email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God50 Voices of DisbeliefA Companion to Buddhist PhilosophyA Companion to Muslim EthicsA Frightening LoveA People's History of ChristianityAdieu to GodAn Ethics for TodayAristotle's ChildrenAugustine's "Confessions"Bad FaithBehind the GospelsBig DreamsBig GodsBody Piercing Saved My LifeBrains, Buddhas, and BelievingBrief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and FaithBuddhism and ScienceBuddhist Boot CampConfucianismConfucianismConfucius and ConfucianismContemplative ScienceCorporal Punishment, Religion, and United States Public SchoolsCourage to SurrenderCross and KhoraDarwin's Gift to Science and ReligionDarwin, God and the Meaning of LifeDeath and the AfterlifeDebating DesignDeeper Than DarwinDivinity of DoubtEmbracing MindEncountering the DharmaEngaging BuddhismEsalenEscape Your Own PrisonEvidence for PsiEvilEvolution and ReligionExplorations in Neuroscience, Psychology and ReligionFaithFaith and Wisdom in ScienceFingerprints of GodFor The Bible Tells Me SoForgivenessFrom Shame to SinGod & TherapyGod Is Not GreatGod Is Not OneGod: The Failed HypothesisHereticHidden DimensionsHooked!Hours with the MysticsHow to See Yourself As You Really AreHow Would Buddha Act?Incorporating Spirituality in Counseling and PsychotherapyInto Great SilenceIslam and the Future of Tolerance: A DialogueJewish DharmaLife After FaithLiving DeeplyLiving with a Wild GodLiving with DarwinMaking Chastity SexyMedicine and Health Care in Early ChristianityMedicine and ReligionMedicine of the PersonMysticism & SpaceNature and the Human SoulNothingOn Life After DeathPanpsychism and the Religious AttitudePathways to SpiritualityPeaceful Death, Joyful RebirthPhilosophers without GodsPhilosophical Myths of the FallPorn UniversityPray the Gay AwayPsychotherapy without the SelfRadical GraceReason, Faith, and RevolutionRecruiting Young LoveReligion without GodReligious and Spiritual Issues in Psychiatric DiagnosisSaving GodScience and NonbeliefScience and Religion at the CrossroadsScience and SpiritualityScience vs. ReligionSecular Philosophy and the Religious TemperamentSelf Hypnosis for Cosmic ConsciousnessSelf, No Self?Sex and the Soul, Updated EditionSmile of the BuddhaSpirit, Mind, and BrainSuperstitionTen Lectures on Psychotherapy and SpiritualityThe Accidental MindThe Belief InstinctThe Bodhisattva's BrainThe Cambridge Companion to AtheismThe Cambridge Companion to Science and ReligionThe Case for GodThe Chosen OneThe Dao of NeuroscienceThe Dark Night of the SoulThe Delight of Being OrdinaryThe Fundamentalist MindsetThe God DebatesThe God GeneThe Hero with a Thousand FacesThe Improbability of GodThe Joy of SecularismThe Language God TalksThe Language of GodThe MiracleThe New AtheismThe New Religious IntoleranceThe Philosophy of ReligionThe Power of FaithThe Power of ForgivenessThe Power of Religion in the Public SphereThe Psychology of Religious FundamentalismThe Psychology of SpiritualityThe Puppet and the DwarfThe Secular OutlookThe Sense of SelfThe Spirit of the BuddhaThe Spirit of Tibetan BuddhismThe Tibetan Book of the DeadThe Trauma of Everyday LifeThe Watkins Dictionary of Religions and Secular FaithsThe Watkins Dictionary of SymbolsTheology, Psychology and the Plural SelfThoughts Without A ThinkerTop SecretUnifying HinduismWays of KnowingWhat Is Buddhist Enlightenment?What Should I Believe?When the Impossible HappensWhy I Left, Why I StayedWilliam James on Ethics and FaithWriting as a Sacred PathYoga, Karma, and RebirthZealot
Two preliminary preoccupations would, more than probably, arise when deciding upon reading Elaine Howard Ecklund's book Science vs. Religion (at least they did for me). First, when a book, as this one is, is based on statistical evidence, it is not uncommon to discover that, in the end, what made that particular book relevant relied solely on the statistical numbers. All that had any need of being transmitted is already present in the graphics and percentages and all conclusions drawn from these numbers and ciphers are superfluous as already evident from the start. Second, an American scholar writing on science versus religion, that is science in opposition/contrast to religion, in the midst of an ongoing heated controversy between Darwinists and creationists/intelligent design-ists that is mainly taking place in the Anglo-Saxon world, does not predict much good.
Fortunately, Elaine Howard Ecklund's book turns out to be nothing of this kind, disproving extremely well the preliminary worries, and results to be a very thought-provoking work of academic scholarship. Even though statistics and numbers play an important role, they, however, are only the starting point of a message that goes far beyond them and, regarding the second preoccupation, the floor is never ceded "to the hotheads on both sides of this contentious issue [the controversy between Darwinists and creationists]". 
The basic claim of the book is, as stated in the opening sentences by the author, that "[M]uch of what we believe about the faith lives of elite scientists is wrong. The 'insurmountable hostility' between science and religion is a caricature, […], hardly representative of reality".  However, even though what is generally believed regarding the faith lives of scientists and the enmity between science and religion is wrong or a caricature, very little is being done to overcome these erroneous convictions. In fact, the general skepticism of the nonscientific (religious) public towards scientists and that of (nonreligious) scientists towards the religious nonscientists persists as there is a fundamental lack of understanding of the other's vocabulary.
Let us, however, start with some of the more important numbers and percentages that resulted from Ecklund's study. Based on a web and phone survey of 1646 natural and social scientists of 21 elite research universities in the United States (an impressive response rate of 74.8%) and an in-depth interview with 275 of these scientists, the study was able to discover that, much to what could have been expected, 64% of scientists does not believe in or does not know whether or not there is, and there is no way of finding out, a God; and this contrary to 6% of the general nonscientific U.S. population. However, 71% of the scientists who participated in the survey are convinced that there are basic truths in religions (84% of the general U.S. population does so too), and 47% do profess some form of religious affiliation.
While the just mentioned statistics are not without value (and more could have been reported), Ecklund is not primarily interested in mere numbers and percentages. In fact, the whole work is interwoven with a great amount of extremely interesting personal tales (be they anonymous) of the scientist that struggle with the nature of the relationship that could or should (not) exist between science and religion. Stories of scientists who try to engage with their students (mostly religious not-yet scientists) on topics that relate to religion, or those regarding scholars who are firmly convinced that there is no place for religious topics in the university buildings, the accounts of the 'in the closet' religious academics who are afraid of coming out to their colleagues and students, and the ever-present admissions of the extremely conflict-like relation these scholars (religious and none) have with the broader public (religious and none), all of these stories tell of the difficulties that exist when science is related to religion.
Even though all these stories explicitly tell of the very complex relationship that exists between religion and science, they, however, all have another, and more implicit dimension. In fact, they all are, in one way or another, stories that give the account of the difference between the scientific conception of (non-)religiousness and science and the conception of (non-)religiousness and science as can be found within the broader public in the United States (be it that regarding this difficulty the United States could represent almost any country in the Western world); and exactly this is what is ever present and at the heart of the discourse undertaken by Ecklund. Even when efforts are made to cross the borders, which unfortunately happens all too rarely, a fundamental problem remains: scientific lay and (non)religious members of the general public lack the basic scientific knowledge to seriously talk with members of the scientific community on their 'fears' of science, and scientific (non)religious scholars are confronted with a similar "language deficit"  when they want to converse with the members of the general public on their 'fears' of (popular) religion. For as long as this vocabulary default remains as antithetical as it is today, little progress will be made – fortunately, books like this one from Ecklund, do help in overcoming the initial hesitation.
In conclusion, if one is looking to find solutions to the science-religion problematic, then this is not the book to read (but, probably, not a single book has been written that actually does so). It should be added, and this in favor of the author, that Ecklund never advanced the idea of doing so. If, however, one is interested in understanding somewhat more on how the academical world is dealing with the complex relation between science and religion, and this not just on a theoretical level but through the actual experiences of elite scholars (be it that the categories of scholars included in this study is limited to those working in the social and the natural sciences), then this book is a must. In the end, this is just a very good, fluently written, extremely informative, and most of all courageous book that should be read by everybody who is minimally interested in science and/or religion.
© 2010 Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte
Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte, Ph.D., Rome