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What do scientists around the world really think about religion?

What do scientists around the world really think about religion?

Hannah Waite reviews Secularity and Science by Elaine Howard Ecklund et al. 03/03/2020

What do scientists around the world really think about religion? In Secularity and Science, Elaine Howard Ecklund et al. take us on a journey across different countries and cultures in the pursuit of answering this one seemingly simple question.  

During the course of their research, Ecklund and her colleagues interviewed over 600 biologists and physicists in the USA, UK, France, Italy, India, Turkey, Hong Kong and Taiwan – and surveyed more than 20,000 more. Their work is described as “the most comprehensive international study of scientists’ attitudes toward religion ever undertaken” and their findings may come as a surprise to those of us in the UK, for the world is far more nuanced, colourful and varied than has previously been described.

The results demonstrate that, across the globe, scientists are far more religious than we tend to believe. The majority of scientists in India (94%), Turkey (87%), Italy (66%) and Taiwan (57%) interviewed identify with a religious tradition. At least one third of scientists interviewed in the USA (40%), UK (36%), Hong Kong (31%) and France (33%) were religious affiliated.

But within this surprising picture of religiosity across the scientific community, there is also an East–West divide in how scientists think about religion and science: on average those in the East are more religious than those in the West. Indeed, the religiosity of scientists in Hong Kong and Taiwan either mirrored or even exceeded the religiosity of the country. This divide may be due to the fact that religion is more culturally embedded in the East; in India, for example, science and religion are deeply intertwined socially and hard to disentangle. So much so that Ecklund et al. highlight that the cultural context of religion within society meant it was hard for many Indian scientists to comment on the relationship between the two: they were seen as one and the same. Meanwhile, in the West there is a significant difference between the levels of religiosity in the general public and scientists. The highest levels of secularity and belief of a conflict between science and religion were in France and the UK.

In fact, scientists in the UK presented the most “vocal hard–line opinions on science and religion”. As one UK scientist stated:

“I find it very difficult for somebody to be a full, proper scientist [and] to also harbour true core religious beliefs […] if you’re a scientist and you use evidence to support your ideas and work […] but then on a Sunday morning you get up and go to church and take that completely out, you’re living two lives.”

The difficulty for this scientist appeared to be rooted in the acquisition of knowledge, particularly in determining what knowledge is valuable. Of course, we’ve all heard the argument that science is knowledge that comes from evidence, rationality and logic, while religious knowledge is rooted in faith and belief. This understanding presents a dichotomy between what knowledge is respected and valued, with scientific knowledge cast as the preferred and trusted form of knowledge.

We know this argument well precisely because it is particularly common in the UK. Crucially, though, the presumption of a strict dichotomy and conflict between science and religion is not global. Rather, it is overwhelmingly most prevalent in Western countries, whereas Eastern scientists in places as diverse as Turkey, India, Hong Kong and Taiwan are far more likely to see overlaps between science in religion. (Interestingly, there is one exception to this rule – Italian Scientists. Italy is considered as part of the West, yet unlike the rest of the West in this study, scientists in Italy present high levels of religious belief and view religion as two different and non–overlapping facets of life.)

The East–West dichotomy found by Ecklund et al. adds to the myriad of cultural differences between vastly different “worlds” and cultures. There are similarities between contemporary science and Eastern thought. The emphasis of complexity and an ever–changing universe comes naturally to Eastern thought, and has done for centuries. However, this is a relatively recent view of “Western” science.

Secularity and Science is a fascinating read; it is meticulously researched, well communicated, and highlights the vast difference of opinions and beliefs concerning science and religion, especially concerning the conflict narrative in the UK. This is a belief that may have remained implicit, without the recognition that the UK’s attitude to Science and Religion is more hostile even than that of the USA.

Above it all, it demonstrates the unique struggles of the West (and within the West, especially the UK) to find coherence between science and religion. The narrative of conflict between science and religion is ingrained in our worldview, and by acknowledging that it is not universal – that a conflict narrative is peculiar to the West – we can begin further to understand the perceived warfare between science and religion.  In turn, we may begin to see points of connection between science and religion, rather than points of departure. 


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Image: Rafal Cichawa/shutterstock.com 

Hannah Waite

Hannah Waite

Hannah is a Researcher at Theos. She has an undergraduate degree in Psychology and Counselling and she is just about to submit her PhD thesis in Practical Theology looking at the Stigma of Bipolar Disorder in Churches across the UK, both from the University of Aberdeen. She is working on Theos’ Religion and Science project.

Posted 3 March 2020

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