Scientists Are Dumb

What do elite scientists know about religion?

Not much, according to sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund.  Asking these out-of-touch elite scientists for advice about religion is akin to asking residents of a nudist colony for advice about fashion.

If anyone would know, it would be Ecklund.  In her study of scientists, between 2005 and 2008, she surveyed 1700 scientists from what she called “elite” schools (157-158).  She announced her goal in her 2010 book Science vs. Religion: to give voice to “the scientists whose voices have been thus far overlooked in the science-and-religion debates” (x).

To this reader, Ecklund seems to have made a strange decision to include social scientists—economists, political scientists—in her sample.  It seems a better fit to call her sample elite “academics” instead of elite “scientists.”  Other reviewers have pointed out different complaints.

But whatever the merits or faults of the study as a whole, it tells us something about the connection between some elite academics and the rest of America.  As Ecklund describes, the religious affiliation of her sample does not match that of Americans as a whole.  Among her sample, only two percent identified as “evangelical Protestant,” compared to twenty-eight percent among the general population.  Only two tenths percent as “Black Protestant,” compared to the general public’s eight percent.  Nine percent identified as Catholic, compared to twenty-seven percent of the public.  Sixteen percent were Jewish, compared to the general population’s two percent.  Perhaps most interesting, given recent attention to the rise of the “nones,” a full fifty-three percent of Ecklund’s sample claimed no religious affiliation, compared to sixteen percent of the rest of us. (15).

The same trend was true when it came to professing atheism or agnosticism.  In Ecklund’s sample, just over one-third called themselves atheists, compared to a mere two percent of the American population.  Thirty percent called themselves agnostic, compared to the general four percent.  And a relatively meager nine percent agreed with the statement “I have no doubts about God’s existence,” compared to a whopping sixty-three percent of the general public (16).

These elite academics, then, certainly do not match the rest of America in religious ideas or identity.  That really doesn’t come as much of a surprise.  But Ecklund argues more provocatively that this religious quirkiness among elite academics also creates a sort of self-perpetuating echo chamber.  It creates what Ecklund calls three “myths scientists believe” (152).

First, Ecklund charges, elite academics tend to think that if they ignore religion, it will go away.  Second, they too often equate all religion with an imagined bogeyman of “fundamentalism” (153).  And elite academics tend to think that “All evangelical Christians are against science” (155).

The utter lack of evidence for all these myths does not stop elite academics from feeling correct, even intellectually superior to those who question their blundering assumptions.  As Ecklund argues, non-religious academics often have little idea even about the working of religion on their own elite campuses, “much less about what drives a typical American worshipper” (8).

Ecklund depicts an environment on some elite college campuses that encourages, or at least allows, growths of strange ideological excess.  One physicist she interviewed—admittedly one extreme end of Ecklund’s sample—described religion as a “virus” to which he is “immune” (13).

Most of her interviewees did not express such virulent hostility, but many of the traditionally religious folk still expressed a felt need to live a “closeted faith” (43).  Even when they had some religious colleagues, these elite academics often felt surrounded by angry anti-religion.  One self-identified “Christian” academic told Ecklund about a conversation with a colleague about their students’ poor academic preparation.  The fault, this Christian was told, was with “stupid intelligent design.  It’s stupid Christianity” (45).  Her colleague had not meant to offend, but had simply assumed that such comments could not be considered offensive.

In this self-reinforcing world of arrogant ignorance, many of the academics in Ecklund’s study made strange and unwarranted assumptions.  One biologist, for example, assumed that “mature” students would not consider creationism.  Advanced students, this biologist explained, “are just not religious in the first place.”  But this biologist, Ecklund points out, really had no idea about the religious ideas or backgrounds of his students (78).

Even on their own campuses, most of Ecklund’s sample reported woeful ignorance of attempts to promote dialogue between science and religion.  “The reality of university life,” Ecklund argued, “does not match these scientists’ ideal” (98).

Yet this ignorance among elite academics did not create a questioning or humble attitude.  One social scientist, for instance, explained how she began her classes.  “You don’t have to distance yourself from religion,” she told her new students, “and think about it from an outside perspective, but you do if you want to succeed in this class.  And if you don’t want to do that, then you need to leave” (84).

How can such smart people say such dumb things?  How can elite academics profess such blinkered ideas without even recognizing their own biases?  As a product of two of the “elite” schools in Ecklund’s sample (Washington University in St. Louis and University of Wisconsin—Madison), I can attest to the fact that the environments in such places can lead to a perception of a single, right, “progressive” orthodoxy.  But even academics should be allowed their own opinions, right?  Even if they are grossly out of line with popular notions?

The real question, to my way of thinking, is this: How can people who have purportedly dedicated their professional lives to increasing their knowledge allow themselves such lamentable ignorance when it comes to religion?