Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Scientists in the pews

Riffing off our father blog (Fr Jake is discussing atheism, science and religion today), here's an interesting piece from the WaPo:
I am now beginning my third national study of top university scientists, and from 2005 to 2008 I conducted the most comprehensive study to date of what scientists think about religion.....It turns out that nearly 50 percent of scientists identify with a religious label, and nearly one in five is actively involved in a house of worship, attending services more than once a month. ....

Unfortunately, because of the controversy and conflicts surrounding the evolution-creation debate, stem cell research and other topics related to science and faith, most religious scientists do not feel comfortable talking about their scientific lives within their faith communities. They think discussing science within their house of worship might offend fellow parishioners who are not scientists. So they do not bring it up. Instead, they practice what I call "secret science." And everyone in the community loses out.
Yet, another poll shows that 25 percent of Americans think scientists are hostile to religion. In a country where most people have a religious identity, if a large proportion of the populace believes science is hostile to religion, our science education system is in serious trouble.

..... If we want students of faith to attend the nation's top universities and to succeed in America's top institutions, then we need to encourage them to thoughtfully examine modern scientific theories and dispel misconceptions and stereotypes about science. Scientists with faith could be bridges.
Scientists should not be required or compelled to leave behind their professional identities and ideas when they come to the altar.
It is also worth noting that scientists can be just as bad towards those with faith in a science setting. When Francis Collins, director of the NIH, was appointed to that position, many scientists protested that this esteemed and respected geneticist was unfit for office because of his Evangelical beliefs. I told you about my disgust at their protest here. Perhaps its time for everyone to "come out"!

OblDisclaimer: I was one of the scientists surveyed for her 2005-8 study.


textjunkie said...

Speaking as a scientist, that's why I'm an Episcopalian. ;)

Almost everywhere I have worked, it's come up eventually--usually because someone else in the environment is either Christian or some other faith, or actively atheist, and we end up having a conversation about it. Most of my advisors and mentors have been Jewish of various sorts, for example, and as a post-doc I shared a very small office with a guy who is now a prof at Wheaton. One of my current co-workers has his masters in divinity hanging up right next to his PhD in his office. That's not to say there haven't been a lot of atheists in the environment, but since I don't come from an evangelical background I haven't found "coming out" to be that tricky in a working research environment.

But I was seriously glad to see the fuss over Collins--I was unhappy that it had to come up at all, but I was glad to see people standing up and pointing out that the man was living proof you can be a Christian and a demmed fine scientist simultaneously.

Marshall Scott said...

You know, I grew up surrounded by folks (in my case and at my age, mostly men) with PhD's in engineering, physics, etc. My father worked in civilian nuclear power research, and I was in my 20's before I came to accept that I didn't need to have a PhD to be a grown up. And all those folks, and all their families, were active in worshipping communities. I've heard this stuff about atheist scientists, but I've seen it, as it were, "more in the breach than in the observance."

In addition, I wonder whether Ecklund surveyed physicians, advanced practice nurses, and medical and nursing educators. Theirs are certainly scientific environments (we are, after all, in pursuit of "evidence based medicine"), and I'd say the identification with a faith community might exceed 50%. There has been research on that (although I'd have to do some digging to get the exact citation), and I don't recall the specifics. However, certainly many of these scientists are commited to faith communities.

IT said...

Ecklund's study was limited to academic scientists at "research I" grade universities. Medicine is a very different profession, and I would not be the least surprised if the numbers were different.

Her study is worth reviewing; the rates of overt belief amongst national academy members, for example, are even lower.

I suspect there are a number of my colleagues like me, who are not active believers, but are linked to a faith community for other reasons (family, etc). A lot of her 50% numbe may be soft connections, not hard belief.

her web site with a lot of interesting links is here. She has just published a book, which I hope to see some time.