The idea that religion and science might be in conflict with each other is one we encounter frequently in American life, whether in a school board debating the teaching of evolution, a creation museum where dinosaurs live alongside humans, or political debates about humanity’s role in climate change. In Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think, Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher P. Scheitle interrogate this idea by examining the beliefs and opinions that religious Americans hold on a number of scientific issues. The book can be seen as a counterpart to Ecklund’s 2010 book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think. In Religion vs. Science, as in Ecklund’s earlier book, Ecklund and Sheitle use a combination of in-depth interviews and statistical analyses of survey data to provide a comprehensive overview of this issue.
The book is organized around different “myths” about the relationship religious people have with science. These include the idea that religious people do not like science, do not like scientists, and are not scientists; that religious people are young-earth creationists; that religious people are climate change deniers; and that religious people are opposed to scientific technology. These chapters are bracketed by introductory and concluding chapters, in which Ecklund and Scheitle make recommendations for scientists and religious people hoping to understand each other. The introductory chapter is also where the authors introduce their theoretical approach to understanding this relationship, which relies on William H. Sewell, Jr.’s notion of cognitive schemas, outlined in his 1992 American Journal of Sociology article “A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency, and Transformation.” Sewell describes schemas as guiding principles that function analogously to the rules of grammar to provide us with culturally-appropriate intuitions about the “right” course of action in a given situation. Throughout the text, Ecklund and Scheitle elaborate how these schemas guide how religious people make sense of science, focusing on two particular points: a role for God in the world and respect for the sacredness of humanity. The authors contend that these two issues shape the way religious Americans approach and understand science.
In the first half of the book, Ecklund and Scheitle examine the relationship religious Americans have with science and with scientists. Using survey data, they show that less than one-third of their respondents perceive the relationship between religion and science to be one of conflict. The majority of the US population sees this relationship between religion and science as either independent of one another or collaborative. The authors go on to report that while members of certain religious traditions may claim not to be interested in science, they are interested in issues such as new medical discoveries. Regarding the relationship between religion and scientists, the authors find that over a third of evangelical Protestants view scientists as hostile towards religion, more than any other religious group or those with no religious affiliation. Evangelicals are also more likely than other religious groups to go to religious leaders with questions about science. The authors also find that religious people do work in scientific occupations, particularly when one looks outside of science departments at elite universities. They note that Jewish people, people belonging to non-Western religions, and people without religious affiliations are somewhat more likely to work as “rank-and-file” scientists (58), while evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, and Catholics are all somewhat underrepresented among this group.
In the second half of the book, Ecklund and Sheitle move to examining the views that religious Americans hold toward creationism, climate change, and scientific technologies, specifically, those related to human reproduction, gene editing, and stem cells. Regarding evolution and creationism, the authors find that many religious people are concerned with what they call the “ultimate questions” (78) – whether evolution retains an active role for God in the world and its implications for the sacredness of humanity. Questions about the power and role of God similarly motivate views toward climate change, although Ecklund and Scheitle note that, for some, climate change is viewed as a stand-in for political agendas. Other religious Americans worry about prioritizing caring for the environment over caring for people, which they see as a primary concern of their religion. Similarly, the authors find that religious people must weigh different values when thinking about scientific technologies, which have the potential to both alleviate suffering and to allow humans to “play God” (124). They find that different viewpoints on the role of God as a creator, and whether or not humans have a potential role as co-creators, help explain the views of different religious groups on this issue.
Throughout the book, Ecklund and Sheitle are able to use nationally-representative survey data to give a broad overview of the views of religious Americans, while using quotations from in-depth interviews to explain and elaborate on their statistical findings. Their research methods are carefully outlined in multiple appendices, but the authors also discuss their statistical research in the main text in a way that is readily accessible. The authors do an admirable job of explaining how they are able to include other factors in their analyses, such as demographics, in order to understand if a difference between groups is due to religion or some other cause. The shortcomings of the book are similarly what one would expect from a nationally-representative survey, mainly that “non-Western traditions” are often grouped together as an analytic category, due to their smaller percentages in the American population. Nonetheless, Religion vs. Science provides a thorough and accessible overview of this topic in America and can serve as a springboard for further research on this topic.
Elaine Howard Ecklund is Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology at Rice University. She is a sociologist whose research addresses religion in public life, particularly how individuals use race, gender, and religious identities to bring changes to religious and scientific institutions. She is the author of over sixty peer-reviewed articles, two books with Oxford University Press (including Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think). She has received grants from the National Science Foundation, Russell Sage Foundation, John Templeton Foundation, Templeton World Charity Foundation, and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.
Christopher P. Scheitle is Assistant Professor of Sociology at West Virginia University. He has published over thirty peer-reviewed articles, two books, and has been awarded two grants by the National Science Foundation.
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