Science and Religion

The "Religion Among Academic Scientists" study examined approaches to religion and spirituality among natural and social scientists at elite universities in the United States. From 2005 to 2009, Elaine interviewed 1,646 scientists at 21 research universities, and then interviewed 275 of them in depth. Based on her analysis from this study, Elaine concluded that most of what we believe about the faith lives of scientists is wrong. Different from the cold rationalists the public often imagines scientists to be, many scientists actively seek sources of spirituality to further explore the purpose of their lives. A number of scientists said they consider spirituality (which they define in a variety of ways) important even if they do not believe in God or practice a formal religion. Some scientists said they see the realms of science and religion as completely distinct, while others see them as overlapping, even if only within certain niches.

Overall, the study demonstrates the surprising and varied religious beliefs of America’s top scientists and the implications these have for public science.

The “Religious Understandings of Science” project illuminates the diverse and nuanced ways in which Americans view the relationship between religion and science. It examines how religiously involved Americans perceive science, how Americans employed or educated in scientific professions perceive religion, and how the general population thinks about the religion-science interface.

The RUS study is a mixed-methods effort comprising participant observation, document analysis, qualitative interviews, and a nationally representative general population survey. Qualitative observational and interview data, collected from May 2011 to January 2014, focus on 22 religious communities representing diverse traditions within Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Participant observation in congregational settings helps us understand how these organizations shape members’ views on religion and science, and enables us to examine the effects of institutional culture on members’ beliefs. Interview data provide insights into people’s discourses and ways of thinking and meaning-making across religious traditions. In total, the qualitative data consist of 248 observations and 319 interviews. Subsequently, these data inform a general population survey of 10,241 Americans. Survey data enable generalizable comparisons within and between religious groups as well as statistical relationships between aspects of religiosity (belief, identity, and practice) and scientific attitudes, knowledge, or participation. Combined, these data reveal potentially causal relationships.

Through such comprehensive mixed methodology, the RUS study provides unique and unprecedented insights into the American public’s perceptions of religion and science.

The “Religion Among Scientists in International Context” research initiative involves an eight-country study aimed at understanding how scientists view the social context of science. Through the analysis of data collected in France, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Taiwan, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States, the study explores scientists’ perspectives on professional ethics, science policy, religion, and the role of family and gender in the scientific enterprise. The cross-national character of the study, as well as the participation of research scientists at different points in their careers and at more and less research-intensive institutions, enables exploration of many research questions, including the following:

  • How do biologists and physicists perceive the meaning of research integrity and misconduct?
  • How do these perceptions vary by nation, discipline, gender, and career stage?
  • Under what conditions are scientists obliged to act when research misconduct has occurred?
  • What are the potential conflicts of interest (if any) of industry’s role in research?
  • How do the perceptions of men, when compared with women, differ when discussing why there are few women in these science fields?

The initiative employs a mixed-methods approach to data collection and analysis. A survey enables us to compare scientists’ perspectives across our study nations and, within these nations, to compare scientists’ perspectives with those of the general public. Qualitative interviews of a sub-sample of survey respondents enhance the meaningfulness and validity of the survey results. Across the study nations, we will survey approximately 10,000 scientists at all career stages—from graduate students to full professors and senior scientists. Additionally, we will conduct in-depth interviews with approximately 100 scientists in each country, for a total of 800 interviews.

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