Secularity and Science: What Scientists Around the World Really Think of Religion

" It is common to see science and religion portrayed as mutually exclusive and warring ways of viewing the world, but is that how actual scientists see it? For that matter, which cultural factors shape the attitudes of scientists toward religion? Could scientists help show us a way to build collaboration between scientific and religious communities, if such collaborations are even possible?

The book we’re looking at today, Secularity and Science: What Scientists Around the World Really Think About Religion (Oxford University Press, 2019), aims to answer these questions and more. Scholars Elaine Howard Ecklund, David Johnson, Brandon Vaidyanathan, Kirstin Matthews, Steven Lewis, Robert Thomson Jr, and Di Di collaborated to complete the most comprehensive international study of scientists’ attitudes toward religion ever undertaken, surveying more than 20,000 scientists and conducting in-depth interviews with over 600 of them. From this wealth of data, the authors extract the real story of the relationship between science and religion in the lives of scientists around the world.

The book makes four key claims: there are more religious scientists then we might think; religion and science overlap in scientific work; scientists––even atheist scientists––see spirituality in science; and finally, the idea that religion and science must conflict is primarily an invention of the West. Throughout, the book couples nationally representative survey data with captivating stories of individual scientists, whose experiences highlight these important themes in the data. Secularity and Science leaves inaccurate assumptions about science and religion behind, offering a new, more nuanced understanding of how science and religion interact and how they can be integrated for the common good."


What does that mean?

That already makes this suspect.

Personally, I never saw religion and science as necessarily being in conflict. But YEC Christianity is nutty and very much in conflict with science. The nutty versions of Christianity seem too prevalent in America.

I hope that the book also makes clear that the conflict thesis is a relatively recent invention, popularized by Draper and White in the late 1800’s. Historian roundly reject the religion versus science stereotypes and myths of western history which most people take for granted as fact. (If any readers are surprised at this, a Google search on the conflict thesis will fill in a lot of the details.)

I hear ya.

I find it interesting how a subset of a group–even a minority of that group—can create very strong impressions which can long taint the entire group. When lots of people are asked their opinions of Christians, they immediately think of the most extreme fundamentalists or perhaps their most shocking observations of “seed faith” TV evangelist hucksters, even though most American Christians are otherwise classified, such as Roman Catholics, mainstream evangelicals, Christian progressives, and countless other groups. Similarly, when I ask many Christians what they think of atheists, they almost reflexively describe the most rabid atheist anti-theists (with Richard Dawkins almost always mentioned as an example.) They react with shocked skepticism when I tell them (1) most atheists simply express a non-belief in deities, (2) atheist scientists aren’t all committed to Scientism, and (3) I personally know very very few atheists who are anti-theist and/or rabid!

Tribalism, and the identification of allies versus enemies, is so fundamental to human evolution and survival. Couple that with the complexities of taxonomies and labels, as well as our difficulties in quantify and estimate amid conflicting reports and hype from ratings-oriented media, I suppose we should not expect anything but the status quo. We usually don’t excel when casually assessing those unlike us and stereotyping comes easily for us.

I think we all tend to fall into these patterns of thinking. Perhaps more often than we think.


You are completely missing the point. Nobody is saying that religion and science are incompatible, of course they are – both are activities. Theism and metaphysical naturalism certainly are incompatible. This is where the confusion comes in. Religion and metaphysical naturalism are not in tension if one, for example, sees religion and its claims as metaphors; as most academic theologians and a majority of those in the science and religion field do. In effect by advocating for various versions of religious non-realism compatibility and a degree of intellectual honesty can be achieved. A few examples from some quite well-known religious scientists:

Theodosius Dobzhansky saw no conflict with his religion and evolutionary biology because, as Francisco Ayala pointed out in his obituary “Theodosius was a religious man but he held no traditional beliefs; no personal God; no after life; no bodily resurrection and no miracles….”.

Revd. Professor Michael Reiss explaining his religion in “The Times” newspaper

“But Reiss finds that religion helps him to make sense of the world, to place it in an overall framework. Where is the evidence for a God? “The evidence is not the sort of evidence that stands up for a scientist,” he states. “It’s not scientific evidence. It’s more what one might call inference.” I tell him that it sounds like instinct, or intuition. Non-believers like me have that too; and in any case, hasn’t science revealed that instinct is simply the brain working very, very quickly? His view is that a scientific worldview does not automatically invalidate a religious one.

“I’m extremely comfortable with the idea of scientific explanations for instincts and intuition, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that those instincts and intuitions are mistaken. Our physiological perception of a sunset, using rods and cones, doesn’t take away from the beauty of a sunset. You can have beauty and science, in the same way you can have religion and science, or moral philosophy and science. There’s no clash between them, in my view.”

His conviction that science and religion can co-exist is symbolized neatly on the front cover of a book, Teaching about Scientific Origins: Taking Account of Creationism , that he co-wrote with the American educator Leslie Jones: it features a Christian cross encircled by the DNA double helix, with a primate sitting to one side.

“But nor do I think I see sunsets any more beautifully than Harry Kroto does, just because I have religious faith,” Reiss adds quickly. “One might see things differently, but religious belief doesn’t make you a morally better person, a nicer person, a wiser person or anything like that.” While he finds militant atheists wearing, it is still the religious fundamentalists, with their agenda of hate and terror, who cause him most despair.

For some people, belief in a God — for which, by his own admission, there is no scientific evidence — is akin to believing in fairies or astrology. Does he find that offensive? “No, I am not offended,” he smiles. “Astrology claims to be a science, in which the positions of planets influence things. Those claims can be tested objectively and refuted. Good religion doesn’t make those sorts of scientific claims so it’s in a different category.

“The thing about belief in fairies and Father Christmas is that we grow out of them. It’s clear that religion is pretty different, in that there are not millions of highly intelligent, well-functioning people who believe in fairies and spend many hours each week devoted to persuading other people to believe in fairies. One might just be able to erect an argument that they are on a spectrum of belief, and that there’s some thread that connects them, but, at the very least, they are orders of magnitude apart.”

And he lines up another analogy: the importance of religion to believers is a bit like the importance of music to others. While music structures the lives of some, for others it is incidental. His work as an education researcher — he has never taught RE — is all about getting the music-lover (the believer) and the musically deaf (the non-believer) to understand a little of where the other is coming from”

Religion is non-propositional and non-cognitive – it cannot clash with metaphysical naturalism. Remember this a world-class academic placing religion in the “not even wrong box”. He is also president of the International Society for Science and Religion.

Dennis Alexander director former director of the Faraday Centre in Cambridge points out “There is no incompatibility between science and religion as we at Faraday we ignore the truth claims of religion”.

Prof Nicholas Lash “I believe in God but I don’t think that he exists”.

Revd Giles Frazier when asked if he believed that God exists replied “I believe in doing God”.

I could add scores of more example but I think that the above statements are pretty standard. You can be a follower of Islam Judaism, Christianity and still be a metaphysical naturalist – this is exactly the position that most intelligent/sophisticated religionists take.

Even worse is that a vast majority of scientists at the elite level are solid in their belief and acceptance of metaphysical naturalism; well over 90% in both the NAS and The Royal Society.

Books like the one discussed seems to ignore these facts, just because a minority of, usually minor, scientists hold some type of realist religious belief – it does not make them rational scientist/believers. A textbook example is Raymond Damadian who has made, probably, the greatest individual contributions to MRI is a YEC. This belief probably cost him a Nobel Prize but he can’t be a rational scientist-believer, As Harry Kroto member of The Royal Society, Nobel Prize winner and Knight Bachelor points out, you cannot hold science and religious belief rationally, or with integrity. The only way you can hold religion and science together is too hold the religious part in a non-realist manner. Of course I am not saying that religious believers hold such extreme views as Damadain but all religious beliefs are either wrong or as Reiss says above, religious beliefs are “in a different category” so not even wrong.

I don’t hold to the methodological/metaphysical naturalism distinction as it only becomes an issue in the science/religion talk and politics. Methodological naturalism does not entail metaphysical naturalism, but as a methodology combined with an argument from authority (weakish I know) and all the evidence we have – metaphysical naturalism is the only intellectually acceptable description of the world. God might be a reality but no one has epistemological grounds for believing in one. This is all that Peaceful Science can mean - religious community and the hard facts of science with no miracles, spirits, resurrections and almost certainly no God.

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Welcome to Peaceful Science, @MRIMAN. We hope you will find our discussions interesting.

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Did you perhaps mean epistemological?

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That is still incorrect.


Read it as a Royal ‘One’ or “God as a class”

It’s a quote from the blurb for the book on the podcast site. So you’d have to ask the authors of that blurb.

Based on the podcast, I understand the book summarizes a large scale survey and individual interviews of physicists and biologists working in universities in these countries: US, UK, France, Italy, Turkey, Taiwan, India (I am going my memory on that list).

It is not a book where the authors state their own theses and then try to justify them. It is instead a summary of the views of working academic scientists.

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