Religion + Life with Elaine H. Ecklund, Part 5: International Attitudes

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In her book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, Laity Leadership Institute Senior Fellow Elaine Howard Ecklund focused exclusively on the views of American scientists at elite universities. Now, with a grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation, Ecklund will spend the next three years exploring how scientists view religion and how religion influences scientists in different national and cultural contexts. She says her Religion Among Scientists in International Context study is the first of its kind, and she’ll work on it in conjunction with two colleagues, Kirstin Matthews and Steven Lewis.

"With seemingly constant developments in the areas of science and religion, these two subjects have taken an important role on the global stage," Ecklund said. "Our team can think of no better way to discover how the international science community negotiates religion than to go straight to the source and study scientists themselves."

The notion that science is incompatible with religion and culpable for secularization is a common one, Ecklund explained. It causes tension “on a global scale as scholars argue that religion hinders the progress and acceptance of science in the United States, Europe, and parts of Asia.”

“By investigating the points where scientists object to religion and where they do not, we can begin to understand where places for potential dialogue might lie,” she said. “Thus, even if scientists do not perceive any place for religion or spirituality in their own personal lives or work, it is still important to understand how they approach religion or spirituality as it operates in the broader public, among their colleagues, and among their students and funders.”

She and her team will administer a cross-national survey of 10,000 biologists and physicists at different points in their careers at top universities and research institutes in the United States, United Kingdom, Turkey, Italy, France, and China. They will also conduct follow-up interviews with 600 of these scientists. Ecklund is currently in Europe working on the project and has completed interviews in the United Kingdom and France. She will be traveling to Turkey and Italy later this summer and then back to the UK to conduct more interviews.

“These nations have very different approaches to the relationship between religious and state institutions, different levels of religiosity, and different levels of scientific infrastructure,” said Ecklund. “Through the survey and follow-up interviews, we will determine how scientists in different national contexts understand the relationship of science and religion (and, where relevant, spirituality), and how religion (and spirituality) influence their research agendas, daily interactions with students, and ethical decisions and discussions.”

Her goal is to produce data that has the power to “reshape the secularization debate, create new measures of religion and spirituality, and initiate a new research agenda within the social sciences.” She also hopes to “increase productive dialogue between scientists and religious communities in different national contexts.”

In my work as a journalist, one of my goals is to contribute useful information to public conversations about important issues. I enjoy investigating topics that I don’t know much about and sharing what I discover with readers. So I'm grateful for scholars like Ecklund who provide the resources I need to do more than speculate on issues in my work. And, I’m curious: What do you think productive dialogue between scientists and religious communities would look like?


Religion + Life with Elaine H. Ecklund, Part 1

Religion + Life with Elaine H. Ecklund, Part 2: Boundary Pioneers

Religion + Life with Elaine H. Ecklund, Part 3: Myth Busting

Religion + Life with Elaine H. Ecklund, Part 4: Worshiping Science

Religion + Life with Elaine H. Ecklund, Part 5: International Attitudes

Religion + Life with Elaine H. Ecklund, Part 6: Putting It All Together

Image by David Rouhani. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Christine A. Scheller.

Elaine Howard Ecklund is associate professor of sociology and director of graduate studies at Rice University in Houston, Texas. She studies cultural change in the areas of religion, immigration, and science. She is also a scholar at the Baker Institute for Public Policy and director of the Religion and Public Life Program at the Social Sciences Research Institute. Ecklund is author of two books:Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think and Korean American Evangelicals: New Models for Civic Life.