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Science vs. ReligionReview - Science vs. Religion
What Scientists Really Think
by Elaine Howard Ecklund
Oxford University Press, 2010
Review by Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte, Ph.D.
Sep 21st 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 38)


Two preliminary preoccupations would, more than probably, arise when deciding upon reading Elaine Howard Ecklund's book Science vs. Religion (at least they did for me). First, when a book, as this one is, is based on statistical evidence, it is not uncommon to discover that, in the end, what made that particular book relevant relied solely on the statistical numbers. All that had any need of being transmitted is already present in the graphics and percentages and all conclusions drawn from these numbers and ciphers are superfluous as already evident from the start. Second, an American scholar writing on science versus religion, that is science in opposition/contrast to religion, in the midst of an ongoing heated controversy between Darwinists and creationists/intelligent design-ists that is mainly taking place in the Anglo-Saxon world, does not predict much good. 

Fortunately, Elaine Howard Ecklund's book turns out to be nothing of this kind, disproving extremely well the preliminary worries, and results to be a very thought-provoking work of academic scholarship. Even though statistics and numbers play an important role, they, however, are only the starting point of a message that goes far beyond them and, regarding the second preoccupation, the floor is never ceded "to the hotheads on both sides of this contentious issue [the controversy between Darwinists and creationists]". [5]

The basic claim of the book is, as stated in the opening sentences by the author, that "[M]uch of what we believe about the faith lives of elite scientists is wrong. The 'insurmountable hostility' between science and religion is a caricature, […], hardly representative of reality". [5] However, even though what is generally believed regarding the faith lives of scientists and the enmity between science and religion is wrong or a caricature, very little is being done to overcome these erroneous convictions. In fact, the general skepticism of the nonscientific (religious) public towards scientists and that of (nonreligious) scientists towards the religious nonscientists persists as there is a fundamental lack of understanding of the other's vocabulary.   

Let us, however, start with some of the more important numbers and percentages that resulted from Ecklund's study. Based on a web and phone survey of 1646 natural and social scientists of 21 elite research universities in the United States (an impressive response rate of 74.8%) and an in-depth interview with 275 of these scientists, the study was able to discover that, much to what could have been expected, 64% of scientists does not believe in or does not know whether or not there is, and there is no way of finding out, a God; and this contrary to 6% of the general nonscientific U.S. population. However, 71% of the scientists who participated in the survey are convinced that there are basic truths in religions (84% of the general U.S. population does so too), and 47% do profess some form of religious affiliation.

While the just mentioned statistics are not without value (and more could have been reported), Ecklund is not primarily interested in mere numbers and percentages. In fact, the whole work is interwoven with a great amount of extremely interesting personal tales (be they anonymous) of the scientist that struggle with the nature of the relationship that could or should (not) exist between science and religion. Stories of scientists who try to engage with their students (mostly religious not-yet scientists) on topics that relate to religion, or those regarding scholars who are firmly convinced that there is no place for religious topics in the university buildings, the accounts of the 'in the closet' religious academics who are afraid of coming out to their colleagues and students, and the ever-present admissions of the extremely conflict-like relation these scholars (religious and none) have with the broader public (religious and none), all of these stories tell of the difficulties that exist when science is related to religion.

Even though all these stories explicitly tell of the very complex relationship that exists between religion and science, they, however, all have another, and more implicit dimension. In fact, they all are, in one way or another, stories that give the account of the difference between the scientific conception of (non-)religiousness and science and the conception of (non-)religiousness and science as can be found within the broader public in the United States (be it that regarding this difficulty the United States could represent almost any country in the Western world); and exactly this is what is ever present and at the heart of the discourse undertaken by Ecklund. Even when efforts are made to cross the borders, which unfortunately happens all too rarely, a fundamental problem remains: scientific lay and (non)religious members of the general public lack the basic scientific knowledge to seriously talk with members of the scientific community on their 'fears' of science, and scientific (non)religious scholars are confronted with a similar "language deficit" [153] when they want to converse with the members of the general public on their 'fears' of (popular) religion. For as long as this vocabulary default remains as antithetical as it is today, little progress will be made – fortunately, books like this one from Ecklund, do help in overcoming the initial hesitation.  

In conclusion, if one is looking to find solutions to the science-religion problematic, then this is not the book to read (but, probably, not a single book has been written that actually does so). It should be added, and this in favor of the author, that Ecklund never advanced the idea of doing so. If, however, one is interested in understanding somewhat more on how the academical world is dealing with the complex relation between science and religion, and this not just on a theoretical level but through the actual experiences of elite scholars (be it that the categories of scholars included in this study is limited to those working in the social and the natural sciences), then this book is a must. In the end, this is just a very good, fluently written, extremely informative, and most of all courageous book that should be read by everybody who is minimally interested in science and/or religion.


© 2010 Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte


Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte, Ph.D., Rome


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