IT HAS long been the perception of many in the UK that there is a paradox embedded in American religious thinking. The world’s supreme industrial power, while advanced in technology and science, harbours deep doubts about the truth of evolution and the real age of the earth. How can such cognitive dissonance continue to haunt the minds of many educated religious people? It is a perplexing question, and touches on adjustments that all people of religious faith have to make when facing up to a universe described by science.
Eckland and Scheitle approach this problem by conducting in-depth research over a period of five years in the United States, using the disciplines of science to explore the beliefs of a broad cross-section of interviewees. They cast their net widely to cover Protestants, Roman Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus, and discover that, while there is certainly tension between religion and science (which they see as resolvable), actual conflict is true only for a minority of scientists and religious believers — despite the conflict narrative dominating the media.
One aim of the book is to explore various myths and stereotypes about religious people, and to expose them for what they are: that religious people do not like science — or scientists, and are not scientists themselves; that they are all young-earth creationists; that they are climate-change deniers; or that they are against scientific technology, such as in work with human embryos.
Such a research project inevitably involves an overwhelming number of questionnaires of the “strongly agree . . . strongly disagree” sort. So, we discover, for example, that when asked whether they are interested in new scientific discoveries, only 28 per cent of mainline Protestants answered in the affirmative, whereas 52 per cent of Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims say that they are very interested (Catholics 31 per cent, Jews 43 per cent, religiously unaffiliated 47 per cent). What are we to make of this odd nugget of information?
Some readers may find themselves quickly succumbing to statistics fatigue, but the authors dig deep into the numbers to interpret them, and enliven the text by many brief and revealing quotations from the people whom they interview — opinions that could form the basis for many a congregational discussion.
At the heart of the tension between science and religion lie two fundamental issues. Does science limit God’s role as active Creator in charge of his world, author of miracles, and designer of nature? And what does science mean for the sacredness of humanity; are we diminished by the discovery of our evolutionary origins?
The mission of the authors is to encourage congregations to debate these issues without fear; they would like to see religious leaders celebrating the scientists within their congregations by creating opportunities for them to speak about their work and how they see their scientific knowledge as presenting no threat to their faith. Many have found that a theology of “co-creation” allows them to share responsibly and joyfully in God’s work.
The Revd Adam Ford is a former Chaplain at St Paul’s School for Girls.
Religion vs Science: What religious people really think.
Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher P. Scheitle
Church Times Bookshop £19.80