(2018) Elaine H. Ecklund & Christopher P. Scheitle, Oxford University Press, £19.99 / US$29.95, hrdbk, x + 224pp, ISBN 978-0-190-65062-9
In the course of my own career in science communication, in addition to communication within science and between scientists and politicians, I have had occasion to touch upon issues (fortunately more the focus of those in education departments) with a religious dimension: Darwinian evolution and (what used to be known as) monoclonal antibody research being but two examples.
'It is impossible to be a proper scientist and religious' is a common view among many non-theistic scientists. It is arguably a view that resonates with Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. Yet in practice is this true? Back in 2005 I found myself on a well-attended panel on science denial at that year's SF Worldcon along with an established British SF author who happens to be a biologist along with a scientist who happens to work at the Vatican in Rome. The panel almost inevitably moved on to the question of religion and science. If I remember correctly (I emphasise possible error as I do not want to misrepresent my fellow panellists) we did not consider bible-thumping fundamentalists, or indeed extremists of other religions to be representative of the religious community as a whole. In the audience Q&A (which I recall developed to include some interesting observations and opinions from the audience) the matter arose as what to do? One answer seemed to be that scientists needed to engage with those of religious persuasion prepared to listen, and that those of religious persuasion needed to equip themselves with some understanding of science. Indeed, it was arguably particularly behovian on scientists within religious communities to facilitate discussion.
Now the thing is – of relevance to Ecklund and Scheitle's book – that the above opinion relied on our panellists and audience 'belief' (or even 'faith' if you will) that the majority of religious people are not extremists and that many scientists are open to discussion so that dialogue can take place from which understanding will emerge as to understanding the other's world view. From here mutually agreeable attitudes and ethics can develop (the latter being as important to scientists as it is to the religious). Yes our belief, that the majority are shall we say 'moderates', was an act of faith as we had no empirical and verifiable data on which to base that view. The good news for us is that Ecklund and Scheitle have now provided us with this.
In addition to outlining a view similar to that above, they go further: they have quantifiably investigated the nature of the religious in the US. Between the years of 2010 and 2015 they conducted a survey of over 10,000 US citizens in addition to over 320 face-to-face interviews from 23 religious bodies. So, for example, they find that 'young Earth' adherents were most common among evangelical Christians but that – possibly surprising to some – 72% of those do not believe that this is definitely true.
Ecklund and Scheitle then go on to discuss how scientific understanding might be promulgated to those with religious belief.
The authors present their case robustly with many referenced works to augment their case in addition to their survey and inquiries. These they detail along with their survey and methodology in an appendix which, together with a subject index, forms the book's latter third.
While it may seem that this book is primarily of relevance to engaging with the religious, and possibly mainly the Christian religious, in N. America (and notwithstanding that they do touch on other faiths), their work's conclusions is portable and readily transferable to other countries and religious settings. In N. America we have seen how religion has helped shape science policy and practice. For example, in the late 20th century to first year of the 21st, no state-funded lab equipment could be used in certain areas of biological research. This led to the daft situation whereby a good number of US university biological laboratories had two sets of microscopes, centrifuges, electrophoresis gels, glassware etc. But we have also seen in the Middle East religious extremists closing schools and particularly coming down hard against female education as well as the destruction of artefacts of great cultural heritage and archaeological value (while in some cases ironically selling the same to western institutions as a way of raising funds).
I, and (I have faith in non-scientifically assuming) the majority within science and who engage with religious communities, believe that both the science and religious world views are too important and potent to leave to the extremists. Ecklund and Scheitle have now demonstrably shown that they are a minority, so we should not let the volume with which they expostulate their case drown out what we now know to be the silent majority: the silent majority should now be less silent. History, indeed the present, tells us what happens when the extremists hold sway. Ecklund and Scheitle book may not reconcile scientists and the religious with each other, but it does identify the existence of a middle ground that could well prove a fertile meeting place. As such it is a most welcome tool for anyone actively engaged in this area of debate.
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