A recent AAAS conference brought together about 200 scientists, clergy, environmentalists, public health specialists, journalists, and people of faith for a wide-ranging discussion on how to improve the conversation between the religious and scientific communities.
Evangelical Christians are not as antagonistic to science as they are often portrayed, according to survey results presented at a conference organized by AAAS on misperceptions between scientists and members of religious communities.
Elaine Howard Ecklund, professor of sociology and director of Rice University’s Religion and Public Life Program, said that nearly 70 percent of self-identified evangelicals do not view religion and science as being in conflict. Asked to describe how they personally see the relationship between the two, 21 percent of the evangelicals surveyed saw science and religion as entirely independent, with separate views of reality; 48 percent saw them as complementary, capable of offering support for each other.
But 29 percent of evangelicals surveyed did see science and religion in conflict and came down strongly on the side of religion. And 60 percent of those surveyed agreed with the statement: “Scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories and explanations.”
Such findings confirm that there are real tensions among evangelicals regarding some of the assumptions of science, Ecklund said, and hot-button issues such as evolution do cause concern.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she said. “I’m not Pollyanna about this.” But the survey of 10,241 Americans — 2,149 of them evangelical Christians — does present a nuanced glimpse, she said, of the current intersection of science and religion in America.
That also was the intent of the 13 March conference organized by the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER). It brought together about 200 scientists, clergy, environmentalists, public health specialists, journalists, and people of faith for a wide-ranging discussion on how to improve the conversation between the religious and scientific communities. A large part of that was trying to dispel stereotypes and find areas, such as improving global health and environmental stewardship, where the two communities can work together on shared goals.
The day-long conference was the culmination of a three-year DoSER project to explore the perceptions scientists and religious communities have about each other. Because evangelicals make up 25 to 30 percent of the U.S. population and wield considerable influence on the public’s support for science, they have been a particular focus of the project, said Jennifer Wiseman, director of DoSER.
Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, gave his “simple elevator definition” of evangelicals as “those who take the Bible seriously and who believe in Jesus Christ as savior and lord.” He said evangelicals are a diverse group found in many churches and denominations in the United States, including white suburbanites, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Hispanics. Ecklund noted that of the 574 scientists in her survey, most of them working in non-university settings, 17 percent described themselves as evangelicals.
Ecklund found that religious Americans are no more likely than non-religious Americans to express negative attitudes about science’s contributions to society. Only 15 percent of Americans and 14 percent of evangelicals agreed with the statement that science, overall, does more harm than good. Jews (42 percent), adherents of non-Western religions such as Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism (52 percent as a group) and the non-religious (47 percent) were more interested in new scientific discoveries than evangelicals (22 percent). However, evangelicals (37 percent) were just about as interested in new medical discoveries as all survey respondents (40 percent).
Wiseman said the perceived role of scientists — their motives, expertise, and influence — often carries more weight with religious communities than the real impact of their work in such areas as health care, education, and agriculture. Similarly, she said, the perceptions scientists have of religious communities can greatly affect how well they engage with people of faith. If scientists see religious believers as not interested in science or actively hostile to its goals, there is little incentive to reach out.
“We need to have better discourse in this nation on how scientists and religious communities can understand the role of science in our world today,” Wiseman said.
The Perceptions Project, funded by a grant from the Templeton Foundation with support from AAAS, has been trying to establish that better understanding through efforts such as Ecklund’s survey, on which DoSER and Rice University collaborated, and a series of workshops that brought together local scientists and religious leaders in Atlanta, Denver, and Pasadena, Calif.
“I live in a world where I am surrounded by other evangelicals,” Warren Was, a Baptist pastor who participated in the Atlanta workshop, said in a short video shown at the opening of the Washington conference. “We all think pretty much alike. And stretching out beyond that little cocoon is a difficult thing. Scientists also live in their little cocoon world, and it was surprising to me that the men and woman I spoke with are real people, nice people. And we had an awful lot in common.”
Stephen L’Hernault, chairman of the biology department at Emory University in Atlanta, said the one-on-one conversations at the workshop were “very productive.” He added, “I found the experience to be a very positive one in a surprising way. I did not know what to expect when I started this.”
Participants in the Washington conference were similarly positive, and discussed areas in which scientists and people of faith can find common ground. Rick Potts, curator of the Smithsonian’s Hall of Human Origins, said one important question — “What does it mean to be human?” — is not something that can be answered by science alone. “It is something where there can be common ground,” Potts said, “where the inspiration and the foundation of insight that comes from religion, philosophy, literature, everyday experience” can be brought to bear. “Science is not the whole answer to that question.”
Katharine Hayhoe, director of Texas Tech University’s Climate Science Center (who is also an evangelical Christian), said that science and religion also can find common ground on issues of environmental stewardship. ”Unless we’ve signed up for that trip to Mars,” Hayhoe said, “this is the only planet we have.” The real issue is sustainability, she said. “This is where we live. We want our planet to be able to sustain us and everything that lives on it.”
Sustaining the planet is not something only “liberal, green, tree-huggers care about,” Hayhoe said. Religion and scriptures provide values to promote sustainability and take seriously such issues as climate change, air pollution, food shortages and water scarcity, she said. “Our voices are needed on these issues expressing our values.”
William D. Phillips, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, agreed. “Religious communities, particularly evangelicals, see the stewardship of the earth as a sacred duty,” he said. “Science has revealed a lot of present dangers,” along with the data needed to guide responses. “But the scientific community has often failed to generate traction for any action about the environmental problems they identify,” Phillips said. “The religious community, which represents a strong majority of the nation’s population, can make all the difference.”
Galen Carey, vice president for government relations at the National Association of Evangelicals, cited global health as another area where religious communities can and have made a difference. “Science gives us tools and understanding of disease and disease prevention, but unless that knowledge is translated into communities in the remotest parts of the world, it is not effective,” Carey said. “It is faith groups that are present in every village and community throughout the world.” When scientists and faith groups work together, he said, “We’ve seen tremendous successes.”
Conversations between both groups can help change perceptions and misunderstandings, Phillips and others said.“Contrary to a common perception, we are often the same people,” Phillips said. “But more broadly, we share a desire to make a difference. We share a desire to discover truth.”
“There’s the idea that Christians are all young-earth creationists and scientists are all atheists,” said astronomer Deborah Haarsma, who serves as president of the BioLogos Foundation. “It’s so not true. That needs to be communicated in churches, and Christian young people need to hear that there are scientists who are believers and also doing science. It is possible to live in both of those worlds together.” BioLogos is a nonprofit foundation, established by geneticist Francis Collins, that sees harmony between science and biblical faith.
In a session on how to bring more science engagement to religious congregations, Praveen Sethupathy, an assistant professor of genetics at the University of North Carolina, encouraged pastors to “develop a strong, healthy relationship with scientists in your congregations.” He said that such scientists “are oftentimes quite scared and closeted, if you will,” perhaps fearful that discussing their faith openly could affect their careers. “Your help can be very important in providing an atmosphere that’s safe to talk about how they are harmonizing and reconciling science and faith in their lives,” Sethupathy said.
For Gregory Simpson, a conference attendee who is a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, that harmonization is an ongoing process. He has a doctorate in organic chemistry and is now studying for a master of divinity degree.
“I did a postdoc at UMass medical school,” Simpson said. “One of the points of interest I started to grapple with was not the question of ‘how’ but the question of ‘why’ — why things happen. That was a question that was much deeper than my science could answer.”
This story by Earl Lane (AAAS News) was originally published at AAAS.org.