Elaine Ecklund: Do Science and Faith Need Each Other?

Do science and faith need each other? Join the conversation today with Elaine Ecklund, a sociologist of science, about her new book.

I would suspect that Ecklund’s latest book will receive a similar pattern of reception to her previous work: a warm and fuzzy reception from the religious, and a chilly skepticism from more secular circles.

I would note on her new book’s amazon page, the “Praise for Why Science and Faith Need Each Other” comes from the President of Biologos, a pastor, and a lecturer in comparative religion.

Further editorial reviews (beyond from those listed above) include another pastor, a geneticist who just happens to be involved with both Biologos and Veritas Forum, and a fellow sociologist of religion.

Finally, it is published by an imprint of Christian publisher Baker Publishing.

From the more secular side, Jason Rosenhouse excoriated one of her earlier books for claiming that “nearly 50 percent of elite scientists … are religious in a traditional sense”, when 64% were atheist or agnostic, and a further 8% “believe in a higher power, but it is not God”. ( https://web.archive.org/web/20120119202709/https://scienceblogs.com/evolutionblog/2010/05/scientists_and_religion.php )

Literary critic Russell Blackford described a recent book she was the lead-coauthor of as exhibiting “an obvious pro-religious bias – and a certain amount of wishful thinking” and that it “has to be read with a critical mind, and its conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt” (but that if you can wade through the bias, “does provide important information for scholars to pore over and consider”). The full article is behind a paywall here ( Wishful Thinking | Free Inquiry ), so I had to rely on excepts from Jerry’s Coyne’s (hardly an Ecklund fan himself) blog.

PZ Myers (whose judgement I admittedly have doubts about) also doesn’t have much good to say about her, e.g. “Elaine Howard Ecklund is the sociologist who studies atheists and always twists the interpretation of her results to laud religion.” ( Grrrr…ECKLUND! )

Will Why Science and Faith Need Each Other provide hard data supporting this purported “need”? Based upon the above, I doubt it. However, I’m prepared to change my mind.
Skepticism,empiricism and provisionality are, after all, three things that science values – even if it is sometimes unclear that religion does.

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I took a very quick skim of the insides – the answer to “Why [do] Science and Faith Need Each Other?” appears to be because Ecklund needs religious people to believe that science needs them in order to convince them to accept science.

I probably should have taken a closer look at the Amazon blurb:

The book includes discussion questions for group use and to help pastors, small group leaders, and congregants broach controversial topics and bridge the science-faith divide.
e.g.:
Further Discussion

Talk together about practices your church has for engaging topics related to faith and science. What does your pastor or another church leader say during sermons about faith and science?

What topics related to science and faith are discussed in Sunday school classes or other educational venues?

If science is not discussed at all in your church, why not?

Discuss science and faith in relationship to fear. What kinds of fears does science raise, if it raises any?

To say that this leaves me still skeptical would be an understatement.

Beyond ‘bad’ New Atheists scaring Christians away from science, and a brief section on “Awe in Nonreligious Scientists”, I saw little that suggested that she had paid much attention to secular science that is the obvious counterfactual to science and faith ‘needing’ each other.

This book therefore comes across as a misleadingly-titled cheerleading on the idea of science and faith sitting down together and singing Kumbaya, aimed purely at religious readers.

Addendum:

I took a closer look at Ecklund’s New Atheist jab:

In the churches I visited during my studies, I heard many Christians express fear of scientists. They believe all scientists are atheists and hostile to religion. They hear a lot from the New Atheists, a small but outspoken group led by scientists who are anti-religion and argue that science and religion are inherently in conflict. For a number of Christians, the New Atheists actually stifle curiosity about science and its relationship to faith and create rigid boundaries between the scientific and faith communities.

I have to ask, are Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and Dennett must-read authors among Christians?

If not, I would suggest that they are hearing about New Atheists, not “from” them.

It seems more likely that they are hearing about New Atheism from pastors, Christian apologists and/or the Christian grapevine, quite possibly highly coloured or distorted accounts. If this is the case, then it is unreasonable to blame New Atheists for this fear.

Needless to say, this passage did not give a citation.

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Perhaps. I honestly don’t know. But I can say that in my case, even though I don’t read everything that Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Dennett have published, I have listened to hours of their videos and podcasts—and I don’t think I’m alone among evangelicals in that regard. Even though we are unlikely to spend our money buying their books, many of us are not hesitant to hear what they have to say.

I occasionally hear comments about the New Atheism and the aforementioned celebrities from pastors , apologists, and even “the Christian gravevine” but I would agree with you that their characterizations are often distorted and predictably stereotypical. Even so, based on the aforementioned and podcasts, I wouldn’t say that the New Atheists are entirely blameless for the impressions they’ve created. (Indeed, I’m a bit of a Dawkins fan, actually, because I find him unintentionally hilarious—and several of my scientist friends who happen to be atheists find him absolutely insufferable and not at all helpful to the public dialogue on science.)

Of course, Christopher Hitchens was immensely entertaining (and I generally agree with his thorough assessment of Mother Teresa’s enterprises, for example.) But in terms of training and expertise, Dennett interests me most as a serious voice. And to his credit, he has often rebuked those in New Atheist circles who ignorantly (cluelessly) rant against his academic field of philosophy.

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For what it’s worth, I do think the title is a misnomer. That makes this somewhat of a question that misses the point:

“Need” is not the right word, in my opinion, to describe what she is doing here.

I’m not sure how I would have titled the book, to be honest, but my first email to her after reading it was that the title did not match the content. I think she is doing something different here.

@TIm you are not religious. But you Myers, Coyne, etc. all have to agree that religious communities have been here for a long time, and they will be here for a long time to come. Maybe you don’t like that reality of the world, and you might hope for a different reality. During our lifetimes there will always be a large number of Christians in the same society that we all share.

Given that baseline fact, whether we like it not, is there a way to have a more productive relationship between Christians and science? Is there a way for us to serve the common good together? A way to seek more racial diversity and fairness in science? Better cooperation around climate change? Peace in the creation wars?

We should hope so, and Ecklund gives a new perspective with new information on these questions.

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@Tim, I’ll also add that I am curious to see how she responds to this sort of critique. I’d request you suspend judgement, and consider if you missed something. She isn’t some random person, but a leading scholar in this area. Even if she is wrong, she does deserve respect, a hearing, and careful response.

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I would like to see a more productive relationship. But, somehow, I don’t expect Elaine Ecklund to be helpful in achieving that goal.

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Are you more hopeful for PS? If not, why not? If so, why so? What makes you skeptical of Ecklund?

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So what you’re saying is that science and faith don’t need each other. People need each other. Some of them are scientists and some of them are people of faith, some of them are both, and some of them are neither, but we all should come together for various worthy goals. If that’s the message, the title is really bad.

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That isn’t quite what she is saying but it is a lot closer. I don’t think the word “need” is serving her here.

Maybe something like this would be better: “Eight Virtues of Faith and Science: Finding Common Ground for Scientists and the Faithful”

Yes, I do see what PS does as useful, and as helping to bridge the gulf.

As for Ecklund – I have often heard interviews with her on radio. I do not find them at all useful.

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Can you clarify the difference? What makes one seem useful and not the other? Im genuinely curious to understand your perspective. I suspect we are accomplishing different things, but what? In different ways, but how?

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I’m perfectly happy with religious pluralism, in fact I rather like it.

I only started calling myself an Atheist at all, because it was easier to simply acquiesce to various conservative Christians hitting me with the label than to assert that I was a Taoist, when in fact I’d long seen Taoism more as a metaphor and a source of wisdom than a supernatural worldview.

I “don’t like that reality” when the reality starts to involve death-threats to atheists (not uncommon from conservative Christians when the atheists bring a court case pointing out that what they’re doing is unconstitutional) and religious minorities.

Given that baseline fact, whether we like it not, is there a way to have a more productive relationship between Christians and science? Is there a way for us to serve the common good together? A way to seek more racial diversity and fairness in science? Better cooperation around climate change? Peace in the creation wars?

I don’t see how Elaine Ecklund eagerly throwing atheists and secular scientists under the bus (which appears to be her general shtick) is “productive”.

We should hope so, and Ecklund gives a new perspective with new information on these questions.

What new information? The book doesn’t appear to contain anything new, but appears to simply cherry-pick anecdotes from her earlier work on Christian (not even other religions, as far as I can see) scientists, in order to make Christian church-goers feel warm and fuzzy.

A more accurate title might be Does Christianity Need to be Worried about Science?

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I don’t like that reality either. But seriously, that has nothing to do with Ecklund.

I don’t see that at all. Rather, she does dispute the strident atheist scientists, but so do many secular scientists. That approach is not effective outreach. Making that point is not throwing atheists under the bus, but advocating for secular science.

Not accurate at all. Before commenting more, you might need to read the book. If not, please refrain from confident commentary about it.

Quite a bit. It’s not an academic book though, and you are not the intended audience. The information will be new and helpful to the intended audience.

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Who is the intended audience, and what is its message to them?

This book is solidly oriented to non-scholars in churches. That is who she is talking too, and she does a great job at that task. She is trying to map out a more productive way for them to engage with mainstream science.

It would be a large mistake to understand Ecklund reductive to this book. She has done a lot of scholarly work, and academic contributions. She also has worked on other countries and religions.

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This is important context. This book is really making a case to disengaged non-scientists in churches that mainstream science and scientists have something to offer them, and they should engage.

It is massive misreading to think she is arguing to convince secular scientists to listen to religious dogma. Rather she is doing that fundamental task of science outreach, centering on real common ground.

This book isn’t meant to convince Coyne to pick up a Bible. It is meant to encourage the ambivalent pastor to engage with scientists in his congregation.

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(1) You were the one who insisted in bringing up the issue of what I “don’t like” about religion.
(2) I’m not sure it isn’t at least peripherally relevant to Ecklund. Such behaviour might give atheist scientists a perfectly rational fear of conservative Christians.

I don’t see that at all. Rather, she does dispute the strident atheist atheists, but so do many secular scientists. That approach is not effective outreach. Making that point is not throwing atheists under the bus, but advocating for secular science.
Deceptively minimising the impact of non-religious scientists, which she did in the Rosenhouse quote, certainly counts.

And if she wants to seem even close to even-handed, she’d need to “dispute” the frequently far-more-strident conservative Christians, who are forever telling us that secular society is the cause of all our ills, tornadoes, hurricanes, disease, and what have you, and that we need the biblical death penalty for homosexuality.

And I would suspect that the “strident atheist atheists” are more concerned about “outreach” to unbelievers who feel oppressed by Christian Privilege, who they are giving courage to stand up for their constiutional rights, than to any Christians who might be clutching their pearls at what they’re saying. Differences in perspective. Their target audeience, and their important battle, may not be yours.

Not accurate at all. Before commenting more, you might need to read the book. If not, please refrain from confident commentary about it.

As I said, I’ve only skimmed it. I have read enough of it (and particularly its citations) to see that it is about almost entirely just Christianity (with as far as I can see, one brief mention each of Muslims, and of a Hindu scientist, and a comparison between Christian and Jewish concepts of stewardship) , not “faith” more generally (read the religious affiliations of the interviewees in the citations, if you don’t believe me), and that it contains little of secular science’s view of Christianity.

Given this rather truncated viewpoint of hers, I don’t see much “need” to read it further. I would note that Neil seems to share my less than enthusiastic opinion of her output.

Addendum: actually, I’m not even sure if it’s Christianity, more generally, as Catholicism only gets mentioned in passing in collections of statistics, and Methodism doesn’t get mentioned at all. Evangelicalism is mentioned a lot. And given that Evangelical/Born Again makes up less than 1% of my nation’s population, I really don’t need to worry about how they see science.

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Sure… Scientists need money and political patronage… Since the majority of the people in the world believe in some kind of religion or the other, they need people of faith.

As for people of faith, they find that scientists and people who hold “science” in high esteem are a part of their congregation and thus their objections need to be addressed (I have put science in quotation marks because most people confuse the opinions of scientists and things published in media with actual science).

I am giving the more pertinent questions below :

Does the scientific method require religious belief?

I would answer no.

Does one need to have scientific knowledge to believe in God?

Again, the answer would be “No”.

The real issue is that some scientists think that Scientific knowledge opposes belief in particular Gods, miracles and such.