Exploring science and religion through the sociological lens

CC by John Allen via Unsplash

(Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part series on an interesting religion and science conference held in Manchester, United Kingdom. The second part of this article will describe the conference outcomes in greater depth.)

This past summer I had an opportunity to attend a conference called “New Perspectives on Science and Religion in Society” at the historic Chancellors Hotel and Conference Center in Manchester, UK.

The event took place from June 29 through July 1, 2017 and the overarching theme of the conference was an exploration, primarily through the lens of sociological research, of what ordinary “people in the pews” think about science. To a lesser extent, there was discussion about how scientists think about religion.

A wide range of disciplines was represented, including economics, education, history, management science, Muslim studies, political science, religion, science communication, social psychology and sociology. While many of the hundred or so participants hailed from European countries, the conference also attracted scholars from Australia, Canada, India, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and the United States. Participants were mainly university faculty with a smattering of graduate students and postdocs, independent scholars, and one museum director.

In a lecture opening the conference, Fern Elsdon-Baker (Newman/UK), presented her findings on “New Insights Into, and Challenges to, Religion vs Evolutionary Science Narratives.” She noted that the wording of survey questions is key to obtaining meaningful data. Take, for example, a question in which survey participants were asked to rate their agreement with one of the statements, (1) “God (or a Higher Power) guided evolution”, or (2) “God created the universe and allowed it to unfold.” Her survey results showed that different responses were obtained.

Other keynote lectures were given by Salman Hameed (Hampshire/US), Martin Bauer (London School of Economics) and Elaine Howard Ecklund* (Rice/US). The remainder of the program consisted of several dozen presentations arranged in parallel tracks grouped under topics like Science and Religion in the Arts; Organized Non-Religion, Trust and Authority; and Science and Non-Material Phenomena, among others.

Presenters frequently zeroed in on specific locales and/or populations (Muslims in the UK), eras (the Industrial Revolution or 19th century Pakistan), authors (Margaret Atwood), or media genres (comics, movies, British TV; even, a creation museum) to guide their research. Sociological data was typically gathered by means of surveys and/or personal interviews, and graphical representations showing sociological trends wove their way through many of the presentations.

According to Jeffrey Guhin (UCLA), the conference was more about categorizing belief systems than about science, religion or theology as topics of interest in their own right. This thematic thrust differed from some other conferences on science and religion (S&R) that aim to probe the intersection of the two fields with respect to commonalities, overlap of methods, or historical origins. Nonetheless, several motifs describing the S&R relationship surfaced during the course of the talks. These motifs or metaphors were named as variations of complexity, harmony, complementarity, non-overlapping magisterium (NOMA), and conflict. One speaker noted that complexity is emerging over conflict as the predominant paradigm among academic researchers.

The contemporary study of science and religion, as an interdisciplinary field, appears to be branching out in different directions. Consider the fact, for example, that various modes of literature – including novels, science fiction, speculative fiction, and utopian and dystopian genres – have all come to serve as primary texts among academic S&R researchers.

On the final day, Chris Toumey (University of South Carolina) was asked to comment on new knowledge and trends brought to light during the three-day event. Toumey is a thoughtful scholar who has contributed essays to scientific and other journals such as Nature Nanotechnology and Nanoethics.

I found this conference to be a stimulating and enjoyable experience. One minor criticism however, would be that a definition of terms, such as science and scientists, was lacking. In one paper the groups of scientists under study were cohorts elected by national academies (i.e., elite scientists); in other talks, the word science seemed to be conflated with evolutionary science. It was also curious that, of the various branches of science mentioned in the talks I attended, public understandings biology and physics, but not chemistry, were discussed. Finally, for the uninitiated, there seemed to be a proliferation of acronyms like NOMA, PUS (public understanding of science), SBNR (science believer – not religious), and STS (science and technology studies).

Margaret E. Schott, is research assistant in the Stoddart research group at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She has a PhD in Chemistry and a MA in Theology. She is the personal assistant to Fraser Stoddart, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2016. Schott’s background includes biomedical research at Dow Chemical in Midland, Michigan and the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland.

* See “Religion versus Science: What Religious People Really Think” by Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher P. Scheitle, 2017, Oxford. Presents data drawn from a four-year international social scientific study.

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