Putting the pieces together about (and for) the people in the pews

CC by Kyler Nixon via Unsplash

Whether or how religious people believe in the findings of science or whether or how scientists themselves can also be religious has been part of the line of questioning in a number of surveys over the years. The results are still rolling in as those in academia are sorting through what it all means when it comes to communicating better about the connections between faith and science.

One program for almost a decade now has led the way and has been well documented, that is the Religion and the Public Life Program at Rice University.

The statistics gathered by Rice University’s Elaine Ecklund and her team have been widely highlighted in academic journals, but the outcomes of her surveys of 18,000 scientists and members of the general public are far from providing the pat answers many in pews may have hoped for.

Ecklund and her team completed 320 in depth face-to-face interviews with members from 23 diverse congregations.  They found that how religious Americans approach science is shaped by two key questions — What does science mean for the existence and activity of God? What does science mean for the sacredness of humanity?

Many theologians have sought to answer these questions over the years. In one of largest studies to date on the topic of religion and science, the team at Rice provides a window into how the public at large attempts to untangle a web of complex information, complicated by widespread media attention.on extreme antagonists represented by the Creation museum on one side and evangelists for atheism such as Richard Dawkins

Some of Ecklund’s key findings in her most recent book, Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think (Oxford University Press, 232 pages), may be troubling for theologians who have worked at the intersection of faith and science. For instance, 60% of evangelicals agree with the statement that scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories and explanations. Questions regarding evolution, invitro fertilization and social media usage were housed within Ecklund’s interview questions.

Meanwhile, in a previous book focused on what scientists thought, Ecklund has outlined another startling statistic — 50% of the scientists at elite universities interviewed by researchers were religious.

Ecklund surveyed nearly 1,700 scientists and then interviewed 275 of them.

She found a number of scientists are searching for “boundary pioneers” to cross the picket lines separating science and religion. She contends only a small minority are hostile to religion.

In May, she will be presenting at the prestigious Gifford Lecture series at the University of Edinburgh discussing science and religion in global public life.

What scholars take away from her findings could further the practical approach of Ecklund’s research in figuring out how public views of religion and science are formed.

Margaret Schott reflects in this month’s Covalence about a conference she attended in the UK that took a closer look at the work of sociologists like Ecklund and others. Next month Schott will provide us with more details of the researchers’ presentations, but initially their work seems to provide fertile ground in perhaps creating better communication – and more complex accounts – among rostered church leaders, scientists and people in the pews when it comes to places where faith and science overlap.

According to Ecklund, political views are perhaps a greater predictor on an individual’s views on science issues like climate change.

“Contrary to popular opinions on the subject, the book shows that religious people love a lot of things about science,” Ecklund wrote about her work. “These individuals perceive conflicts only with the forms of science that seem to have implications for God’s role in the world and the value and sacredness of humans. Yet, they are often suspicious of scientists, thinking that scientists generally do not like religious people.”

More questions can and should be asked, of people of a variety of ages and backgrounds, but there seems to be some initial building blocks in place to broaden the discussion of not only God’s world and the scientific viewpoint, but the very issue of what the work of science means to people in the pews.

To the degree that this survey information makes it back to congregations, it could help to bust some long-held myths of science and religion being in two staunchly opposed camps.

From there an open dialogue may widen about where religion and science have points of contact rather than the conflict mode so often portrayed in the public square.

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