Elaine Ecklund is still pretending that science and religion are compatible

February 18, 2014 • 10:07 am

For years, sociologist Elaine Ecklund has made a career at Rice University by surveying religionists, scientists, and religious scientists, and twisting her survey data to show that science and religion are compatible. Science are “spiritual,” she says, and there are surprisingly more religious scientists than we think. (Go here to see the many posts I’ve written about her devious ways of spinning her data.) And she has pretended that her agenda is neutral: that she has no overt objective. After all, a sociologist must assume the mantle of objectivity when doing such surveys.  But I suppose that’s hard when one is funded by the John Templeton Foundation, as is Ecklund.  Templeton, after all, wants certain results.

But now Ecklund’s totally dropped the mantle of objectivity. That’s clear from both a video I’ll put up tomorrow as well as a news release from her university outlining her latest research: “Misonceptions of science and religion found in new study.”

Apparently that new study hasn’t yet been published, but I’m sure it’s forthcoming as a Templeton-funded book, and Ecklund talked about it last week at the AAAS meetings here in Chicago (I’ll show the video from that meeting tomorrow). Ecklund has now openly admitted that her aim is to show that science and religion are compatible, that people who think they aren’t are mistaken, and that we must promote such compatibility so that religious people will not be afraid to become scientists and government funding agencies won’t cut science because they see it as a vehicle for atheists. In other words, she’s driven by an agenda. That takes the “scientist” out of her status as “social scientist.”

What are the “misconceptions” in her latest work? This: “that science and religion can’t work in collaboration.”

Ecklund apparently surveyed garden-variety scientists (as opposed to the “elite” scientists of her previous work), as well as the general population and, especially, evangelical Christians.  What she found, as described in the study, is this:

We found that nearly 50 percent of evangelicals believe that science and religion can work together and support one another,” Ecklund said. “That’s in contrast to the fact that only 38 percent of Americans feel that science and religion can work in collaboration.”

The study also found that 18 percent of scientists attended weekly religious services, compared with 20 percent of the general U.S. population; 15 percent consider themselves very religious (versus 19 percent of the general U.S. population); 13.5 percent read religious texts weekly (compared with 17 percent of the U.S. population); and 19 percent pray several times a day (versus 26 percent of the U.S. population).

The latter implies that scientists are just as religious as “regular” Americans, and, as I’ll show in a minute, that’s not quite the case.  Ecklund has claimed this before, but, as Jason Rosenhouse noted, she had to finagle her data to reach that conclusion. But let me first note Ecklund’s lack of objectivity, as seen in her own words:

“This is a hopeful message for science policymakers and educators, because the two groups don’t have to approach religion with an attitude of combat,” Ecklund said. “Rather, they should approach it with collaboration in mind.”

In principle, her job is not to find a “hopeful message,” but to find the facts, be they hopeless or hopeful. But of course Templeton isn’t funding her to find opposition to science and religion.

Here are some other facts that Ecklund doesn’t mention:

  • A 2009 Pew poll showed that 55% of the U.S. public answered “yes” to the question “Are science and religion often in conflict?”As expected, the perception of general conflict was higher among people who weren’t affiliated with a church (68%).
  • Surveying American scientists as a whole, regardless of status, a 2009 Pew poll showed 33% who admitted belief in God, with 41% atheists or agnostics (the rest either didn’t answer, didn’t know, or believed in a “universal spirit or a higher power.”  Among the general public, on the other hand, belief in God ran at 83% and nonbelief at 4%. In other words, the average scientist is ten times as likely to be an atheist or an agnostic than is the average American.
  • The degree of scientists’ nonbelief goes up with their professional status. Ecklund’s own earlier work found that 62% of scientists working at “elite” universities were atheists or agnostics, with only 33% professing belief in God. And, considering members of America’s most elite scientific body, the National Academy of Sciences, we see that only 7% believe in a personal God and 93% are atheists or agnostics.  These figures, and the correlation of nonbelief with professional achievement, are well known.
  • Finally, a 2011 survey by the Barna Group, a religious polling organization, found that, among the six major reasons young Christians leave the church, an important one is that they perceive their churches as unfriendly to science:

Reason #3 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science.
One of the reasons young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith is the tension they feel between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is “Christians are too confident they know all the answers” (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that “Christianity is anti-science” (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have “been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.” Furthermore, the research shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.

What Ecklund is doing is simply ignoring these obvious signs that there is indeed an air of combat, or at least of incompatibility.  What Ecklund sees as “compatibility,” however, seems to be that both religionists and nonbelievers can work together on issues of “common good”:

“Most of what you see in the news are stories about these two groups at odds over the controversial issues, like teaching creationism in the schools. And the pundits and news panelists are likely the most strident representatives for each group,” she said. “It might not be as riveting for television, but consider how often you see a news story about these groups doing things for their common good. There is enormous stereotyping about this issue and not very good information.”

Well, given that 46% of Americans are young-earth creationists, and almost all of those are religious, I’d say that scientists and believers are considerably at odds about teaching creationism in the schools. In fact, in a 2005 Harris Poll, 55% of Americans thought that creationism, ID, and evolution should all be taught in public schools, 23% creationism only, and 4% ID only. That makes 82% of Americans who want some form of religious-origin stories taught in public schools. Distressingly, only 12% wanted only evolution to be taught! Is that working together for the common good?

And of course “common good” could mean values that some atheists and believers have in common, including issues like gay rights or fighting poverty.  But we don’t need surveys to do that; we form alliances based on our interests and perceptions of our allies, not on sociological polls. I’ll tell you this, though: if I wanted to give medical care to sick Africans, I’d rather work with a secular organization like Doctors Without Borders than with a religious organization, simply because the religious groups often proselytize.

Finally, here are some more signs that Ecklund considers “counterintuitive” and hopeful (my emphasis on the first point):

  • Nearly 60 percent of evangelical Protestants and 38 percent of all surveyed believe “scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories or explanations.”
  •  27 percent of Americans feel that science and religion are in conflict [note that her figures are about half that of other recent surveys]
  • Of those who feel science and religion are in conflict, 52 percent sided with religion. [JAC: that’s near the results of a 2006 magazine poll of Americans showing that 64% of them thought that if a fact about science contradicted a tenet of their religious beliefs, they’d stick to those beliefs and reject the facts.]
  • 48 percent of evangelicals believe that science and religion can work in collaboration.
  • 22 percent of scientists think most religious people are hostile to science.
  • Nearly 20 percent of the general population think religious people are hostile to science.
  • Nearly 22 percent of the general population think scientists are hostile to religion.
  • Nearly 36 percent of scientists have no doubt about God’s existence.

Notably missing here is the crucial figure: the proportion of scientists (comared to the general public) that are atheists and agnostics. To me, that disparity clearly shows a conflict between the religious and scientific mindset, reflecting either a penchant for nonbelievers to go into science or an erosion of religious belief when one becomes a scientist. (It’s undoubtedly both, but there is clear evidence that the latter is often the case.)

Finally, the press release shows a bit of irony. Ecklund finds that evangelical Christians who work in science are actually more religious than their evangelical brethren who don’t work in science. Why is that? Here’s Ecklund’s explanation:

“Evangelical scientists feel that they’ve been put under pressure or they find themselves in what they view to be more hostile environments,” she said. “They potentially see themselves as more religious, because they’re seeing the contrast between the two groups all the time.”

Does she not realize that that undercuts her whole thesis? If science and religion are pals, where does the “hostility” come from?

76 thoughts on “Elaine Ecklund is still pretending that science and religion are compatible

  1. Most of Ecklund’s work only establishes that many religious Americans FEEL that science and religion are compatible. That isn’t evidence of compatibility! That’s just perception! She’s setting the bar rather low, I think.

    1. Exactly.

      Faith is foundational to religion. It’s also the one unforgivable sin in science.

      Humans are quite adept at the fine art of doublethink, which is how so many religious people can claim to appreciate science and how an handful of scientists can embrace religion..but that does no more to demonstrate compatibility of the two than incidence rates of extramarital affairs demonstrate compatibility of marriage and infidelity.



    2. Many Americans also feel that mainstream medicine is compatible with alternative medicine. Forget the opposing underlying theories and the completely different epistemic methods: you can use both! Science and bullshit, working together in harmony as long as you don’t ever think too hard or worry about consistency.

      If we all agree to not worry about consistency, what couldn’t be “reconciled?”:

  2. What are the “misconceptions” in her latest work. This: “that science and religion can’t work in collaboration.”


  3. Ecklund is just making this up. According to my analyses in the General Social Survey (one of the only polls that is scientifically valid these days) even a broad categorization that includes engineers and medical professionals finds significant and substantial differences from the general population on beliefs about the Bible, church attendance, rejection of religious identification, and non-theism. 30% of these “scientists” don’t believe in a god, while the figure is 16% in the general population.

      1. I’ve done this controlling for college degree attainment. Scientists are less religious than other college educated Americans, though the least educated are the most religious. That relationship is reciprocal, as I’ve shown in several publications using longitudinal data on parents and children—religious fundamentalism hinders educational attainment and educational attainment reduces religious fundamentalism.

  4. What type of “working together” does Eckland address when she says Evangelicals believe they can “work together” with scientists? I suspect that it means “teach the controversy” so if you don’t include Jesus in your science curricula then you are being a difficult to work with person.

    If it’s not “teach the controversy” then how does she explain the multiple times atheist (since many scientists are atheists) donations that have been rejected by Christian organizations or the many times Christians refused to allow atheists to help those less fortunate? Maybe they were the other 50%?

    1. By “working together” my guess is they don’t mean to invite scientists to give “lessons” on Sunday from the pulpit.

    2. Yeah, that was my initial question too. What does it even mean to say they “work together?” Do some theists find inspiration to study science in their religion? Okay, that probably happens. Do some scientists find that learning about science makes them feel more spiritual? Okay, that probably happens too. But if you ask for a more concrete form of ‘work together,’ there isn’t any. Religions do not generally contribute testable hypotheses that have helped forward scientific progress along. And scientific advances have not reduced the number of sects or resulted in the world’s theists coming to a consenses or “better” way to understand God.

      She seems to be using an extremely broad concept of “work together.” Her X works together with Y is more like “X doesn’t impede Y” than it is “X makes a positive contribution to the success of Y.” But it’s really the latter that people generally mean when, in the vernacular, they talk about things working together.

      1. Right. If you broaden the definition of “works together” to include anything other than direct personal conflict, you could harmonize science and religion just by taking Jerry out to dinner and inviting a priest. They can “work together” on eating some chicken. Harmony! They can trade desserts. Each one taking something from the other! They can agree to split the check. Compatibility!

        1. They can also learn something from each other. Jerry can give the priest a crash course on biology, and the priest can show Jerry how to turn water into wine — or, at least, wine into blood.


          1. No, if the definition of science/religion ‘compatibility’ has become sufficiently wide enough, then Jerry and the priest can simply swap pie recipes and Ecklund would triumphantly parade that fact as evidence that each side learned from the other!

            1. Ecumenicalism reduced to its essence: a pie-baking competition without the competition, and prizes for all — even the mud pies…and, yes, the cow pies, too! Isn’t that just loverly?



              1. Ecumenicism reduced to its essence: Oh, look at all the different religious beliefs — so let’s talk about something else!

              2. It’s as if they consider religious belief in the same category as flatulence and that crazy uncle nobody ever wants to talk about….


    3. What type of “working together” does Eckland address when she says Evangelicals believe they can “work together” with scientists?

      ‘Splainin how all those animals fit on the ark.

          1. Longer than that. 40 days and 40 nights was just the rain. “The waters prevailed” for 150 days, and perhaps more than 10 months passed before they set forth again on land. (Gen 7-8)

            Very oddly, the ark rested on Mt Ararat during the seventh month, but mountain tops were not seen until the tenth month. (Gen 8:4-5)

              1. If I was going to be locked aboard a crowded ark for 10+ months with family and animals, I’d certainly drink a deep draught.

              1. May I suggest?

                My preferred formulation, especially for divinities, is s/h/it. I find it flows off both the fingers and the tongue much easier, and is much more representative.



      1. Maybe the Evangelicals can get together with the scientists and agree to split the difference: the earth is, like, a million years old. And evolution was unguided … except for humans.

        C’mon, everybody. Let’s work out some compromises!

  5. Frankly, I think that religion (since it appears inevitable) should try to get along with science. I DO NOT think science should try to get along with religion.

  6. “Nearly 60 percent of evangelical Protestants and 38 percent of all surveyed believe ‘scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories or explanations.'”


    1. Once Ecklund publishes this, someone needs to examine her methods section carefully to see whether she is invoking miracles.

    2. You have to admit, though, it’d make papers easier to write:

      Reviewer: What is your proposed mechanism for the effect you present in Fig 2?

      You: Miracle.

      Reviewer: What evidence do you have to support the second claim you make in your discussion?

      You: Divine revelation.

      Reviewer: Very well. Your paper is accepted with those revisions.

  7. We found that nearly 50 percent of evangelicals believe that science and religion can work together and support one another,” Ecklund said. “That’s in contrast to the fact that only 38 percent of Americans feel that science and religion can work in collaboration.”

    Talk about ignoring ones’ own data. So, you surveyed people and found that over 60% of the public at large and over 50% of evangelical christians don’t think science and religion can work together…and this somehow supports the point that they can???

    1. To Ecklund, that’s proof that evangelicals are smarter than the average bear person. She takes it as axiomatic that scienceandreligioncanworktogether, and the survey is just to see how many people realise that she, and those nice Templeton money people, are right.

  8. It seems to me she’s lying for the greater good: more funding for science. To decide whether this is a good idea you’d have to weigh your distaste for misrepresenting science in the name of accomidationism vs the benefits of increased funding and greater public and political acceptance of some superficial notion of science. You’d also need to make your best guess as to how the 2 choice would pan out over coming decades. If non-accomidation would mean 5% less money but other than that we’d maintain our dominance and discoveries would come apace then to hell with accomidationism. On the other hand if 5% more funding would make the difference between stopping or not stopping an asteroid thats destined to hit the earth then we need to go with accomidationism!

    1. The aggravating thing is (IMO) she doesn’t really even need to lie. No scientists seem to be complaining about her surveying techniques or questions, or disputing the raw data at all. And this is a subject of regular public interest, so she’s pretty secure from the perspective of doing research that will appeal to private funding sources looking to get their name in the papers. But despite these positive aspects, she tries to spin the data interpretation one specific way, which her own data doesn’t really support. That’s the point at which folk like Jerry start to lose scientific respect for her.

      Contrast her approach to PEW or Gallup any one of the number of more truly neutral survey shops. They do surveys, and we consume them. We discuss them, find them interesting, try and figure out what they mean. Nobody blames Gallup or thinks less of them simply because they report the number of creationists went up last year: they earn our respect by doing their survey job right. Nobody is looking to kill the messengers in this area, regardless of the message. Ecklund could probably make a very good living and contribute to our understanding of social attitudes towards religion without hyping accommodationism the way she does. Yet, she does it anyway. That’s the annoying part (at least to me).

  9. So 50% of evangelicals think science and religion are compatible? Thats only because they dont include evolution, climate science or geology as being within ‘science’
    Of course our side does this too. The only reason Gould could put forward is NOMA idea is by coming up with a ridiculously limited notion of religion

  10. Elaine Ecklund you don’t need to do these surveys. Save yourself the time and the effort. You just need an armchair and a brain to think with. But I guess you must lack one or both of these requisites. What a waste of a career.

    1. There is already good data to use, why go out there & get your own data? The worst part is actually collecting the stupid data!

      1. You don’t need to collect any data. You just need to think about what exactly science and faith are. Then you realise just how diametrically opposite they are. One is based on reason, logic and evidence and the other isn’t (by definition). So how can they be compatible? True, some scientists manage to do science and have faith but that doesn’t mean science and faith are compatible.

  11. 1) Science & Religion should “collaborate” on what, exactly?

    2) “… scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories or explanations.”

    So, physics is true, except when it ain’t. Got it. This ‘compatibility’ can only exist if one keeps Science and Faith isolated from each other, yet Faith-based claims still trump Science when the two clash?


  12. Elaine Ecklund, listen. People who have faith want desperately for their religious beliefs to be true. They need science to be compatible with religion. They can no longer support a cohesive believe system that allows for their faith and science to be compatible, so they want the compatibility to be true, just like their hopes for a transcendent life.

    1. Actually, I think that Ecklund herself is trying to say this to scientists. Play nice, pleeeeez. The Little People have their needs. Temper the wind to the shorn lamb.

    2. OK…so I just go into Toronto to the opera for one evening, and I come back to 27 gazillion (I counted them)posts from you guys, so I don’t have the patience to look for the TP thread from a few days ago, BUT I just HAD to report back to Diana that the Canadian Opera Company does the TP HER way (and not mine). This would be quite off-topic, except that we are discussing religious BS…

      If anyone’s interested, it was a wonderful production of Mozart’s Così fan Tutte, directed by famous Canuck movie director Atom Egoyan.
      Sets were full of butterflies and Frida Kahlo’s bleeding heart. Not your momma’s Così.

  13. We found that nearly 50 percent of evangelicals believe that science and religion can work together and support one another,” Ecklund said. “That’s in contrast to the fact that only 38 percent of Americans feel that science and religion can work in collaboration.”

    Eckland here is acting as if the evangelicals believing that science and religion “can work together and support one another” means they’re willing to accept theistic evolution and change their interpretation of scripture to fit modern discoveries.

    But I’m afraid the high percentage only reflects the number of evangelicals who think that science is finding evidence for the Flood, verifying the Shroud of Turin, and discarding the Theory of Evolution.

    One of the big problems with a survey like this is that it fails to account for pseudoscience. People who believe crank theories would never say they’re against science. They LOVE science! In fact, they love science a lot more than the so-called “scientific establishment” does, given that this science-hating group has sneered at great new breakthroughs like ID, homeopathy, and ESP.

    Nearly 60 percent of evangelical Protestants and 38 percent of all surveyed believe “scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories or explanations.”

    They should be careful what they wish for.

    “We, the scientists of the world, would like to announce that we have very carefully considered miracles, both as phenomenon in themselves or as possible parts of our explanations in various fields such as cosmology or biology. The result of our consideration is as follows: there is no convincing evidence for miracles and thus no reason to believe in them. Miracles are now officially no longer out of the reach of science. Thank you.”

    Donations accepted in lieu of flowers.

    1. Sastra,
      That next to last paragraph is exactly what I thought. Lets consider that miricals might happen. What is the evidence? None. OK, they probably don’t happen.

      And then there was this this lovely factoid in her results:
      “Nearly 36 percent of scientists have no doubt about God’s existence” Right, well I have no doubt about verious gods’ existence: they don’t.

  14. the high percentage only reflects the number of evangelicals who think that science is finding evidence for the Flood, verifying the Shroud of Turin, and discarding the Theory of Evolution.

    Or worse, it may reflect the number of evangelicals who think science ought to find such evidence. IOW, evangelicals could be interpreting the question this way “Sure, we can work together. Just as soon as science gives up this godless secularism and funding dollars for science are distributed based on how much glory they will bring to Jesus. Then science and religion will work together.”

    1. …on the shroud of Turin, I assume everyone has seen the “miraculous science” paper reported a week or so ago: The radiocarbon, Italian scientists say, happened to be enhanced by a neutron burst liberated by an earthquake in Jerusalem AD 33… I didn’t read the original, but imagine that the proposed epicenter is the True Holy Tomb.

      I’m sure that’s the kind of science an evangelical or dark-age catholic can embrace…

            1. It was LOL time.

              But it could even be worse, if major earthquakes obscures C14 dating the method is unreliable. (And we would know about it by now.)

              Talk about trying to throw science under the bus.

  15. 38 percent of all surveyed believe “scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories or explanations.”

    Let me be blunt (how unlike me!):


    Thirty-eight percent of all surveyed? The only way I could imagine a result like this is the stunt the Disco Tute pulled in creating their “Darwinism Denial” list. The question was couched in such a way as to seem reasonable.

    Is Ecklund suggesting that 38% of the scientists surveyed are crackpots? Seems a likely conclusion to me.

    Miracles, bah! I don’t even like Miracle Whip!

    1. I challenge the word “miracle” when people use it in everyday speech. It is often used to exaggerate the importance of something, as in “that goal was a miracle”. Just ask for a more accurate word and make someone think about it.

      1. Better yet be sure to give credit where it is due. If someone says, his survival was a “miracle”, say “no, it was the result of highly skilled doctors and all the scientists and engineers who produced the medical system that saved his life”.

  16. Maybe Ecklund could study why the science/religion situation is still so tiresome in the US, whilst Europe seems to have grown out of it. I also don’t have the impression religion vigorously tries to invade science in, for example, Japan.

    Now there’s an interesting area for sociological research. But I somehow wonder Tempeton would be interested.

  17. She should leave religion as a religion. Why does she want to compare with science? She feels challenged? (obviously.) The more she tries to compare her religious beliefs with science, the more she exposes the frivolities of her beliefs. I would advise her to keep her beliefs to herself and display her ignorance in public.

  18. What annoys me the most is the opening sentence of the press release asserts that a point of view (Ecklund’s, we presume) is ‘shown’ by the survey:
    The public’s view that science and religion can’t work in collaboration is a misconception that stunts progress, according to a new survey”

    The survey shows neither that the public’s view is a misconception (it’s just a misconception by Ecklund’s lights), nor that this stunts progress. It’d be a remarkable survey if it could show things like that. This is opinion masquerading as science.

  19. Does Ecklund and other sociologists use statistical methods to identify and correct experimenter bias?

    It’s virtually impossible to take her seriously: the ‘magisteria’ are overlapping AND collaborative??

  20. Why does she survey just the scientists and general population? How about we survey priests, ministers, etc., and find out what percentage of THEM agrees with evolution and Big Bang theory? That should give us a better understanding whether science and religion are compatible.

    1. But, but … that would be _science_, trying to see if her hypothesis is erroneous.

      Ecklund obviously doesn’t want that, this is after all pattern search of naive theology à la accommodationism. Besides, it would show her wrong, and she must know that.

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