A book review of
Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think
Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher P. Scheitle
(Oxford University Press, 2018)
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I have a talking mirror for you to look into — seriously. Stand right here, gaze into this glass, and listen to what it says:
You appear to be a Christian. Am I right? Well, that means you are probably antiscience. Most Christians are, if I may speak bluntly. The problem is, they don’t pay attention to science, or give it the respect it deserves, and never learn enough science to have well-informed views about important questions, such as anthropogenic global warming, the myth of human free will, or the truth of evolution.
Still, you have a nice face. And I like that shirt.
Okay, so the mirror isn’t completely rude. But chances are, the mirror has badly misjudged you, at least insofar as your views of science are concerned. You may be antisomething, but “science” isn’t it.
That is the message of the new book Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think by Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund and her colleague sociologist, Christopher P. Scheitle of West Virginia University. Ecklund and Scheitle, whose field of research is assessing the role of religion in American public life, don’t want simply to measure (using surveys and statistical analysis) how religious belief affects one’s perception of science. They want to do at least that, of course, and their book is an interesting compilation of often surprising findings, which they organize around a series of “myths” (“Myth: Religious people dislike technology,” or “Myth: Religious people don’t care about the environment”).
Rather, Ecklund and Scheitle also want to improve the science–religion relationship, like a peacemaking neighbor who tries to reconcile feuding families living next door to each other on a suburban cul-de-sac. To that end, each chapter in Religion vs. Science ends with a handful of “lessons” about how the scientific and religious communities can learn to live together more amicably.
These peacemaking efforts are admirable, and the “myths” that Ecklund and Scheitle explode with surprising data certainly do need debunking. In particular, contrary to the false image projected by the distorting cultural mirror described above, many Christians actually know a great deal about science, may pursue it themselves professionally, and show significant scientific reasoning ability when tested. Research conducted independently of that done by Ecklund and Scheitle, and published after Religion vs. Science, shows that (for instance) skepticism or doubt about “evolution” on the part of Christians “is not due to a lack of scientific reasoning ability,” and “acceptance of evolution is not indicative of high scientific ability among religious individuals.”1
So no wonder you don’t recognize yourself in the talking mirror. That’s not really you.
Science Is Not Naturalism; Naturalism Is Not Science. But Ecklund and Scheitle miss entirely the central issue for many Christians — or those of my acquaintance, at any rate, as I haven’t gathered the same depth of sociological data that Ecklund and Scheitle deploy. Their book has no index entries for the following key terms:
- methodological naturalism
- philosophical naturalism
- science, definition of
- scientific materialism
Religion vs. Science does include an index entry for “atheism,” but that word is tied in the very same entry to “science and,” meaning that the rather sparse treatment of atheism in the book concerns the atheistic beliefs of individual scientists but not the definition of science itself. Yet that definition is where the key issue lies.
The equation of “science” with “naturalism” or “materialism” — meaning, the explanation of the natural world strictly in terms of physical or material entities and processes — has been the locus of discontent for many Christians about the enterprise of science, since the late nineteenth century. Nowadays this philosophy travels mostly under the name of methodological naturalism (MN), as many of its defenders are (paradoxically) themselves Christians, and hence, not philosophical naturalists — another name for atheists. MN is especially strong among science faculty at prominent Christian colleges, and is endorsed by such organizations as BioLogos, the leading proponents of theistic evolution in the United States.
Ecklund and Scheitle bypass completely this central question of the definition of science — namely, whether MN should govern our understanding of origins, or another philosophy of explanation that allows for intelligent design — but the debate about evolution in evangelical circles has focused on it since Philip Johnson’s influential book Darwin on Trial, more than twenty-five years ago. Johnson famously turned his precision analytical lens on MN, exposing its question-begging character as promulgated by the National Academy of Sciences: “The Academy thus defined ‘science’ in such a way that advocates of supernatural creation may neither argue for their own position nor dispute the claims of the scientific establishment. That may be one way to win an argument, but it is not satisfying to anyone who thinks it is possible that God really did have something to do with creating mankind, or that some of the claims that scientists make under the heading of ‘evolution’ may be false.”2
Despite the favorable press it receives both from secular and Christian sources, MN is not a philosophically or theologically neutral rule. The absence of any discussion of MN in Religion vs. Science is therefore telling, because the omission may indicate that Ecklund and Scheitle do not fully grasp why even scientifically highly literate Christians nonetheless withhold their assent from “evolution.” The “science” of evolution looks to those Christians like a philosophy in disguise — a philosophy they have every reason to doubt. —Paul A. Nelson
Paul A. Nelson studied evolutionary theory and the philosophy of science at the University of Chicago, where he received his PhD. He is a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute and adjunct faculty in the MA Program in Science and Religion at Biola University.
- Manwaring et al., “Scientific Reasoning Ability Does Not Predict Scientific Views on Evolution among Religious Individuals,” Evolution: Education and Outreach 11, 2 (2018): 7.
- Philip Johnson, Darwin on Trial (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 8.