In Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think, Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher P. Scheitle provide a fresh look at an old problem, namely, how do people understand the relationship between science and religion? Once thought to represent opposing frameworks for organizing social life, sociologists now mostly agree that conflict between science and religion is limited to a few areas (like evolution), and that it is largely about morality rather than epistemology. Yet, our understanding of how religious people think about science is spotty. And much of what we do know comes from case studies, leaving unanswered pressing questions about wider patterns in perceptions of these two critical sources of knowledge and values. While not necessarily incompatible, there are real tensions between scientific and faith communities. What are the bases of conflict, and how widespread are the divisions? Perhaps more important, how can the fissures be overcome? Religion vs. Science takes on these questions and more. Given the polarized political climate and ongoing debates about truth and trust, fact and fiction, Ecklund and Scheitle’s ambitious study of how religious people in the United States think about science comes at an important moment. The scope of the research is truly impressive. Observational data from nearly 250 congregations, interviews with more than 300 congregants and religious leaders, and a national survey of more than 10,000 US adults provide ample fodder for the analysis. While the authors paint a rich and complex picture of religious Americans’ beliefs, the upshot of their study is straightforward. Religious people’s views of science depend on answers to two questions: “First, what does science mean for the existence and activity of God? Second, what does science mean for the sacredness of humanity?” (2). Flanked by introductory and summary chapters, the book’s empirical chapters are organized around a set of “myths” about religious people that the authors aim to “debunk,” for example, that religious people are uninterested in science, that they don’t like scientists, and that they are opposed to technology. In dispelling these myths, the authors weave together survey and interview data to produce an account of how religious people think about science that is both broad and deep. Survey data are used to sketch the contours of attitudinal divides between faith traditions, and interview data give texture to statistical results and help make sense of the patterns. Many of the findings corroborate other studies of science and religion. For example, while relatively few people believe that science and religion are at odds with each other, Evangelical Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated are most likely to do so. The book is also chock-full of more surprising results. For example, in contrast to Ecklund’s earlier research on elite scientists, Ecklund and Scheitle find that the religious identities of “rank and file” scientists more closely resemble the general population. And, although religious people tend to prefer applied science to pure science, faith traditions differ relatively little in their opinions about many aspects of science, especially among non-Evangelicals. The absence of average differences between religious groups on some issues may reflect the heterogeneity of views within faith communities, which the qualitative data effectively illustrate throughout the book. Religion vs. Science is notable for both its theoretical and empirical contributions. Theoretically, it provides a general framework for understanding how the religious public thinks about a wide range of issues related to science, which is an important addition to a literature often centered on elites and specific episodes of conflict. Empirically, the book’s emphasis on non-Christian traditions makes it especially valuable to a body of scholarship where Evangelical Christianity has long played an outsized role. The book also raises important questions, which should push research in new directions. For example, have religious people always understood science in these terms? What role do macro-level factors play in steering perceptions of science? What are the implications of these religious divisions for the discourse, policies, and laws related to political controversies about education, the environment, and other issues? The book’s subtitle, “What Religious People Really Think,” reflects the authors’ analytic focus on religious people, but it obscures how much readers can learn about how the non-religious view science. While interview respondents were sampled on their religiosity, the survey data are nationally representative. And many of the widest divisions exposed are between Evangelical Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated (although the “nones” also differ from non-Evangelicals in many ways). There are also questions about the extent to which the “myths” that the book aims to “debunk” are actually widely believed. For example, the myth that “religious people are all young-earth creationists” (72) seems a bit overstated. And, while the book is tightly packaged (about 240 pages, including several detailed methodological appendices), a deeper dive into the survey data would have been welcome. The analysis is insightful, but mostly descriptive. An important next step will be to drill further into differences associated with religious beliefs in addition to the religious identities explored by Religion vs. Science. Going forward, the wealth of information collected by the authors promises to uncover much more about the social foundations of people’s views of science and religion. Overall, this book is an accessible and engaging read. It will be of interest to scientists (social and otherwise), religious people, and a broader public audience interested in the roles science and religion play in society. Importantly, it also offers practical advice for overcoming divides between scientific and faith communities, which, as the authors argue, would benefit all sides. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Social Forces – Oxford University Press
Published: Sep 1, 2018
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