Online Conversation | Science, Faith, & the Pursuit of Truth with Elaine Howard Ecklund and Ted Davis
What does it mean to pursue truth — and how do we know what we know? Science and religion have often been assumed to offer either contradictory or unrelated forms of knowledge, with any intersection between them presumed to be a conflict.
Such assumptions have grown more contentious in recent years in a world awash in misinformation and epistemic battles. How do science and faith relate in pursuing truth? What might each have to say to the other? And how might such a conversation enhance our understanding of knowledge itself?
On Friday, March 25th The Trinity Forum hosted an Online Conversation with Elaine Howard Ecklund and Ted Davis to show how science and Christianity intersect in constructive, even beautiful ways. This Conversation is the third event in our Discovery and Doxology series in partnership with BioLogos and Church of the Advent bringing together leading scientists and theologians to discuss the relationship between science and faith.
Transcript | Ecklund + Davis | March 25, 2022
Cherie Harder: On behalf of all of us at the Trinity Forum, welcome to today’s Online Conversation with Elaine Ecklund and Ted Davis on “Science, Faith, and the Pursuit of Truth.” As Molly mentioned, today’s program is actually part of a series of Online Conversations that we’re hosting in partnership with our friends at BioLogos and Church of the Advent, which includes some previous Online Conversations, including “Understanding Transhumanism” with Richard Mouw and Rosalind Picard, as well as “Suffering, Healing, and Meaning” with Philip Yancey and Julia Wattacheril. So we encourage you to check those out as well as part of this series.
And so we want to thank our partners, both our previous speakers, also our collaborators, BioLogos and Church of the Advent, as well as the Templeton Religion Trust, whose grant support for this initiative has helped make it all possible.
I’d like to send a special welcome out to our many first-time guests, as well as to our almost 100 different international guests from at least 16 countries that we know of. So thank you for joining us from across many miles and time zones. And if you haven’t already done so, let us know in the chat feature where you’re joining us from. It’s always fun for us to know just the breadth and scope of the audience that’s here. If you are one of those first-time guests or are new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith, and to offer programs like this Online Conversation to do so and to come to better know the Author of the answers. And we hope the conversation today will be a small taste of that for you.
Certainly one of the big questions of life is the proper relationship between the claims of science and those of faith, as they go to the very heart of how we discover and discern what is true and live wisely within reality. We’re at a time where science and faith are widely believed to be in conflict. The discipline of science is sometimes conflated with a reductionist materialism that asserts or even assumes that only empirical knowledge is reliable and denigrates or dismisses ways of understanding what is real beyond the merely quantitative. At the same time, there are some people of faith who show apprehension that scientific findings might be undermining of spiritual truth or Christian orthodoxy, and that the questions that those scientific findings raise are more likely to result in doubt rather than discovery or the diminishment of moral laws with technological imperatives. So how should we think about science, faith, and the pursuit of truth? Joining us today are two incredibly renowned scholars, really among the world’s experts, from very different disciplines, who have dedicated much of their professional lives to grappling with just that question.
Cherie Harder: Elaine Ecklund is an author, scholar, professor of sociology, and the director of Religion and Public Life at Rice University, where her research focuses on how individuals bring change to both religious and scientific institutions. She has authored more than 70 peer-reviewed scholarly journals, as well as several books, including Science vs Religion: What Scientists Really Think, Korean American Evangelicals: New Modes for Civic Life, Varieties of Atheism in Science, Religion vs Science, Secularity and Science—perceive a theme?—and Why Science and Faith Need Each Other, which we’ve invited her to discuss today.
Joining Elaine is Ted Davis, who’s the professor emeritus of the History of Science at Messiah University and a fellow of the International Society for Science and Religion. Ted has published numerous articles on religion and science in a variety of academic journals and publications such as The Scientific Revolution and Modern America, as well as serving as the editor for The Works of Robert Boyle and Boyle’s treatise of God in the mechanical philosophy. He also serves as a frequent speaker on the relationship between science and faith, as well as an exhibit advisor to both the Museum of American History and the Museum of the Bible.
Elaine and Ted, welcome. We’re really glad to see you here.
Elaine Ecklund: Thanks so much, Cherie. It’s great to be here.
Ted Davis: Thank you. Thank you, indeed.
Cherie Harder: You bet. So let’s just sort of start off at the very beginning, which is both of you are from different disciplines, but you have chosen a rather unusual field, the relationship of science and faith, for much of your scholarly work. Why this field? How did you get interested in this topic? And Elaine, maybe we can start with you.
Elaine Ecklund: There’s sort of the scholarly answer to that question. I think there are many interesting questions at the interface of science and religion. And for my own field of sociology, how scientific groups and religious groups interact with one another I think is one of the most pressing questions really of our day, at the intersection of institutions and identities and beliefs—the kind of things that sociologists study. The more personal and perhaps more accurate answer is, I was raised in a faith community where science was not particularly affirmed. And so this was a struggle, a part of my early life. And as a social scientist, we study people and sometimes our work is quite autobiographical. And I would say that’s the case for me in part. So that kind of background juxtaposed with the fact that I’ve always loved science. I was a kid who entered every science fair and walked in the woods. I was raised in a farming community and really loved the natural world. I always tell people I love science so much, I married a scientist. So many years after those first walks in the woods, I met my husband, who’s a particle physicist at Cornell University, and so have just continued through his work my own love of science, and as a person of faith have been always puzzled by the connections between faith and science and why, under certain conditions, these communities really don’t get along. And the kinds of social consequences, very real consequences, there are when those communities don’t interact well together.
Cherie Harder: What about you, Ted?
Ted Davis: My interest in science and faith developed when I was teaching science and mathematics at a Christian high school in Philadelphia. It was only then that I decided to go to graduate school to see how I might pursue that more fully. I guess the most influential encounters I had before making those decisions came through membership in the American Scientific Affiliation, which is, to my knowledge, the oldest organization for Christians in the sciences in North America. And their website is asa3.org for anyone who wants to explore that. If you’re a Christian and you’re interested in science and these kinds of issues, you really need to be part of that group. And then also from reading Bernard Ramm’s influential book, The Christian View of Science and Scripture. That was published in 1954. In my view, the most important postwar book by an evangelical about science. These are the things that got me more keenly interested in science and Christianity. In those days, there wasn’t any obvious route to take to learn more about these things. There were no graduate programs, for example, in theology and science as there are today, or even in religion and science as there are today. I chose the academic field of the history of science because I had always been interested in that as well. And the historians of science already were writing about science and faith quite a bit in those days.
Cherie Harder: So as we start our conversation, it’s always good to get a sense of exactly what we’re talking about. And often scientific inquiry and theological scholarship are assumed to be in some kind of conflict in that theology, religion, science, they do use different methods for determining or declaring what is true. Others have thought that kind of science and faith essentially ask different questions, contribute different fields of knowledge. There’s very little overlap. So I’d love to ask you both how you define and differentiate between the realms of science and faith. And Elaine, maybe we can start with you again.
Elaine Ecklund: So thanks for that question. That’s the kind of thing if I were teaching a class and a student asked me that question—of which about many books have been written. Right. And, you know, I’m going to give you a 30-second answer. So [you] got to take what I’m saying as just the tip of the iceberg. Yeah. So I am most interested as a sociologist—sociologists take for granted the axiom that people wind up in groups and that our groupness—and I think this is a very spiritual assessment as well—that we are created inherently to be relational people, and we are most comfortable as people and flourish best when we are in communities. So then that makes sense to me as a scholar as well, that we have at our core some kind of need to be in groups. So when I think about science and faith, I think about the group of people and the set of institutions that describe science and scientists, and the set of people and groups and denominations and traditions that describe religion and religious people. Scientists, in terms of truth-claims and propositions, are most concerned with empirical, empirically verifiable observations of the natural and biological worlds. Religious people are most concerned with existential and practical questions of meaning and purpose and the kind of traditions that uphold the answers to those questions. But those definitions kind of untie very quickly when you get down on the ground and into these communities called “scientists” and “religious people”—or Christians maybe, for our purposes of this conversation—and what they’re actually doing in their everyday practices and how they relate to one another. And I love being in this conversation with Ted, whose work I respect very much, because I think our work is very complementary in that way. I’m most interested in contemporary people and what they’re doing and the kinds of methods that social scientists and sociologists have to study those group dynamics. And Ted’s work has been more focused on the historical record, but we have in some sense some complementary tools that we use.
Cherie Harder: Ted, I’ll ladle an extra question on top of that for you. Maybe you can kind of tackle both of them. As a historian of science, just to kind of pull in the widely held assumption that science and faith are in conflict—so many of us remember from our time in school the story of Galileo kind of bravely taking the stand for what turned out to be true. But you’ve made the point before that it didn’t necessarily always use to be that way. That actually, during the very early years of Christianity, the patristic era, there was the view that theology was the queen of the sciences, and philosophy was her handmaiden. So I’d love to kind of hear from you kind of where this narrative about science and faith being in conflict comes from, how new a mode of thought this is.
Ted Davis: Well, that is indeed a different question than the one you asked, Elaine. Do you want me to attempt to say anything about the one you asked Elaine? Or do you want me to just go with this?
Cherie Harder: If you would like to, of course.
Ted Davis: Well, I would give a sociological answer as well, the way Elaine did. I mean, I would say science is what scientists do. And by and large, scientists seek natural explanations for natural phenomena. And I’ll just leave it at that. And that religion gives people certain things. Religion gives people an origin story, a set of ultimate values, hope for the future. These types of things. Scientism can do that for people. Richard Dawkins does that even though he doesn’t think he’s religious. He is. He just has a religion of anti-theism. But that’s the kind of thing that religion does for people. So they do somewhat different things. Any points of connection they might have, in my view, are at the metaphysical level, and if you want to talk further about that later, we could. But that takes us astray from your question.
As to the conflict business. Well, you’re right that the patristics, the so-called Church Fathers, the people who were the Christian leaders in the first few centuries of the church, had a view of science that was known as the “handmaiden model” that they actually derived, I think, from Philo Judeaus, a contemporary of Jesus, who was a great Jewish philosopher. And the notion that science is—what we call science today—it serves the interests of theology or should serve the interests of theology. And that theology is the queen of all learning, because “science” in those days just meant learning broadly, didn’t mean narrowly natural science. So philosophy and science are the handmaidens to theology. Now, interestingly, at the time they began to use that metaphor, there were no Christian scientists at all anywhere in the world, as far as I know. I think the first significant Christian scientist, at least the first person of note to do this, was John Philoponus around 500 A.D. So right down through the period of Augustine, there aren’t any Christian scientists. Science existed. It had something fairly close to modern science in some ways was already existing in Greece for several centuries at that point. But Christians didn’t do that. Christians didn’t begin doing that in large numbers until the high Middle Ages and the arrival of—the creation, really—of medieval universities, an institution unique in the world’s history to Christian Europe in the high Middle Ages, but from which almost all universities in the world today, in Christian and non-Christian contexts, are descended. But that’s when Christians begin doing science in large numbers, is in 13th, 14th, 15th centuries, and ever since.
That handmaiden view is the dominant view right down through the time of Galileo. But Galileo questions whether the traditional conception of it is really any good. As he says, theology may be the queen, because she excels all the other sciences in dignity and because her knowledge is arrived at in a special way, namely revelation, but he doesn’t concede that [theology] is the queen in the sense of being able to lord it over the practitioners of the individual sciences, like mathematics or astronomy or medicine. He even says at one point that even a learned cleric, a priest who knows something about science, would never say that the Bible tells us more about astronomy than Ptolemy, or that the Bible tells us more about medicine than Galen, or that it tells us more about geometry than Euclid. So Galileo says, look, there’s these traditional secular authorities on science and they’re still the best place to go if you want to learn about these things. It’s not going to be the Bible because that’s not what its purpose is.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. That’s fascinating. You know, Elaine, you’ve argued before that part of the reason for the perception of conflict between science and faith may have as much to do with the conflict between faith and scientific communities as opposed to the actual substance of claims or discoveries. And you’ve noted that Christians are actually more likely than those from other religions to be suspicious of the scientific community and to perceive tensions between faith and science. And so I’d love for you to kind of say a little bit more about this, both the nature of the distrust and how it plays out in terms of popular understandings of the conflict and between discovery and faithful orthodoxy.
Elaine Ecklund: That’s a fantastic question. Thank you for that. So historians, philosophers, theologians who’ve studied the faith-science interaction will almost universally tell us that there doesn’t have to be a conflict between faith and science. And I think that’s good to assert for this group. I could give you lots of references to back up what I just said, but where the sociologist comes in is to say, but there still is. You know, people are still not getting along well in these two communities. And so then I start asking what is at the nature of that kind of—what I would think of as relational or community conflict under certain conditions. And, Cherie, you really answered part of the question aptly. There is an inherent mistrust. So the most recent research pre-COVID shows that many, in particular in evangelical Christian communities and some mainline Protestant and Catholic communities as well, think that scientists do not have as much of a moral compass as they might like. So there is a sense where scientists are people that you might not necessarily be able to trust, that they’re not moral persons, that they also are very anti-religion, that evangelicals, Catholics, mainline Protestants, some conservative Jews, some Muslims in the United States think that scientists pretty universally are atheists of the type that Ted mentioned, of a kind of Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris or others. These folks have written a lot of popular works, and so then that makes it seem like there is an outsized impact of this group of scientists, [that] there are many more of them because they’re such prolific writers than they really are.
And I think when you start talking about the relationship between the scientific and the faith community as being one of mistrust, that becomes a very interesting finding, because then we want to ask is—those of us on this call who are very concerned about building good relationships for the common good so that we can see both individuals flourish, but also communities really flourish and work together around common interests—then those of us who are concerned about those larger societal goals start asking, “How can we turn mistrust into trust?” And that’s a different kind of question than “How can we prove intellectually or propositionally or philosophically or theologically that the set of things called religion and the set of things called science don’t have to be in conflict?” So my work is more concerned with that building relational trust kind of piece of it than showing propositionally that these things can connect. Does that make sense? That kind of distinction is a kind of piece, I think, of the conversation.
Cherie Harder: Oh, that’s fascinating. I mean, so many kind of follow-ups on that. Would love to hear more about how you build that kind of trust and also ask about fear and anger. And often at the root of distrust is a sense of fear and anger. It’s probably not coincidental that fear and anger is also the big driver of conspiracy thinking. And we’ve certainly had lots of conspiracy thinking going on. Part of the reason this pops to mind is one of our speakers from a year ago, talking about Christians and conspiracy, pinpointed fear kind of at the basis of that. And so would love to talk to you about how both you build that trust, but also—there are people perhaps that one is right to be skeptical about. And so how you choose wisely who you trust in that role.
Elaine Ecklund: Yeah. So fear, anger—and fear and anger we know from good social psychological work are often very connected, that we become angry at or angry about the things we are afraid of, if that makes sense. I tell a story in my book Why Science and Faith Need Each Other about—my editor said, “Try to think of the time when you were most afraid” to start the book out, because I know that sociologically, but she’s like, “Try to put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s really afraid in one of these communities and kind of embody what that feels like.” And the time that I was most afraid—as I write about in the book—was when I lost my daughter who was then four, and I didn’t find her for a long time. And there was like a public safety protocol called in our situation at her daycare. And I can never remember being as afraid in my whole life. And when we found her, what did I want to do? Punish her in the extreme way I could. I mean, I became really angry. And our daycare director said very wisely, “There’s a fine line between fear and anger.” And she said, “Just step back a minute.” But there is. And so when someone shows up in our circle, whether we’re in the science or whether our primary identity is in the faith circle, the science circle, and is angry at us, then I think a wise response is to try to ponder what is the person really afraid of? So it goes the opposite as well. When someone is angry, then to step back and say, “What is the fear that’s here?” I think that’s really important.
The other kind of emotion or relational response that’s often, I think, connected in the science and faith community conversation is what I would call rejection. Both scientific and faith communities sometimes talk badly about the other. Does that make sense? So they say—I’ll just be really colloquial—they sort of say smack about each other. Right? So one of the—when I give trainings to scientists about how to connect well with students in their classrooms, for those who are university scientists, with students of faith who raise concerns about science, it’s like, well, for one, just a really easy one: I don’t care what you think, don’t start off any classes or say publicly that you think religious people are stupid. Like, just stop doing that. That doesn’t help matters. And I also, when I give talks to churches—which I love to do—and other faith organizations that want to know how to interact well with scientists, I tell them, don’t assume scientists are out to like—are these science-fiction-type characters who are out to blow up the world or that they’re immoral. Sort of, you know, try to lay aside some of those assumptions that lead to fear and then, I think, make the other group feel like you’re rejecting them out of hand, that you’re not even giving them a chance.
Cherie Harder: Ted, how does this play out in your work? You are an exhibit adviser both to the Smithsonian Museum for Natural History and the Museum of the Bible. I’m sure you have seen real-life examples of trying to build that trust among perhaps very differently minded players. How has that played out?
Ted Davis: Yeah, well, with the Smithsonian, by the way, it’s the Museum of American History. Not the natural history. Different story. The museum is supposed to have very, very soon—I mean, within days or weeks—the opening of an exhibit on religion and science in America.
Elaine Ecklund: Wow. That’s terrific.
Ted Davis: They haven’t told me the final date, but the curator told me last month that it was before the end of March, but he wasn’t sure. So anyway. And what they decide to do in those exhibits, of course, is up to the curators in the end. It’s not up to me. But I think fear of science on the part of Christians has a number of sources, including the fact that in the last 100 years at least, I would say, in many cases, polarization among the American religious community has contributed to the fact that relatively few scientists, active working scientists, have been made to feel comfortable in many evangelical Christian churches and in some other churches, also. For example, I know an evolutionary biologist who tells me that when he and his wife went looking for a church in the New York area, when they found out he was an evolutionary biologist, a person immediately asked him, “And why are you doing the devil’s work?” So this type of a response, which originates in the religious community, not in the scientific community, can be part of the problem.
In America, the notion that the historical sciences, the ones dealing with the history of the earth and the life on it and the history of the universe like cosmology, have been suspect in many conservative Protestant circles since since about 1800. Right after 1800, a very important American Presbyterian who later became the second professor of theology at Princeton Seminary, Samuel Miller, wrote a book called A Brief Retrospective: The 18th Century, in which he castigated that as the century of “infidel science” is how he put it, and in which scientists deliberately tried to undermine the truth of the Bible. He was especially thinking of geologists who were starting to think the earth is far more than just a few thousand years old, and that humanity may be the same. Virtually all scientists agree with that today, that the Earth and humans are far older than a few thousand years. Many Christians today think that’s infidelity, particularly Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis. That circle believes that if you think the Earth is older than a few thousand years, you’re on your way to atheism and that Jesus didn’t die for your sins. They basically tell people this. So Christians have a role to play in this whole feeling about conflict. Some real, legitimate science—what I consider real, legitimate science—is rejected as false science. That’s the term that’s used. “Science falsely so-called,” terminology coming out of Paul’s letter to Timothy. “Science falsely so-called.” That terminology has been in use since Samuel Miller to describe certain aspects of science where he at least felt his understanding of the Bible was undermined by certain scientific claims. So the church has a role in this as well.
But in general, the historians who know things about the history of science and religion, virtually all historians of science, think that the notion that science has always been and always will be in conflict with a Christian faith or other religion, but especially with Christian faith, don’t believe that. They don’t believe that historically that’s true at all. It doesn’t hold any water. There’s so much of the history of science and religion that won’t fit into that conceptual box that it’s just rejected by historians today. It wasn’t rejected by historians in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, and it wasn’t rejected by historians in the 19th century either. In fact, it has its apex really comes in in the late 19th and early 20th century when this feeling is almost universal among American scholars that the rise of science has made traditional Christian theology untenable. But I say—
Elaine Ecklund: Can I jump in, Ted? Is that okay, Cherie? I think I want to support what Ted is saying and add a little bit to it. So in the contemporary world, there’s some recent research that shows that scientists think that religious people are all against them. So your sort of n of 1, your evolutionary biologist that went to the church is, as I think, tapping into something that’s a much broader phenomenon that my research shows that scientists think that religious people are all against them and that religious people think that scientists are hostile to them. So imagine how you feel about a group if you think that that group is actually hostile to you and your way of being. So I think that’s really important, that the animosity right now between these two groups is really significant. And then there are folks that I would call kind of boundary pioneers who are persons of faith, who are Christian specifically, and who are very active scientists. We’ve held up Francis Collins, our former National Institutes of Health director, quite a bit. But there are others, everyday scientists who are in faith communities who sometimes feel fearful of talking about their scientific work because they fear what their fellow persons in the pews will think of them. And so then I want to encourage those scientists who are out there to talk about your scientific work in your church if you’re part of a church community, that that can be a very powerful part of ministry to talk about that work.
And then there are a lot of, the last thing I’ll say is that their identities overlap, and it’s helpful to understand the underlying reasons people of faith might be afraid of or angry at scientists. So what our team is uncovering are the kind of underlying reasons that white evangelicals have for these issues. And fear is very different than what largely Black congregations feel about science and scientists is different than what largely Hispanic, it’s different than what multi-racial and ethnic—and that’s just talking about race and ethnicity. We find also that men and women view the relationship between faith and science and have an underlying mistrust in science under certain conditions that’s quite different than the reasons that men have those same kinds of concerns, Christian men. So just to think about all of the ways in which we’re complicated as human beings and how all of those ways then might feed into viewing this particular relationship between science and faith.
Cherie Harder: That’s fascinating. There’s so much more I’d like to ask you. And we’re going to turn to questions from our audience in just a second. But before we do, I do want to simply ask you about the title of your book, Elaine, which is Why Science and Faith Need Each Other. And just to throw that back to you, why do science and faith need each other?
Elaine Ecklund: Well, I think that they actually have more in common than they think. For that particular book, I set out in my research to try to look at the commonalities between the scientific and faith community. And they do share things like a love of beauty and awe in the natural world and a concern for justice, of using science and medicine for the good and flourishing of humanity. And so kind of focusing on those common values or shared values, I then think can cut down on that kind of mistrust. They need each other in order to support the flourishing of our world is the bottom line. And if we think, as I do, that the idea that they’re incompatible is a myth, there are all kinds of possibilities of the ways in which these two communities can really work together productively. And in our pandemic times, we can just see the real dysfunction and the reasons for these communities to work together.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, very true. Ted, anything to add?
Ted Davis: Well, in my work as a historian of science, I would say that—really specializing in the history of science and religion—I think Christian faith often complements—with an “e”—complements the picture of the world coming from the sciences, helping us to achieve a deeper understanding of both the way the world is and how we should go about understanding it while providing a more powerful motive for investigating nature. I would say also the Christian doctrine of creation, when we properly understand it, helps us to understand more of reality than science alone is able to study, including the very possibility of why science is possible itself as a form of knowledge about nature. Einstein once asked, one of his very famous probing questions or comments was that, he said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.” I think he was absolutely right about that. He was kind of assuming both the regularity of the world as we find it and also the fact that—the astonishing fact for him—that our minds as humans can delve deeply into that world and produce a coherent picture of reality. Both of those things, the regularity in the world and our ability to probe it, happen to match perfectly the biblical notion of creation.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So we’re going to turn to questions from our viewers. And there have been quite a few of them that have come in. There’s no way we’re going to get through all or even half of these, but we’ll try to do as much as we can. A question from Peter Lemaire. And, Ted, I might toss this one to you first. “Is the conflict between science and religion really between scientism as a pseudo religion and true religion?”
Ted Davis: Hmm. To a significant degree, in the contemporary context, I would say yes. Let me illustrate that with a couple quotes. About 30 years ago, Richard Dawkins gave Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution in London, and he asks himself rhetorically, he says, “What is the meaning of life?” And then he says—here’s his answer, 17 words: “If science has nothing to say,” he said, “it’s certain that no other discipline can say anything at all.” That is scientism, pure and simple, that if we can’t draw a conclusion from science, the question has no meaning really. No meaning. This is an ultimate logical positivism answer for those who know anything about that, under which metaphysics gets thrown under the bus, even though that position itself is metaphysical. But then let me contrast that with another scientist who didn’t believe in God, another biologist didn’t believe in God, even a far more important biologist than Dawkins. That was Nobel laureate Peter Medawar. Medawar wrote a wonderful book on the limits of science, and here’s how he put it: “The existence of a limit to science is made clear by its inability to answer childlike questions having to do with first and last things. Questions such as, How did everything begin? What are we all here for? What is the point of living? It is not to science, therefore, but to metaphysics, imaginative literature, or religion that we must turn to for answers to questions having to do with first and last things.” So Medawar, an atheist like Dawkins, a biologist like Dawkins, totally different view of whether science refutes religion. Medawar clearly thinks it can’t. Dawkins thinks it does.
Cherie Harder: So our next question comes from an anonymous viewer, and it’s directed towards you, Elaine. It says, “Elaine mentioned that it’s important for communities to work together to achieve the common good. What are some practical ways that we can build trust in our communities in order to work towards the common good?”
Elaine Ecklund: I think putting different types of people together around common questions. I mean, actually, what you’re doing right here. This is not a paid endorsement of the Trinity Forum, but I think these kinds of things are really important where we get different groups of people coming together. So people with very different social locations talking about common things. There are very few places in our society where we get the opportunity to do that, especially with a real kind of push—and in the pandemic it’s only gotten worse—where we are getting social connection through social media often and online connection, where we have the ability to really narrow the scope of our social networks to those who agree with us. And that can be particularly dangerous in a society which is already polarized. We don’t get the opportunity to be challenged and to hear different views and to interact with different kinds of people. So, one, I think getting together with folks that are different from you around common purposes. And in the science and faith whole idea, I think we need to try to put people who have one identity that’s in common with people who have that identity, but a second identity that’s not in common. So it’s very important for Christian churches to help Christians meet scientists who are also Christians. So they have that common Christian foundation, but then they have that professional identity that’s not in common. The persons part of group A—of the Christians—will then be—and research backs this up—will be more likely to accept what the scientist who is also Christian has to say.
Cherie Harder: Ted, I want to direct the next question to you. And this question comes from Jerry McCoy. And Jerry asks, “Scripture indicates that God is actively involved in the physical realm. Science has been quite successful in explaining the physical realm without appealing to God. Where do you see God involved in the physical realm without appealing to ‘God of the gaps’?”
Ted Davis: Well, that’s a long conversation. It depends what we mean by a “god of the gaps” partly. I’m not going to talk about the history of that, although it would be relevant. There’s not time to do that. If we mean—let’s come back to what Peter Medawar said, that there are basically, he’s saying, these meaningful questions about the world and about our existence that science just can’t address. Now, so is that a gap? Is there a truth that science can’t deliver and that it’s actually still potentially a truth? So there are ways of learning about things that science just can’t enter into. So if we talk about that as a gap, well, then we have a problem. Because I think that indeed religion and other other areas of human activity can indeed address questions about meaning and value and purpose that science is incapable by its own methods of addressing. So is that a gap? I don’t think so. I think the classical notion of a god of the gap is finding something that nature cannot explain and therefore we invoke God. Well, suppose science can’t explain something in principle. It’s not capable of answering that kind of a question. Does that make a gap? I don’t think so. But if you think so, then I can’t answer your question. I can’t answer your question about how religion can say things without a gap. Because the kinds of answers religion gives are different from the kinds of answers that science gives, are just inherently different. Science doesn’t have the capability to do these things for us.
An example I would give is the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence, in my view, is flatly contradicted by modern genetics. I mean, genetics does not support the claim that all humans are created equal. And ignore the “created” part, which for many scientists would be a problem, but just the part about human equality. Science can’t deliver human equality to us. It just can’t do that. The message is that our genomes are all different. They have a lot in common, but every person’s genome is different. There wouldn’t be a whole idea of genetically directed medicine. So some people have more abilities to do some things than others. You can’t do this. You can do that. I was never going to be able to be the centerfielder of the New York Yankees or the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. I didn’t have that, even though I would like to done either of those two things. I’m not equal with the people who can in terms of those abilities. I’m just not. And humans are created equal, if we are, in some other sense that science doesn’t touch on. So that’s the big point I’m trying to give here. Perhaps a follow-up question could be coming.
Cherie Harder: Plenty of follow-up questions. And the next one I’ll ask is perhaps tangentially related. I’ll toss this one to you, Elaine. It’s a question from Barbara Zelduondo, and, Barbara, apologies, I think I have mangled your name. But Barbara asked, “What do these wonderful panelists say about the concept of the sacred in science and religion? Is a desire or a need for the sacred a possible meeting point, even if where and how it’s experienced may differ?”
Elaine Ecklund: Oh, Barbara, I love that question. I wish I could meet you to talk about it. That’s really an interesting question. So I’ve spent, I think, about ten years with my team, not just me at Rice University, doing work internationally on what scientists think about religion and spirituality. And something that was really surprising from that work is that even atheist scientists often see something that’s beyond themselves that gives them meaning and awe and almost a kind of existential connection, even if they do not call that God. And I would say that really blew my own stereotypes about who atheists are. And like a classic academic I wrote a book about it called Varieties of Atheists in Science. But you don’t need to go write books about things to be interested in them. And I mean, I was just blown away by that because I thought that all atheist scientists are, as Ted has stated, are influential and of the type of of someone like Richard Dawkins. And so to find that there’s this whole group of atheist scientists that really see themselves as spiritual atheists, that this seems to hold true across national contexts with different religious traditions as the basis in those national contexts was deeply surprising to me.
Elaine Ecklund: So I do think the scientific community is sometimes dealing in the sacred, even if that’s not the purported aim. I think we need to be careful here. That’s not the purported aim of most scientific work. Even though we might think of scientific work as being given to us by the sacred, the fact if we believe that God is the author of the world, then scientific work and scientific ways of knowing are part of that world that God is the author of, if that makes sense. But indeed, most scientists don’t see themselves as doing sacred work. But I would argue based on our data, that to some extent around the corners they are talking about and dealing in the sacred. I wish we could go back and forth about that because it’s a very complicated question that deserves a complicated answer that we don’t have time for right now. But that’s a terrific question.
Cherie Harder: Our next question is from an anonymous viewer, and I’ll ask both of you to address this one. They say, “There’s a history of conflict between science and faith, particularly in higher education. What advice do you have for students who want to practice science but are struggling to integrate their faith in the classroom?” Ted, maybe we can start with you on that.
Ted Davis: Join the American Scientific Affiliation. ASA3.org. Do it.
Cherie Harder: Right. Elaine?
Elaine Ecklund: I think finding role models of scientists who are persons of faith is really important and to—so I think that’s one thing that’s very important—and to, secondly, to open oneself up to exploration through science. So I think sometimes we assume the conflict because the conflict has so much cultural traction. And then when we—this is where like the knowing and doing become very connected—and then we do conflict. Does that make sense? Like we practice conflict because we accept this as our cultural currency, the currency of the realm. And so if there are ways in which students can get in relationship with scientists who are Christians, who are maybe like them in other ways, share other kinds of common identities, and then try to have accountability, not to assume and practice the conflict, but rather to push forward to another way of knowing about the connection between science and faith.
Ted Davis: I think that’s a terrific answer, and I think it all functions as a big footnote to what I just said. Join the ASA.
Elaine Ecklund: Yeah, I do too.
Ted Davis: That’s where this is going to happen for you if you’re a Christian in the sciences. You really do need to discover this group because all the mentoring and all the other kinds of things, the helpful advice and even intellectual content for responding to this cultural mindset in higher education, you’re going to get a great start, at least, if you get into the ASA.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So many different questions coming in. One question, we’ll direct this, I think, towards you, Elaine, and it comes from an anonymous viewer, which is asking largely about polarization. And they ask, “How much of the assumptions by Christians that scientists are doing the devil’s work is simply being reflected in the current societal phenomenon that ‘if we disagree, you must be wrong or even evil.'” So how is polarization affecting all of this?
Elaine Ecklund: Yeah. So as human beings, I think it’s true that we’re predisposed to be in community. And sometimes the way that we create very tight community is by adopting an outsider community that is not us, that this is a truism which has been discovered over and over through social science research. And so as Christians, for those of us who are on this call who are concerned Christians, we think that humans are all created in God’s image. So there’s always something we have more in common with the other, our very humanness, than we have as different. So we are part of community, but we’re part of a human community. I don’t mean to sound Pollyanna-ish. I want to just name that. That is really, really hard to live out, especially in this polarized society. And so to get in the kind of communities that hold us accountable to openness to groups we perceive as the other is incredibly important. And I think that our society is going to come together only by finding disciplines and practices to do that more regularly.
Cherie Harder: Now, I’m paraphrasing a question from Don de Smith that I’ll toss to you, Ted. Don asked, “I think part of the problem might be this, to paraphrase Jacques Elul, ‘if it can be done, it will be done.’ Hence he said that morals don’t come into the equation.” So what is your sense of how much a fear of, say, the technological imperative really drives some of the conflict?
Ted Davis: Well, I’m not going to be able to give a very thoughtful answer to that, because, you know, as as someone who studies these things, I don’t study that. I really don’t. I do not do technology and faith. And that’s the kind of question you’re asking. Or medicine and faith. Those are really deep issues. And I’m a complete amateur on those. I’m going to punt.
Cherie Harder: So you want to take that ball and run with it, Elaine?
Elaine Ecklund: Yeah. The general public doesn’t make as much distinction between medicine, science, and technology. So it’s interesting. It’s scholars making—I agree with Ted. I want to say to I don’t do that. But I do a little bit of medicine and faith intersection. But I don’t do as much with technology. But the general public sees science and science’s technological impact as almost the same thing; they make very little distinction. And so I think that’s important for the scientific community to realize, that scientists are being held responsible in the public’s imagination for both science, but all of science’s spin-off technological impact. And so when it comes to public science and our desire as scientists to see the public both support and understand science, but also fund it, quite frankly, then we need to really start considering what our messaging is in the scientific community to the broader public about the technological impact of science. And a lot of the reservation morally that the public has about who scientists are ethically has to do with the technological impacts of science and the perceived lack of reflection in the scientific community on the ethical and moral implications of scientific technology.
Ted Davis: Yeah, I would agree with that completely.
Cherie Harder: Great. Well, we’re rapidly running out of time. I’m going to pose a question that was asked by Maureen McKnight and sort of take the moderator’s prerogative of embellishing a little bit as well and ask both of you to respond. Maureen asked this: She’s like, “I truly do not understand the manufactured divide between people of faith and science—” And I just lost that question. Where did it go? Maureen’s question disappeared. Essentially what she was asking: I don’t understand the divide. Doesn’t God give us a brain in order to explore, to pursue curiosity and to discover truth? And then I’d sort of like to ladle on top of that the fact that in your work, Elaine, you have talked about just that virtue of curiosity as well as several others, including humility and gratitude and wonder and awe, and would like to ask both of you in what way the study inspires awe and wonder in your own life. And is there a sense that the wonder of science might actually lead one to worship? So maybe we can start with you, but, Ted, I would love to hear from you as well.
Elaine Ecklund: So I study people and I don’t study the natural world, and I find people infinitely interesting. And that does lead me in my own research and personal life to this deep sense of awe, which I connect to my own relationship to God and others might connect it to other things. And it’s almost like there is this limitless—I can’t put words to it that are large enough to describe it—there is this limitless sense of wonder that I have. I can never stop waiting for the new study of how human beings interact in the world, because that gives me so much insight into the way in which I think we’re created for relationships and to be in communities with one another. And I want to understand the underlying causes and consequences of when that breaks down so that I might, in my small little way, in my corner of the earth, do something to contribute to the putting it back together and building a sense of flourishing communities.
Ted Davis: Historically, there’s been many nice examples of this whole connection between the wonder and awe, the magnificence, if you will, of God’s creation, and the Christian scientists who practice science. But I should point out from the start that according to Aristotle, who was hardly a Christian, who predated Christianity by nearly four centuries, that Aristotle taught that this was the the ultimate reason to do science, was to encounter the great wonders and mysteries, if you will, in nature, and the joy that the human mind could in fact comprehend these things. You know, he thought that was the raison d’etre for science. He did not see technological progress at all as the raison d’etre for science.
Modern scientific textbooks will typically give you two reasons why science is good. What are the goals of science? One, to understand nature. That’s Aristotle. That’s without the wonder put in. But for many scientists, it’s there. And second, to apply it to situations technologically. Aristotle doesn’t have number two anywhere in his writings that I can think of. Yet number one is there. So for the Christians, it’s easy. I mean, it’s a piece of cake to put this together. Somebody like Kepler, for example, he says, “For it is precisely the universe, which is that book of nature in which God, the creator, has revealed and depicted his essence and what he wills with man in a wordless script.” Another occasion he writes to a Catholic astronomer friend of his, and he says, “Since we astronomers are priests of the most high God with respect to the book of nature, it behooves us that we do not aim at the glory of our own spirit, but above everything else at the glory of God.” Boyle also described himself as a priest in the temple of nature, someone who needs to mediate between humanity broadly and God by helping to bring the glories and wonders of the creation to a wide group of people who can understand them, and to give praise on behalf of the animals who couldn’t directly praise God. Boyle sees the Christian scientist having that role, even to the extent that on Sundays when he can’t expect his lab assistants to work, he’ll go to the lab himself after worship on Sunday morning. He’d rather do that than be entertained, as it were, by all the trivial conversation among all the visitors who will drop by the place where he’s living with his sister, and he’d rather go to the lab and commune with God right then and there. He thinks that’s the highest form of worship he can have.
So I say for Christians, Boyle and Kepler may be exceptional examples, but they’re not exceptional in other ways. For many of the scientists I know, this is the same feeling. This is really an exciting thing. And this is what God intends us to do to understand the creation this way. I think it’s a natural fit for the Christian. It probably adds a further dimension to the scientific work that for a secular scientist is not going to be there.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Elaine and Ted, thank you so much. This has been fascinating. And in just a moment, I’m going to give each of you the last word. But before we do that, a few things just to let you know about. Immediately after we conclude, all of you will have an opportunity to take a quick online survey. We really appreciate when you do this. We read every one. It’s very helpful to us in trying to make these programs ever more valuable and informative. So we’d love for you to do that. And as a small token of our appreciation, we will give you a code for a free digital Trinity Forum reading of your choice. There’s several that we would recommend that would complement today’s conversation, including Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark,” Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and others. So I hope that you’ll avail yourself of that.
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In addition, would love to invite each of you to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people that helps make the mission of the Trinity Forum possible. There are many benefits to being a member of the Trinity Forum Society, including a subscription to our quarterly readings. Our one coming up next in just the next few weeks is “Moses, Man of the Mountain” by Zora Neale Hurston with a wonderful introduction by artist Sho Baraka. In addition to our daily “What We’re Reading” list of curated reading recommendations and as a special bonus for those of you who are watching, anyone who joins or with your contribution of $100 or more, we will send you a signed copy of Elaine’s book, Why Science and Faith Need Each Other. So I hope that you will avail yourself of that opportunity.
We also have a number of other events coming up soon. For those of you who are in the Nashville area, we’ll be hosting Arthur Brooks this coming Monday. We also have a new Lenten podcast series that is out. And on April 22nd, we’ll be hosting our next Online Conversation on “Work, Justice, and the Common Good” with Henry Kaestner and Dave Blanchard.
Finally, as promised, I wanted to give the last word to Ted and Elaine. Ted?
Ted Davis: Okay. Well, let me go to an unusual source for a quotation. Thomas Henry Huxley, known as “Darwin’s Bulldog,” the person who coined the word “agnostic” to describe his own religious position, he wrote this at one point: He said, “Science seems to me to teach in the highest and strongest manner the great truth which is embodied in the Christian conception of entire surrender to the will of God. Sit down before fact as a little child. Be prepared to give up every preconceived notion. Follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.”
Cherie Harder: Thanks, Ted. Elaine.
Elaine Ecklund: That was beautiful, Ted. My last thought is that I used to think of the misunderstandings that scientific and faith communities have about one another as mildly annoying. But in these pandemic times, in times of great civil unrest, both locally and globally, these misunderstandings have now become a real matter of life and death. And our rectifying of them is really, I think, a key part of building up our flourishing democracy. So I just want to encourage the scientists who are persons of faith who are on the call. I think you have a really key part to play here as a type of bridge builder and boundary pioneer. And so I hope you’ll be encouraged and you’ll take that role seriously.
Cherie Harder: Thank you, Elaine. And thank you, Ted. Thank you to all of you who are joining us. Have a great weekend.