of scientists say they are Catholic vs. 27% of the general population.
  * The percentage of religious scientists who identify with mainline protestant views is almost identical to the percentage in the general population.
  * The Jewish faith is well-represented among scientists: 16% of those surveyed say they practice the Jewish faith, whereas only 2% of the general population does.

There were many more interesting results, but things really got going when Hagerty joined in the discussion and the floor was opened up for questions. We learned, among other things, that the percentage of religious journalists is almost identical to that of scientists, so the two groups are a lot alike. Hagerty pointed out that her profession of journalism may be largely responsible for the perception that science and religion are "at war" since journalists love a story with controversy and help inflame this war by focusing on statements of the four leading atheist writers, who she amusingly kept referring to as "The Four Horsemen."

The results from Ecklund's in-depth interviews were especially poignant. She found that scientists who are members of religious communities almost never discuss science in those communities. They have difficult experiences struggling with certain tenets of their faiths and often practice a "secret science," as she referred to it. Hagerty and Ecklund both agreed that this produces a perception that there are no religious scientists, a perception that this new data obviously refutes.

A common sentiment voiced by those interviewed was "To say I am religious might mean other scientists will question my work." There are, though, a few scientists that Ecklund has dubbed "Boundary Pioneers" who are open about their beliefs; Francis Collins was widely cited as one of these "boundary pioneer" scientists who is admired by both non-religious scientists and those who are religious and/or spiritual.

Collins is open enough, in fact, that we know he is an evangelical Christian and, therefore, in a small minority group (2%) of religious scientists. I wonder what it would be like if some thought leaders among scientists who are more like their peers were to begin speaking out about their beliefs.

I'm still processing my own feelings about this data, but the overarching one I walked away with was one of extreme excitement that I was actually much more ordinary than I had ever thought. For years and years I assumed I was the only scientist among all my colleagues who had a deeply-satisfying religious and spiritual life and I still, to this day, find it extremely difficult to say, out loud, specifically what I believe. For one thing, what I believe seems to be constantly changing, and my identification with and participation in religious activities also shifts over time. I have, in short, been looking for a spiritual home--but maybe, now that I've heard these data, I'm finding that I've always been home, among my own kind, and never even knew it since most of us scientists never talk with each other about our beliefs.

Years ago, I attended a life-changing workshop session at a faculty retreat entitled something like "On Becoming Whole in the Academy." The session was led by my now very-dear friend, Holly Stocking, who I did not know at the time. Holly, at the time a professor of journalism, skillfully led us into an intimate discussion and we were soon sharing with each other truths about our lives that we felt we had not been able to reveal to any of our colleagues.

I will never forget the story shared by one group member, a woman who, like me, was a Chemistry professor at one of the regional campuses in our large university system. She was also, it turned out, a nun and had been a live-in member of a religious community, in other words a convent, for all the decades she'd been a faculty member--and yet none of her colleagues knew this.

Her story was devastating to many of us. How awful it must have been for her to hide such a hugely significant aspect of her life. How awful it must be for all those scientists, that huge 70% majority of us, who think we are the only ones who have a religious or spiritual life. How awful it is for the world that so many scientists don't share their faith and passion, in all its manifestations, with others.

And how wonderful it is, thanks to science itself through Ecklund's sociological research, many of us will now know that we are not alone. We have each other and, as it turns out, there are lots and lots of us.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Nearly-Wordless Wednesday

"The heavens proclaim the glory of God,
And the vault of the sky reveals God's handiwork."
Psalm 19

For more Hubble photos, visit the Hubble Advent Calendar!
For more Wordless Wednesday, visit this site.
For more of my photos, visit my Flickr site.