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Titolo: Science vs. religion : what scientists really think
Autore: Elaine Howard Ecklund.

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SCIENCE VS. RELIGION

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SCIENCE VS. RELIGION
What Scientists Really Think

ELAINE HOWARD ECKLUND

2010

Oxford University Press, Inc., publishes works that further
Oxford University’s objective of excellence
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Copyright © 2010 by Oxford University Press, Inc.
Published by Oxford University Press, Inc.
198 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016
www.oup.com
Oxford is a registered trademark of Oxford University Press
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means,
electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise,
without the prior permission of Oxford University Press.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Ecklund, Elaine Howard.
Science vs. religion : what scientists really think / Elaine Howard Ecklund.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-19-539298-2
1. Religion and science. I. Title. II. Title: Science versus religion.
BL240.3.E25 2010
215—dc22
2009034731

135798642
Printed in the United States of America
on acid-free paper

to Karl

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CONTENTS

Preface

ix

PART I

Crossing the Picket Lines: The Personal
Faith of Scientists

CHAPTER 1

The Real Religious Lives of Scientists

CHAPTER 2

The Voice of Science

CHAPTER 3

The Voice of Faith

CHAPTER 4

Spiritual Entrepreneurs

PART II

Society and Broader Publics

CHAPTER 5

Suppression or Engagement: How Scientists Handle
Religion in the Classroom 71

CHAPTER 6

No God on the Quad: Efforts Toward a Purely Secular
University 87

CHAPTER 7

God on the Quad: Making Room for Faith on Campus

CHAPTER 8

What Scientists Are Doing Wrong That They Could Be
Doing Right 127

CHAPTER 9

Shattering Myths, Toward Dialogue

3

13
29

Appendix A: The Study

51

149

157

Appendix B: Web and Phone Survey

167

107

viii

CONTENTS

Appendix C: Long Interview Guide
Notes

185

Bibliography
Index

223

211

181

PREFACE

As a college sophomore at Cornell University, I witnessed a debate between
William Provine, a Cornell professor of evolutionary biology, and Philip Johnson, a U.C. Berkeley professor of law. They were there to debate the merits of
the theory of evolution and the theory of intelligent design, and the two men
clearly disagreed vehemently with one another. In attendance were committed
evangelical Christian students (who agreed strongly with Johnson) and committed atheist students (who agreed strongly with Provine). And there were
many students, like myself, who were not really sure what they thought about
these issues and had simply come to listen. A wide-eyed collegian, not raised in
an intellectual environment and having never heard such ideas expressed so
persuasively before, I was struck by how civil the men were to each other and
to the students gathered. They stayed there for three hours, debating and
answering questions. Even after the formal lecture ended, each man continued
in informal discussions with interested students. I came away thinking that
discussion about controversial topics surrounding science can happen. I felt
enlivened and eventually embraced a career in social science myself.
Fast forward to nearly 15 years later. I was sitting on the opposite side of the
room now, as a faculty member, watching a prescreening of Flock of Dodos, a
film that investigates the differences between scientists and religious people
who are on opposite sides of the debates about teaching intelligent design in
secondary school classrooms. The premise of the film is that while most scientists find the intelligent design movement unequivocally wrong, it appears that
those who support intelligent design have a greater spirit of dialogue than the
scientists who act instead like a “flock of dodos.” (The dodo was a bird native
to the island of Mauritius that evolutionary theorists think became extinct
because it was not able to fly and hence could not escape from European explorers and the animals they brought with them.) Filmmaker Randy Olson, a
trained biologist, implicitly argues throughout the film that scientists too will

ix

x

PREFACE

die out if they do not learn how to change with the times, to act more respectfully to those who disagree with them, and how to present science in a more
favorable, understandable light. As the film ended, discussion began. And I
watched incredulously as some of the scientists in the room confirmed Olson’s
accusations. They erupted with totalizing criticisms of religion and religious
people, calling them “stupid fundamentalists,” oblivious that there were religious academics seated in the room. Sadly, when dialogue breaks down, those
scientists with the loudest voices seem to drown out those with a different,
sometimes more open perspective.
That’s why I have written this book. At its core, it’s about the scientists
whose voices have been thus far overlooked in the science-and-religion debates
and who might have powerful contributions to add to the cause of translating
science to a broader public audience, especially a religious audience.
This book was helped through its gestation by a community of scholars,
friends, and family, who tirelessly read and helped edit the manuscript. The
conversations and practical help received from this community only made the
work stronger. Any remaining weaknesses are mine alone.
Those scientists who made this research possible by welcoming me into
their labs and offices and sharing openly with me about their views deserve my
sincere thanks. I have endeavored to represent their views as accurately as possible. I am thankful also to Oxford University Press for supporting this work,
particularly to my editor, Cynthia Read, marketing manager Brian Hughes,
and copyeditor Mark LaFlaur.
This research was supported by several grants. Support for data collection
came primarily from the John Templeton Foundation. In addition, I received
funding from the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, Rice
University’s sociology department, and the Center on Race, Religion, and
Urban Life (CORRUL) at Rice University. The primary data collection was
completed during a postdoctoral fellowship at Rice. I am appreciative for the
questions (both formal and informal) I received about the research after lectures at Princeton University, New York University, University of Virginia,
Baylor University, Northwestern University, University at Buffalo, SUNY, the
Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge University, and Rice
University. Several individuals provided useful feedback on portions of the
manuscript through lengthy discussions at various phases of the research. Special thanks go to Nancy Tatom Ammerman, Robert Bell, Philip Clayton, Penny
Edgell, Michael Emerson, Robert C. Fay, George Gallup Jr., Ian Hutchinson,
Stephen Klineberg, Elizabeth Long, William Martin, John Polkinghorne, David
Richardson, Robert M. Stein, Jennifer Wiseman, and Robert Wuthnow for
serving on a study advisory board. I had ongoing conversations with Wendy

PREFACE

Cadge, Roger Finke, Bridget Gorman, Conrad Hackett, Kristen Schultz Lee,
Anne Lincoln, Gerardo Marti, Jerry Park, and Martha Stipanuk about fundamental issues related to research design.
My thanks to Stephen Adams, Phillip Conner, Catalina Crespo, Timothy
Dy, Elizabeth Gage, Leigh Anne Jackson, Devra Jaffe-Berkowitz, Tariq Kahn,
Rita Kasa, Patrick Kelly, Angela Ling, Windsen Pan, Mor Regev, Christopher
Scheitle, Nicholas Short, Brad Smith, Phil Todd Veliz, and Chloe Walker for
help with data analysis. Thanks to Melanie Daglian for editing help and to
Meagan Alley for assistance with manuscript preparation.
Betsy Stokes came along just at the right time and provided help with editing the manuscript.
Several mentors, friends, family members, and colleagues read (sometimes
multiple) drafts of this work. These include Jenifer Bratter, Marian Ecklund,
Stanley Ecklund, Ian Hutchinson, Karl Johnson, D. Michael Lindsay, Kirstin
Matthews, Robert Matthews, Gwynn Thomas, Robert Wuthnow, and Pablo
Yepes. I benefited, in particular, from discussions on spirituality and science
with Elizabeth Long. I received feedback on the manuscript from John H.
Evans, Ronald L. Numbers, John Schmalzbauer, and John Wilson, who
were invited guests to a seminar on public sociology sponsored by the Center
on Race, Religion, and Urban Life and the sociology department at Rice
University.
The constant support of family was the reminder that life outside the academy only serves to strengthen scholarly endeavors. Thank you to my parents,
Betty Howard and the late Robert Howard, to Bonnie Howell, Fern Vaughn,
and Stan and Marian Ecklund. I have received no end of encouragement
towards academic excellence from each of you. I thank my siblings Carolyn
Howell August, Kathryn Howell, Ella May Vaughn, Anthony, Aaron, Elissa,
Amy, Andrew, and Adam Vaughn, Kier and Hung Ecklund, and Karen and
Kreig Ecklund.
My daughter, Anika Elizabeth Howard Ecklund, was born in the midst of
the publication process. Witnessing the next generation makes even small
efforts toward a spirit of intellectual and sincere dialogue between contested
ideas seem all the more pressing.
My deepest gratitude goes to my husband, Karl, a physicist. As one who
cares deeply about translating difficult ideas within and outside of the academy, your support of this work—both personal and intellectual—has surpassed
anything I could have hoped for.

xi

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PART I

Crossing the Picket Lines: The Personal
Faith of Scientists

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CHAPTER 1

The Real Religious Lives of Scientists

It is a centuries-old debate: Is there truly an inescapable conflict between
science and religion? Many today—mostly scientists and policy makers—argue
that there is, and the existence of this “irreconcilable” difference is coddled as
fact. But how then does one explain a scientist such as Margaret, a chemist who
teaches a Sunday school class? What about scientists like Evelyn, who embraces
a spirituality that she feels is more compatible with science than traditional
religion. Or the physicist Arik who, well before science took root in his mind,
decided at a young age that he did not believe in God?1 These are real people,
not stereotypes. We can’t simply assume that they live in conflict with their
religion or that they avoid religion because it conflicts with their science. We
need to ask them why they walk the paths they do.

A LO N G H I S TO RY O F T H E C O N F L I C T
PA R A D I G M
Galileo, a father of modern science, insisted that the earth revolved around the
sun—not the other way around, as then commonly believed. According to the
Church, this contradicted Holy Scripture. The scientific findings did not conflict with religion, Galileo argued; unfortunately, the people in charge didn’t
agree.2
The idea that religion and science are necessarily in conflict has been institutionalized by our nation’s elite universities. When Cornell was established in
1865, Andrew Dickson White—one of the university’s founders—announced
that it would be different from the other colleges of the time; it would be a safe
place for science, protected from the authorities and constraints of theology.3
The idea that science was oppressed by religion—and would over time even
replace religion—was nicely encapsulated in the title of White’s landmark
volume, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.4

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Crossing the Picket Lines: The Personal Faith of Scientists

In the early twentieth century, scholars who championed this conflict paradigm sought support for it in studies of how scientists themselves approached
matters of faith. In the early decades of the twentieth century psychologist
James Henry Leuba argued that religion was a creation of the human imagination rather than a rational response to a divinely ordered cosmos. Leuba
reasoned that scientists—as those who know the most about the natural
world—would be the first to apprehend this truth and consequently the least
likely to believe in God or attend church. Surveying the National Academy of
Sciences, the most elite scientific body in the United States, Leuba indeed found
that these scientists were generally much less religious than were other Americans. He reasoned that it was only a matter of time until science would overtake
religion. Leuba thought that for religion to remain “a vitalizing and controlling
power in society, [it would] have to organize [itself] about ultimate conceptions that are not in contradiction with the insight of the time.”5 Over the past
hundred years, scholars have continued to find that scientists are generally less
religious than other Americans, pointing to this as proof that religion and
science remain in conflict.6
The God gene. Embryonic stem cell research. Teaching evolution in public
schools. The religion-science conflict narrative is upon us again, returning with
a vengeance in the early twenty-first century. The debate, propelled by current
controversies, depicts higher education in particular as the enemy of religion
and the friend of science. And there is some evidence that the more educated
individuals become, the less likely they are to be religious. Highly religious
individuals, especially those Christians who believe that the Bible must be taken
literally, tend to have a more adversarial relationship with science, particularly
evolutionary theory. Increased knowledge of science does seem to suppress
some traditional religious forms, just as Galileo’s discovery forced a rereading
of the Old Testament’s claim that the earth “cannot be moved.”7 But many
Americans see scientists as not only lacking faith, but as actively opposed to
religion. This perception further sustains the conflict paradigm.8

M A K I N G N E W H I S TO RY
Aggressive attacks on religion such as Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion do
not accurately represent the complex ways in which scientists—even those who
are not religious—actually engage religion and spirituality. The general public
misunderstands what scientists really think about the relationship between science and religion; many accept the extreme hostility of a few as representative

The Real Religious Lives of Scientists

of all scientists’ views about faith. As for the scientists themselves, they are not
generally prone to religious discussion, and have very little idea about what
their colleagues really believe.
It is important that we uncover the complex truth about what scientists
practice and believe as well as how they encounter and engage (or disengage
from) religion in their lives, rather than cede the floor to the hotheads on both
sides of this contentious issue.
The religious views of scientists who work at the nation’s top universities are
especially important to understand, because these are the scientists who shape
the views of future leaders of our society. Half of the heads of corporations and
nearly as many governmental leaders graduated from one of 12 highly selective
universities, places like Princeton, Harvard, and the University of Chicago.
Future politicians, business leaders, and public opinion makers are currently
sitting in the science classrooms on America’s top campuses. These very leaders
will make decisions about future science policy—such as how much funding
science should receive and what types of research should be funded.9
Until now, no one has explored how religion and spirituality enter the lives
of scientists at the nation’s best universities. Neither a polemic nor a manifesto,
this book offers a balanced assessment of information gathered scientifically
from scientists themselves. These pages present the diverse views of elite scientists from seven natural and social science disciplines at the nation’s top research
universities. To tell their stories, I draw on data collected during four years of
intensive research I conducted between 2005 and 2008 as part of the Religion
among Academic Scientists (RAAS) study, including a survey of nearly 1,700
scientists, one-on-one conversations with 275 of them, and notes from lectures
and public events where top scientists talked about matters of faith. In their
interviews and survey responses, these scientists revealed what they think about
religion, spirituality, the role of religion in teaching, and the current debates
about religion and science. At the center of these data are the thought-provoking and at times touching stories from their lives.

T H E R E A L S TO RY A N D I T S M A I N C H A R AC T E R S
After four years of research, at least one thing became clear: Much of what we
believe about the faith lives of elite scientists is wrong. The “insurmountable
hostility” between science and religion is a caricature, a thought-cliché, perhaps useful as a satire on groupthink, but hardly representative of reality.
Scientists face a plethora of religious challenges, both public and personal, and

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Crossing the Picket Lines: The Personal Faith of Scientists

employ just as many diverse responses to these challenges. Some, pressed by
the needs of (and their concern for) their students, engage the topic of religion
in the classroom. This is what I call environmental push, when events outside
the university challenge scientists to reexamine the barriers between science
and religion. Some scientists were raised apart from a religious tradition, have
had bad experiences with religion, or simply know very little about different
religious traditions or the variety of ways that religion and science might relate.
They have not necessarily rejected religion because they are scientists. Others
who do practice a religious tradition anticipate—whether rightly or not—
hostility from their colleagues and so practice a closeted faith. Nearly all, from
the atheist to the devout, think about how to interact with the increasing number of religious students who are flowing into their classrooms. Some scientists
eventually become boundary pioneers; because of their institutional legitimacy
as elite scientists and their deep commitment to religious ideals they are able to
cross the picket lines of science and religion, introducing a measure of kinship
to the controversy. And others are what I call spiritual atheists, who practice a
new kind of individual spirituality—one that has no need for God or a
god—that flows from and leads into science.
This isn’t chiefly a book about social forces or conflict resolution. It’s about
voices. Throughout my research and during countless probing discussions,
certain voices have stuck out. Some individuals seem to perfectly capture what
entire groups are thinking, so I decided to structure the narrative around the
lives of a few scientists who embody many of the major findings and themes
revealed by the larger study. Other interviews and the survey results provide a
supporting cast for these protagonists.10
The stories of scientists like Arik, Margaret, and Evelyn emerged over and
over during the systematic analyses of the one-on-one conversations I had with
individual scientists. As we journey from the personal to the public religious
lives of scientists, we will meet the nearly 50 percent of elite scientists like Margaret who are religious in a traditional sense and the over 20 percent more like
Evelyn who, though eschewing religion, still see themselves as spiritual to some
extent, with spiritual sensibilities that often derive from and are borne out in
the work they do as scientists. For the proportion of scientists who are, like
Arik, indeed committed secularists, we will draw out the complexity in their
reasons for rejecting, leaving, or ignoring religion.11
Max Weber, a founder of sociology, described people he called “carriers,”
who were “types representative of the various classes who were the primary . . .
propagators” of major world religions. In particular, these carriers perpetuated
ideologies of “the kind of ethical or salvation doctrine, which most readily
conformed to their social position.”12 Scientists have been perceived as carriers

The Real Religious Lives of Scientists

of the secularist impulse, a group responsible for building the modern research
university and undermining religious authority by their success in deciphering
the mysteries of the natural order without recourse to supernatural aid or
guidance. But I argue here that elite scientists who are boundary pioneers and
spiritual atheists might actually be carriers of a new religious impulse, one
characterized by a deep commitment to the scientific enterprise and the
achievement of elite status among their scientific peers. This new religious
impulse doesn’t just cope with science. It crosses boundaries. Stories of reconciliation between religion and science that make logical sense to scientists,
structural supports for religion (like centers and programs), and new sciencefriendly models of religion all contribute to the strength of this new impulse.
Science and religion can transition from warring factions to twin states with
a contested border. And under certain conditions, there might even be “free
trade” between them.13 Other sociologists of religion, upon whose work I build,
have described both the secularization of the academy as well as how the institutional infrastructure of the academy has changed to allow more of a place for
religion.14 Now that religion is again a vital force in the academy—as a result,
some say, of a countermovement complete with resources, infrastructures,
and active student involvement—the most secular of scientists are finding it
hard to handle the resurgence in traditional forms of religion. Some, never
having encountered such discussions before, simply don’t understand the
vocabulary.
A traditional sociology-of-religion approach that focuses on religious organizations and institutions does not allow for the complex pursuit of spirituality
in everyday life, particularly the new kinds of science-linked spirituality I find
among scientists. These spiritual atheists are creating something new, outside
of religious organizations and conventional religious understandings.15

A M E S S AG E TO S C I E N T I S T S
Scientists routinely criticize the American public for their lack of appreciation
for science compared to the esteem with which science is held in other developed nations. (Schoolchildren in the United States have a poorer education in
science than do those in most other industrialized nations.)16 But to better
engage the broader public with science, scientists must be more introspective
about their own relationship to religion and how they talk to the broader public about the connections between religion and science. Regardless of what
the scientists personally believe about matters of faith, there is a surrounding

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social environment—including public debates about intelligent design,
embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, public funding for science, and
much more—that simply can’t be avoided.
Scientists tend to view the impact of religion on science education entirely
through a frame of conflict, often blaming Americans’ poor understanding of
science on religion, arguing in particular that fundamentalist forms of Christianity inhibit science learning. There is some evidence to support these accusations. About 40 percent of Americans believe that creationist accounts of earth
origins should be taught in public schools instead of evolution, which is a
fundamental concept of modern science. And 65 percent think that some form
of the Old Testament creation story should be taught side by side with evolution. In comparison, nearly all of the scientists I surveyed think that evolution
is the best explanation we have for the development of life on earth. As debates
about teaching intelligent design in public school classrooms intensify, outspoken scientists have lashed out, perhaps angered by what they see as an outright
attack on evolution.17
But “much more needs to be done by scientists . . . to overcome public indifference or outright hostility to science,” according to noted political scientist
Sanford Lakoff.18 It is clear that scientists at elite universities do shoulder the
responsibility of translating science to the broader American public. But this
public includes a great many religious people. Beyond their own personal attitudes toward religion, scientists in my research revealed that they know little
about how their own colleagues came to their views on religion, much less
about what drives a typical American worshipper. Secular scientists need better
information—including a more informed grounding in the basics of the
world’s major faith traditions—to think through how to engage the believing
public and religious scientists about matters of faith. Without this knowledge
to serve as a bridge, boundaries can’t be crossed, the benefits of common dialogue are wasted, and potential allies for science remain untapped within a
religious public.
Americans have placed science on a precarious throne. In one sense, they
know that they benefit immensely from it. They immunize their children, enjoy
the benefits of technology, and clamor for new discoveries and breakthroughs.
Yet at times they mistrust the very scientists from whom they expect miracle
cures, especially when it comes to issues such as embryonic stem cell research,
environmental degradation, and the origins and development of life. Debates
around these issues sometimes leave much of the American public with the
impression that scientists do not think enough about the potential ethical
implications of their work. And this impression can have very negative
consequences for science. Even with a more science-friendly administration in

The Real Religious Lives of Scientists

Washington, public funding for science might continue to be cut by unsympathetic members of Congress. Scientists must provide a better rationale for the
types of research that they do and how their research helps the general public.
American public schools have suffered from the religion-science conflicts.
Young Americans are not learning what they should about science because
their parents’ quarrels and impasses are holding them back from studying topics like evolution or from pursuing science careers (out of fear that such pursuits are incompatible with their religious beliefs). Scientists need to do a better
job of communicating the importance of science to religious people. And to the
extent that religion could be a resource to motivate people to study science (in
order, for instance, to better care for God’s creation), this resource should not
be left untapped. If the public thinks that to be a successful scientist, you have
to be either antireligious or clueless about religion, this can only be to the detriment of scientific progress and public funding.
Since the dawn of the scientific revolution there have been religious challenges to science, and there will be more in the future. Scientists have usually
taken a defensive posture in the face of these threats, but they need to go on the
offensive. They can begin by examining themselves. This book puts scientists in
a virtual conversation with one another—looking inside their own lives and
the lives of their peers to better understand their own collective forms of religion and spirituality and where these differ from and overlap with those of
other Americans. The time to accomplish this self-investigation is now, not
later, at a school board hearing on evolution in front of TV news cameras on
the lookout for a catchy sound bite. The scientists I talked with were sometimes
afraid of this study, suspicious that, as one psychologist put it, “the findings
could be interpreted or misinterpreted as just confirming the public stereotype
of academia as nonspiritual, nonreligious . . . the liberal enemies.” Fortunately,
what scientists really think about religion is far more complex and far more
interesting.

A M E S S AG E TO R E L I G I O U S N O N S C I E N T I S T S
Whether or not scientists are religious, or philosophers see an inherent conflict
between religion and science, or psychologists discover something in the chemistry of the brain that makes certain individuals predisposed to be religious,
faith is indisputably a central thread in the fabric of American life.
Americans also care about science. About 90 percent of Americans express
interest in new scientific discoveries and new inventions and technologies.19

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Crossing the Picket Lines: The Personal Faith of Scientists

Often, simply saying “scientific studies show” is enough to gain a public hearing for a new product or idea. But the general public is often either deluged
with misinformation or woefully underinformed. Most have little idea what
scientists actually do or the true value of their efforts. Scientists are routinely
criticized by other Americans for taking too much public money for research
that seems of little practical benefit to the public good. More than 50 percent of
Americans agree that “we depend too much on science and not enough on
faith” and that “scientific research these days doesn’t pay enough attention to
the moral values of society.” Nearly 25 percent of the American public think
that scientists are hostile to religion.20
The message of this book for Americans of faith is that even the most secular
of scientists often struggle with the implications of their work for religion,
especially in that many of them look to religious communities for the moral
education of their children or for guidance in ethical matters. Moreover, there
are scientists who share your faith and who work to maintain their traditions in
the midst of the demands of their scientific career.

W H Y S T U DY B OT H NAT U R A L A N D
SOCIAL SCIENTISTS?
When I speak of scientists, I mean both natural scientists (for this study, physicists, chemists, and biologists) and social scientists (here, sociologists,
economists, political scientists, and psychologists).21 Those who work in the
natural sciences are most likely to become involved with the public controversies over evolution/creation and embryonic stem cell research. Social scientists
are often characterized by the general public as “village atheists” and as the
most politically liberal of academics and for that reason potentially biased in
their research.
The relationship between natural and social scientists is sometimes uncomfortable, but they are usually of one mind in the defense of science. Although my
study was designed to illuminate the differences between natural and social scientists, it uncovered a lot of similarities. Both see themselves as engaged in a
search for the truth of scientific fact. And there was very little difference between
natural and social scientists in their religious propensities. In fact, it was surprising how closely (with some notable exceptions) the social scientists’ conceptions
of science and the generation of scientific “facts” meshed with the views of the
natural scientists.22 Where there are true differences I point them out. Social scientists were included in this study in part to facilitate interdisciplinary dialogue.

The Real Religious Lives of Scientists

They are now looking more closely than ever at the place of religion in society,
and they have useful commentary for natural scientists on issues of public
science, particularly those public science issues connected with religion.23

B O O K OV E RV I E W A N D D I S T I N C T I O N S
As only good social science can, this work will, I hope, add depth and personality to a debate that has remained largely academic and abstract. Other studies
have been predicated on narrow definitions of religion. A weakness of such
research is the assumption that scientists will define religion in the same ways
as do other groups of people. I both analyzed my respondents according to
conventional definitions of religion and allowed them to tell me the different
ways in which religion and science might operate in their lives outside of a
conventional understanding (allowing the generation of a category like “spiritual atheist”). Consequently, I do not use a singular definition of religion
throughout the book but allow the respondents to define religion in their own
terms.
The following chapters will proceed in two broad sections along the lines of
the personal and the public. The first section of the book, “Crossing the Picket
Lines: The Personal Faith of Scientists” (chapters 1–4), provides an intimate
look at how scientists respond to and incorporate religion and spirituality in
their lives. Chapter 2 examines the lives of scientists who do not have any religious beliefs, with particular focus on their reasons for not being religious.
Chapter 3 moves on to explain how scientists maintain faith in the midst of
demanding careers, while Chapter 4 tells the stories of scientists who are charting new forms of spirituality.
In the second section of the book, “Society and Broader Publics” (chapters
5–8), I explore how scientists handle their interactions with nonscientists
about matters of religion, both inside and outside the academy. We begin in
Chapter 5 with their first line of engagement with the American public—the
students in their classrooms. In chapters 6 and 7, I invite the reader onto the
campuses of some of today’s top universities, where scientists struggle with
how to talk about religion in the context of their lives as scientists. We also
investigate the subtle suppression of discussions about religion that occurs
within their departments. These chapters examine how scientists who are not
religious approach the current issues related to their particular disciplines—
whether it be the origins of the earth for natural scientists or questions of social
or economic policy for social scientists. This section ends with Chapter 8’s

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discussion of how scientists might better engage with the broader public outside the university. The chapter investigates whether scientists who are part of
a faith tradition have a special role in the religion-and-science debates—I argue
that they do—and how they could be in dialogue with nonscientists in the
American public on the important subject of faith and reason. Culling from
the 275 interviews, I present some of what scientists think are our best hopes
for moving our public discussions about religion and science from divisive
arguments to productive dialogue. In the conclusion (Chapter 9) I present
some of the myths that scientists believe about religious people along with
misconceptions held about scientists by religious people in the general public.
I hope that dispelling these myths will help us learn to respect and honor one
another at a time when science and religion are fundamental parts of the fabric
of our pluralistic nation. Such greater understanding could help bring a divided
nation a little closer together, for the sake of both science and religion.

CHAPTER 2

The Voice of Science

Physics is Arik’s1 lifework. He knew at age 13 that he wanted to be a physicist;
even then, he found himself drawn to scientists and their stories, particularly
the life of Einstein. Arik’s tone was easygoing and friendly, but when the discussion turned to religion, he became passionate. Arik truly believes that religion
should not exist. He was raised Jewish and has abandoned Judaism in any formal sense over what he views as its meaningless rituals and anti-intellectualism.
He describes religion as a form of “intellectual terrorism.” The only time Arik
turned to Judaism was when his children were young; he joined a liberal temple for a little while to give them cultural education about their heritage. After
the September 11 terrorist attacks, however, Arik left Judaism for good, even
more convinced that religion in any form has the potential to lead to violence.
He did not want to associate with any group based on “supernaturalism.”
Arik has not raised his children religiously since he left the temple, and he
remarked proudly that his “children have been thoroughly and successfully
indoctrinated to believe as [he does] that belief in God is a form of mental
weakness.”
To Arik, religion opposes science; it’s a tool to wield power over those
who are not intelligent enough to know better. As we talked, Arik often
applied the metaphor of a virus to describe religion or faith. As a child, he
was “infected” by religion, but now he is “immune.” He believes that this
view is shared by other scientists who are all “just astonished at this sort of
viral nature of faith-based thinking [which] only exists because parents infect
their children and then there’s a new generation and they go on to infect
more.”
In contrast, science holds almost a magical quality for Arik. He and his colleagues view science as a “dear product of human minds and marvel frequently
at how astonishing it is that this collection of atoms and molecules that constitute the human body has managed to figure out such a vast level of understanding of the natural world.” He is “furious” that others do not understand

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Crossing the Picket Lines: The Personal Faith of Scientists

the importance of basic science. For example, Arik does not see why Mother
Teresa got more attention than antibiotics, MRI machines, or doctors. He
acknowledged that other scientists believe in God but said right away that
these individuals are something of a frustration to him because they give legitimacy to the extreme wing of religious fundamentalism. As if to sum up his
irritation, he said, “too many people believe in the power of prayer over the
power of science.”
Whenever I asked a question that struck Anthony,2 a chemist, as thoughtprovoking—such as how science has influenced what he thinks about religion—
he would take off his tortoiseshell glasses, placing a sidepiece in his mouth, and
rub the front of his head. He would then lean toward me with his elbows on his
knees, as if he wanted to talk like we were old friends. I had a sense that Anthony
is a professor students find engaging.
During his high school years, Anthony “wanted nothing more than to be an
auto mechanic.” Because his mother did not graduate from high school, she
wanted something more for him: she wanted Anthony to have a college education. And as he described it, college “opened my eyes to what learning is.” With
a big smile on his face, Anthony remembered that one of his favorite classes
was chemistry, because “you understand what makes things explode!”
Anthony described himself as a “lapsed Catholic,” who as a child never
enjoyed attending Mass. At one point, his father had told him that if he got a
job, he wouldn’t have to go to church anymore, so he immediately went out
and got a job. He described his religious upbringing as both positive and negative: positive in the sense that it gave him a “grounding in ethics” but negative
because all the religious rules he had to follow “left [him] with a permanent
guilt complex.” Today, he is an agnostic.
Anthony generally does not talk about religion with his colleagues, though
they have on occasion talked about religious challenges to the theory of evolution. He thinks most of the other scientists he works with are atheists, probably
because, given the facts of science, they do not see a need for God. For Anthony,
the main conflict between science and religion is that religion says that God is
necessary in order to “get the whole thing rolling” (by which he means the
beginning of the earth). The more Anthony understands about chemistry,
however, the less he sees room for God; for example, evolution can take place
without God. And on top of what science has shown him, Anthony’s own experiences with suffering have led him to believe that even if God does exist, He
certainly is not all that active in the world.
During our hour-long conversation, we moved past the questions I had
prepared, meandering into other areas that Anthony thought we should

The Voice of Science

discuss. He told me how he would like to respond to people who have a belief
in God. If they would listen, he would say to them, “If you knew more about
biology and the sequence of proteins from all different parts of the tree of life,”
then you would realize that “God did not just invent beavers! Beavers arose
from a common ancestor of something else. And you would realize that you do
not need to believe in God to understand how life came about.”
Arik and Anthony and others like them are part of a tradition of scientists who
think that eventually science will make faith irrelevant. And their words would
appear, on the face of things, to confirm the image of the godless scientist.
Some scientists said in conversations with me that it is only a matter of time
before science completely replaces religion, which was simply trying to answer
the wrong questions in the wrong ways. As science continues to make further
advances in the pursuit of knowledge, they reasoned, it’s going to be harder
and harder for religion to have a place in society. It is clear that these scientists
have a very particular notion of what constitutes science: Science is fact. Those
who adhere to this unwavering conflict position hold religion under the lamp
of what they see as empirical reality. In this light, religion is vacant.
But our goal is to dig deeper, pursuing dialogue between scientists and the
general public that goes beyond thin views of science or thin views of religion.
We need to ask how even atheist and agnostic scientists such as Arik and
Anthony view the connection between religion and science, and why.
Statistics make starkly obvious the differences in religious commitment
between scientists and the general public; while nearly 28 percent of the American population is part of an evangelical Protestant tradition, about 2 percent of
natural and social scientists at elite universities identify themselves this way. The
only traditional religious identity category where scientists comprise a much
TABLE 2.1. Religious Affiliation of Elite Scientists Compared to all Americans3
Religious Affiliation
Evangelical Protestant
Mainline Protestant
Black Protestant
Catholic
Jewish
Other
None
Total Percent

Percent of Elite Scientists
2
14
0.2
9
16
7
53
100

Percent of U.S. Population
28
13
8
27
2
6
16
100

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Crossing the Picket Lines: The Personal Faith of Scientists

larger proportion of believers than in the general population is Jewish. While a
little less than 2 percent of Americans identify as Jewish, about 16 percent of
academic scientists do—with many of these considering themselves ethnically,
rather than religiously, Jewish. For our current discussion, the most important
gap is between the two nonreligious groups. Fifty-three percent of scientists
have no religious tradition, compared to only 16 percent of Americans.
In The God Delusion, Oxford University evolutionary biologist Richard
Dawkins argues that science proves wrong “the God hypothesis.” Dawkins’s
brand of science-based atheism is a hard sell, however, among the broader
public. (Many of the scientists I talked with also thought that Dawkins is doing
little to further the cause of science among the public.) Still, about 64 percent
of scientists at elite research universities either are certain that they do not
believe in God, the classic atheist position, or they do not know whether or not
there is a God, the classic agnostic view. Natural and social scientists are similar
in their thinking here. In a radical show of difference, only about 6 percent of
the general public consider themselves either atheist or agnostic. Looked at the
other way around, only 9 percent of scientists say they have no doubt that God
exists, compared to well over 60 percent of the general public.4 The discrepancy
is no secret. But what brought about this current state?5
Like the atheists and agnostics (in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century
British society) chronicled by historian Susan Budd, present-day scientists have
myriad reasons for rejecting faith.6 Scientists are not a monolithic faith group.
TABLE 2.2. Scientists’ Belief in God Compared to the General Public
Which one of the following statements
comes closest to expressing what you
believe about God?
“I do not believe in God.”
“I do not know if there is a God,
and there is no way to find out.”
“I believe in a higher power,
but it is not God.”
“I believe in God sometimes.”
“I have some doubts, but I believe
in God.”
“I have no doubts about God’s
existence.”
Total

Percent of
Scientists

Percent of U.S.
Population

34
30

2
4

8

10

5
14

4
17

9

63

100

100

The Voice of Science

For some, not believing has everything to do with learning more about science.
For others, science itself had little influence on their decision to not believe. In
fact, for the majority of scientists I interviewed, it is not the engagement with
science itself that leads them away from religion. Rather, their reasons for
unbelief mirror the circumstances in which other Americans find themselves:
they were not raised in a religious home; they have had bad experiences with
religion; they disapprove of God or see God as too changeable.7 For others,
religion is simply irrelevant to their life’s passion of science.

R E A S O N O N E : B E C AU S E S C I E N C E
T RU M P S R E L I G I O N
Sociologist Robert Merton has called the collective set of values that uphold the
scientific enterprise the “normative structure of science.”8 This conception of
science holds that science is inherently protected from personal bias because
scientists work together in groups. They replicate one another’s experiments,
thus ensuring the objectivity of the collective rather than the subjectivity of the
individual. For the Mertonian normative structure to work, a sense of organized skepticism is required, a choice agreed to by all scientists not to believe in
a theory until suitable evidence has been presented to support it. Another
important aspect of the Mertonian structure is the concept of disinterest (or
nonattachment). If a scientist, for instance, has a personal stake in his or her
discovery, its veracity is automatically suspect.
When scientists take the norms they perceive as governing science and apply
them to all of life, religion is weighed against science, and it does not measure
up. Religious views are not based on the kind of information that can be judged
impartially, such scientists would argue. There is a personal bias in religion;
religious individuals have a stake in findings that support their faith (they lack
the disinterest that scientists have). These scientists do not entertain the possibility that some religious followers might be more reasonable than others; they
compare all religion to science and find it wanting.
Scientists who have this view think that in all spheres of life, only knowledge
that is found through science is reliable. Likewise, for them, only questions
answerable through science are worth exploring. Questions concerning the
meaning of life are not even worth asking. The sentiments of Joel,9 a political
scientist who is a practicing Christian, provide some insight here. As we talked,
Joel said in a discouraged tone that “the main battle you find in academia is
simply getting people to take [religious questions like] the question of whether

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Crossing the Picket Lines: The Personal Faith of Scientists

there might be a God or not, seriously.” Joel seems to be right. I talked with a
chemist at a Big Ten university who said that questions about why we are here
and the purpose of the universe are simply uninteresting to him. (To his mind,
these are the kinds of questions about which religion is generally concerned.)
What did matter to him was what could be tested by scientific experiment. If
the answer to a question could not be found through science, then why ask it
at all?
Similarly, when asked about his answers to the meaning of life, an easygoing
neuroscientist10 who joked a lot as we talked said that he did not think that
there was any real purpose to life beyond furthering evolution. He then went
on to compare human existence to that of a cockroach: “What’s the purpose of
a big cockroach? What’s the purpose of a cockroach’s life? One is to eat and
mate and create progeny. . . . I don’t see a purpose—in the sense of a noble
purpose—other than to survive.” This speaker, or his perspective, might be
described as Kafkaesque, reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s early-twentieth-century
novella The Metamorphosis, in which Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman,
wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect. The
entire novel is the story of Gregor being separated from human relationships
because of his state. This neuroscientist took his beliefs about science being the
only type of knowledge worth pursuing to their logical conclusion. Because
science is capable of comprehending the totality of life, humans are separate
entities pursuing their own rational outcomes. Higher questions of meaning
and purpose are not important. Human life is no more noble than that of a
cockroach.
Over and over, from school to school, I discovered sentiments similar to
those raised by Arik, Anthony, and other scientists like them. These scientists
found questions addressed by religion so utterly insignificant that they did not
want to waste time thinking about them. For them, science had superseded
religion. It was not restricted to doing experiments in their labs but offered a
pervasive worldview, a way of conceptualizing and talking about life.11

Championing the Conflict
Rather than regarding religion as merely a waste of time, a small proportion of
scientists I interviewed who claimed no religion saw it as a threat to science.
These individuals (like all those who reported that religion and science are necessarily in conflict) generally are not part of a traditional religion and do not
consider spirituality important. They often have a narrow definition of religion,
seeing all religion as (indistinguishable from) fundamentalist Protestantism.

The Voice of Science

And they often have a narrow definition of science, too, seeing all science in the
pure Mertonian form as described above. These scientists do not only come
from fields like biology—fields currently embroiled in public debates about
religion and science. Scientists across all disciplines have adopted a “conflict
paradigm,” although this group makes up only a small percentage (15 percent)
of the 275 scientists I interviewed. A few scientists, some of whom alluded to
Galileo’s conflict with the Catholic Church, flatly declared that there is no hope
for achieving a common ground of dialogue between scientists and religious
believers.
The public conflict is most clearly manifested in debates about teaching
intelligent design in public schools.12 There are also controversies about
research on embryonic stem cells and about human genetic engineering.13
Beyond such public conflicts, 10 percent of scientists also mentioned personal
conflicts with religion that led them to reject faith once they learned more
about science.
From a very early age, Arik was convinced that science had largely replaced
religion. Although he was raised in a Jewish household, for his parents, being
Jewish was largely a matter of following rules and cultural practices rather
than religious belief. As an adult, he has become even more convinced that
religion is deleterious to science. (He wondered aloud if he was extreme in
this view compared to the other scientists I talked with.) He told me that the
conflict between religion and science is “not a conflict between opposing
forces,” since what science is up against is nothing but “garbage—the detritus
left over from the age of enlightenment and the scientific revolution.” He
said, “It’s the only realization of the battle between good and evil that I know
of.” For Arik, science embodies everything good, and religion is beyond irrelevant. It’s evil.
Although perhaps less contentious than Arik, a sociologist14 who taught at
a large research university in the Midwest said that religion is “a response that
people generate to [deal with] general basic fears about life and death and
where we come from.” He quickly added that the more he learns about science, the less religious he becomes. When I asked him whether he thinks there
is a conflict between religion and science, he said without hesitation that there
is. The conflict arises because science is, at its core, about observing. By contrast, religion involves believing in things that you cannot observe. As he
thought about it further, he reasoned that scientists who have faith must be
experiencing “some kind of schizophrenia between two parts of their lives
and fulfilling different functions [rather] than [having] an integrated way of
looking at things.” For this sociologist, science and religion seemed so very
much in conflict that it was hard for him to imagine how one could even be a

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Crossing the Picket Lines: The Personal Faith of Scientists

scientist and a religious person at the same time, apart from some measure of
mental distress.

R E A S O N T WO : B E C AU S E R E L I G I O N H A S L E T
T H E M D OW N
One could argue that maybe nonreligious scientists just haven’t given religion
a chance. But for at least some scientists at elite U.S. universities, religion had
its chance and it left them wanting—or even scarred. Of the nearly 1,700 natural and social scientists surveyed, about 39 percent were raised in a Protestant
home. Less than half of these still identify as Protestants. About 23 percent were
raised Catholic, and fewer than half of these are still Catholic.15 A former Catholic, a chemist,16 explained that being a scientist and thinking like a scientist
were a big part of his early doubts about religion. He remembers going through
a difficult period in high school around the time he was confirmed in the Catholic Church. He started to have doubts about his faith, and the church offered
no answers to his deepest questions. These doubts eventually blossomed,
resulting in what he called his “anticonversion.” In our conversation, he connected his anticonversion to thinking like a scientist and approaching the world
from the perspective that science alone can answer its questions.
Social scientists raised in a religious home who then decided to leave their
faith often found reading works by the founders of their respective disciplines
to be a critical turning point. The works helped them see the aspects of religion
that are socially constructed, created by groups of people to meet their own
needs rather than being based on a supernatural reality. A sociologist17 I talked
with had this experience as a college freshman through reading the work of
Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of sociology and a seminal thinker in
understanding the social construction of religion.18 Finally, she felt released
from her ties to her parents’ faith. In her words, “It was just like, ‘Okay, I can
finally let this crap go.’ ” Even before college, grade school science class was
another place where it became clear to her that science was more reasonable
than religion: “In school . . . we learned about Galileo, and we learned about
how crazy backwards people don’t believe in evolution, but evolution is what
really happened. . . . I pretty much learned that religion was sort of superstitious and science had . . . facts.” In her sense of things, learning more about the
bases of social science theory further solidified her view that religion is less
about seeking answers to genuine questions and more about communities of
people meeting their own social needs.

The Voice of Science

Most scientists want to live their lives sincerely. And for some, a belief in
God seems impossible given what they know of science. What some call their
assent to science and others more broadly call a commitment to reason makes
it so that, in good conscience, they just cannot believe. For one chemist19 in her
late thirties, a belief in God and what is written in some parts of the Bible do
not make sense. She has tried to ask believers her questions about the Bible but
has not yet found anyone who can answer them to her satisfaction. Although
she would like to believe in God, because believing might give her a sense of
relief from her difficult life as an assistant professor, this young chemist finds
that she cannot, “because it doesn’t make sense to [her].” Belief in God cannot
come at the cost of what she sees as her professional commitment to science
and to reason.

Bad Experiences with Religion
I spoke with Evelyn20 for nearly an hour and a half about her views on religion,
spirituality, and science. She had gone into science because of what she
described as her “fantabulous” grades and because, as she explained, she was a
“total geek.” While taking her pre-med requirements in college for medical
school, she discovered that she really liked her chemistry classes and decided to
pursue chemistry instead. For Evelyn, much of religion has strayed from the
noble purpose of loving and caring for others and often “ends up being a
mechanism by which people’s thoughts and lives are controlled or meant to be
controlled.” She said, “[if] I were a religious person, the thing that I would
want out of religion is that sense of community and that sense of common
purpose.” In the rare times when religion does work, Evelyn thinks, believers
do seem to achieve that sense of common purpose.
It is clear, however, that as a child Evelyn did not have these sorts of positive
experiences with religion. She felt more like an outsider. She grew up in what
she describes as a “Christian fundamentalist family.” As with many scientists,
Evelyn was naturally inquisitive as a child. When she asked questions about
faith, however, she was rebuffed by her religious leaders and told to just believe.
She recalls once asking in a Sunday school class how she could believe despite
all the bad things that are happening in the world. She had been told simply,
“You just make a decision to believe.” She remembers learning of a passage in
the Bible that condones “beating your wife with a stick that’s not thicker than
your thumb.” (In fact, nothing at all like this appears anywhere in the Bible.)21
She also told me the heartbreaking story of how, as a child, she was abused by
family members who were religious. Evelyn wondered—given the abuse she

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Crossing the Picket Lines: The Personal Faith of Scientists

experienced at home—how her family could still go to church and pretend that
what was being said there mattered in how they lived their lives. Yet sometimes
even now she yearns for a sense of what it would mean to have faith. “What is
it that keeps people believing?” she muses. “There’s a part of me that really
longs for that sense of comfort that people must get from knowing that there’s
a purpose to everything.”

The Problem of Pain
For Evelyn and a plurality of other scientists, it is not the long, arduous struggle
with science itself that leads them away from God. Rather it is life’s big questions, such as the problems of evil and pain—problems that plague many
believers as well.22 A chemist23 explained that he has no problem with the ceremony and community of religion. But when it comes to belief in God, he asks,
“If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and good, then how do you explain the
quantity of evil in the world?” He has “read various discussions of that problem, from people [who are] pro-religion and anti-, but [he] could never see any
credible response from the theological side to that problem.” I talked with a
chemist24 around the time that hurricane Katrina, the most deadly hurricane in
recent U.S. history, hit New Orleans. He told me he finds it difficult to talk with
those who believe in God about events like this devastating hurricane:
I have a conversation with a believer, and I ask him to describe God. Ah! Forget
it. What evidence do you have for the existence of God? None! None whatever! I
just say New Orleans as case in point. I asked a believer, “If you believe in God,
why did God permit New Orleans?” And the answer came back, “Oh, there were
sinners in New Orleans.” . . . There are sinners everywhere. There are more sinners in Chicago than there are in New Orleans, and we don’t have hurricanes. I
mean, come on! Eventually they give up. They just walk away.

For these scientists, it is not the hard, cold facts of science that lead them away
but their struggles in response to questions such as “How can a good God allow
bad things to happen?” that make belief difficult.

Bad Religion in Society
Greg Graffin studied evolutionary theory at Cornell University, but he is best
known as the lead vocalist of the punk rock band Bad Religion. One of the

The Voice of Science

band’s most popular songs, “American Jesus,” describes in detail the problems
that the band feels fundamentalist Christianity brings to the United States:
We’ve got the American Jesus
He helped build the President’s estate . . .
He’s the farmer’s barren fields
The force the army wields25

These lyrics show that intellect, emotion, and politics are often closely intertwined when it comes to discussions about religion and science.
Often scientists I interviewed cited the ills they have seen perpetuated at the
hand of religious leaders as the primary reason for their lack of belief. These
scientists would tell me about evils done in the name of faith, broader societal
problems they saw resulting particularly from fundamentalist and evangelical
religions, and, in Evelyn’s case, their own negative personal experiences with
the traditions of their past. Evelyn remembers being taken to church with her
family on one occasion; the preacher talked with her after the sermon and told
her that she would probably have more friends if she would lose some weight.
A physicist26 I spoke with was raised in a Protestant tradition and, like
Evelyn, did not have good experiences with religion as a child. He was part of a
tradition “where you go to church every Sunday, you go out and proselytize
and try to save souls, . . . you accept Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.”
The people in his family’s church were often afraid of any challenges to their
faith and provided no forum for asking difficult questions. Worse, their personal ethics seemed inconsistent with living life as Christ lived it. Although he
once gave faith a chance, in his words, “I don’t really have any association
myself that there’s anything positive about religion, and I certainly think that
there are a lot of negatives.” This physicist says that rather than follow a religion he lives simply by the golden rule and tries to treat others as he would like
to be treated himself.
His sense that he does not need the particular doctrines of a religion to live
as an ethical person is typical of the way many Americans see Christianity,
according to sociologist Nancy Ammerman. Ammerman finds that individuals
who practice what she calls “golden rule Christianity,” unlike the physicist
above who was raised a Protestant, might actually go to church but attend less
often than others. What they take from their religious tradition is a sense that
one should pay more attention to “right living rather than right believing”—
caring humanely for others rather than holding to a particular doctrine.27 Those
scientists who eschewed the organized religion of their childhood often
remained committed to the codes of ethics learned from their traditions.

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Leaving or Retaining Religion Brings Criticism
The decision to not believe in God or to raise one’s children without religion is
not without public consequence. Indeed one study finds that Americans dislike
atheists more than almost any other group of people, including various ethnic
and religious groups, and shows that “increasing acceptance of religious diversity
does not extend to the nonreligious.”28 Pollsters find that among a range of types
of potential candidates, Americans say they are the least likely to vote for an atheist for President. This tension sometimes came out keenly in my one-on-one discussions with scientists. A biologist29 I talked with said that dealing with the topic
of religion in her broader life has been especially difficult because “people in our
society are so religious, and that makes me feel like there’s something wrong with
me.” Most acutely she struggled with how to raise her children. Because she and
her husband did not share the same religious beliefs, they brought their children
up without religion. Although her children are now adults, religion is still, as she
put it, a “thorn in my side.” She said, “I try to console myself by saying that most
people don’t get to see what I do in my work, into the inner workings of things the
way I do in my work.” The beauty she sees and the meaning she gets through her
work as a scientist lead her to feel somewhat at peace without having a religion,
even though much of the world outside her scientific haven is religious.
Scientists who do practice religion can face intense pressure to give it up as
they are sometimes harshly judged by their secular peers. They might be viewed
as not fully engaging the scientific part of their brains, simply putting their reason
on hold to find comfort in religion. A chemist30 who has been in the field for years
remarked that if you are a scientist, you “cannot believe in things that are supernatural, because that’s a total cop-out. That’s really antiscience. The whole purpose of doing science is to figure out how nature works. And as soon as you . . .
say, ‘Ah-ha, I’m going to push the supernatural button,’ then you’re just abdicating yourself as a scientist.” For some, like this one, believing in God actually puts
research at incredible risk. That is why, for the sake of the profession, they think
other scientists should give up religion. Believing is the opposite of exploring; it
means to leave questions unanswered that are simply too difficult to ask.

R E A S O N T H R E E : B E C AU S E R E L I G I O N I S
F O R E I G N O R U N I M P O RTA N T
Frederick William Faber was born June 28, 1814, in West Yorkshire, England.
His hymn “Faith of Our Fathers” has the following chorus: “Faith of our fathers,

The Voice of Science

holy faith! We will be true to thee till death.”31 A popular song in both
the Catholic and Protestant traditions, “Faith of Our Fathers” was sung at the
funeral of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The song’s theme confirms that the
primary way religious traditions survive is by being passed through families.
And just as traditions and practices individuals acquire in childhood influence their belief or nonbelief as adults, what scientists learned (or did not learn)
about religion as children also influenced their direction. About 13 percent of
scientists were raised in homes with no religious tradition. Much more important, for the remaining nearly 87 percent of scientists whose families were part
of a religious tradition, membership was sometimes only significant as a label
rather than a matter of regular practice. Consequently, these scientists did not
learn much about their tradition, nor were they taught to see religion as an
integral part of everyday life. Scientists who said that religion was not important in their families when they were growing up are currently less likely to
believe in God or attend religious services. When we consider that a larger proportion of top scientists compared to other Americans in other occupations
came from backgrounds where faith traditions were weakly or seldom practiced, some of the differences between elite scientists and other Americans
make more sense.32
Eight percent of the general population were raised with no religion, compared to 13 percent of elite scientists. And while 54 percent of the general population were raised Protestant, only 39 percent of scientists at elite universities
were raised in this tradition—a significant difference in statistical terms. Much
more important, those scientists raised in a religious tradition were often in
homes where religion was only a tangential part of life, while nearly 40 percent
of Americans attend religious services at least once a week. Consider two sociologists who are similar in other respects. If one was raised in a Protestant
home where religion was very important and the other was raised without a
religious tradition, the sociologist raised without a tradition is statistically four
times more likely to be an atheist.33
These figures came to life as I talked with scientists. I asked a political scientist34
in his early forties how religion was approached in his family while growing up:
It basically wasn’t there. I knew that my mother was . . . Episcopalian, but she never
went to church when I was growing up. And my dad never gave any evidence [of
having] religious beliefs at all. He’s a scientist, and . . . I don’t think he went to
church when he was a kid. . . . So I never really had any exposure to religion.

The experiences of this political scientist were typical of some of the other
scientists who did not have faith. They were raised as atheists or without religion.

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Crossing the Picket Lines: The Personal Faith of Scientists

Possibly their parents had gone through a struggle of leaving the faith of their
own families. Such scientists are part of a group that is rare in the rest of the
American population: the second-generation atheist or nonreligious person.
Going on to describe his scant experiences with religion, this political scientist
said that he had only attended two religious events: a wedding, and a church
service that he was obligated to go to when he was a Boy Scout. For Boy Scouts,
“being an atheist was not an option, so [he] had to choose a church, and [he]
was a Catholic for a day.”

WO R K I N G TOWA R D D I A LO G U E
Scientists at elite research universities are indeed less religious than many other
Americans, at least when we measure their levels of traditional religious commitment. Some do drop their religious identities upon learning more about
what the religion involves. Others experience an anticonversion (or aversion)
after difficult or painful encounters with religion as children. The assumption
that becoming a scientist necessarily leads to loss of religious commitment is
not supported when we take into account the fact that scientists seem to selfselect from certain kinds of religious background—most importantly, from
backgrounds where religion was practiced only weakly. (Religious socialization
and heritage are strong influences on present religiosity, even among elite scientists.) And others, whose only exposure to religion is the fundamentalist
Protestantism they see represented in the news media, are disgusted by the idea
of affiliating with any religion at all.
The work of sociologist Basil Bernstein brings some insight to how we might
begin to assess the implications of scientists’ religious backgrounds. His work
primarily analyzes social class differences by examining what he calls language
codes. Bernstein’s research focuses on the factors in working-class families that
affect how their children learn to talk—not just their first words, but their particular way of talking. Bernstein thinks these ways of talking help to determine
whether a child will grow up to be a janitor or to work on Wall Street. Middleand upper-class children benefit from being taught elaborate codes that are
complex and accessible; lots of people can understand them. In comparison,
the restricted codes used by many working-class children—for example, using
phrases like “I ain’t” repeatedly—have lots of shorthand and shared meanings,
making it more difficult for these children to interact with a variety of people
outside their social class. This inability to relate to those outside their class
means that working-class children do not possess the language necessary to

The Voice of Science

expand their networks and so move up the social class ladder. The implication
is that it is not enough simply to put working-class children in the midst of
upper-class social settings. Rather, working-class children must be taught to
effectively communicate with the people in settings outside their usual milieu.
Wholly unlike the working-class children Bernstein studied, the scientists I
talked with are among the most educated people in our society. Therefore I
expected them to have very complex and unrestricted speech codes. But
although scientists have extraordinarily elaborate codes in some areas of their
intellectual lives, when it comes to talking about matters of faith, they often
have a restricted code based on shorthand stereotypes. In other words, they are
not articulate. Thus they might lump all religion into fundamentalism, or discredit religious claims based on premature assumptions. And because most
elite scientists have limited interactions with religious people who share their
views about science, the stereotypes persist.
A scientist’s restricted code poses a challenge to dialogue with the general
public. And a scientist who becomes less religious from learning more about
science (10 percent of those I interviewed think—against evidence to the contrary—that increases in education always lead to a decrease in religious commitments). To work toward dialogue, nonbelieving scientists would need to
understand that while over 50 percent of scientists do not have a religious tradition, nearly 50 percent do. There are believers in their midst. But the scientists who renounced or never embraced faith might also have a difficult time
understanding the perspective of their religious colleagues. If there is a way to
foster dialogue, scientists without faith might view scientists with faith as allies
in better translating science to the general public.

27

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CHAPTER 3

The Voice of Faith

When I talked with scientists at our nation’s elite universities about their
religious colleagues, no one was mentioned more often than Francis Collins,
director of the National Institutes of Health. At the time of these interviews,
Collins was at the helm of the Human Genome Project, the largest effort ever
to map the intricacies of DNA, the road map of life. Collins is also an outspoken
evangelical Christian and recent author of The Language of God. In a book
that is part autobiography and part science, he writes about his upbringing
by flower-child parents who met at Yale and raised him on a farm in the
Shenandoah Valley of rural Virginia.
Although I did not interview him as part of this study, Collins represents a
group of scientists for whom religion is important now but was not an important part of childhood. These individuals came to faith—and particularly to an
understanding of how their religious traditions connected with their lives as
scientists—over the course of a struggle. Another group of religious scientists
were raised in a religious home. These too experienced a struggle, trying to
maintain faith in the midst of traditions that often suppressed questioning. For
religious scientists, the struggle between faith and science generally occurred in
adolescence or young adulthood rather than after receiving their training in
science.
Surprisingly, given public stereotypes of scientists as atheists and religionhaters, these scientists came through such struggles to a place where they do
not see any conflict between religion and science.1 As we’ll discover, scientists
who have achieved such reconciliation generally understand their faith traditions differently than do the nonscientists who share their faith. If we look
closely, however, it’s possible to see some areas of overlap between these scientists and religious members of the general public. Also contrary to stereotypes
put forth by some nonreligious scientists, believers did not consider their traditions and beliefs influential on how they conducted their research. None of the
religious scientists I talked with supported the theory of intelligent design.

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Crossing the Picket Lines: The Personal Faith of Scientists

(Ninety-four percent of religious scientists think that evolution is the best
explanation for the development of life on earth).
There was some agreement among these scientists that their faith commitments ought to influence the kinds of relationships they had with others; 53
percent of scientists who identify with a religious tradition see religion and
spirituality influencing their interactions with students and colleagues. In the
midst of the competition involved in trailblazing scientific discoveries, these
scientists retained a faith-based emphasis on personal relationships.
Some thought their faith should influence the kinds of projects they chose.
For a physicist, this might mean refusing to participate in studies that support
nuclear proliferation because of a Christian conviction to care about the welfare of humanity.2 Their faith commitments might also influence their decision
to work on translating science to a broader audience or to do work that has a
humanitarian application.

T H E C O M P L E X I T I E S O F K E E P I N G T H E FA I T H
On the one hand, it’s clear that the majority of religious scientists were
raised in homes with a faith tradition. According to my survey, about 50
percent of those from a Protestant tradition retained religious beliefs and
practices of some type.3 And unsurprisingly those who said that religion was
important in their family when growing up were less likely to say that they
currently see no truth in religion, do not believe in God, or do not attend
religious services.
On the other hand, just because scientists were raised with faith and eventually retained faith does not mean that they went through their lives without
experiencing a personal struggle between religion and science. The majority
of religious scientists I talked with experienced as adolescents a sincere struggle in which they tried to figure out how being a person of faith connected
with or could be reconciled with a burgeoning interest in science. These
struggles often brought scientists to a deeper understanding of how science
and religion connected for them personally. As those who have developed a
thinking faith, they are potentially poised to be public commentators to an
American public that often views faith and reason at odds, or even mutually
exclusive.
For Tobin, an economist I interviewed, such a struggle as an adolescent led
to a stronger and more outwardly focused adult faith than what he had as a
child.4 Economists are often stereotyped as hard-nosed, hyperrational number

The Voice of Faith

crunchers, but Tobin had a warm, almost tender, way of speaking. Only in his
late thirties, Tobin has achieved outstanding professional success. He is a full
professor, chair of his department, and has already served as the major adviser
for nearly thirty PhD students. Tobin talked openly with me about his experiences as a Catholic, in particular the tension he experiences between faith and
science.
Tobin was raised in a Roman Catholic family, with a faith that he described
as “not very deep.” He found that simply being raised Catholic was not enough
for him to remain a person of faith through his late teens and early twenties.
The shift away occurred at one particular Mass, when Tobin had the sense that
he was no longer able, in good conscience, to be a Catholic. He described this
turning point as a “quick shift” that “had been building.” While Tobin walked
away from the Church for a time, a “deep faith” experience ultimately led him
back. His return to the Church was more gradual than his turning away had
been; what Tobin now sees as “a true faith” crept up on him quietly. It involved
a lot of reading to figure things out—reading without “any particular intent to
become religious but more to engage seriously with people who are religious.”
Looking back, Tobin said he wanted to figure out how far he could “get
through reason,” and how much beyond reason he “would have to go to be
religious.”
After a period of agnosticism, during which he did not know whether or not
he believed in God, Tobin said that ironically it was the “depth” of Catholicism
that led him back to the Church. The traditions of the Church helped him
make sense of what it would mean to believe in God, in Jesus Christ, and to find
a way that was “indeed consistent with reason.” The process was not easy. He
spent hours reading Church scholars and through this process became aware
that “the Catholic Church was much more than what people perceive it [to
be].” Tobin concluded that Catholicism was especially good at reconciling faith
and reason. And the ability to reconcile reason with faith was the linchpin that
helped Tobin remain both a Catholic and a scientist. He mused, “I do not think
that two gifts from God should contradict one another.” When I asked Tobin
to name the specific Catholic doctrines that are most important to him, he
talked about belief in God and belief in Jesus Christ. He described these “core
beliefs” as very different from the “bells and whistles” of Catholicism and went
on to say with a touch of humor in his voice that “if I picture myself as I die and
I find out what things are really like, I’d be stunned if there wasn’t a God, but I
wouldn’t be stunned if a particular teaching on the Virgin Mary wasn’t exactly
the way the Church had said it was.” In contrast to those who find faith irrelevant, scientists like Tobin say they walk a more complicated path, revealing
that the scientific enterprise need not crumble under the weight of faith.

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A D I F F E R E N T FA I T H F O R S C I E N T I S T S
It might seem that Tobin would have a lot in common with other Catholics who,
although they are not scientists, share his faith. And it might seem, since Tobin is
a committed Catholic, he would even be in a position to help fellow parishioners
see that faith and science do not have to contradict each other. But even for scientists with a meaningful faith tradition, gaining common ground with others in
their tradition is not always easy. Yes, the majority of Americans have a faith
tradition. Most are Protestants. And many Americans view public issues such as
science policy through a faith-informed lens. But before we can fully understand
the potential for scientists with faith to have a role in public discussion about
religion and science, we must understand how the faith of scientists compares to
the faith of other Americans. Such understandings will establish whether and
where there are common points of religiousness or belief between scientists and
members of the general public that could lead to further dialogue. So here we
explore how faith is lived out for the significant minority of scientists who are
traditionally religious, those who belong to one of the major world traditions.

Who Is Religious?
When studying religious and nonreligious people, we can also look at the other
aspects of their lives. In this way, we can determine what “types” of people
within a certain group (such as scientists) are more likely than others in that
group to identify themselves as religious. Gender, for instance, plays a role.
Although a variety of reasons have been given for the gender differences in
religious belief and commitment among Americans, there is almost universal
agreement that women tend to be more religious than men and more involved
in the activities of their congregation.5 When looking at differences in religiousness between men and women scientists, however, women are not any more or
less likely than men to be religious—even when measuring religion in a variety
of different ways, including both beliefs and practices.6
Similarly, when social scientists survey the general population, they find
that older individuals are much more likely to express higher levels of religious
belief and practice than younger individuals.7 My survey of scientists, however,
turned this relationship on its head. It was the younger scientist who was more
likely to believe in God and to attend religious services. And when I compared
my survey of scientists to another study conducted over thirty-five years earlier, the likelihood of younger scientists having faith had increased. If this holds

The Voice of Faith

33

throughout the career life-course for this cohort of elite scientists, it could indicate an overall shift in attitude toward religion among those in the academy.8
Other insights from sociology are helpful here. Those who study religion
label an individual “religious” based on three types of criteria. One of those is
the major religious body with which she identifies. Does she consider herself
Jewish, Unitarian, or fundamentalist? Another facet of studying religious people is examining what an individual believes: Does he believe that God exists?
Does he believe that his religion is the only true religion? Scholars also describe
degrees of faith through examining the practices religious people use to display
and maintain their faith. Does an individual attend a house of worship or spend
time meditating at home instead? And how are these practices connected to her
beliefs and identities?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, scientists in general are much less likely than are
members of the general population to identify as part of a traditional religion.
As the figure below shows, over 50 percent of the scientists I surveyed had no
religious affiliation.9 Compare this to only about 16 percent of those in the
general population who have no religious affiliation.
But to pay attention only to those who do not avow a faith would be to
ignore the nearly 50 percent of elite scientists who do identify with a religious
tradition. Of these, the highest proportion are Jewish (about 16 percent), but
many of these identify as Jewish as an ethnicity, not in terms of an active religious faith. About 14 percent of the elite scientists—and 13 percent of Americans—identify with one of the major mainline Protestant traditions (such as
Methodist or Episcopalian). And 9 percent of elite scientists see themselves as
Catholic, as do 27 percent of general Americans. In the future, might we look
for more Catholic spokespersons for science?
The differences in how U.S. religions are represented among university scientists are most stark when comparing Jews and evangelicals. Roughly eight

Scientists

U.S. Population
54%
27%

28%
14% 13%
2%
Evangelical
Protestant

0%
Mainline
Protestant

8%

Black
Protestant

9%
Catholic

16%

16%
2%

Jewish

7%

6%

Other

FIGURE 3.1. Religious Traditions: Elite Scientists Compared to the U.S.
Population. Sources: Religion Among Academic Scientists Survey 2005, General
Social Survey 2006.

None

34

Crossing the Picket Lines: The Personal Faith of Scientists

times more elite scientists are Jewish than general Americans are.10 And looking
at things the other way around, 14 times more Americans are part of an evangelical tradition (about 28 percent) than elite scientists (about 2 percent) are.
When considering the proportion of scientists who are part of traditions that
are not Judeo-Christian—such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam—the differences between scientists and other Americans are still noteworthy. There are
twice as many Buddhist scientists as Buddhists in the general population.11 And
there are over three times more Hindus among scientists than in the public.12
For Muslims, the proportion is about the same. These scientists are normally
first-generation immigrants or not U.S. citizens. (Recent immigration is largely
responsible for the increase in the U.S. presence of non-Christian religions.)13
Indeed over 30 percent of natural scientists at the top 21 U.S. research universities are either first-generation immigrants or noncitizen U.S. residents.
The greatest commonalities in religious identity between scientists and
other Americans are the similarities in proportion of those who identify as
mainline Protestant and as Catholic. This is a big surprise in some ways, since
more recently it is evangelicals who have been engaged in writing books trying
to reconcile Christianity with science.14 We might be hearing more, however,
from Catholic scientists in the future. Noting changes in the religious composition of scientists over time will help us tease out what types of people might be
the future religious spokespersons for science. So I compared my 2005 survey
of elite scientists to the 1969 Carnegie Commission survey mentioned above of
those in the same science disciplines. The proportion of Catholic scientists in
some fields has grown dramatically, while the proportion of Protestant scientists has consistently decreased in most disciplines.
It is obvious that there is a much smaller proportion of evangelicals among
scientists at top research universities when compared to the proportion of evangelicals in the general population. Yet when I interviewed scientists, I also found
a considerable reluctance in using the term evangelical as a self-descriptor,
especially when we compare its use in the general population. Even when scientists fit the traditional description of an evangelical, they didn’t want to
embrace the term for themselves. More important for them than labels were
beliefs and practices.

What Do They Believe?
Core beliefs are another important way that scholars determine how important religion is to an individual’s life. I can say, for example, that I am a Protestant or a Catholic, but what really matters, scholars would argue, is what I

The Voice of Faith

TABLE 3.1. Opinions of Religious Truth: Elite Scientists Compared to the
U.S. Population
Religious
Truth Position
There is very little truth
in any religion
There are basic truths
in many religions
There is the most truth
in only one religion
Total Percent

Percent of
Scientists

Percent of
U.S. Population

26

4

71

84

3

12

100

100

Sources: Religion Among Academic Scientists Survey 2005, General Social Survey 1998.

believe. And scientists’ religious beliefs are different from those of the general
population.
On the whole, scientists tend to view themselves as religiously liberal. For
example, when asked to compare themselves to other Americans along a continuum of religion from liberal to conservative, a 7-point scale on which 1
represents extremely liberal religious beliefs and 7 represents extremely conservative, most of the scientists I interviewed saw themselves as measuring
around 2. This means that when they are religious, scientists tend to see themselves as religious liberals. It also means that they view other Americans as
having much more conservative beliefs than they themselves do.15 And this is
important to understand as they converse with the general public.
When we hold this liberalism alongside the fact that scientists at elite U.S.
research universities are the least likely to be evangelicals (at least to label themselves so) and that evangelicalism is heavily represented in the general population, we see that scientists who care about translating science to a general
public might need a lot of help to do so effectively.
The table above reveals that 71 percent of scientists think there are basic
truths in many religions—the pluralist position—compared to 84 percent of
the general public who have the same view. In contrast, only 3 percent of scientists who work at elite universities see one religion as holding the most truth—
the exclusivist position—and that is the position most likely to be held by
evangelicals16 (the majority of the religious population).
About 36 percent of scientists have some form of a belief in God. When this
same question about belief in God is asked of members of the general public,

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Crossing the Picket Lines: The Personal Faith of Scientists

about 94 percent claim belief.17 (Indeed it is virtually impossible to find a group
of Americans who do not believe in God.) About 28 percent of scientists who
are part of a religious tradition do not know whether or not they believe in God
(the agnostic position). But agnosticism may mean something different to scientists than it does to members of the general public. By definition, their lifework of science requires insurmountable evidence, so for a scientist to say that
he is not absolutely convinced that God exists may still be consistent with his
religious tradition. A scientist is rarely absolutely convinced about anything!
In comparison, 15 percent of scientists say that they have a religious identity
yet do not believe in God at all. Many of these are Jewish. In fact, among scientists who are Jewish, nearly 75 percent indicated an atheist position.

What Do They Practice?
Sociologist Peter Berger explains that human beings are constantly faced with
the choice of how to interact with their world. An individual’s social reality, he
argues, is produced by her interaction with social structures.18 One prominent
social structure is religion. Religion is always at risk of no longer being plausible
to the individual, because she lives in a social world that often appears ordinary, mundane, and devoid of the supernatural in the day-to-day experience.
Hence, Berger thinks that religion requires a way of upholding its unique symbols and doctrines, what he calls a plausibility structure. This structure manifests as an actual social community (such as a church congregation) that is less
likely to question than uphold the norms and doctrines of the religion.19 In this
way, the believer, in the midst of a world that may contradict her beliefs, can
rely on her community of like-minded others to reinforce the content of those
beliefs. So then, how religion is practiced within the community—even more
than how a person identifies himself or what he believes—may be the key way
of keeping the believer’s faith intact. While he can pray in his own home without anyone else knowing, attending a worship service means an outward identification that shows others he is religious. Indeed, a central way that scholars
determine how committed an individual is to his faith is by looking at how
outward his faith is, whether he is an active part of a religious community.
According to sociologist Robert Merton (discussed in Chapter 2), scientists
have similar communities that uphold their ideals. Merton thinks that one reason why science is so successful is that the community of scientists all adhere to
the same norms—common guidelines for appropriate behavior—of what constitutes good science.20 However, there would be a stark difference between the
communities of the religious and of Merton’s communities of the scientific.


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