Reaching across the aisle: the inner and outer lives of religious scientists

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This is a guest post by Elizabeth Haswell.

Science and religion are two different ways of understanding and interacting with the world, each of which holds incredible power to change lives and influence the course of history. They are often understood to be in complete opposition to each other—and nowhere does this dichotomy play out more clearly than in contemporary US politics. Religious leaders oppose policies based on scientific consensus regarding women’s health, teaching evolution, and, most recently, controlling the spread of COVID-19. 

The need for scientists to communicate effectively outside their fields has never been more important—and has never seemed more hopeless. How can we (scientists) convince them (religious people) to listen to the facts? 

While this question addresses a critical issue, placing religiosity outside the scientific community is inaccurate. In fact, it would require a very stringent sorting process to keep religious people out of academic science. According to a Pew Forum survey conducted in 2014, 78% of Americans affiliate themselves with a religion; only 7 % selected atheist or agnostic. Of those who are religious, most are Christian, and fully 25% of Americans identify as Evangelical Christian. Another 7% identify with non-Christian faiths.  While rates of religious identification are lower among academics (one study reported that 33% of the general US population but just 11% of scientists attend weekly religious services (Ecklund et al., 2016)) it is still very likely—no matter where you are in the US—that you teach, learn from, or otherwise interact with a scientist who is also a person of faith. 

This is probably no surprise to some readers. But in my experience, a good portion of academic scientists don’t know that some of their respected colleagues are religious, and simply assume atheism across the board. And to be fair, many religious scientists hide the faith-based aspect of their lives, rendering themselves essentially invisible.  All of which is a shame—if we genuinely want to reach across the science/religion aisle, those who are, shall we say, bipartisan could be a great resource for scientific communication. Discussing values as well as facts is an effective way to shift beliefs around scientific results (Dietz, 2013), and religious scientists share values with both of their communities.

So, I decided it was worth getting to know religious scientists a bit better. Last month, I distributed an anonymous survey on Twitter and to a few colleagues. I asked three open-ended questions (see below) and received about 50 responses from scientists at a range of career stages who identified as Evangelical Christian, Mainline Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Modern Orthodox Jewish or Spiritual. 

Do you feel that your religious or spiritual beliefs conflict with your work as a scientist?

The respondents overwhelmingly did not. Some felt that the questions asked by science and religion are different (“I’ve always felt that science explains the what, while religion tries to address the why”). Others argued that the goals are the same–understanding and improving our world. A few respondents acknowledged that the stance of their church leaders conflicts with science, and some described the challenge of navigating scientific culture as a religiously observant person (choosing not to drink at conferences, or not to work on the sabbath).  But the vast majority responded to this question by explaining the ways in which their religious identity actually enriched their lives as scientists—by providing a moral compass, motivating research, and providing an outward focus and posture of service to others. 

Do you feel that your work as a scientist conflicts with your religious or spiritual beliefs?

Again, most respondents did not. A few admitted that their scientific training put them in conflict with church teachings about the origin of life, and one mentioned that research on animal models could go against religious principles of no harm. In large part, however, the answers to this question downplayed such conflicts and instead emphasized how scientific work can energize and inform a religious life. Understanding the natural world through scientific inquiry can be seen as a way of honoring and understanding creation (“My work as an evolutionary biologist reveals a very creative creation, and this in turn greatly influences my vision of and relationship to G-d”).

The responses to these first two questions are consistent with my own experience as a scientist who is religious. I know when to consult the scientific literature and when to consult a religious text—and I never feel the need to reconcile the two. The religious values of social justice, redistribution of wealth, patience, humility and compassion provide a much-needed corrective to dominant academic culture. Daily, weekly, and yearly faith traditions continuously remind me that my scientific work is done in service to other people and to our earth (and I really need those reminders!).  Conversely, the scientific values of curiosity, questioning, and experimentation have helped deepen my religious life (just the process of conducting this survey and writing this blogpost was enlightening for me).

How do you consider your religious views in the professional sphere?  

Most (70%) survey respondents said that they keep their religious identity secret or that they consider it personal. A few are open at work about their religious beliefs, and find support and understanding there. But a surprising number hide this part of themselves out of fear that their colleagues will look down on them. This fear is not unfounded; I suspect that many of us have heard our colleagues “say terrible things about being religious, assuming no one in the room held that identity.”

Summary or TL;DR. Reader, I have three main messages.  1)  For the most part, scientists who are also religious are not conflicted. Rather, these identities are mutually enriching, bringing humility and compassion to scientific work and discernment and curiosity to religious lives. 2) The ability to “reach across the aisle” in a personal sense might make religious scientists a great resource for doing the same in the context of science communication. In this age of extreme fake news and deliberate miscommunication, we need to use every approach available to us. 3) To do so, the scientific community must notice and welcome the presence of religious people in our ranks. Another key step will be for US scientists to acknowledge the full range of religious perspectives–many of which do not conflict with science. 

7 thoughts on “Reaching across the aisle: the inner and outer lives of religious scientists

  1. The author writes from a position of privilege… it feels much different to be chased out of a position by a creationist department head and administration, to see atheist and free-thinker students denied space to meet or contact others, and to see a course you created handed over to another, religious professor willing to insert comments about how optimal structures are and how they were created.

    • What happened to you is shitty. I should have given more space to the really serious harm that religion has done and is doing to academia.

  2. Excellent post that makes many important points. It seems to me that distinguishing between “is” and “ought” kinds of questions is critical here. Science addresses “is” questions, whereas values address “ought” questions. These two kinds of questions are distinct and wholly compatible. Indeed, values inform what kinds of questions get asked by scientists, the methods they use to seek answers, and what society does with the resulting discoveries. This post focuses on religion’s importance in answering “ought” questions for many scientists, and when limited in this way, I agree there is no conflict between science and religion. However, religion, as generally practiced, does not limit itself to “ought” questions. Religion also offers answers to “is” questions. In providing answers to “is” questions, science relies on evidence whereas religion relies on faith and tradition. When evidence contradicts faith and tradition, conflict seems inevitable (as some of your respondents seem to have noted). I am convinced that when scientists rely on their religious values to address “ought” questions, this will be fully compatible with their science and even enrich it. I am interested in hearing from religious scientists how it is they are able to reconcile the conflict that arises when science and religion offer different answers to “is” questions.

    • While I agree that this conflict exists in some Christian denominations (which I also have a hard time grasping), I don’t think there is a conflict between the answers to the “is” questions in a lot of religions or Christian denominations. As a Christian scientist, my religious education has not conflicted with my scientific one I’m the realm of how things happen.

      • Science doesn’t only concern itself with “how” questions, it also concerns itself with “why” questions, both of which are “is” questions. See Ernst Mayr’s proximate/ultimate distinction and Tinbergen’s 4 questions in animal behavior.

  3. Well said. I can relate to this. My views are not mainstream regarding science and faith. If you visit my site you will see that I remain anonymous.

    I do like your approach here of asking questions to get real experiences of scientists with a faith.

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