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Elaine Howard Ecklund | Shared Values in Science and Faith

Elaine Howard Ecklund is a sociologist who has devoted her career to understanding the attitudes and perceptions that scientists and religious people have toward each other.

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scientist and pastor

Elaine Howard Ecklund is a sociologist who has devoted her career to understanding the attitudes and perceptions that scientists and religious people have toward each other.

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Description

A podcast that shows the harmony between Christian faith and current scientific discoveries by sharing the stories of interesting people who have found a better way of understanding science and Christian faith.
  • Originally aired on September 24, 2020
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Elaine Howard Ecklund is a sociologist who has devoted her career to understanding the attitudes and perceptions that scientists and religious people have toward each other. What she has found does not always match what would be expected. We talk about some of what she has learned over her years of research on this topic and talk about her new book, Why Science and Faith Need Each Other: Eight Shared Values The Move Us Beyond Fear


Transcript

Ecklund:

People of faith broadly, and Christians specifically, are very skeptical of scientists when they appear to be saying that science can explain everything, or a softer form of scientism is that anything that’s worth knowing, science can explain, sure there might be other domains but that they’re not really worth investing in. And I have found it’s incredibly effective when scientists themselves express some kind of humility and the limits of their own knowledge, that when they talk about their struggle and their process, it actually increases the public acceptance of science and the trust in scientists. 

My name is Elaine Howard Ecklund, and I am the Professor of Sociology at Rice University as well as Director of the Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. 

We talk to a lot of people on this podcast who study some branch of science or are experts in some area of theology or biblical interpretation. Elaine Howard Ecklund has devoted her career to studying these kinds of people—what they think about each other and how they interact. She’s a sociologist and has written a number of books now, based on her research, looking at what scientists actually think about religious people and what religious people actually think about scientists. And what she has learned is not always what you would expect. We dig into some of that in this episode.

She’s also written a new book that tells her own, more personal story of finding harmony between faith and science. In that book she has identified a number of values that are shared between science and faith communities, and she thinks that by understanding these values and common motivations, it might help to reconcile some of the tensions that have been perceived between science and religion. May it be so!

Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Stump:

Elaine. It’s so good to have you with us today. I’d like to hear, and for our audience to hear, a bit of your background to start with if we could. So you’re a sociologist by training and profession—and how did that happen exactly? How old were you when you first thought, when I grow up, I’d like to be a sociologist

Ecklund:

I did not come from a family where a lot of people had pursued higher education. I have an aunt who was very influential in my life who went to college but I would not have been able to tell you what a sociologist is, when I was a kid. I would have had no idea what you’re talking about. I’m not even sure I would have known, you know, what it meant to teach at the university level, to be a professor. I really discovered sociology, interestingly enough, through working after college. I went to Cornell University, which is in my hometown, and after college I worked a bit in campus ministry. And I just really grew to love the University, hanging around people and hanging around ideas and having diverse perspectives on ideas was something that I became really passionate about. And I looked at what I was reading and I was reading a lot of sociology. 

So sociology, for the uninitiated listener, is simply the study of group behaviors. So sociologists take for granted that people behave differently in groups than they do as individuals. And I think as human beings, we know that that’s intuitively true, that we act a bit differently when we’re around, say, a group of friends or family than we would if we were by ourselves and that these group-based differences can have a huge impact on society, that they can increase inequalities in society, or these groups can be used for social change in really powerful ways. We think about something like the civil rights movement, or even a church community, is a type of group that I study.

Stump:

So your specialty within the discipline of sociology has become science and religion. Has it always been that? Or what influenced you to focus in particularly on those groups?

Ecklund:

There’s kind of the intellectual answer and the personal answer. I think your listeners maybe will be a little bit more interested in the personal answer.

Stump:

Maybe. Give that a shot.

Ecklund:

Yeah. I’ll give that a shot first, Jim. So I went to do my PhD at Cornell University. And I was studying immigration and religion, looking at how immigrant communities use religious persuasions and identities to adapt to broader American society. And after I graduated, along the way, I met my now husband, Carl, who is a particle physicist. And I had always loved science, but I remember we were looking around for jobs together after we finished our degree work and I found a flyer for—what’s called a call for proposals. So an organization asking for grant proposals on the science and faith interface. And my husband and I were talking about it and he said, “you know, I noticed that scientists sometimes don’t know very much about religious people and have stereotypes about religion.” And as we got talking, we also realized that a lot of people in the church community we were a part of at the time— 

Stump:

It goes the other way too.

Ecklund:

—had a lot of stereotypes about scientists. And he’s like, “you’re a sociologist, you should study that.” So I thought, you know, I bet I could. And I got really fascinated with that. And it was a kind of a strategic thing. We didn’t have jobs in the same place. And as some people know, it’s really hard to get two academic jobs that we call it sometimes in academia, “the two body problem.” I thought, if I get a big grant, I can take it with me wherever I want to go and that will be helpful, like money’s always helpful. And lo and behold, I got a grant, and this was almost 15 years ago now, in 2005, I got a grant to study what scientists think about religion. And I just loved doing that study. I loved listening to what really smart people thought about things. And sometimes realizing that even though a scientist may know a lot about their particular area of science, that they really didn’t actually know very much about God, in some cases, they didn’t know very much about religion. On the other hand, some of them knew a lot about issues of faith and had reflected very deeply. And I thought both of those groups are really important for people to know about. And I started to write and do speaking and teaching on those issues. And I—it’s almost like I’ve never looked back. I just can always think of something else that would be fascinating to study in the science and faith interface.

Stump:  

Well, before we get to the main event to talk about your latest book, in this regard, I’d like to have you describe just a little bit—a couple of these really large surveys that you’ve done on science and religion. Tell us a little bit about those, how you conducted them, and maybe even some of the main takeaways that you’ve gotten from these.

Ecklund:

So my first book was a study of what U.S. scientists at universities think about religion. And that book was published in 2010. It took me about five years to do that research. The book is called Science Vs Religion: What Scientists Really Think, and we found in that book that there are just a lot more religious scientists than people in the general public are usually led to believe, and really than even scientists themselves understand. So scientists have stereotypes about other scientists in their community, even.

Stump:

So is that you think because we hear some of the loud voices in the popular press, who are scientists that may have more extreme views, or because many scientists themselves are afraid to speak openly and publicly to their colleagues about what their faith is?

Ecklund:

So my research shows that it’s both of those things and something else too. So there is the sense that there are a lot of atheists in science and that atheists in science really think a certain way about religious people—that all atheists are like someone like Richard Dawkins, who’s the very famous author of The God Delusion and former chair of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford. So those books hit New York Times bestseller lists. And so they do very well. And that then leads the general public to think that there are tons of people like that, when in reality there really aren’t. It’s just that when people write so much, what is in reality a small collection of people can feel like a much larger group. But I know that actually because of a second book I wrote. A study that I did in the general public, trying to understand what religious people think about science and scientists. And that book, just so your listeners know is Religion vs Science, What Religious People Really Think. So that’s one thing. So I think you’re right on in your view there. 

The second kind of thing is that, certainly, that scientists themselves feel like there are not other scientists who are people of faith. I have a story which happened to me quite a few years ago now, but still kind of hits me when I think about it. I was doing one of my studies at a top research university, and these studies are confidential. So the scientists that I study are promised by me that I will not share their names with other scientists, even if they took part in the study. So I would have to be really careful because sometimes I would interview a lot of scientists in the same department. So what I would do is I would walk into the building, I would interview a scientist and I would actually walk out of the building, walk around the building, come in another entrance, and interview another scientist in the department.

Stump:

Put on wig or something? [laughs]

Ecklund:

I was following this procedure one day, and a really interesting thing happened to me. I went in for one interview, and the woman that I interviewed was actually preparing for a Sunday school class. She had a Bible in front of her. She had all these materials that she was reading and I asked her what she was doing, she said, “well I’m actually preparing to teach Sunday school at my Episcopal Church this Sunday.” So I interviewed her and she ended our interview by saying that she was certain that there was no one else in her department who even believed in God, that she felt kind of ashamed of the fact that she was so involved in her church. She never talked to anyone about it. I went out of the building, I walked around the building, I came in other entrance and I interviewed the scientist who was in her same wing and even was one door down the hallway from the first scientist. And very sadly, this man had just lost his wife a few years ago and was doing a lot of soul searching about the meaning of life and had gotten very involved again in the Catholic Church tradition that he was raised in. And he ended our interview by saying, “I’m certain that no one else in my department believes in God and I wish I had someone to talk to about these issues.” And it just, it really hit me, that that kind of thing—and I suspect it happens more often than that one experience. My research would say that it’s actually more common. But that particular incident, that particular story, really stayed with me.

Stump:

Because as the objective scientist, you’re not able to say, “hey, you ought to go next door and talk to this lady over here.” Does that disturb the sample somehow?

Ecklund:

Well, it’s not really our role to play matchmaker in that kind of way. It’s my hope that—I’ve told that story in several venues—it’s my hope that others like that will realize that they’re not alone. And I think that could be really powerful.

Stump:

Well, good, very interesting. Let’s turn our attention here, though, to this newest book, Why Science and Faith Need Each Other. As you just described, it’s a little bit different sort of work. You still draw from the academic research you’ve been doing, but this is more personal, too. How would you describe the difference between this book and your others, and what made you want to write this one?

Ecklund:

I should say that I was, in all honesty, a bit scared to write this book. And I think you hit the nail on the head when you said, Jim, that it’s a bit more personal than some of the other books. But after years of doing this research, studying a variety of faith communities, studying variety of scientific communities over the past nearly 15 years, I realized that conservative Christians, in particular Evangelical Christians, but really, also people who are conservative Catholics, others, are very distinctive in how they understand the science and faith interface and in particular, have less trust in scientists, have more moral issues with particular types of science that they think are in conflict with Christian faith. 

I am part of a Christian community myself, and I had never really reflected deeply on how these issues had had an impact in my own life, how they might have an impact on my particular community. And in the midst of that, I have had a lot of personal interaction with science through the form of medicine. I have a chronic illness, rheumatoid arthritis, that I’ve had since I was 12 years old. And I realized that the science and faith interface is something that I’ve been struggling with and thinking on really most of my life. And that it would almost, how shall I say this kind of carefully I guess, it would almost sort of be wrong of me not to share that with my community if I had the option to—not to marshal that research, as well as my own personal story in a way that those in my community might understand and wrestle with. So I’m glad I did it, but it has been a kind of difficult journey.

Stump:

Can you tell us a little bit more about your own faith background that you came from? And perhaps even the present context of your practice of faith today.

Ecklund:

I came from a very conservative faith background. I was part of a denomination of Baptists that thought the Southern Baptists—there are many Southern Baptists in Texas and in the south where I live now—thought the Southern Baptists were way too liberal. [laughter] So that perhaps gives your listeners some kind of context. You know, no dancing, no drinking, no playing games of chance, you know, this kind of—we read a list of rules that was printed in the hymnal every week. And I think having that kind of faith context, I talked about this a little bit in my book, makes for, in some ways, a lack of imagination of how the faith can be used to understand the natural world, how science itself can be a kind of deep spiritual pursuit. And along my youth when I was being raised in this particular kind of Christian community, I was also developing health struggles and those in their pre-teens and teens, those years are already hard enough, but when one has profound health struggles in the midst of them, it can just make everything amplified and appears so, so much worse. And I really started to question my faith at that point. And especially given the kind of things that I was learning at the hands of science, as it were, through medicine, about my own health, my hope for the future physically. And I didn’t find within the Christian faith that I was experiencing at a place where I could openly have those struggles with science and faith. And, you know, made a departure away. Over the years, I’ve very much come back to faith and have found a phenomenal church community in Houston, Texas. And it’s a Presbyterian Church. I’m not sure that really makes a difference to the listeners. But what’s more important is it’s a church which really holds in tension a sincere Christian faith, or rather doesn’t hold in tension, really, recognizes the importance of a sincere Christian faith as being an excellent platform for understanding science and fostering exploration of the natural and biological worlds.

Stump:

Was there a particular event or a trigger of some sort that brought you back into considering faith as an important part of life?

Ecklund:

I think if I had to put the money on it, I think it would be during my college years where I really turned back. For some people, there is during college a turn away from faith. But I got very involved at that point in a variety of campus ministry efforts. I had friends who were Christians, people who went to all different kinds of churches, and just experiencing a diversity of ways of embodying the Christian faith, showed me so many more possibilities. I also encountered people in my university, this was at what some would call a secular school, at an Ivy League school, at Cornell University, but I found there a group of very committed Christians from different denominations and traditions, as well as people who were thoughtful, and wanted to have sincere discussions about some of the hard issues that I was facing. And I found it so refreshing. It also taught me that the Christian faith is not a fragile faith, that it is a faith where the hardest questions can be asked of it. And we don’t need to know all of the answers. But especially if we’re open to relying on the broader community, there’s just so much there for people to explore.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hey listeners. I’m just here with a quick plug for the BioLogos Forum, a place filled with active discussions about many of the topics covered in this podcast. In fact, each episode of the podcast has a specific thread where you can discuss what you’ve heard. The forum is a place where questions are welcome and where conversation is civil and gracious, even when topics are controversial. Bring your questions or share your story with a community filled with experts and other curious learners from a variety of viewpoints.You can find a link to the forum at the top of any page on the biologos website, biologos.org.

Interview Part Two

Stump:

The subtitle of your book, Eight Shared Values That Move Us Beyond Fear. So you start the book with fear telling us a story of a frightening moment that you as a parent had, which started to manifest itself as anger. And there’s at least the suggestion that what too often manifests itself as anger when we see science and religion clashing, at least as it does on social media too often, maybe the truer emotion behind that anger and belligerence is also fear. Is that an accurate description of what you’re after here?

Ecklund:

I do think that’s right. I do think a lot of conflict really, that we see in society broadly about a whole host of issues, it finds its roots in fear—fear that groups have of one another, fear of having their own treasured values denigrated or taken away or their possessions taken away. And sometimes if we can acknowledge what those fears are, to really come clean with our fear, that can open up the way to understanding the kind of shared values that groups might have with one another. And I think that’s especially true when it comes to scientists and to Christians in particular.

Stump:

So let’s talk through some of these. So the first four, values commonly found in scientific practice, but which you say ought to be more prevalent in faith communities. So the first of those is curiosity. And I think the scientific side of that’s fairly obvious—people wonder how things work or why they are the way they are. And this often draws them into scientific studies of some sort. What about the religious application of curiosity? Isn’t that supposed to be about faith and just believing? What is the role of curiosity in these communities of faith?

Ecklund:

I think we need to have, as Christians, a deep sense of curiosity if our faith is ever to grow. And when we set up church communities where curiosity is stifled—and I think sometimes it is—I think some of the questions that people ask of the faith aren’t meant to be belligerent, especially when they’re asked by children or people who are just getting into Christian faith. They’re just questions of curiosity. I tell the story in the book of a scientist I name Jill, not her real name, who started out in her talk with me when I interviewed her as being extraordinarily hard-hitting about faith and very negative. But as we progressed in our discussion, it became very clear to me that she was raised in a Christian community, that she was a very inquisitive child, and when she asked difficult questions of her faith, she was told by youth group leaders and pastors and parents, just to make a decision to believe, you know, I think, which is how you framed the question, Jim. And that really led her away—that she couldn’t reconcile her interest in science and in the natural world with a faith that wasn’t allowed to grow. And so that stifling of curiosity really pushed her away from the faith. And I think that’s important for church leaders and for parents to understand. And going back to fear, I think, of course, one of the things that parents and leaders are afraid of is that curiosity unfettered will lead to doubt. And you know, we can talk about that later, but I think there’s something that’s in tension there for people.

Stump:

Yeah. So there’s a study that rings in the recesses of my mind somewhere, perhaps you’re familiar with that, I think it was conducted at Fuller Seminary, among people who grew up in the church but then left in their 20s. And one of the most consistently correlated findings with their leaving communities of faith was that they reported never having felt like there was a safe place where they could ask their questions. And so the story of Jill you just told here seems to be something that resonates with a lot of people who have said, “I’m not sure if I’m allowed to ask these kind of questions, and I stifled them for so long until I finally just say, well forget it.” Is that kind of thing borne out by research that you know of?

Ecklund:

It’s very much borne out by the data of my scientists that I have interviewed over the last decade plus, that there is certainly a sense among those who were raised in Christian homes and no longer consider themselves Christians, that they these are people who have been curious, who are incredibly intellectually gifted, who’ve been curious their entire lives, and they often were not given a place to safely explore that curiosity. And I think about you know, my own parenting and my husband and I have a 10 year old daughter, that there—I can understand that fear, that even though we’re an intellectual couple, we’re both university professors, there are some questions that my daughter asks that scare me. And I think it’s important for parents and leaders to know that we have a broader community that we’re a part of. And just because I don’t know an answer, or maybe I don’t feel comfortable wrestling with a certain type of question that my child might be asking, doesn’t mean that there isn’t someone else in my community who would be a safe listening partner. And sometimes another way to think about it that—and I’ve learned this from the scientists that I’ve interviewed, those who were able to have their faith grow and develop on pace with the development of their scientific knowledge—some of them have told me that their parents, at a very young age, encouraged them to ask hard questions of the faith, didn’t communicate a sense of fear of questions, connected them to those who knew more about science than the parent did and were also Christians. And so there’s some really neat stories of that as well.

Stump:

Well, I’ll say, personally, on my end, my kids are all in their 20s now, but some of my favorite conversations with them, as they’ve grown up have been the times where they have questioned why do we believe this? Or why do we do this? Or what do you think about this now? And just that process of coming to understand and to make faith their own or even to question faith on their own, has really been a pleasure for me and perhaps as a philosopher, I get into that sort of thing more than others do. But it strikes me as a healthy thing to allow people to ask the questions that are bothering them, that keep them awake at night, right?

Ecklund:

I think that’s exactly right. And I think sometimes our children just want to be heard, to know that if they had more questions there would be a safe place to ask those questions. They’re kind of testing a bit.

Stump:

Well, the next one is doubt, which is not very often found among lists of virtues, perhaps values but what is it that you mean by upholding doubt as an important value both for scientists and for people of faith?

Ecklund:

Yes, for scientists, I think it’s a little bit easier. So for scientists, there is the sense where, kind of built into the scientific method, there is a spirit of doubt. If you talk to scientists who have been doing their work for a long period of time, they’ll say that as soon as they find some instance—they make a new discovery or move a previous scientific finding forward—they immediately are doubting what they did, and they want others to challenge what they did, that doubt is kind of built into the scientific method because we have a sense that we are limited as human beings. There may be someone else who has a piece that we didn’t know about. There may be someone in the future who discovers something that builds on or completely disproves what we did. 

I think doubt in the Christian faith is a little bit trickier. Doubt is something that we often are deeply afraid of. I think I start that chapter on doubt in the book with the verse from John 20, where Thomas comes to the disciples and the other disciples telling him we’ve seen the Lord but he’s—I don’t have the verse memorized—but you know, he says to them unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were and put my hand into his side, I will not believe. And so we call that disciple Thomas, Doubting Thomas. And usually in the church community like the one I was raised in as a child, Doubting Thomas was not held up as an exemplar, not held up as someone we ought to emulate. But I do think that Jesus responds to Thomas in a very sincere way when he sees him again. He lets him touch the place where the wounds were, you know? He speaks to him—now I went back to the book so I could be reminded of it—it says, “then Jesus spoke to Thomas and addressed his doubts, put your finger here, see my hands, reach out your hand and put it into my side, stop doubting and believe.” And Thomas responds with awe, “My Lord and my God.” 

So I think the good of doubt, as expressed in the Bible, and really is borne out among the scientists that I’ve talked with over the years, is that on the other side of doubt, if we walk through it, can come a much deeper and more profound and some might call a weathered faith that’s been through many difficult things and wrestled with those things. And so, you know, this side of heaven, it brings us into a deeper sense of awe if we are allowed to really wrestle. And I talk in the book about creating in Christian community a place for safe doubt. So instead of pushing people away or encouraging them to doubt everything all at once, that when doubts come up, we provide in our Christian communities, a kind of safety net for people to really wrestle to get in touch with the resources that will help them, to let them just be in their doubt, until God reveals more of himself to them.

Stump:

And humility is the next one, which seems to follow on these pretty naturally, right? If you’re curious about things and you practice some sort of what you call “prudent doubt,” you’ll almost have to have some degree of humility, realizing that you probably don’t have all the answers that you very well could be wrong, right?

Ecklund:

Yes, I was facing a difficult work problem one time and I said to a mentor, “I just don’t know what to do.” This was a Christian mentor. And she said back to me, “you have to remember that God is God and you are not.” And I thought, you know, you have to have a pretty deep relationship to be able to take that kind of critique, right? And this mentor said it in a way that was incredibly compassionate. But that really stuck with me that the deepest sense of humility that I’ve experienced has come through observing people who have a profound recognition of their own limitations, and just how limited we are as humanity in general. I mean, we can’t even wear face masks reliably when we know that it will perhaps save our lives you know, as a group. So I don’t mean to get too much into the cultural moment, but this COVID time, I think, has said to me more than any other, “oh my, wow, look at how profoundly limited we are as human beings.” And there’s a kind of beauty in that too, as Christians, and I’m thinking about parenting again, if you realize that you don’t even have to know all the answers, that it’s not that God doesn’t, it’s that you don’t yet and that there’s a kind of rest in that, rather than a fear, which I find really beautiful.

Stump:

You discuss some in this chapter, too, the limits of science. And I’ve found in my own experience of talking to people who are skeptical of science, church people who are skeptical of science, that one of the things that best bridges that gap is a strong affirmation of the limits of science—that science doesn’t get to answer all the questions. And I wonder if from some of the survey work that you’ve done, where again, you may find some of the loud vocal scientists that practice a kind of scientism, which claims that science does get to answer all the questions. Is there a way of showing these limits of science that resonate with people in a better way? That science is really good at answering one type of question, like how does DNA work but doesn’t have all the authority and answering whether we ought to manipulate human DNA, say. Are there in finding those limits, does that have some resonance with people?

Ecklund:

So I think the most, in my experience of surveying and interviewing scientists and surveying and interviewing people of faith, I’ve asked these kinds of questions. So you know, to what extent you trust scientists or or science itself? And I found that people of faith broadly and Christians specifically, are very skeptical of scientists when they appear to be saying that science can explain everything, or a lesser form of scientism, a softer form of scientism, is that anything that’s worth knowing, science can explain, sure there might be other domains but that they’re not really worth investing in. And I have found it’s incredibly effective when scientists themselves express some kind of humility and the limits of their own knowledge. That that—and this is not something that scientists pick up on intuitively, I found. They kind of need to be told and those who are open to hearing really do get it, that when they talk about their struggle and their process, it actually increases the public acceptance of science and the trust in scientists. And I think that’s something that people who are very concerned about the public trust in science really need to know. 

I used to find it mildly annoying when faith communities and scientific communities have massive stereotypes about one another, or even strongly annoying. But I think given our current situation, our current public health global pandemic situation, to put it very specifically, that it’s deadly. It’s deadly for scientists and for Christians and for people of faith broadly, to have deep stereotypes about one another because it leads to really inappropriate action that hurts others. And so I think we’re seeing that.

Stump:

Well, the last value in this section is creativity. I was a little bit surprised at first that in this section, you dealt primarily with infertility, telling your own poignant story in this, but then I thought I shouldn’t be surprised, as this is probably the most creative act we perform to bring about another human life, right? Can you connect the dots though for us between that sense of creativity and the kind of creativity required to be a good scientist?

Ecklund:

Yes. So creativity is, I think, can be used in incredibly good ways. So sometimes children are taught science in a way that makes science seem like just a set of tasks, or a set of mundane tasks. And I think that’s a really dangerous way to teach science. The way to teach science well, my friends who teach science, at the grade school level tell me, is to instill in children a sense of awe and a desire to create and understand. And I love that idea of teaching science from the standpoint of creativity. So let’s create and understand, some scientists who are Christians, and Jewish as well have seen doing scientific work as thinking God’s thoughts after him. And so God is the original creator and we are going to create, and in the process get closer to God through the scientific work we do. I think that’s a really beautiful way to understand science as a piece of the Christian journey. 

When we get to human reproductive genetic technologies, there is a desire here to both create life through the fertility technologies. There’s also a desire to engage in creative forms of managing life. So we think about DNA and what we do with DNA. We also think about reproductive technologies that change the human genome. We’ve had in the last few years, a very public case of changing the germ line with the collaboration between a Chinese scientist and then actually a US-based scientist as well, we later found out. So there is this deep desire to create but we also have a sense as Christians that sometimes that creativity can go awry, and that we need a moral compass around that sense of creativity. But yet we don’t want to take away that inherent desire to create and I try to connect the dots the book by saying, look, in our, in our church communities, there’s this huge emphasis placed on family and creating children and raising them well in creative ways but that sometimes stifles other kinds of creativity when fertility and having children is elevated above other forms of creativity. And so, I’ve certainly had that happen in my own life, and I thought it would be really useful for the people who read the book to have them understand a little bit of my own journey along those lines.

Stump:

So the second set of virtues you talk about then relate to practices by which science and faith might come together. So we have among these healing and awa and shalom and gratitude. Let’s just get a little bit in here on each of those. So what do you mean, first of all of this set as a whole, these virtues or values that are ways by which science and faith might come together?

Ecklund:

So we usually think of the science and faith interface as being almost entirely about ideas. And so I wanted to set that way of thinking about things aside a little bit, to honor it, but to say, we can also think about science and faith as sets of practices that can cooperate. And so when it comes to healing for example, I know that many of the scientists that I have interviewed do their scientific work to bring a sense of healing to the world. That they want to have their science used in medical technologies that make people well. There are also lots of Christians who engage in science because they hope that healing will come and through the scientific work that they do, so I think that’s one that’s pretty obvious to people.

Stump:  

Right. Yeah. So when Jesus announces the coming of the kingdom will be that the lame will walk and the deaf will hear and the blind will see, people who are actively working in those technologies, particularly as Christians, but not exclusively so, are actively working to bring about these kinds of things that Jesus promised would come to be, right? There’s a very natural connection I think in that branch of science.

Ecklund:

I do think too, though, that—and some of the work you’ve done in BioLogos has been really neat along these lines helping us as Christians understand the value of the basic research sciences. So we think about a field like all of astronomy. You know, one of my favorite astronomers is Jennifer Wiseman of the Hubble Space Telescope and now the American Association for the Advancement of Science Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion program. That was a mouthful. I was surprised I could get that out. I didn’t know if I was gonna be able to finish there. And Jennifer visited my church once and my husband who’s a particle physicist, also who does basic research, introduced her through a Psalm and he said something like, you know, the Psalm, Psalm 19 I think it is about the heavens declaring the glories of God, and he said that when Jennifer reads this, she doesn’t just hear the Psalm, she sees the heavens through the work that she’s done as an astronomer, and that makes her sense of what that means, what the psalmist meant, just so much deeper and more robust and brings her a deep sense of awe of the world God has created. And she brings that awe as a scientist to the church community. It sort of brings chills up my spine, as I say that out loud, because there is that just amazing sense of awe. And I think that’s a way that we as Christians can really appreciate basic research, which is often devalued in our society, broadly.

Stump:

I think that’s such a fantastic example that counteracts, I think, perhaps the fear that many people have that if we have a scientific explanation for something, it’s going to take away from the awe and wonder of it. And it’s exactly the opposite in cases like that right? The scientists who really understand it are even more blown away by…

Ecklund:

Exactly, exactly. The other thing that—another value that I raise, of course, in that section of the book on practices is shalom. And I think sometimes people have a hard time understanding this one. Shalom, of course, means to seek the peace, to seek the well being of the world. And in that chapter, I talk in particular about environmental care. And I talk about racial justice in science, really trying to encourage Christians to be concerned about the lack of diversity in science, that there still are not enough black and brown people in science, even though black and brown people are very present in Christian communities, really overrepresented in Christian communities. And I talk about shalom as sometimes needing to be a bit disruptive, to get involved in the dirtiness and the messiness and the injustice in the world so that we can be agents of peace. And I would just so love Christians who are interested in science to really be champions of diversity in science, to be people who are known for making a way for more women in science in fields where they’re underrepresented, for making a way for more black and brown people in science. I just that’s—I’m really passionate about that and I want to see Christians be more engaged with bringing a sense of equality to science. So I talk about that some and I talk about environmental care, and just our responsibility to move environmental care out of the political realm and start thinking about this very much as a spiritual practice of caring for the earth.

Stump:

Those two issues of racial inequality and injustice and care for the world, for the created order seem to show that our society is suffering from a rather acute absence of shalom right now, isn’t it?

Ecklund:

Yes, yes. And you’re…it’s just been everywhere. In some weird way—I was talking to Katharine Hayhoe, is a very well-known climate scientist at Texas Tech and also a Christian.

Stump:

And she was on our podcast awhile back.

Ecklund:

Oh my gosh, well, that’s wonderful. And Katharine was saying it’s kind of hard to look at the world right now, and so COVID has just wreaked so much havoc. But in some ways, there’s been a piece of redemption for the earth, in that we are not flying very much right now, where our earth is, our carbon emissions are going down. And so there’s—

Stump:

Getting a sabbath of some sort.

Ecklund:

Yeah, it’s getting a Sabbath of some sort, and how can we develop ongoing redemptive practices that are birthed from this period of time where that’s a more sustaining kind of kind of sense.

Stump:

Well finally, gratitude, tell us a little bit about your own experience with making gratitude a regular practice or discipline in your own life.

Ecklund:

I have noticed that the scientists who are, you know, happiest with their work and sustain interest in their work over long periods of time—I’ve had the privilege of knowing some Nobel Prize winners, some people who worked far after they would have had to in terms of the the retirement age who even worked for free, in some cases, because they loved their science, they love that ability to be able to create. And some of these folks are Christians and they just embody a deep sense of gratitude. But I first learned that spirit of gratitude in church, not through my scientific work. That we—it’s part of that humility, that we have a sense that we are not God and that what we have, even our ability to create, and be, and think, and do, are all gifts. And once we know that these things are gifts rather than just of our own doing, I think it makes us so much more open to sharing them with others. Because we know that they were not ever ours, that they were gifted to us to begin with. And so this spirit of gratitude, I think really can bring together the science and the faith community, and in some ways be the parent of other virtues, right, that some philosophers and some theologians would say. I think that can be a really beautiful thing. And so I decided to end the book there on gratitude.

Stump:

Well, we end there too, and let me just say that I am grateful for your work over the years bringing to light many of these nuances related to science and religion. I’m grateful that you wrote this new book and pray that it may bring about some of these changes you hope to see. And I’m grateful that you came on this podcast to talk to us about it. Thank you so much.

Ecklund:

Thank you so much. You’re doing really great work here. I really appreciate what you’re doing.

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the remote workspaces and homes of BioLogos staff in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening.  


Featured guest

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.

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