Non-Fiction Reviews

Secularity and Science
What scientists around the world think about religion

(2019) E. H. Ecklund et al, Oxford University Press, 20 / US$29.95, hrdbk, 344pp, ISBN 978-0-190-92675-5


A simplistic cartoon view of science and religion might be that the two are irreconcilably different: science is born of logic and verifiable experimentation while religion has at its core non-verifiable faith. Yet today in the US 11% of scientists believe without doubt in God though a smaller proportion of scientists in France and the UK attend a religious service weekly.

This statistic is among one of those at the heart of the Elaine Ecklund team's work.

In an nutshell, the science religion debate has largely been underpinned on both  sides by faith.  Even Dawkin's The God Delusion (2006) is largely a work of personal faith: there is very little actual data underpinning that work; it is mainly opinion.

In my professional life in (biologically-related) science communication I have had numerous occasions to encounter and even work with scientists of a religious persuasion. One of my occasional collaborators in both the worlds of biology and that of SF was the reproductive biologist and theistic non-believer, the late Jack Cohen CBiol FIBiol but he regularly attended synagogue. Indeed his rabbi said of Jack that he was the most faithful atheist in his congregation; Jack valued the cultural heritage, fellowship and other dimensions of his religion.  In short, the science religion debate is not as black and white as it is often portrayed.

To help begin to address this, what the Ecklund team have done is to conduct a survey of 22,525 scientists in eight countries and add to this some other surveys.  Now, while a reading of the appendix as to how this sample was selected indicates that there was effort made to ensure that the sample was representative by broad discipline, gender and age, from my reading of it is not clear as to how self-selecting was this sample.  Nonetheless, whatever the flaws, this is major effort and contribution to a debate that has to date largely been data poor.  The results of this survey and discussion thereof, provide the basis for this book.  As such Secularity and Science is a major contribution to understanding the present-day relationship between religion and real-life scientists.

I will not go into detail as to the survey's results: you'll either be interested or won't, and that will be the deciding factor as to whether you read this book or not.  I did though find the data and discussion intriguing.  Indeed, so much so I wanted to know more: what were believer scientists' motivations to hold faith or, if not faith, religious adherence of some from or other?  Alas the book does not go that far, but clearly this is one of the next steps for follow-up work.

This book is important and to my mind more valuable than many other scholarly works on science and religion.  For instance, I found that while there was much of historical, and even theoretical, interest in The Oxford handbook of Religion and Science's (2006) 1,000-plus pages the debate about more contemporary issues such as on intelligent design clouded in semantic obfuscation.  Conversely, Secularity and Science provides a harder handle based on actual data which if not perfect does provide some insights.  For example, some 61% of scientists responding say they have no doubts that God exists with the rest ranging from not believing in God, through there is no personal God but some higher power of some kind, and while having doubts having belief in God.  Whereas in the UK the respondents were more uniformly distributed across each category, while in India the largest category (at over 38%) was while not believing in a personal God, believing in a higher power of some kind.

It is important because there are clearly problems for society at large with, where they exist, a fundamental science-religion divide: rejection of Darwinian evolution in schools, refusing vaccinations, and fundamentalist religious political control (with concomitant persecution of other religions and even gender) in some nations.  In the more extreme cases this has led literally to all out war!

So this book will be of interest to many including school teachers, those in public health and all those concerned with the rise of religious fundamentalism, among others.

The science fiction connection (this is the SF² Concatenation  after all) is at first less obvious.  Having said that, religion does come into many SF works, be it Philip K. Dick's Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep, Michael Moorcock's Behold the Man, Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, Margret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale, among many, many others let alone popular sci-fi Jedi-ism and so forth.  Indeed, it is possible to argue that the rise of popular science fiction in television and film (there are always SF offerings each night on television and at your (if in Europe or N. America) nearest town's cinema multiplex) itself possibly serves to replace at least in part the decline in religious following in these countries.

This may be a dry topic, but this book is valuable as it truly begins to illuminate a troubled area of contemporary human existence.

Jonathan Cowie


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