For centuries, science routinely used empirical evidence to chip away at deeply held spiritual certainties. But just when science looked like it was winning, religion hit back with intelligent design.
It was a shrewdly thrown punch — one that presented a lucid argument that certain developments in the universe (including us) happened not by fluke, but by intent.
Was it a scientifically valid proposal? Well, here’s the interesting part — it doesn’t matter. What set science reeling was how strongly the theory of intelligent design resonated with the millions of people outside of the small, cloistered world of academic science research.
The theory had been rattling around in one form or another, by one name or another, for millennia, but half a decade ago it came not from zealots or ancient mystics. It came from highly respected thinkers who managed to re-light a dialogue that had become more of a lecture very few understood.
About the time the intelligent design argument went mainstream, #b#Elaine Howard Ecklund#/b#, a sociology professor at Rice University in Texas, was ensconced in a research project that asked scientists where they stood on the ancient battleground between science and religion. She found that scientists were far more spiritual (if not actually religious) than she had ever expected.
Ecklund will discuss her findings and her book on the subject, “Science vs Religion: What Scientists Really Think,” on Thursday, November 18, at 4:30 p.m. at Lewis Library, Princeton University. To register for this free event, visit www.princeton.edu/csr.
Ecklund was born and raised in upstate New York in the shadow of her alma mater, Cornell. She earned her bachelor’s in human development and her master’s and Ph.D. in sociology from there before heading to Rice, where she now serves as director of the school’s Religion and Public Life Program.
Ecklund was brought up in a religious house and had held what she referred to as certain narrow expectations about the sciences. Going to college opened her eyes a little, she says, but it was not until she looked into the spiritual underpinnings of scientists nationwide that she really gained an appreciation for how deeply scientists felt about all matters metaphysical.
#b#Spirituality without religion#/b#. The old-school image of the scientist as godless megalomaniac still holds true for some, particularly those far removed from the research-heavy private universities that dot the northeast. Ecklund believed in this too, to a degree. But what she found is that roughly two-thirds of the scientists she contacted defined themselves as spiritual.
Even the atheists. In fact, a full 20 percent of atheistic scientists see themselves as spiritual, Ecklund says. “That really surprised me,” she admits. “But so many are looking for a cogent morality that fits in with science.”
Very few scientists, though, identified themselves as religious, even those who strongly believe in God. Scientists, she found, tend to have a more universal (and universalist) perspective on the subject, but not any strong devotion to a particular set of rules or dogma.
She also found that scientists are unlike most Americans in their spiritual upbringing. Whereas the vast majority of Americans are raised in a house in which religion or faith is at least a semi-serious issue, scientists she surveyed overwhelmingly tended to come from families in which there either was no religion or religion of the twice-a-year variety.
#b#Two different languages#/b#. In part because of the differences in upbringing, scientists and lay people often do not understand each other. This has led to ongoing feelings of mistrust that Ecklund says bubbles to the surface whenever the subjects of science or religion emerge.
The typical reaction from both sides has been animosity. Science clones a sheep, religion hits back with scolding rhetoric. Religion fires off intelligent design, science hits back with scolding rhetoric.
Traditionally, religion has had to make the most concessions, even if it has not always made them quietly. The earth does revolve around the sun, dinosaurs did exist, and ecological systems do change over time. But science has had to carry the burden of proof, and it doesn’t help that science is heavy on theories and elusive on proofs. Adding to this friction is that fact that whenever science has been challenged, its first defense often is an intellectual one — meaning that science has tended to question the intelligence of those who doubt its theories.
But science now seems to be seeking middle ground, Ecklund says. Precedent was set a few years ago when medicine — what Ecklund calls a curious amalgam of the humanities and the sciences — acknowledged the power of prayer in the healing process. It did not matter whether the doctor believed, but whether the patient did, and doctors ceased dismissing the effectiveness of prayer.
Science, similarly, has finally noticed that people tend to be religious. Ecklund’s findings suggest that most in the science community believe that the merging of faith and hard evidence is worth broaching. Science, of course, is taking a practical approach — trying to figure out how to convince the public that research needs to be well-funded and how it needs to be presented in such a way that does not automatically fly in the face of religious beliefs.
#b#Morality#/b#. More than anything, Ecklund says, scientists’ biggest ally in the debate is their own sense of spirituality. If science is to be advanced, scientists need to acknowledge their beliefs — something they have been reticent to do because there is a perception within the scientific community that talking about religion and spirituality is a no-no, Ecklund says. At the same time, science can only advance if it stays on pace with a certain morality.
Perhaps the lesson science needs to learn is that it must start making concessions too. But religion must be willing to let science work. After all, Einstein himself said, “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.”