Religion, Science, and the Academy

By Elaine Howard Ecklund

In his book The Soul of the American University, historian George Marsden chronicles how and when higher education became hostile to religion. While most universities sprung from religious roots, by the 1920s, movements to secularize the academy had relegated religious perspectives to the sidelines, or shut them out altogether. At the center of these secularizing movements was science, and as religious ideas were subjected to the same kind of rigorous scientific scrutiny as other ideas were, they began to decrease in prominence. Soon, the academy was generally free from religious influence or support, and many scientists took up their own value system in which science was considered the superior form of knowledge. At the university level, the sciences stopped needing to engage with religion in any meaningful way.

These reforms were not without costs, historian Julie Reuben points out. Efforts to create a scientific objectivity that was also value neutral ultimately failed, she says, leading instead to a complete separation of facts and values. Science, considered to be completely fact-based, was separated from more humanistic fields such as English and history. And this separation left scientists with little vocabulary for thinking about the moral implications of their research or what kind of public translation of science works well.

If we took a snapshot of America’s top research universities today, we would find that about a third of them began with a religious mission, generally a specifically Christian one. While only a few still have a divinity school, the majority has a center, department, or program devoted to the academic study of religion. All of them have scientists who are religious and scientists who are not (and some who think religion is dangerous to science). Over the past five years I have been studying how natural and social scientists at top research universities understand religion, ethics, and spirituality. My study is an empirical one. I surveyed nearly 1,700 scientists and spoke with 275 of them in depth. While many scientists are completely secular, nearly 50 percent identify with a religious label, and almost one in five is actively involved in a house of worship, attending services more than once a month. Even among those who are not religious, many see themselves as spiritual.

So we might think that they would be actively teaching our nation’s top university students to have informed and intelligent dialogue about those areas of science that many religious people find controversial, like evolution, human embryonic stem cell research, and global warming. Yet I found there were few such conversations taking place. While separating science from religion has definitely had important positive consequences for scientific research, this lack of conversation suggests that students today are not formally learning how to connect the facts of science with the moral implications, or values, of science.

And this may be a problem.

In part, the problem stems from the fact that many scientists have a model of university life that does not allow any positive role for religious people, institutions, and ideas on campus. Of the natural and social scientists I interviewed, nearly 40 percent told me they see their institution in this way.They have few models for how scientists (with or without faith) might respond to or productively interact with religious people and ideas. In their model of the university, such people and ideas exist primarily as a threat to science. So it makes sense that these scientists who hold such views would do all they could to constrain or marginalize religion. To them, the university is the only remaining American institution that is safe from the encroaching influence of religious conservatives on science, and they want to keep it that way. By and large, then, scientists are encouraged to see religion as something outside of what sociologist Andrew Abbott calls their “professional jurisdiction,” the framework by which they decide which topics are relevant to their work. And religious viewpoints are relegated to separate, isolated departments and programs.

But I also found that a sizeable minority of scientists — about 20 percent — think that, although the scientific method ought to be value-neutral, religion can meaningfully intersect with the implications of their research and with the education of their students. They see religion as important to some forms of science ethics and as potentially helpful in understanding the implications of scientific work (providing a justification for fighting poverty or global warming, for example). According to these natural and social scientists, their students ought to understand religiously-based forms of science ethics alongside ethical-moral-value systems derived from naturalism, those views independent of supernatural claims. One social scientist I spoke with, who described herself as a cultural Jew, believes university students have to learn to “take responsibility for the ways in which their beliefs and values affect other people,” and they must understand how other people’s beliefs and values affect them and their research. She strongly believes that this kind of intelligent dialogue should begin among communities of scientists in the academy, who ought to have “discussions and debates about how we might better address the kinds of things that religion brings up.” Still, there’s a problem: there doesn’t seem to be a place in the academy for these sorts of conversations.

So where do we go from here? A number of the university scientists I spoke with suggested that their colleagues begin to change their perspective by rejecting scientism, a disciplinary imperialism that leads them to explicitly or implicitly assert that science is the only valid way of knowing and that it can be used to interpret all other forms of knowledge. This means instead of marginalizing religion, we should bring discussions of meaning and morality more broadly back into the social and natural sciences.

Teaching science, one chemist told me, can’t just be about “distributing facts” to students “because it’s not really that difficult to find any sort of fact you want nowadays. [Our best students] can go learn about a topic pretty quickly on their own, but actually thinking about the discipline and what you’re supposed to be doing in science is a very difficult problem.” Science at the university level, he says, must involve teaching students to think beyond their own research — which means teaching them how to apply science, how to communicate it to a broader audience, and how to think about it from “some sort of moral and ethical standpoint.”


About the Author

9 Responses to Religion, Science, and the Academy

  1. I guess the author must be of the opinion that morals and ethics constitute religion and such should be taught in Colleges and schools.
    The reduction of religion down to basic morals and ethics is itself a faulty and defective idea.
    Religion and spiritual values are taught by spiritual practitioners not by professors in College.
    These “slaughterhouses of education” will never be a good platform for teaching about God or religion. Religion is learned and practiced in the religious institutions, not in the slaughterhouses of modern education.
    Going to college to learn about God or religion is like going to a brothel to learn celibacy. It’s not the right place.

  2. To say that religion and science ought to be having a dialogue about “evolution, human embryonic stem cell research, and global warming” is to presume that Religion and Science are about the same thing. If so, science has won – so why bother? It just makes religion look silly. But religion and science are NOT about the same thing. The purpose of science is to unravel mysteries within the physical world. It is not the purpose of science to discover a
    sacred meaning behind the physical world or to arrogantly
    pretend to ‘prove’ that no such meaning exists. The purpose of
    religion is not to explain material phenomena or to tell us what
    ‘really’ happened in history. The purpose of religion is to help
    us perfect and evolve our immaterial souls and discover life’s meaning for ourselves.

    • Andrew,

      Nonetheless they could have a dialogue because each of them has something important to say about these topics. Science can tell us for example that global warming exists and what it might take in numerical values to reduce it. And religion can tell us why we should not take more than we need and what our real necessity is, and thus why there would not be any global warming if we were truly religious, etc. To the extent that it exists, global warming is irreligious. It is about taking more than we need. And religion has much to say about irreligion. Religion provides the greatest motivation for solving the problem.

      • Even the global warming theory is under much scrutiny and criticism by some important scientists of the electric universe school who say that global cooling is the actual problem and it is system wide throughout the planets of our solar system.
        The southern hemisphere has just gone through a winter of record cold as was the last winter up here in the Northern hemisphere.
        As science polices itself and eventually discards some unscientific theories masquerading as science, you might find that global warming was just another bad theory formulated by scientists without proper knowledge or understanding of the solar system electronics to even propose such theories.

        Undoubtedly, “climate change” is the new watchword and global warming is a theory that is under fire by some top scientists in the electric universe school who have scientific evidence that it is cooling and it is a system wide effect showing up on the other planets in our solar system.

        Mankind needs science, but it will take some time for true science to unseat the defective theories of lesser minds and purge science from the snake-oil merchants of bad science and fallible theories.

        • It is hard to predict something where a trend is there but it is not consistent enough either for cooling or warming.
          But here you see Moscow where temperature never went above 78 F hitting 105 F this year.

          Something unusual for sure. I don’t know do you get pleasure out of ridiculing everybody? What does your son do and what credentials does he have in science?

        • Dear sir, I was not trying to ridicule anybody. Maharaja mentioned Global warming, so I thought it might be useful if he is interested in the topic to look into the alternative theories out there being propounded by some top scientists in the field before he takes a side on the scientific facts. As “Swami” we want him to be well-informed and not limited to a narrow section of scientist with one opinion.
          My son has no “credentials”.
          It’s not about my son.
          It’s about educated scientists who have spent their whole lives studying electronics and magnetism.
          Why do you want to make my son the issue and ask about his “credentials”?
          He didn’t propose the theory.
          He didn’t invent the theory.
          He just follows the topic with interest as a mystic not as a scientist.
          If you want to debate the issue then you should debate it with the scientists behind the theory and not a young man who dabbles in it from a spiritual angle.
          Other than that, I am quite sure my son could easily defeat any flimsy argument you might want to propose.
          Obviously, you did NOT read the materials on the web sites I referred, so until you do there is no reason to argue an issue you refuse to study.
          If you studied all the material I provided you wouldn’t be here already attacking my motives or the “credentials” of my son Nitai Prasad.

        • I did not attack your motives. Just wanted to know the credentials of your son. Obviously the people who you referred to are not all electrical engineers but are physicists studying electricity and magnetism who have not been taking seriously yet. It does not mean that they are wrong even though they may not be that respected right now in the mainstream. As far as your son is concerned, you already said that he will defeat any flimsy argument I have so there is no question for debate.

    • Andrew, there are many ways to look at science, just like there are many ways to look at religion. As a scientist, the more I know about this world, the more I appreciate its Grand Architect. And the more I understand about God, spirituality and religion, the more I appreciate how this world makes all our choices possible, how it makes sense, and how it is teaching us all sorts of deep lessons on the way.

      Science and religion are just tools… without us, the user, they are completely dead and passive. It is how we use them that matters. Both science and religion have their abusers too.
      But they can be about the same thing: understanding of the reality, ourselves, and our place in Existence.

      As Maharaja pointed out, our religious consciousness can provide motivation for doing what is scientifically the right thing to do when it comes to solving problems the humanity is facing. All natural religions combine the material and the spiritual spheres of life to form one harmonious whole. The more we play science and religion against each other, the more disharmony we create. That is very much my personal experience.

  3. Anirudh Kumar Satsangi

    Religion and Science have identical goal i.e. Realization of the Ultimate.

    Now I give Radhasoami Faith view of Creation Theory. In Sar Bachan (Poetry) composed by His Holiness Soamiji Maharaj the August Founder of Radhasoami Faith the details of creation and dissolution has been described very scientifically. It is written in this Holy Book: Only He Himself (Supreme Father)and none else was there. There issued forth a great current of spirituality, love and grace (In scientific terminology we may call this current as gravitational wave). This is called His Mauj (Divine Ordainment). This was the first manifestation of Supreme Being. This Divine Ordainment brought into being three regions, viz., Agam, Alakh, and Satnam of eternal bliss. Then a current emerged with a powerful sound. It brought forth the creation of seven Surats or currents of various shades and colours (in scientific terminology we may call it electromagnetic waves). Here the true Jaman or coagulant was given (in scientific terminology this coagulant may be called as weak nuclear force and strong nuclear force). Surats, among themselves, brought the creation into being.

    These currents descended down further and brought the whole universe/multi verse into being i.e. black holes, galaxies etc. were born.

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