Chicago - The media often portrays scientists and Christians as incapable of peaceful coexistence. But results from a recent survey suggest the two are not as incompatible as one might think. In fact, 2 million out of nearly 12 million scientists are evangelical Christians. If you were to bring all the evangelical scientists together, they could populate the city of Houston, Texas.
Sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund and her colleagues at Rice University and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) reported results from the largest study of American views on science and religion at the association's annual conference in Chicago on Sunday, February 16. More than 10,000 people, including 574 self-identified as scientists, responded to the 75-question survey. Among the scientists, 17 percent said the term "evangelical" describes them "somewhat" or "very well," compared to 23 percent of all respondents.
Religion % All Respondents % Scientists
Evangelical Protestants 22.9 17.1
Mainline Protestants 26.9 24.9
Catholics 23.8 19.1
Jews 1.9 3.9
Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains 2.6 7.2
Atheists/Agnostics/No Religion 15.5 24.4
Something Else 4.7 1.7
Ecklund first became interested in studying religious people's perceptions of science after a conversation one Sunday morning at a church in Upstate New York. She was attending the church as part of a research study she was conducting for her master's thesis on religion and family life. Upon learning Ecklund attended Cornell University, a woman told her she hoped her daughter would not decide to go there.
And why not?
"She said, 'I'm really scared that when she gets onto campus, that she'll take science classes," and the atheist scientists will convince her to abandon her faith, Ecklund recalled.
At that moment, Ecklund decided that at some point in her career, she would conduct a large study to determine if this view is typical of evangelicals—and whether members of other religious groups feel the same way.
This is not her first research study on people's perceptions of science and religion. In her 2010 book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Believe, Ecklund surveyed 1,700 natural and social scientists at top universities and found that only about two percent identify as evangelical.
This new survey, by contrast, focused on "rank and file" scientists, including those in health care, life sciences, computers, and engineering.
In addition to religious identity, the new survey focused on perceptions people have about science and religion. About the same number of people in the general public perceive hostility by religious people toward science as perceive hostility by scientists toward religion—about 1 in 5. But among evangelical scientists, a strong majority (57 percent) perceive hostility from scientists toward religion, which may suggest Christians in scientific fields have negative experiences with fellow scientists in the workplace regarding their faith.
The survey also found that evangelical scientists are more active in their faith than American evangelicals in general. They are more likely to consider themselves very religious, to attend religious services weekly, and to read religious texts at least every week.
% Evangelicals % Evangelical Scientists
Attend weekly religious services 42.4 54.2
Consider myself very religious 44.1 51.2
Read religious tests weekly 40.5 46.8
Pray several times a day 54.7 55.6
In addition to the survey, the researchers conducted 315 follow-up, in-depth interviews, 142 of which were with evangelicals. The results presented on Sunday were preliminary findings from the analysis of just 6 of the 75 questions on the survey, which also included questions about hot-button issues such as evolution, climate change, and genetic testing for reproduction.
The team plans to analyze the rest of the data in the weeks and months ahead and use the results to determine how much room exists for dialogue exists between scientists and evangelicals to improve understandings on both sides. Although the survey encompasses people of all religious faiths, the AAAS and the Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion is making a strategic decision to focus initial public engagement efforts on evangelical Christians, since they represent such a large segment of the U.S. population (various surveys put it evangelical between about one-quarter and one-third, a bit higher than Ecklund's survey found).
In a presentation following Ecklund's talk, Galen Carey, vice president of government relations for the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), said he would like to see scientists and evangelicals talk to each other more, starting with less controversial issues. Scientists and evangelicals largely agree on issues like supporting funding for science, partnering for international development, working for immigration reform, and wanting a cleaner environment, he said.
In order to improve mutual understanding, Carey said evangelicals must strive to listen better, avoid name-calling, and refrain from attacking fellow believers due to their positions on science.
"Sometimes we attack each other more viciously than even people from the outside," Carey said.
AAAS is partnering with the NAE and with theological seminaries across the U.S. to incorporate science education into the seminary classrooms so that future clergy will be better prepared to address questions regarding science, ethics, and religion with their congregations.
As scientists at AAAS gear up to engage in dialogue about science with evangelical Christians, they're hopeful that scientists who are evangelicals will be the ones serving as mediators.
"We ought to maybe think of them as a type of boundary pioneer of sorts, able to live well in both of these worlds," Ecklund said.
Likewise, Carey said he wanted to find out who these 2 million evangelical scientists are and to help equip them with the tools they need to build bridges between evangelical and scientific communities.
The survey data is just the first step toward better communication and collaboration between scientific and evangelical communities, said Jennifer Wiseman, president of the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion program of the AAAS.
Even if the two sides may never reach agreement on certain issues, the data suggests that many Americans, including both scientists and evangelicals, believe that when it comes to science and religion, each can be used to support the other.
"Radical collaboration is not something that's likely to be a headline," Ecklund said. "But maybe it ought to be."