Russell Blackford reviews Elaine Ecklund’s latest religion-osculating book

It’s been roughly four years since I wrote about Elaine Ecklund‘s efforts to show that religion and science aren’t in conflict and also that scientists are more religious than one might suspect (see posts here). A sociologist at Rice University, Ecklund has been funded, as far as I can see, nearly continuously by various Templeton grants, as their sub-organizations love her message of harmony between science and faith. And Ecklund’s analyses designed to show that have involved, in my view, a sometimes disingenuous presentation of the data—data that often don’t support her conclusions (read some of my earlier posts to find out how).

In the June issue of Free Inquiry, philosopher Russell Blackford reviews Elaine Ecklund et al.’s new book (screenshot of review and book below). The article is paywalled, but I’ve gotten permission to send Russell’s manuscript in Word, which is apparently nearly identical to what was published, to those who are interested (don’t ask unless you want to read it!):

 

The book, with seven authors (and, as you see, with Ecklund clearly the senior one), came out July 2 and was published by Oxford University Press. Click on the cover below to go to the Amazon site:

Part of the acknowledgments:

 

I haven’t yet read it, so you can use Russell’s review as a guide for whether you want to read it yourself. He’s quite critical, but, in the end, doesn’t think the book is completely worthless. After taking it apart for several thousand words, he does add an encomium at the end:

Finally, although I have emphasized what I see as an obvious pro-religious bias – and a certain amount of wishful thinking – throughout Secularity and Science, the large amount of money that went into the book from Templeton’s coffers was not entirely wasted. This book does provide important information for scholars to pore over and consider. Secularity and Science is a resource, among many others, and I’m not sorry to have had the opportunity to read it. I certainly intend to make further use of its extensive information, notes, and bibliography. It just has to be read with a critical mind, and its conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt.

The book interviewed 600 individual scientists in “elite” universities from several countries: the US, the UK (not including Northern Ireland), France, Turkey, Italy, India, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, most of which get their own chapter.

Ecklund’s conclusions, some of which she’s published before in papers (see my earlier posts) are predictable, and Russell summarizes them at the outset:

Secularity and Science offers numerous conclusions about the countries that were studied. With the US, for example, the conclusions are, first, that American scientists are often hostile to religion because of an exaggerated sense of the fundamentalism of the American religious public, and, second, that discrimination against religious scientists undermines American science. But these claims are, to say the least, impressionistic and conjectural. In particular, no worthwhile evidence is presented for the second claim, which would be explosive if it were true. As we’ll see, American scientists are markedly less religious than the general public in the US, and that would have been the most obvious conclusion to report.

The book also offers four overall conclusions, not relating to any particular country:

  • “Around the world, there are more religious scientists than we might think.”
  • “Scientists – even some atheist scientists – see spirituality in science.”
  • “The conflict perspective on science and religion is an invention of the West.”
  • “Religion is not kept out of the scientific workplace.”

Little of this is helpful if we hope to deepen our understanding of the relationship between science and religion. . . .

Russell’s three big beefs are these. First, Ecklund’s most important claim is that “there are more religious scientists than we might think”, but “the authors fail to produce any evidence as to what ‘we’ might, or actually do, think.” That conclusion, then, is little more than wishful thinking to soothe accommodationists and Templeton.

The second involves Ecklund’s claim above that “The conflict perspective on science and religion [i.e., that they’re in conflict] is an invention of the West.”  Blackford calls this a sleight of hand with the word “invention because:

Why not call the conflict model a discovery of the West, rather than an invention, since nothing in Secularity and Science demonstrates that the perception of conflict is actually false? Or why not look for a more neutral way of making the point?

For all Ecklund and her collaborators tell us, some degree of conflict, or at least tension, between science and religion might be almost inevitable. This might be a genuine problem for the ongoing viability of religious faiths, even it was first identified in Western countries and has, so far, received little recognition from scientists in Asia.

Russell then goes on to demonstrate, as I did in Faith Versus Fact, that science and religion have different epistemologies and ways of obtaining “knowledge”, that religious methods, in contrast to science’s, haven’t lead to reliably true claims about the universe, and indeed often conflict with scientific claims, and that scientific investigation has continually eroded religious belief and the idea of a supernatural. I would call that a conflict, and I define what I mean by “conflict” at the beginning of my own book.

Finally, despite the claims above, the book demonstrates, as Russell shows clearly, that scientists throughout the world are less religious—often much less religious—then are the citizens of their own countries. There is no discussion of this in the book, nor why the general populations of most of these countries are much less religious than they were, say, a century ago. This is an important question, but of course ignoring it is in keeping with Ecklund’s career-long narrative as well as with Templeton’s agenda of science/religion harmony. To be sure, Russell says that these topics weren’t within the scope of their project.

Perhaps they weren’t, but surely this question should at least have been brought up. There are several reasons why scientists in general might be less religious than the general populace, including the enrichment of science with people who weren’t believers at the outset, as well as the loss of religious faith for those working in science. (I suspect both factors are in play.) But surely, as I mention in Faith Versus Fact, the huge disparity in religiosity between scientists and their lay fellow citizens bespeaks some kind of conflict between religion and science.

I wouldn’t bet that Ecklund will investigate this important question in the future.

10 Comments

  1. DrBrydon
    Posted August 13, 2020 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    I’ve lost track, has anyone gone and surveyed ministers of faith in various countries about their attitudes toward science when its claims conflict with their theological stance? It takes two sides to make a snowball fight.

    • Posted August 14, 2020 at 7:24 am | Permalink

      I think Jerry’s point that scientists are dramatically less religious than their compatriots is all that’s needed to demonstrate conflict.

      And any simple survey of scientific facts about the world (Big Bang, evolution by natural selection, the age of the earth, human origins, etc.) and the religious claims about the world would be clear as well.

  2. Jon Gallant
    Posted August 13, 2020 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Templeton has a sort of eastern branch in India, where Hindutva enthusiasts (including PM Modhi) proclaim that old Vedic traditions actually preceded and included the later discoveries of “Western” science. “At the inaugural address at the Mumbai hospital mentioned above, the prime minister invoked the elephant-headed god Ganesh as evidence for plastic surgery, and Karna, a character from the Mahabharata, as evidence for “genetic science.” From an interesting article on this subject at:
    https://caravanmagazine.in/vantage/modern-science-ancient-texts

  3. Randall Schenck
    Posted August 13, 2020 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Even without the specific items Blackford covers in his review it seems you would have to suspend reason to come to the conclusion of Eckland book. People in the careers of science use method to discover evidence and nothing allows conclusion except evidence. Religion and it’s belief generally requires suspension of evidence to reach conclusions. How can these two contradictions be compatible.

  4. Posted August 13, 2020 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    So there are more religious scientists than we think is a bit like: There are more scientists who say big foot and Nessie are real than we think.

    • Posted August 14, 2020 at 7:25 am | Permalink

      More scientists “than we think” believe in unicorns and believe Trump is a great president.

  5. eric
    Posted August 13, 2020 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Haven’t we heard this Ecklund record before? Collects good data via reasonable survey methodologies…then selectively reports results a way that will keep the Templeton money flowing.

    “The conflict perspective on science and religion [i.e., that they’re in conflict] is an invention of the West.”

    Well, yeah. That’s because the religious folk in most every other area of the world accept evolution, climate change, the germ theory of disease, etc. Only in ‘the west’ do they crazily oppose such things. Though sadly, Islam in the last decade or so has tried to catch up on the evolution denial front, and BJP style Hindu nationalism may be catching up in a more generic anti-intellectual sense too.

    Now true, the methodological contradictions between science and religion would be there regardless of whether religious people accept these areas of science or not. But the somewhat uniquely American, fundie opposition to teaching good science in schools is really what turns this area from ‘academic discussion’ into ‘political and legal battle’.

  6. Posted August 13, 2020 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    As a long ago graduate of Rice University, a great and well known Institution with a very good reputation as a scientific research center, l look at Ms. Ecklund as an embarrasssment . However,located in Houston, a southern city full of all types of southern bible belters, it’s not really surprising.

  7. nay
    Posted August 14, 2020 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    “The conflict perspective on science and religion is an invention of the West.” This may be because, so far as I know (admittedly not much), Eastern religions don’t proscribe areas of research. Seems to me that religion itself doesn’t proscribe any kind of thinking, just particular acts (thou shalt not kill/covet/bear false witness/worship other gods). It’s the religious leaders that prescribe the earth-centric, human-centric, misogynistic and racially biased views that limit rational thought and force their flocks to think the same or be shunned.

  8. rickflick
    Posted August 15, 2020 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    Ecklund seems to be milking Templeton. She must have an idea of publishing a $book$ every so often even if she has nothing to say.


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