Secularity and science: What scientists really think about religion

Kathryn Kundrod
Graduate Student, Rice University Department of Bioengineering, and Intern, Center for Health and Biosciences


In the United States, science and religion are commonly presented as fundamentally opposed frameworks. Issues including evolution, climate change and vaccines tend to have “evidence-based” and “faith-based” positions. With the example of climate change, 97% of climate scientists believe the Earth is warming due to human activity; in comparison, only 28% of white evangelical Christians believe this to be true. These sorts of perceived clashes lead to divisive policymaking and changes to public school curricula, among other public debates and issues. 

As a non-religious scientist who grew up in the United States, I have at times found it challenging to see the compatibility between religious and scientific thought. I admittedly did not put much thought into the compatibility of religion in science until I interned at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) when I was an undergraduate. The director of the NIH, Dr. Francis Collins, is a prominent advocate for the compatibility of science and religion. During my time at the NIH, due almost entirely to Collins’ advocacy, I questioned my own biases about the compatibility of science and religion for the first time and found that I had some concerns about religion’s effect on scientific objectivity. 

As I’ve read more generally about bias in science, I’ve started to change my position on what scientific objectivity means. By the time I got to graduate school, I had become frustrated with attempts to keep social issues and inequalities I care about — gender, sexuality, race — out of science in the name of objectivity. At this point in my education, Erin Cech’s research on the “culture of disengagement” within science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) strongly resonated with me. Cech argues that ignoring the social context of engineering to preserve “objectivity” in engineering education decreases student commitment to public welfare over the course of their education. Around the same time, my graduate advisor,  Rebecca Richards-Kortum, published an op-ed that argued that diversity within STEM is a matter of life and death. It seemed obvious to me that the attempt to “keep science objective” perpetuates inequalities within STEM work environments, defines the sorts of research topics that scientists pursue, increases health disparities in many cases, and further, biases scientific findings by disregarding the role of the scientist’s own perspectives. 

Yet, with my strong pro-diversity stance, I still saw religion as somewhat incompatible with science. It was not until I read “Secularity and Science: What Scientists Around the World Really Think About Religion” that I saw the importance of considering religion as a form of diversity that should not be siloed out of scientific work. Science cannot be considered without the context of its practitioners, and many scientists globally are religious. Scientists’ religious backgrounds, like all other parts of scientists’ identities and personal histories, impact their work to varying degrees; in understanding this, we should not try to keep religion out of science as is arguably our inclination in the United States. Instead, we should strive to understand the broader context within which science operates. I applaud Ecklund, et al., for their thoughtful and thorough interrogation of the relationship between science and religion globally. Their findings challenge the reader to consider the cultural context of the biases they might hold about the role of religion within science and the role of science within religion. 

“Secularity and Science” investigates the relationship between science and religion in eight countries around the world in order to probe the question of what scientists really think about religion. In the United States, we tend to perceive science and religion as fundamentally opposed, and so the predominantly U.S.-based research team sought to investigate whether a higher commitment to science leads to a reduced commitment to religion globally. “Secularity and Science” argues that the framework of science-religion incompatibility is a Western one, and that many scientists in Eastern countries tend to find religion and science compatible.

Ecklund, et al., surveyed over 20,000 scientists within the fields of biology and physics, including in-person and web surveys, in eight countries. Over 100 interviews were conducted per country, producing a wealth of qualitative data to analyze. The eight study sites — the United States, United Kingdom, France, Italy, Turkey, India and Taiwan/Hong Kong — were selected based on diversity of geographic region, religiosity of the population, secularity of the state and state-church relationship, science infrastructure, and language proficiencies of the research team. Selected findings from their research include: the United States is characterized by hostility between science and religion, driven by public sphere discourse around religion, and religious scientists face discrimination, which could hurt racial and gender diversity efforts; France practices “assertive secularism,” meaning science and religion dialogues are unlikely, which could potentially lead to religious intolerance; Turkish scientists view science and religion as compatible and actually tend to become more religious with higher levels of scientific education; and Indian scientists see morality and science as being highly connected.

Of course, a study of this magnitude has to be controlled in scope. In limiting the scope, Ecklund, et al., did not consider countries that have earlier-stage developing scientific infrastructure, such as countries within sub-Saharan Africa. As a global health researcher with ties to research communities in Malawi and Mozambique, I would have been interested to know how a more resource-limited country views the relationships between religion and science. Therefore, I would argue that the findings are not necessarily generalizable globally. Further, the scope was limited to biologists and physicists, the defense of which was clearly and logically presented. I do wonder, though, if scientists in other fields, and more broadly researchers in STEM, would corroborate the findings presented in the book. Hopefully future studies will address these questions. That being said, “Secularity and Science” provided me with a deeper understanding of the cultural contexts and perceptions of religion and science compatibility in the United States and abroad.  

The Baker Institute will be hosting an event Secularity and Science: What Scientists Around the World Really Think About Religion on Tuesday, September 24, 2019 from 6-8:30 p.m., where Ecklund will discuss the book’s findings. Following the discussion, copies of the book will be available for sale and signing. 

This post originally appeared in Medium.