Scientists Talk Religion Around the Globe


English essayist and lay theologian G.K. Chesterton once noted that “the whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” Since completing our new book, Secularity and Science: What Scientists Around the World Really Think About Religion, (Ecklund, Johnson, Vaidyanathan, Matthews, Lewis, Thomson, Di), Chesterton’s insights have never felt more true.

Moving beyond the loudest voices, our past research on science and religion looks at the United States through a sociological lens, examining what scientists really think about religion and what religious people really think about science (see Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think and Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think).

Now we’ve turned our lens globally, to look at what scientists around the world really think about religion. We hesitate to categorize our work as merely “travel,” but travel we did. We surveyed nearly 22,000 physicists and biologists and conducted in-depth interviews with more than 600 of them in France, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Taiwan, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

And now the US—our home turf—seems more foreign to us than when we first viewed it through the research lens.

As we look again at science and religion in the US, having studied it intensively in seven other global regions, our main conclusion is that the US is an anomaly. Or stated differently: the conflict narrative we find here is not inevitable.

person wheeling a hard case suitcase

Even as a recent Pew research report argues that Christianity is declining in the US, evangelical Christianity dominates the US public voice when it comes to the connection between religion and science. There are a number of patterns across the world that lead scientists in other countries to think differently about science and religion than the Christian-centric conflict narrative we find in the US. One is simply that religious scientists in non-Western contexts see themselves as using pieces of their religion in their science; and they seem to have a broader vocabulary for doing this than do members of US Christian traditions who are scientists. Muslim scientists, for example, referenced passages from the Qu’ran that they viewed as encouraging a scientific worldview, while Hindu scientists spoke of the spiritual leader Swami Vivekananda, who encouraged Hindus to embrace science. But it is not just Christianity, either, that produces problematic conflicts. Rather it seems to be that a particularly US-based form of Christianity produces some conflict between scientists and members of the religious public. For example, in Hong Kong there is a residual history of Christianity in the best primary and secondary schools where scientists in these regions first received their training. These scientists sometimes mentioned attending educational institutions founded by Christians, where they had to read the Bible and sing hymns in the morning.

While past overlap between science and religion may not eliminate the possibility of future experiences of conflict, many scientists in Hong Kong attributed their “compatibility view” to past socialization. Finally, in highly secular contexts like France, both religious and nonreligious scientists tend to view science and religion as independent, rather than conflicting, due to societal norms that minimize public religious expression.

What’s more, in contrast to the other countries we studied, the cultural context of science and religion in the US is one characterized by misperceptions on both sides. The media plays a key role in this, taking real but infrequent controversies over evolution and portraying them as routine or representative of most religious people (and of all evangelical Christians in particular). Add to that some outsized voices of celebrity scientists who personally think science and religion are in conflict, and we have a recipe for misperception and caricatures, which are widely circulated through New York Times best-selling books.

Where does this leave us?  What are the challenges and opportunities for US religious groups as a result?

First, US religious groups (and Christian groups in particular) need to know that there are more religious scientists than we might think and those who are Christian scientists in particular need to be taught more about the depths of their own Christian tradition, the aspects of their tradition that actually foster collaboration between religion and science. Second, only a minority of scientists we studied perceived the relationship between science and religion as one of conflict. Most scientists around the world, including in highly secular contexts such as France and the UK, view the relationship between these two spheres as one of independence or collaboration. Across all of the regions that we examined, the conflict view is never held by more than one-third of scientists; nor do atheist scientists overwhelmingly embrace this view. Third, there are scientists who see spirituality in their work. Even if they do not believe in God, many draw on religion-like concepts to find greater purpose and meaning in doing science. Fourth, even as many scientists view science and religion as independent of one another or compartmentalize their faith at work, religion still comes up in the scientific workplace. University students bring faith-based perspectives to class discussions. Scientists may need to accommodate the religious practices of their graduate students, such as working around holidays or the timing of prayers. Religion can come up as a matter of small talk. It can also shape the moral decisions that scientists make about what it means to be a good scientist.

Here are some facts that we think, in particular, people in churches need to know. First, only 29 percent of US scientists see religion and science in conflict (in contrast to what we see in the media and hear from outsized voices). About two-thirds of US scientists are atheist or agnostic. In other words, a substantive proportion of scientists (about one-third) have some form of belief in God or a higher power. And finally, nearly 40 percent of US scientists identify with a religious tradition. But belonging does not always entail belief. For example, we met many scientists who continue to identify as Catholic or Jewish—some of whom continue to attend services—but do so having shed belief in God. Who cares? Well, these patterns suggest that US science is not the hostile climate for religion as it is often portrayed.

We think that the two broad avenues of opportunity to help churches understand and appreciate science are 1) recognizing that while there are some scientists with hostile views of religion, overwhelmingly most do not have such views; and 2) viewing the presence of religious individuals in US science as an opportunity. In short, this research points to an opportunity for churches to see the truth about scientists—that most aren’t hostile to religion and that the scientists in their midst deserve encouragement.


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About the Authors

  • Elaine Howard Ecklund

    Elaine Howard Ecklund

    Elaine Howard Ecklund is the Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology at Rice University, as well as founding director of the Religion and Public Life Program. Ecklund is a sociologist of religion, immigration, and science who examines how individuals bring changes to religious and scientific institutions. She is the author of four books with Oxford University Press, one book with New York University Press, and numerous research articles and op-eds. Her most recent book is Secularity and Science: What Scientists Around the World Really Think About Religion (Oxford University Press, 2019) with coauthors David R. Johnson, Brandon Vaidyanathan, Kirstin R.W. Matthews, Steven W. Lewis, Robert A. Thomson Jr., and Di Di. Her forthcoming book, Why Science and Faith Need Each Other: Eight Shared Values That Move Us Beyond Fear, will be published with Brazos Press, a division of Baker Books, in May 2020.  She has received grants from the National Science Foundation, Russell Sage Foundation, John Templeton Foundation, Templeton World Charity Foundation, and Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Her research has been cited thousands of times times by local, national, and international media. In 2013, she received Rice University’s Charles O. Duncan Award for Most Outstanding Academic Achievement and Teaching, and in 2018 she gave the Gifford Lecture in Scotland.
  • David R. Johnson

    David R. Johnson

    David R. Johnson is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education Leadership in the College of Education at the University of Nevada, Reno, as well as a non-resident research fellow in the Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University. He specializes in the sociology of work and organizations, scientific careers, and policy adoption. Johnson is the author of A Fractured Profession: Commercialism and Conflict in Academic Science (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017) and co-author of Secularity and Science: What Scientists around the World Really Think about Religion (Oxford University Press, 2019).
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