Elaine Ecklund still taking Templeton cash to show that science and religion are compatible

March 18, 2015 • 12:00 pm

Oh Lord, Elaine Ecklund is at it again. And by “it,” I mean “taking money from the Templeton Foundation, making a survey, and then interpreting the data to show what Templeton wants: a finding that science and religion are in harmony.”

Ecklund’s latest efforts, which haven’t yet been published but were the subject of a talk at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meetings, are summarized by Science Daily. (The Rice University blurb, from where Ecklund works as a professor of sociology and director of the Religion and Public Life program, notes that Templeton funded this research.) And the upshot of Ecklund’s research (i.e., data masaging) is that evangelical Christians don’t reject science as much as we think they do.  Here’s her rationale:

Ecklund noted that evangelicals are of interest in this study because they constitute approximately 26 percent of the population in the U.S. and are often considered the most hostile toward science.

“We really wanted to determine if this claim was based in any truth,” Ecklund said. “Although many politicians and the media at large portray evangelicals as distrustful of science, we found that this is more myth than reality.”

Surprise!!! Here is a summary of her “Religious understandings of science” survey:

It includes a nationally representative survey of more than 10,000 Americans and more than 300 in-depth interviews with Christians, Jews and Muslims; more than 140 of the latter three groups are evangelical Christians.

The data, then, though presented as “the largest study of American views on religion and science,” is limited to about 140 “evangelical Christians.” Is that a good sample? Who knows?

And of course you know what Ecklund found: many of them do trust science. Here are the “key findings” as given in the Science Daily post (indented), with my comments:

  • Nearly half of evangelicals (48 percent) view science and religion as complementary to one another; 21 percent view them as entirely independent of one another.

Of course, the “complementary” view is totally wrong, for it presumes that science and religion somehow help each other in understanding the universe. As I maintain in The Albatross, this is bogus because religion has no reliable ways to find out what is true. (By “complementary,” I presume they mean “complementary in finding truth,” not “separate magisteria,” which is what the “independence” criterion is for.)

But Ecklund is all about proving that people’s perceptions of evangelicals are wrong, not that evangelicals have an accurate perception of reality.

The same goes for the “independent” characterization, which is Gould’s argument about nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA): that religion should make no claims about the nature of reality, and science should make no claims about meaning, morals and values, which are the bailiwick of faith.

NOMA, of course, is wrong because religion is not the sole magisterium for meaning, morals and values—secular philosophy has done a better job in the last few millennia. And of course religion, including evangelical Christianity, does make statements about reality: about whether God exists, about whether Jesus came to earth and did miracles and was resurrected, about prayer working, about there being a soul and an afterlife, and so on. Those issues are certainly not “independent” of science, and both scientists and theologians admit that Gould is wrong in arguing that religion does not or should not make truth claims.

So if evangelicals do have those beliefs about science and religion, fine, but they’re misguided. What’s more important—correcting our ideas of how we see these people, or correcting their harmful and misguided beliefs? Ecklund concentrates all her energies on the former. I prefer to deal with the latter.

Note that Ecklund uses the general term “science.” I suspect she’d get rather different results if she asked about specific areas of science, say evolution, global warming, or a 13.7-billion-year old Big Bang.

Finally, there are Pew data contradicting Ecklund’s statistical claims (see below):

  • Overall, 38 percent of Americans view religion and science as complementary, and 35 percent of Americans view science and religion as entirely independent.

See above.

  • In the U.S., 76 percent of scientists in the general population identify with a religious tradition.

This is deceptive, for of course “identifying with a religious tradition” doesn’t mean “accepts a religion”! I identify with Judaism, for instance, as that’s my background, but I don’t believe a word of its doctrine. Ecklund is counting on people to not to look too hard at her wording. The facts about the religious belief of American scientists, which are in the following passage from Faith vs. Fact, are that more scientists are atheists than believers, and that good scientists are the most atheistic of all:

The difference in religiosity between the American public and American scientists is profound, persistent, and well documented. Further, the more accomplished the scientist, the greater the likelihood that he or she is a nonbeliever. Surveying American scientists as a whole, Pew Research showed that 33 percent admitted belief in God, while 41 percent were atheists (the rest either didn’t answer, didn’t know, or believed in a “universal spirit or higher power”). In contrast, belief in God among the general public ran at 83 percent and atheism at only 4 percent. In other words, scientists are ten times more likely to be atheists than are other Americans. This disparity has persisted for over eighty years of polling. When one moves to scientists working at a group of “elite” research universities, the difference is even more dramatic, with just over 62 percent being either atheist or agnostic, and only 23 percent who believed in God—a degree of nonbelief more than fifteenfold higher than among the general public.

Finally, sitting at the top tier of American science are the members of the National Academy of Sciences, an honorary organization that elects only the most accomplished researchers in the United States. And here nonbelief is the rule: 93 percent of the members are atheists or agnostics, with only 7 percent believing in a personal God. This is almost the exact opposite of the data for “average” Americans.

It will be a cold day in Hell (that’s a metaphorical Hell) when Ecklund will admit this. She’s spent her career avoiding it by concentrating on stuff like scientists’ “spirituality” or “following a religious tradition.”

  • Only 15 percent of Americans and 14 percent of evangelicals agree that modern science does more harm than good.

Who ever claimed that any believers think that science does more harm than good? Presumably even evangelical Christians use cellphones, take antibiotics, and fly in airplanes.

  • Jews (42 percent), Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus (52 percent as a group) and the nonreligious (47 percent) are more interested in new scientific discoveries than evangelicals (22 percent) are.

This is in fact an indictment of evangelicals: they’re just not as interested in science as are other believers or nonbelievers.

But here are some contradictory data from a Pew survey taken in 2009:


52% of evangelical Protestants think that science conflicts often with religion, and 49% of them see science as sometimes conflicting with their own religious beliefs (I suspect evolution is the culprit here). What happened? Did evangelicals undergo a big change in the last five years? I doubt it. There is either a difference between Ecklund and Pew in the sample, in the wording of the questions, or something else. One thing’s for sure: either Ecklund won’t mention this survey, or she’ll find a way to dismiss it. She is, after all, on a mission from God.

And the worst news:

Ecklund plans to write a book about the survey findings with Chris Scheitle, a sociology professor at the West Virginia University.

h/t: Tom

38 thoughts on “Elaine Ecklund still taking Templeton cash to show that science and religion are compatible

  1. Depending on how and when and in what context the question is asked the person responding may interpret “science” as the “the scientific method” — as “what the scientists say” — or as “good science, which accepts in the testimony of the Bible/the mystics/our own experience of consciousness as special and magical.” If the terms are sloppy the results are sloppy.

  2. What is compatible here is this: God-of-the-Gaps is compatible with public-survey-of-science.

    What are we to make of a survey that asks if Dark Energy is God, especially when the majority of the people sampled have only a pedestrian knowledge of cosmology?

    Ecklund needs to do a survey, not on people, but on research. I can easily show (http://paperscape.org) well over 10^6 articles that explicitly show that electrons exist. And the few that suggest otherwise have a great deal of empirical cohesiveness to make up if they propose otherwise.

    Religion gets you answers from fallible people. Science gets you answers from nature, a nature without conscious, kindness or ill-will.

    1. Exactly. To put it another way: So most people don’t *think* there’s a science-religion incompatibility. So what? Lots of people used to think smoking was compatible with health.

  3. Oh Lord, Elaine Ecklund is at it again. And by “it,” I mean “taking money from the Templeton Foundation, making a survey, and then interpreting the data to show what Templeton wants: a finding that science and religion are in harmony.”

    On the one hand, who can blame her? The pay is obviously quite handsome.

    On the other hand…it does bring to mind a particularly tasteless joke about haggling over price.

    And the upshot of Ecklund’s research (i.e., data masaging) is that evangelical Christians don’t reject science as much as we think they do.

    Oncologist: I have great news!
    Patient: What — I’m cured?
    Oncologist: No; your cancer isn’t as bad as we thought it was. You’ve actually got eight months to live instead of only six.


  4. I won’t try to dig through the research but here’s a flag off the top of my head: grab any believer in unprovable woo who thinks the earth is 6000 years old and refuses to vaccinate their kids and they will tell you that *they* are the ones who are the real scientists. All those other folk who work at medical schools and teach science at universities just make stuff up so they don’t have to obey god.

    So I’m not in any way surprised that many or most christians are friendly toward science. It’s just not a science that any scientist recognizes.

    1. I agree with that. A vague question in a survey will be mentally translated into something the surveyed will understand. So when asked if science is complementary to their beliefs, a person can easily think of ID ‘science’ or anti-global warming ‘science’ and respond that why yes, it does complement their beliefs.
      It would have been far better to assess their attitude about science with more specific questions about this or that area of science like, oh you know, the foundation of modern biology (evolution).

      1. I thought the same thing and don’t know exactly what the questions were but am guessing that they were vague enough to avoid offense and allow lots of room for ‘curve fitting’

  5. In my experience, evangelicals are very open to certain areas of science. I had a friend who was an MIT physics prof for instance. But they reject other areas. And then they need to convince themselves the rejection has a rational basis. That is why you see so much concern with side issues like “historical science” and absurd claims about unfalsifiability: they are looking for some not obviously absurd way to distinguish acceptable from unacceptable science.

    In any event, these numbers are worthless. If for instance Muslims or Jews are less aware of the conflicts between their religion and science they will report less conflict. That says nothing about their actual receptivity to scientific truth.

  6. Templeton doesn’t just seem to push the idea that religion is compatible with science, it also angles for religion to have academic parity with science.
    There may be an unstated compulsion to cloak superstition with the respectability it does not really deserve.

  7. I think religion and philosophy are to science as astrology is to astronomy, or alchemy is to chemistry.

    Science is after the same things — knowledge — but has evolved superior tools and methods.

    I do not deride our ancestors or ridicule their ignorance. I merely think I have been alive in a time when we have better ways to acquire reliable knowledge.

      1. What philosophy does that is worthwhile is explore the meaning and self-coherence of statements.

        I don’t see that philosophy has anything to say about reality. It can test statements about reality for ambiguity or inconsistency.

        Sort of like the syntax checker in a compiler. It doesn’t say whether the program will do anything useful.

        1. I think you’re conflating ‘philosophy’ with ‘logic.’

          Philosophy is a system which was set up to expose presumptions through critical debate and inquiry. Science grew out of Greek and Enlightenment philosophy.

    1. I think you are on the wrong foot. Philosophy is, or can be, a respectable endeavor. What we today call science began as a branch of philosophy.

      The unfortunate thing is when philosophy is practiced badly, or when the appearance of philosophical practice is misused. See “sophistry.”

      1. This is a repeated and contentious point of discussion here. Many of us consider philosophy to be little more than often-atheistic theology.

        The key sticking point is over whether or not you bother to close the empirical loop and validate your conclusions against observations. If you do that, you can have some degree of confidence in your conclusions…but, at that point, you’re unquestionably doing science. If you don’t, you may well be doing philosophy…but who cares? Any confidence you might have in your conclusions is entirely unwarranted.


  8. In my experience, Engineering, Medicine and a few branches of Chemistry harbor a substantial number of Creationists. I suspect Englund counts the first two as “scientists” in her classification, while many of us would count them as technologists.

    It would be interesting to know the results of a survey of religious belief among members of the National Academies of Engineering and Medicine to see if they are as non-religious as the NAS members.

    1. Medical doctors have a much higher level of belief than other scientists, although I can’t remember the data.

        1. But they aren’t scientists (except if they do other training), except perhaps at the undergraduate level. MD is sort of like an engineering degree or a technician’s diploma (depending on the model). Usually more the latter.

          Moreover, from what I understand, traditional medical education is “learn as much as possible in a short period of time” in an encyclopedic and dogmatic way. This is changing, supposedly, but that’s a good way to both require uncriticial thinkers and reinforce it as well.

    2. In my experience, Engineering, Medicine and a few branches of Chemistry harbor a substantial number of Creationists.

      Ben Carson will be speaking at my institution soon.

    3. Her survey (the Religion Among Academic Scientists one – the one that’s always cited) samples faculty from 21 US universities in the following seven fields: physics, chemistry, biology, economics, political science, sociology, and psychology.

  9. Ecklund is actually quite open about her motives.

    She even tell us in her previous book that the reason why she wrote it is because scientists having “the loudest voices” -those who “erupt with totalizing criticism of religion and religious people seem to drown out those with a different, sometimes more open perspective” like “those who support intelligent design.”

    She says that her book, at its core, “is about the scientists whose voices have been thus far overlooked in the science-and-religion-debates and who might have powerful contributions to add to the cause of translating science to a public audience, especially the religious audience.”

    In that light so much the worse is the merely whimpering push-back, if any, this Templeton toady, intellectual fraud and academic charlatan is getting from our side.

    1. This is not directed at you so much as at them.
      They are drowned out in open teaching at public schools and universities. They are sometimes drowned out at scientific meetings (though I have seen some). But science in those areas is not supposed to be a democracy. It is instead a meritocracy. Let them show their evidence first. I will wait.
      But the pseudoscience voices have not been drowned out in the public sphere. Go to any Barnes and Ignoble bookstore, and the creationism and ID books are right there next to books by Darwin, Coyne, and Dawkins. Do any google search about evolution or global warming. You will get hits of woo. And of course we all know what oozes to the surface if one does a similar search in YouTube.

  10. As a physician living in the Bible Belt, I do acknowledge knowing many colleagues who have subordinated and sequestered reason in order to continue their woo beliefs. They are decent, intelligent, dedicated providers. Some, I am certain, are actually creationists. Unfortunately, the degree of woo in the local community precludes the regular discussion of such topics between medical colleagues because atheists or agnostics do not want to come out of the closet for fear of open hostility or even losing patients/referrals and creationists don’t want come out, fearing debate with their colleagues causing embarrassment by what they probably know deep down are ideas that cannot stand up to scrutiny. So I spend my leisure time with an online community of like-minded individuals hoping for change in the world, just as I predict my woo-colleagues are spending time on their own fundie sites praying for the opposite kind of change…..

  11. Dr. Ecklund is a high priestess of a soft science. As such she labors in a field that lends itself to certain flexibility in interpretation that can clearly be influenced by grant money.

    the bottom line is that her results are only significant to Templeton. Dr Eklund is a shill for a philosophy and a sociologist. the only real damage done is to the reputation of Sociology and Dr. Eklund.

    I can’t imagine this bit of fluff can be used in ay significant way to strengthen a rational argument.

  12. Friendly as it is towards faith, Ecklund could do a study which found that 99% of scientists are atheists and the story would be headlined “We Still Believe: 32 Scientists Who Stand By God — and Why.”

  13. So scientific illiterates are often too ignorant to understand that their beliefs contradict science? Brilliant discovery, Dr. Ecklund!

    Here’s the next big book idea: Atheists often perceive theists as irrational. So just ask some theists whether they think of themselves as rational, and when they inevitably reply that they do you can write an entire book about this amazing find. Because believing that one possesses a quality is the same as actually possessing it.

  14. E. Ecklund irks me quite a bit. She loves “qualitative analyses” and seems to only back those up with quantitative figures when the narrative fits. I’ve tried to read some of her work several times, but the fluff to substance ratio is quite high.

    Jerry, re: your point that identifying with a religious tradition does not mean accepting a religion, Ecklund and Scheitle admit to this problem, and then seem to immediately decide to pay it no attention. From their Social Problems paper (2007), where they present and analyze a lot of the Religion Among Academic Scientists data, in a footnote:

    “We draw readers’ attention to the complexity of the term ‘Jewish,’ which can connote both ethnic and religious categories. The survey data do not allow insight into the nuances individual’s intended by this self-identification.”

    But they designed the survey! >:(

    Furthermore, their survey actually *does* allow for a bit of insight here; why don’t they just see what proportion of those who identify as “Jewish” also answered that “they didn’t believe in God” (or one of the other atheist/agnostic options)? I didn’t see this done, even though it would have presumably taken all of 30 seconds.

  15. For Jerry:

    “The data, then, though presented as “the largest study of American views on religion and science,” is limited to about 140 “evangelical Christians.” Is that a good sample? Who knows?”

    For the sake of accuracy, there were 2,149 Evangelical Protestant respondents in the study – 140/300 interviews conducted with Christians, Jews or Muslims were with Evangelical Protestants.

    It hardly matters, since the work is so far from credible anyways.

  16. “Nearly half of evangelicals (48 percent) view science and religion as complementary to one another; 21 percent view them as entirely independent of one another.”

    Another key tidbit is that ~78% of all respondents (93% of evangelicals) did not disagree with the statement “Scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories and explanations.”

    It’s like a pass/fail quiz for scientific literacy. And since the study is all about evangelical’s perceptions of science, why isn’t the headline, “93% of Evangelical protestants have a misinformed perception of science”?

  17. The campaign to meld science & religion has new pet project here in the UK. From the BBC news website:

    “A new project bringing together science and religion is unlikely to end the long and sometimes bitter debate over the relationship between the two.

    The project – backed by the Church of England – is to receive more than £700,000 to promote greater engagement between science and Christians…

    Trainee priests and others will be offered access to resources on contemporary science, and the scheme will research attitudes towards science among Church leaders.

    Funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation, …”

    Read the full story, with apologist views on “[sharing] a desire to find out what is behind the Universe” and “After all, you only have a limited amount of evidence to base your theory, and you have to trust your evidence – which isn’t far from being Christian” here:

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