Can Scientists Talk About Religion?

Last month, I blogged about the religious discrimination lawsuit filed by astronomer Martin Gaskell against the University of Kentucky. I included a quote from Elaine Howard Ecklund’s book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think about the degree to which religious scientists feel they can be open about their faith and beliefs. Now, I want to return to Ecklund’s book and discuss one of her conclusions that I have found very insightful: nonreligious scientists have an extremely limited language for discussing religious beliefs.

(BTW, the Lexington Herald-Leader has an update on Gaskell’s case. There haven’t been too many developments in the past month, but the article includes a disturbing statement from the AAUP suggesting that religious beliefs can be an issue of “disciplinary competency” in science. Yipes. I hope religious scientists who are members of AAUP will contact them to set them straight.)

In her survey of elite academic scientists, Ecklund found that nonreligious scientists have limited ability to discuss religious beliefs. She draws on sociologist Basil Bernstein’s concept of “language codes” to suggest that many scientists never progress beyond stereotypes and false assumptions about religion:

…the scientists I talked with are among the most educated people in our society. Therefore I expected them to very complex and unrestricted speech codes. But although scientists have extraordinarily elaborate codes in some areas of their intellectual lives, when it comes to to talking about matters of faith, they often have a restricted code based on shorthand stereotypes. In other words, they are not articulate. Thus they might lump all religion into fundamentalism, or discredit religious claims based on premature assumptions. And because most elite scientists have limited interactions with religious people who share their views about science, the stereotypes persist. (27)

Unfortunately, several elements of Gaskell’s case confirm Ecklund’s conclusion. As I’ve read through several court documents from the case (this NY Times article provides PDFs of them), I’m struck by the inability of UK faculty and staff to describe Gaskell’s religious beliefs accurately, even though he has been quite open about his beliefs and even written a brief paper describing them. As far as I can tell, the greatest stumbling block for them is the title of Gaskell’s paper — “Modern Astronomy, the Bible, and Creation.” The words “Bible” and “Creation” — and the connotations of these words — overwhelm anything else Gaskell might say or write on the topics. Thus, faculty at UK call him a “creationist” and claim he “rejects the theory of evolution” when, in fact, neither of those statements are true. (Just imagine their reaction to someone with more conservative beliefs than Gaskell.)

An ESN member (a faculty member in the humanities) once told me that he doesn’t mind colleagues knowing that he’s a Christian; he just doesn’t want it to be the first thing they know about him. His concern was the same as Ecklund’s: that stereotypes among academics would determine everything else they believe about him, regardless of his actual beliefs, practices, or qualifications.

Have you encountered restricted language among scientists or other academics? Have you tried to expand their language for religious belief?

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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One Comment

  • Katelin108@gmail.com'
    Katelin commented on January 18, 2011 Reply

    Honestly, I just avoid it all together. I recognize in myself a spiritual insecurity when talking to scientific colleagues about God. Attacks I have received in the past revealed a major dependence on my ability to explain and defend God. He requires neither, but I found when I can’t provide logical arguments my own faith falters. Rather that rely on faith and God, my response has been to retreat from such conversations.

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