Religion is rising among students, but is science ready?
- Published on 09 February 2011
- Written by Nicholas C. DiDonato
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Professional scientists lead very hectic lives: from conducting research to publishing papers and applying for grants, and then making room for teaching classes, there's not a lot of time for non-science related activities. When it comes to religion, then, most scientists prefer not to discuss it—especially in the context of their classrooms. But for better or for worse the “ignore” approach may not work for much longer, since new evidence suggests that interest in religion is on the rise among university students.
The problem, to put it bluntly, is that scientists simply don’t get religion. Elaine Ecklund (Rice University) interviewed scientists at America’s top-tier universities and found that 36% of them said that religion has no positive role to play whatsoever in university life, regardless of whether it's in the form of religious ideas, people, or institutions. Fifty-four percent of scientists when interviewed noted the potential dangers of religion to the university and to science. In America, these concerns find practical foundations, as the majority of Americans want “intelligent design” taught in the classroom. Scientists, then, are quick to see religion as the enemy.
The irony is that many of their fellow scientists are in fact religious but hide it out of fear. Right under the skeptics' noses live examples of those who believe in science and religion. By closeting their religious beliefs, these religious scientists inadvertently allow the negative stereotypes of religion to fester in the scientific community. Their fears are far from unwarranted: Ecklund points out that religious scientists report feeling “embattled” in their respective scientific communities. They do not know how to express their religious faith, so they say nothing. On the bright side, Ecklund found scientists who, while not themselves religious, are open to discussing religious matters.
Perhaps this latent openness to religion could remain latent indefinitely, if not for the growth in religion among students. These students may very well defy the stereotypical expectations scientists have of religious fundamentalists, making it difficult for scientists to dismiss students’ religion altogether. The problem becomes worse when 36% of scientists see no room for religion at all. In short, a significant subset of the established scientific community either loathes religion or doesn't feel comfortable discussing it, even as a growing number of students are trying to find ways to hold religion and science together.
As with most problems, there's no easy solution. It would help if scientists knew of other forms of religion other than fundamentalisms, as well as if they felt they could speak openly about religion. Since the Enlightenment, theologians have been working hard to integrate the worldviews of religion and science; sometime soon, it may be best if scientists do the same.
For more, see Elaine Ecklund’s article “Why University Scientists Do Not Discuss Religion” in The Huffington Post.