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Secularity and Science, by Elaine Howard Ecklund et al.

03 July 2020

Bernice Martin reviews a global survey about science and religion

THIS book is the report of a questionnaire survey of more than 7000 scientists and 600 in-depth interviews in the United States, the UK, France, Italy, Turkey, India, and, finally, Hong Kong analysed together with Taiwan as representing pluralist far-eastern societies. The sciences represented are biology and physics, since the researchers judged evolution in biology and cosmology and the Big Bang in physics likely to present difficulty for religious belief. The research, funded by the Templeton Foundation, is the first study on this scale probing the relationship between science and secularity, science and religion.

One observation that this study prompts is the difficulty of defining and quantifying religion-in-general rather than specific religious traditions and cultures. The biblical literalism that rouses the New Atheists in Western Europe and the US has little salience in other parts of the world. Even in the countries with the highest rates of atheism or non-religious identity among scientists and the general population — France, the UK, and the US in that order — only a minority of scientists see the religion itself rather than an “extremist” version as the problem even when they regard the relationship as one of conflict.

Being Italian and being Catholic are equated and scientists in Italy are overwhelmingly at least “cultural” Catholics and have little sense of cognitive incompatibility between science and religion. In Muslim Turkey and predominantly Hindu India, evolution and cosmology are largely cognitively unproblematic, and scientists in these societies see little to pit science against religion and much to suggest compatibility. This also applies to Hong Kong and Taiwan, apart from a small minority of conservative Protestants.

The questions in the survey have been drawn less from scientists or religious groups than from the national culture, especially the mass-media treatment of the issue, in the US and Western Europe. What is problematic elsewhere is the use of power by regimes in formally “secular” states where a dominant religion is increasingly privileged by the state. This applies to India with a Hindu nationalist ruling party and to Erdogan’s Muslim Turkey. Even here, only a small minority of scientists regard the religion itself rather than the version championed by the dominant political party as the root of the problem.

In Italy, too, there is suspicion of clerical institutions traditionally linked to state power intruding upon appointments and funding in science. For the most part, however, scientists everywhere see religion and science more as independent spheres dealing with distinct dimensions of life than as in intrinsic conflict. Even in the most secular societies, the increasing immigration of scientists from other societies and faith traditions dilutes the “conflict” perspective. The researchers conclude that only a social-scientific approach to the contextual factors that determine the relations of science and religion can illuminate the comparative pattern.


Bernice Martin is Emeritus Reader in Sociology at Royal Holloway, the University of London.


Secularity and Science: What scientists around the world really think about religion
Elaine Howard Ecklund, David R. Johnson, Brandon Vaidyanathan, Kirstin R. W. Matthews, Steven W. Lewis, Robert A. Thomson, Jr, and Di Di
OUP £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18

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