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Elaine Howard Ecklund, Ph.D.

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Religious Scientists: Faith in the American University

Posted: 03/23/2011 10:28 pm

What place should religion occupy in a university? As I've written before, as part of a survey of nearly 1,700 scientists at elite American universities, I asked that specific question to a scientifically selected sample of 275. Many of them told me religion has no place in the modern academy.

But 42 percent said they believe religion can play some productive and enriching role on campus, such as helping students cope in situations that are personally difficult. Many of these scientists see religion as one among many possible knowledge sources, albeit one that does not directly impact the scientific method. Some think that religion can meaningfully intersect with their particular research and with the education of their students, viewing religion as important to science ethics and potentially helpful in guiding research questions.

What do we know about these scientists who think religion and science dialogue is important? Do any of them go so far as to discuss religion in their classrooms?

Some do believe they have a responsibility to talk with their students and colleagues about how religion interacts with their scientific field. I found that social scientists, who study human behavior, are more likely than natural scientists to think that religion ought to be part of their particular discipline. As one Catholic political scientist explained, religion often has an impact on the kinds of phenomena she studies. In her opinion, religion "should be discussed. ... As social scientists, we're talking about how individuals interact and how societies form, how politics work, and religion is a defining force."

There are also a number of scientists who think the moral and ethical foundations of religion might be helpful in dealing with complex and controversial scientific areas, such as human genetic engineering and embryonic stem cell research. One chemist I spoke with told me that he believes science at the university level involves teaching students to think beyond their own research, which means teaching them how to apply science, how to communicate it to a broader audience, and how to think about science from "some sort of moral and ethical standpoint." As he puts it: "Anybody can go learn about a topic pretty quickly on their own, but actually thinking about the discipline and what you're supposed to be doing in science is a very difficult problem."

This chemist, an assistant professor, tries to address the impact of religion and ethics on science in subtle ways. For example, he will not directly give students or colleagues his opinions on embryonic stem cell research, but he might direct them to a lecture on campus, perhaps by a law professor who deals frankly with the issue. He feels constrained, he explained, because his campus is an "amazingly homogeneous environment. ... Everything. Politically. Religiously." He's been in faculty meetings, he said, where colleagues made comments about politics or religion with "just the assumption that everybody there absolutely agrees with them, and they really have no idea." For example, he offered, "the vast majority of them don't think there's any issue with [embryonic] stem cell research. It's just inconceivable to them that there could be any sort of important philosophical or ethical questions."

The truth, however, is that nearly 50 percent of academic scientists have a religious identity (although this identity is very different in character than the rest of the religious American population) and a majority of them are interested in spirituality. So why don't we hear more about them? Why don't they speak up in faculty meetings? And why isn't there more meaningful dialogue about religion and science on the campuses of our nation's elite universities?

Well, for one thing, those scientists who think religion is both an important form of knowledge and a compelling belief system say they sometimes experience bias within their universities. They feel as if they're discriminated against -- or they would be, should they share their views. So they often feel as if they have to keep these views a secret. Which means these scientists are only rarely engaging students in meaningful dialogue about their faith, to the point where students -- and colleagues -- often cannot even tell that these scientists are religious in any sense.

I found that most religious scientists manifest their faith in small ways, mainly by spending more time caring about students' personal needs. Although positive, such a role is quite limited. These scientists are potentially crucial commentators and mentors to students who are searching for ways to make meaningful connections between religion and science. But because of their unwillingness to talk about their own views on religion and spirituality, scientists with faith could be partly to blame for uninformed conversations about religion and science on university campuses.

One task of all science professors is to educate students in such a way that they will be capable of using their knowledge in a variety of public environments. And religious scientists have a unique and important role in the lives of religious students of science. A particular calling for religious scientists might be to foster dialogue about religion and science more broadly on their campuses, encouraging students to think through and reevaluate the frameworks with which they were raised, equipping them as ambassadors of scientific knowledge within their own faith communities. Such an initiative could be a forceful step toward waging peace on the science-and-religion battleground and advancing the transmission of science more effectively to people of faith.

Elaine Howard Ecklund is a sociologist at Rice University, director of the Religion and Public Life Program, which is part of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, and a Rice Scholar at the Baker Institute for Public Policy. Her most recent book is 'Science Vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think' (Oxford University Press, 2010).