It’s been a long time (over a year) since we’ve examined the oeuvre of Elaine Ecklund a sociologist at Rice University—and now “director of the Religion and Public Life Program in Rice’s Social Sciences Research Institute—who used to be the subject of many posts. The reason? Because she made her living as a researcher heavily funded by the Templeton foundations, and apparently dedicated to showing that religion and science are compatible. She was not above twisting or misrepresenting her data to make that point which, besides the tendentious nature of her scholarship, upset many of us, including Jason Rosenhouse and Russell Blackford, who panned her 2019 book Secularity and Science for misrepresenting the very data she published.
For most of the years I’ve written this site, Ecklund has been heavily funded by three foundations started with John Templeton’s mutual-fund fortune. According to her c.v., she’s currently sitting on three grants from the Templeton Religion Trust totaling $ 3,939,548! Sir John Templeton’s ambition, when he founded the John Templeton foundation, was to show that the more we learn about science, the more evidence we have for God.
Well, Ecklund doesn’t talk about her own religious belief, but she’s dedicated her career (and spent a gazillion Templeton dollars) trying to show that scientists aren’t as atheistic as people think they are, and that scientists are “spiritual people,” not meanies like Richard Dawkins. This message, of course, plays right into Templeton’s program, ergo the continual stream of funding she gets from their foundations. And once you’ve gotten your stall in the Templeton Stable, the feed bag has no bottom.
Now Ecklund has a new book, coauthored with David R. Johnson, which promises to be more of the same. I haven’t yet read it, but I’ve read several of her books and papers, and have never failed to be infuriated by them. To get an idea of what it’s about, there’s a summary of the contents in the puff piece issued by Rice University and on Ecklund’s personal website. The book is called Varieties of Atheism in Science (you can also get it from Oxford University Press). The screenshot below links to the Amazon page.
Some of the puffery in a press release from her school, Rice University:
As it turns out, the “New Atheism” embraced by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and other notable scientists is at odds with the beliefs of most scientists who are atheists.
“Atheist scientists and religious communities, for example, certainly disagree about many things, but we found that they have so much more in common than they might think they share,” Ecklund said. “Both groups often have a sense of fascination about the world, a sense of meaning and purpose and a desire to explain something larger than themselves.”
This is completely disingenuous. Science has ways of showing what we think is true about the world, while religion just makes stuff up and its claims about the cosmos are falsified or untestable. The “sense of meaning and purpose” of scientists rests on the desire to find out the truth about the world, or involves secular stuff like their families and hobbies, while that of believers rests on the assumption that a deity confers meaning and purpose upon us. Finally, “something larger than ourselves” means “the universe or the Earth” to scientists, but “God and his plan” to religionists. We also have in common that we eat, breathe, and sometimes like books and music. We should be friends!
But wait! I rant! The puffery goes on:
. . . Ecklund and Johnson argue that improving the public’s perception of scientists requires uncovering the real story of who atheist scientists are.
“As the pandemic continues to ravage the global population, never before has it been more important to improve the relationship between the public and the science community,” Ecklund said.
Of the New Atheists, the book concludes, “It is now our responsibility to replace their rhetoric with reality.”
“Reality” is Ecklund’s construal of the data, which, as we’ve seen repeatedly, doesn’t quite match with what the data themselves say. And I wonder who those 81 interviewed scientists are. They certainly don’t include Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or me!
The onus for improving the “science-religion relationship” rests not on scientists, who by and large are atheists who ignore religion, but on religionists and their rejection of science. It’s not the scientists who are making the pandemic worse by ignoring data!
Which reminds me, as I continue my rant, of a lovely quote from The Great Agnostic, Robert G. Ingersoll:
“There is no harmony between religion and science. When science was a child, religion sought to strangle it in the cradle. Now that science has attained its youth, and superstition is in its dotage, the trembling, palsied wreck says to the athlete: “Let us be friends.” It reminds me of the bargain the cock wished to make with the horse: “Let us agree not to step on each other’s feet.”
That, in a nutshell, is the academic program of Elaine Ecklund.
Here’s a summary of her new book with Johnson from Ecklund’s personal website:
A significant number of Americans view atheists as immoral elitists, aloof and unconcerned with the common good, and they view science and scientists as responsible. Thanks in large part to the prominence and influence of New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Hitchens, [JAC: SAM HITCHENS????] New Atheism has claimed the pulpit of secularity in Western society. New Atheists have given voice to marginalized nonreligious individuals and underscored the importance of science in society. They have also advanced a derisive view of religion and forcefully argued that science and religion are intrinsically in conflict.
Many in the public around the globe think that all scientists are atheists and that all atheist scientists are New Atheists, militantly against religion and religious people. But what do everyday atheist scientists actually think about religion? Drawing on a survey of 1,293 atheist scientists in the U.S. and U.K., and 81 in-depth interviews, this book explains the pathways that led to atheism among scientists, the diverse views of religion they hold, their perspectives on the limits to what science can explain, and their views of meaning and morality. The findings reveal a vast gulf between the rhetoric of New Atheism in the public sphere and the reality of atheism in science. The story of the varieties of atheism in science is consequential for both scientific and religious communities and points to tools for dialogue between these seemingly disparate groups.
Well, unless Ecklund produces a survey showing the percentage of “people around the globe who think that all scientists are atheists and that all atheists scientists are New Atheists”, I will doubt that. Many atheist scientists have criticized the likes of Dawkins, Harris, and [Sam] Hitchens for being too outspoken and “shrill.” So even atheistic scientists themselves think that not all atheist scientists adhere to their views.
Given the way Ecklund has vastly overblown her findings in the past, I’d take that second paragraph above with a grain of salt. For years Ecklund has been calling for productive dialogue between science and religion, and yet what we have, and will always have, is an unproductive monologue, with science telling religion, “Your claims are either unevidenced or disproven.” Religion has nothing valuable to say to science, though they often repeat the ironic mantra: “Be humble”. Yet it is “humble” to be a believer who not only thinks there’s a divine being, but claims to know its nature?
Will I read the book? I suppose so, but only in the way that I visit the endodontist for a root canal.
26 thoughts on “Elaine Ecklund has a new book, and yes, it’s more of the same accommodationism”
“Will I read the book? I suppose so, but only in the way that I visit the endodontist for a root canal” – I think I’ll give it a miss.
“Sam Hitchens” – LOL!
“As it turns out, the “New Atheism” embraced by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and other notable scientists is at odds with the beliefs of most scientists who are atheists. Atheist scientists and religious communities, for example, certainly disagree about many things, but we found that they have so much more in common than they might think they share . . . . Both groups often have a sense of fascination about the world, a sense of meaning and purpose and a desire to explain something larger than themselves.”
Actually, I’m pretty sure that Dawkins, Harris and “other notable scientists” categorized as New Atheists also “have a sense of fascination about the world, a sense of meaning and purpose and a desire to explain something larger than themselves” — no religion required.
Exactly. There’s a reason why no New Atheists were interviewed for this book.
…perhaps the ‘New Atheists’ label was very much a social construct built by others and no longer in general use? Unless you want to write a a book of course.
Unless anyone cares to convince me otherwise, new atheists are exactly like all other atheists in what they believe and disbelieve, it’s just that they aren’t willing to sit quietly while those who believe in their gods spoil things for the rest of us.
I think the real split is accommodationist atheists and atheists that aren’t. There are plenty of atheists that dislike other atheists that criticize religion when it might be overheard by others.
I agree. In unweaving the rainbow we see the depths of its beauty rather than dismiss it. The power of the light spectrum to teach us about stars and galaxies trillions of miles away is much more beautiful than a promise by a deity not to commit global genocide again. Understanding the physics of music doesn’t repeal the enjoyment of it. Philip Moriarty (no relation) of the University of Nottingham teaches a course in how heavy metal can be used to learn about the uncertainty principle. Science and art are intertwined.
It’s rather telling, I think, that “dialogues” between religion and science can’t be about what’s unique to religion, or what’s unique to science. That would be debate, and Eckland’s main point seems to be that debate is not helpful.
As the gnu atheists have repeatedly argued, the insistence that religion is outside the purview of science would be snatched up, thrown on the floor, and stomped upon if clear evidence of the existence of God were to show up all of a sudden.
Peter Atkins’ excellent essay leaps to mind – I think – Science as Truth. I provide a link hastily obtained from a search :
… I read this hastily so apologies if it was there – and of course this comment is hastily written.
I think that perhaps the best statement of the role of God in science was “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là”, from LaPlace to Napoleon.
The role of a supernatural power is neither provable nor disprovable, and its presupposition has been stripped away due to lack of necessity. The humility of science is in not including those factors for which there can be no test.
I do think that religious people can be good scientists, such as Pamela Gay, the astronomer. I’ve never read or heard from her anything to indicate that she thinks that religion is necessary to explain the natural world.
Alas, there is more money to be made in religion than there is in science, and evidently a great deal to be made in referring to the same old atheists that have been trotted out for the last 25 years or so. Instead of “owning the libs,” its a matter of “owning the gnu atheists,” whether your point is relevant or not.
“The role of a supernatural power is neither provable nor disprovable . . . .”
Of course, it depends upon what you mean by “provable.” I would submit that the existence of an all powerful creator “god” has been disproved to the exactly the same extent that leprechauns, fairies and the boogeyman have been disproved — meaning that that there is no credible evidence of their existence such that no rational person ever seriously suggests that they do. Their nonexistence is simply taken for granted.
Well, exactly. There can be no definitive proof either way. So, the proper and logical assumption is that they don’t exist (neither Lord nor Leprechaun) unless they are demonstrated otherwise.
Still, we can’t state that absence of evidence is evidence of absence.
Well sure. But did we need a huge study to show that many atheist scientists generally follow the old adage to avoid religion and politics discussions at work/with their co-workers?
Multiculturalism requires something of a mutual agreement to compartmentalize: if you focus on the job and don’t bring your oddities of religion/culture/personal life into it, I’ll focus on the job and do the same. This doesn’t mean I respect your religious beliefs any more than I want to eat your food: it just means we both agree to ignore non-work points of potential disagreement when working together, for our common good.
Funny how obsessed some religious folks are with “new” atheist. Can we assume they are not so angry with the old atheist? It seems the real enemy of religion is the science, not the atheist, old or new. Many of those fine religious folks are threatening injury to people on the school boards who want the kids to wear masks in school. Are they angry at the new virus but okay with the old ones. Just a reminder it’s time to get your flu shots.
The “New Atheist” label is the equivalent of tying a pork chop around one’s neck to get the dog to play with them. The author’s referenced write books that sell extremely well, are widely read, and broadly accepted by thinking people. Putting their names in the marketing material (I’ll bet they’re on the dust jacket, too) is intended to use their name recognition to sell Ecklund’s book.
I don’t know how you find the patience to read through books of this type.
I thought the reference to Sam Hitchens was delightful, and I propose to maintain it. It is too bad Sam is no longer here to help expose the theistic propaganda of writers like St. Augustine Aquinas, Origullian the Bishop of Hippopotamus, G.K. Lewiston, and Alvin Plantlife.
To me Ecklund really comes across as disingenuous. She seems to be exploiting the record high distrust of science, smart people and experts for the purpose of making money. Her apparent thesis that the Gnu Atheists are a major cause of this problem is very weak, a diversion really (Squirrel!) but will give plenty of people a warm fuzzy feeling that they can blame atheists for their insupportable ideologically driven distrust of science.
What problem? She seems to be reporting that there’s little friction between atheist and theist scientists in the workplace. Which is IMO good from a social collaborative perspective, but in no way supports her past, broader contention that religious belief in a deity is consistent with science.
And not to trivialize the difference, but that’s a bit like saying that Red Sox support is consistent with Yankee support because the Red Sox and Yankees fans in my office work well together.
Sorry for the lack of clarity, the problem I meant there was “the record high distrust of science, smart people and experts . . .
That really is a problem (understatement) but the Gnu Atheists don’t have much, if anything, to do with it.
“once you’ve gotten your stall in the Templeton Stable, the feed bag has no bottom.”
Jerry is a poet.
But I won’t say Elaine is a horse’s ass, that saying likely inappropriate, since someone not really believing the truth of what they are saying may just be a money&fame grubber.
Is it possible to bring shame to the discipline of Sociology, or is that already a supposed science which is beyond the pale?
Monotheistic religion is about authority, and telling people what to do. God is, of course, the ultimate authority, so monotheistic religion is about God. God puts the Pope in charge, the Pope is infallible, and who are you to question what the Pope says.
The problem with authority is anyone can be an authority, so my tribe can claim ultimacy as easy as your tribe. No, Muhammad is the Seal of the Prophets, and God made his final and correct Revelation to Muhammad, so your Pope is stupid and wrong and you should follow Muhammad.
Now where is this God? You have some philosophy coming out of the Greeks with a Prime Mover and the rest of it, so God (Abrahamic) fuses with Greek metaphysics and pre-modern science and you get a reasonable enough synthesis until you get a shift in the 16th Century. Honestly, it may not have made a lot of sense at the time, but it worked for awhile. Now, post-16th Century, the need for an “unexplained explainer” diminishes as scientific understanding chugs along, and God as a metaphysical postulate begins a long retreat.
To bring the circle back, science is about trying to predict and control physical reality, if not even understand physical reality. Religion is about telling people what to do, how to grow their beards and trim their mustaches. Its not clear (to me) why you can’t turn to Muhammad to trim your whiskers and Hawking to help you understand Black Holes, so per se, what is wrong with accomodationism?
Where it does come into conflict is in the philosophical domain of metaphysics. Muslims are committed tacitly to a certain branch of metaphysics, and philosophers of science are mostly looking down a different path. If you read Dennett, he is not just committed to certain scientific positions, but underlying those commitments are several metaphysical commitments/assumptions. Jerry Coyne has made some very interesting arguments, along the lines that God’s existence is falsifiable, that I find very interesting but not persuasive (because theists will always move the end zone, which is why its not falsifiable in a general sense). [Note on an individual level, people do “bargain with reality” and some do gain or lose faith based on how those bargain’s play out.]
I would say that your standard issue, minimalist, naturalist metaphysics contradicts theism, but metaphysicians are a dime a dozen, and its not clear if anyone ever has agreed on a question of metaphysics. Even amongst the atheists, you have the stuff about free will and compatibilism and determinism, and Sam Harris wanted to prove all ethics, etc. No one has agreed about anything since Plato started writing. Magicians have been performing the same kinds of rituals for thousands of years, and philosophers have been arguing about the same kinds of questions for thousands of years, and probably the success rate is higher for love potions. On this I would opine, dangerously, that these kinds of discussions are useful to the scientific endeavor on the margins, in terms of promoting clarity, but the heavy lifting all happens in labs. Its not clear you can’t be a Thomist and embrace modern scientific theories, but its irrelevant as to whether you are a good lab rat.
Its not clear that religion “helps” the scientific endeavor, and its not clear that science contradicts the metaphysical or religious convictions of a monotheist, especially given their flexibility at moving the end zone. I think it is usually theists wanting to borrow scientific authority to promote religious authority, or in the inverse, not wanting to feel like bumpkins in the company of their skeptical, intellectual friends. Jerry is right to suspect these people, but its not so much that accommodationism is impossible, so much as why bother (unless you are concerned about buttressing religious authority or not being perceived as a hick). I kind of wish some Noble prize person with big stones came out for Fundamentalism on the God-Falsified-the-Fossil-Records-in-4004-B.C. Its pretty clean and being epistemically circular, irrefutable, if ridiculous.
Its interesting to think about medieval cosmology with the moving spheres, the furthest sphere being the fixed stars, outside of which was Heaven, God and all the angels, assigned essentially a physical location, from which they could come down. If you consider the changes in cosmology, with Heaven losing a physical location altogether in a map of the universe, and the fact that people believe anyway, it says something about the profound hold these ideas have on the human psyche.
The “shrill” critique always amuses me, I read it a lot. I imagine PCC(E) or Dawkins quietly making a point – verses, say, a red faced preacher shouting at his “flock” and spitting, or “ALLAH AKBAR!” screaming while sky punching AK-47s and Korans, lunatics in Pakistani rallies. Shrill. Yep, that’s us alright. 🙂
Just the reminder of that engaging quote from Robert Ingersoll makes me yearn to rush to the bookshelves and read him again…..as if I had time!