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Religion And Science Can Coexist, Scientists Say In New Survey

First Posted: 09/21/2011 5:40 pm EDT Updated: 11/21/2011 4:12 am EST

A majority of scientists say religion and science don't always conflict, according to new survey results released by Rice University.

The study, conducted over five years through in-depth interviews with scientists at universities whose fields range from biology and chemistry to social sciences like political science and economics, dispels the widely held notion that religion and science are incompatible.

“When it comes to questions about the meaning of life, ways of understanding reality, origins of Earth and how life developed on it, many have seen religion and science as being at odds and even in irreconcilable conflict,” said Rice sociologist Elaine Ecklund. Yet, a majority of the scientists Ecklund and her colleagues interviewed saw both religion and science as “valid avenues of knowledge” she said.

Ecklund and her team interviewed 275 tenured and tenure-track faculty members from 21 research universities in the United States. Only 15 percent of respondents said religion and science were always in conflict, while 15 percent said the two were never in conflict. The majority, 70 percent, said religion and science are only sometimes in conflict.

Those who were interviewed were pulled from a broader survey of 2,198 scientists. About half of those in the original survey population said they identified with a particular religion, while the other half did not have a religion.

The resulting report, “Scientists Negotiate Boundaries Between Religion and Science,” which was published in the September issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, comes as politicians have sparked conversations about the overlap between religion and science in the U.S. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican presidential candidate, for example, has caused controversy -- and gained fans -- for his statements that evolution is merely a "theory that's out there" and his belief that climate change is "all one contrived phony mess."

“Much of the public believes that as science becomes more prominent, secularization increases and religion decreases,” Ecklund said. “Findings like these among elite scientists, who many individuals believe are most likely to be secular in their beliefs, definitely call into question ideas about the relationship between secularization and science.”

Through her interviews, Ecklund said she found that the way scientists view the compatibility of religion and science is influenced by how they view religion itself. Scientists who see the two fields are incompatible are more likely to have a narrow view of religion, identifying it most with conservative strains of American evangelical Christianity. Meanwhile, Ecklund said, scientists who say science and religion as never in conflict often were of the view that "science comes from God, and God created it ... or that science and religion are completely separate ways of viewing reality." Overall, those who said religion is compatible with science tended to have a broader view of religion that included non-institutionalized spiritual practices, such as meditation.

"For some scientists, maybe a particular strain of evangelicalism is conflict with science, but spirituality and other religions are not," Ecklund said.

In 5,000 pages of transcribed interviews, she said that scientists who view religion as compatible with their professions frequently cited religious scientists as examples of how the two fields can work together. Scientists most often spoke highly of Francis Collins, the physician and geneticist who is the director of the National Institutes of Health. Collins has spoken frequently about being a Christian and a scientist and released a book, "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief," on the topic in 2006.

Meanwhile, the scientist who interviewees most frequently discussed negatively was evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who is best known for being an outspoken atheist.

"Scientists didn't like the impact Dawkins is having on the broader public world of how people understand scientists. Scientists are very concerned about how the public views them because of how budgets toward science are being cut," Ecklund said.

The study also found that:

  • Scientists who say they are spiritual or religious are less likely to see religion and science as being in conflict.
  • Nearly all scientists interviewed, whether they are religious or nonreligious, said they did not agree with teaching "intelligent design" in public schools.
  • The most religious scientists were, overall, described in positive terms by their nonreligious peers.
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