Elaine Howard Ecklund Wants to Dispel Myths Surrounding Religious Resistance to Science

Young earth creationist Ken Ham debates Bill Nye "The Science Guy" in 2014.

Sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund studies the intersection of religion and science in Houston, a city with Texas-sized helpings of both: Joel Osteen preaches to packed houses in the old Houston Rockets stadium fifteen minutes from the Texas Medical Center, the largest medical complex in the world. Ecklund’s work at Rice University focuses on what happens when the two ways of knowing—what Stephen Jay Gould famously called “non-overlapping magisteria”—come into contact.

As useful as the data can often be, Ecklund’s interpretations and prescriptions often strain to “depoliticize” the sites of conflict, as if it’s even possible to depoliticize an issue like climate science in the United States. Her reasons are numerous, no doubt, but the factors that distort public discussion, money and power, are the kinds of forces that can warp research of this kind. If one proposes to survey and study the way that beliefs, framing, and social structures impact views on science and religion, one is likely to develop an explanation that relies heavily on those very factors.

While the general observer might be more tempted to blame resistance to climate science on well-documented lobbying and misinformation campaigns by fossil fuel interests—which target religious conservatives and the politicians who represent them with cultural kowtows—Ecklund elides that history, emphasizing comity and attributing the fraught politics to poor communication from those stressing the perils of climate change.

Still, Ecklund’s research remains valuable, providing insights that might help as part of a multi-dimensional effort to combat resistance to science. This fall, she spoke with Religion Dispatches in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey about the fallout from the storm and about how religious and scientific communities might be able to communicate more effectively.

It seems like a lot of your research is focused on demonstrating that despite the way that they’re generally talked about, science and religion are in fact compatible, or at least that people believe that they are. Is that fair?

It depends who you’re talking to and what you mean by science. We surveyed evangelical Christians and mainline Christians like Episcopals and Presbyterians. We also surveyed members of non-Christian religions—Jews, Muslims, and Hindus—and members of historically black Christian denominations. And Latinos, and all range of Catholics.

In the more conservative faith traditions—evangelicals and Orthodox Jews, for example—there is this sense that if science appears to be messing with the image of who God is, or who human beings are, then there are some tensions between faith and science. Think about an issue like human genetic reproductive technologies. Those kinds of technologies tend to challenge conceptualizations of what it means to be human, for some religious people.

So then they do pause. Some of them don’t go so far as saying, “science is all bad.” Where I think there’s a real myth is sometimes the scientific community thinks that all religious people are against them. Actually, amongst all Americans, esteem for science is very high. And it’s just that these hot-button issues get so much press, it kind of feels like, “Oh my God—they’re all science haters.”

I think it’s useful, especially in a restricted funding climate for science, that we kind of dispel that myth. We look at other kinds of survey measures, like “are you okay with your child marrying a scientist”—social scientists love to use that, because it’s a good measure of social distance—heck yeah, everyone would love their child to marry a scientist! These are highly educated people, who we hold in esteem. And “would you like your child to have more science education”—of course!

But especially the more conservative faith traditions do sometimes feel like scientists overstep their bounds, and that they go into philosophic and religious territory that they shouldn’t. There is some conflict between communities, if that makes sense. It’s different than saying, “all religion is bad,” or “all science is bad.” I think it’s really helpful to try to think through relationships between people-groups, and under what conditions they’re strained—and how might we use research to start to dispel some of those misconceptions they might have about each other.

When you talk about overstepping bounds, it sounds like it ends up being a question of politics and power as well.

It does. Take climate change. We have an article where we coined the phrase “the Al Gore effect.” When you start making climate change a political issue, then it’s like, “well now it’s a matter of whether I’m a Democrat or a Republican.” But religious people are actually very pro-environment, even quite conservative religious people, if we talk about it differently, like in terms of caring for the future of creation.

Or social scientists have established that places that are harder-hit by environmental disasters are often places that are very impoverished. So who lives near the factories that have all the toxic chemicals coming out of them? Not really wealthy people, they don’t choose to live there. But people have to live there. So when you start attaching care for environment to care for people, then religious people can really get on board with that. All stripes of religious people can get on board with caring for fellow human beings. I think sometimes you need to reframe things to help your message reach into different communities.

There seems to be such an enormous amount of stonewalling against the idea that climate change is real in the United States that it’s hard to imagine, for me, that people are as open as you say. In fact, they seem quite closed.

Scientists tend to think that it’s all about knowledge. It’s not actually about teaching people better—there’s good science out there, there’s nearly total consensus that climate change is happening and that humans have something to do with it. But certain groups of constituents really need to build relationships with a scientific community. Once you have a relationship with someone, and you don’t think they’re crazy, then information can pass over that relational tie.

There’s certain groups of people in our society who are pretty unlikely to have relationships with scientists. That’s something that we’re working on: let’s bring scientists into faith communities to give talks about their research. Scientists who are Christians, or conservative Jews or Muslims—let’s get them doing talks in youth centers and churches. To show that they’re approachable. I think that building relationships in that way becomes incredibly important to decrease social distance.

They have the possibility to be serious bridge-builders, because they’re respected and trusted thanks to their faith perspective. It’s funny, organizations like the National Science Foundation, when they ask you to put outreach into your grant, they’re probably not thinking “let’s have scientists go into churches.” But I do think there’s some real potential here, if we took this seriously, getting some outreach into these organizations.

Aside from people who are members of these respective faith communities, what other ways of communicating science do you think are useful for reaching more conservative religious communities?

I think we have to depoliticize it, which is hard. It’s really hard to do in the current climate. I’m incredibly sympathetic to my scientist colleagues who say, “my gosh, our nation has gone crazy, we’ve got to protect science.” But on the other hand, if you attach certain kinds of scientific tenets to political ideology, people do tend to shut down. That’s a complicated kind of situation, especially with climate change. I think Al Gore has worked really hard to help the public understand climate change, and I think he’s really put his weight behind that—but on the other hand it’s made it into a Democrat[ic] issue.

I think that’s quite dangerous, because that doesn’t capture our whole national context. We need both Democrats and Republicans on board. To some extent—this is not entirely true—faith and politics correlate in some communities. So you’ve got to be very careful of that if you want to reach into these communities. You’ve got to depoliticize it.

Our research also shows that you’ve got to reframe climate change in terms of not just care for the environment but also for people. Religious communities put people on a higher pedestal than they do animals and the created earth. It’s very important to show them that this is an issue that really affects the welfare of people.

That sentiment is one shared by some other folks I spoke with in Houston. I imagine that nuance in how you communicate is especially important in a place like Texas, which doesn’t have as much baked-in care for the environment as, say, a Massachusetts.

That’s right.

With Harvey, did you observe any difference in how religious and non-religious communities interpreted or dealt with the storm and its aftermath?

We have not done formal research on this, but we started to do some research where we have sent students into communities to observe. And religion does seem to play a part in how people respond. We know from other research that when government resources are stretched—and even when they’re not stretched—local civic resources become very important. Meaning that people might turn to someone in their church, or mosque, to get help.

So we were coming at it from the point of view of, “was religion a meaningful civic resource during the storm? And to what extent did religious groups team with government resources?” Houston is a somewhat unusual major metropolitan area—I don’t know if I should say unusual, but I can say that there’s a large number of religious organizations in Houston. I think that’s patently obvious, but also true from the research. There are potential civic resources through those religious organizations. You saw it in the kerfuffle about Lakewood, the big church there on the freeway, opening its doors. And people saying “why isn’t this enormous church opening its doors for people as a shelter?” I don’t know what really happened there, but there is a public sentiment that churches ought to be doing something.

About four days after the storm our group held an event where we invited religious leaders from the community. I was surprised, given all that they were facing and just how overstretched they were, that people came. We had quite a number show up. They just wanted to share common resources, and to figure out what each other was doing, and how they could team. There’s a real felt need in the community to team together to serve the city that happened during the storm. I think it’s still happening in terms of people appealing to religious resources for help with clean-up, for long-term financial help. And they’re attentive to what the academic community is saying, and how they could be even more effective in their effort.

Do you think that Harvey moved the needle much on the conversation about the environment, about the climate, in Houston?

God, I’d love to know that! If you find out, tell me. If anyone from your readership out there wants to fund a study on that topic… I think it’s a perfect time to get out there into the community, and figure out if people’s views about climate care and climate change in these faith communities are changing. That would be an awesome study.

My sense is that after big storm events, each time a big city gets hit, that city becomes more attuned to climate change. That certainly seemed to be the case in New York, with Sandy. I think of that as being the case in New Orleans as well.

Well, we have noticed the city looking to Rice University for expert help: on how should we do our levee system, structural help, what’s happening to our water quality, how can we build differently. I think there’s an openness.