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Vs. Religion vs. Science

Vs. Religion vs. Science

Nick Spencer reviews ‘Religion vs. Science: What religious people really think’ by Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher P. Scheitle. 25/07/18

Nearly a decade ago – a mere eye blink in evolutionary history – Theos produced a series of research reports intended to “Rescue Darwin”.

It was the year of the big Darwin anniversary – 200 years since his birth, 150 since the publication of The Origin of Species – and we wanted to save the great man from those atheists who sought to dragoon him into their godless ranks, and those believers who sought to denigrate him for what they thought was godless science. We produced a substantial quantitative study detailing British public opinion on the relationship between theism and Darwinism. And a significant qualitative report into the deep reasons why people reject evolution. And a book about Darwin’s own beliefs. And even a little cartoon (above) which had the New Atheists in one trench throwing their holy books at Creationists, in another, lobbing theirs, with the bearded sage clinging for dear life to a ladder slung underneath a Theos branded helicopter. E–mail separately me if you need an interpretation.

The project was predicated on the fact that everyone knew there was a real problem in believing in evolution if you believed in God, and vice versa, and this this big–enough problem that was actually just a subset of the even bigger, age–old problem of ‘believing’ in science and religion. Everyone knows that modernity was created by science ousting religion from the driving seat, and everyone knows that ever since that hijack the two have got on famously badly.

Mind you ‘everyone’ also knows that 15% of girls under 16 get pregnant each year, that we spend more on job–seekers allowance than pensions, that £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits is claimed fraudulently, and that 24% of the population is Muslim. Well, these are the average answers given by the British public, according to Ipsos Mori in 2013 (The correct answers, for those who are interested, are 0.6%; 15 times more on pensions; approximate 70p per £100, and 5% respectively).

As it happens, we are not ignorant about all such social facts. We’re not bad at guessing population size or forecasts, for example. It just seems that there are some topics – usually those around which some kind of moral or existential panic wells up – where erroneous narratives build up and can’t seem to be dislodged: Islamic immigration, foreign aid, teenage pregnancy, welfare scrounging, and the like. ‘Science and religion’ is one of those. As a book to be published later this year by John Hopkins University Press puts it, the idea that there is a “Warfare” between science and religion is “The Idea That Wouldn’t Die”.

Data don’t slay myths but they help, and so we should be grateful for Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher P. Scheitle’s latest offering Religion vs. Science: What religious people really think. Ecklund is the Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology at Rice University and Scheitle is Assistant Professor of Sociology at West Virginia University. Both have published on religion in the US, Ecklund with a special interest in the interface between science and religion, and their latest book provides a detailed and robust picture of “what [American] religious people really think” about science, scientists and technology. The book is short, wide–ranging and packed with hard data.

It’s also written in an admirably lively style, not one always associated with social science. Opening the first chapter with quotations from both men, the authors begin “Richard Dawkins is not typical. We wish religious people knew this. Ken Ham [the founder of the Creation Museum and an outspoken defender of Young Earth Creationism] is not typical. We wish scientists knew this.” That, in a nutshell, is the objective of the book: to deconstruct the caricatures and fill in the trenches that populated our Rescuing Darwin cartoon.

Ecklund and Scheitle have the data on their side. For example (to take one of the more militant groups from within the conflict narrative; the authors also studied mainline Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims and the non–religious): 31% of evangelicals believe that science and religion are in conflict with one another, compared to 27% of the population. Nearly half (48%) of evangelicals say they view religion and science as being in collaboration with each other (compared to 38% of the general population), rising to 73% of evangelical scientists. Nearly three–quarters (73%) of evangelicals believe that climate change is real and mainly or partly anthropogenic, compared to 80% of the general population. We may not be overwhelmed by those percentages but the fact that they are not significantly different from the overall US population suggests that the ‘religion’ influence is not a deleterious as sometimes claimed.

So far, so encouraging. However, were their research simply to debunk the notion of any real tension between science and religion, it would smell fishy. After all, smoke and fire and all that: do we seriously think that the ‘conflict’ metaphor, however overblown, is just a fiction? That’s hardly more persuasive than the “religious–violence–is–really–about–politics–and–foreign–policy–and–not–in–any–way–about–religion” line, a topic about which Theos is also engaged at the moment.

Ecklund and Scheitle are not saying that. They pick out a number of areas where there is real tension. For example, young–earth creationism is the most popular narrative for the origin and development of life among US evangelicals. Over a third (34%) of evangelicals believe that “most scientists are hostile to religion” (compared with 20% of the general population).

The picture is neither Apocalypse nor Eden. Ecklund and Scheitle’s most valuable contribution is to offer an analysis of where and why the line between these two extremes can be drawn. They suggest that there are two key pinch points, so to speak: areas where the tectonic plates of science and religion meet, rub, and generate dangerously destructive tension. The first of these is around the question of “what does science mean for the existence and activity of God?” and the second is “what does science mean for the sacredness of the human?”

This is a perceptive and intuitively convincing analysis, which chimes with what we learnt in Rescuing Darwin. For all the superficial noise and fury about the age of the earth or the origin of the bacterial flagellum, the real conflict was provoked when science (in this case evolution) takes the ill–advised philosophical step and says, ‘because the universe appears law–governed there cannot be a divine legislator’ or ‘because the universe appears law–governed, its laws can’t ever be broken’; or when it takes the equally ill–advised anthropological step and says ‘because human life is evolved it cannot be sacred’ or ‘because human life is evolved, it cannot have any post–mortem existence’.

These are ill–advised moves, in that they are guaranteed to alienate large groups of people (and not just religious ones). They are also illegitimate, non–sequiturs borne of philosophical hubris rather than scientific evidence. The fact that they often provoke atavistic and equally illegitimate responses – ‘therefore evolution can’t be true’ being the most popular in the US – doesn’t mean they are not problematic in themselves.

In short, what Ecklund and Scheitle’s valuable and interesting study for the US shows is that our Darwin cartoon was the truth but not the whole truth; a skirmish taking place in one corner rather than a picture of the battlefield itself. There are points of tension and antagonism between ‘religion’ and ‘science’ (if you can forgive the reification of each that is necessary in such discussion) which is pretty much what you would expect. Both are lively and important aspects of human life, reflecting deeply rooted dimensions of our character. It would be daft to imagine, and futile to wish for a wholly peaceable kingdom.

But we should not mistake tension, let alone the creative tension that has marked the history of science and religion, for relentless conflict and warfare. Arguments need not be trenches.

Religion vs. Science: What religious people really think by Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher P. Scheitle is published by OUP

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Director of Research at Theos. Nick is an acclaimed author of books and reports, most recently The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Posted 25 July 2018

Atheism, Christianity, Creationism, Darwin, Evolution, Secularism


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