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Thursday, 22 May 2008

Is the Scientific Academic Community a Hostile Environment for Faith?

This is a guest-post by geologist Keith B. Miller, and is the third installment in our “Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics” series. Keith edited the book Perspectives on an Evolving Creation and has written numerous articles on science and faith including Theological Implications of an Evolving Creation.

An extension of the “warfare” view of science and Christian faith is the often-stated claim that the secular academy is hostile to faith. Many conservative evangelicals unfortunately do see the secular university as hostile territory. There are certainly individuals within secular institutions who are openly hostile to faith, and there are also no doubt some few particular departments at some institutions where there is a culture of antagonism toward faith. However, I will argue that these are exceptions. Furthermore, the secular academy is an ideal environment in which to productively challenge and deepen one’s faith, and to develop a Christian mind.

My Personal Experience with Secular Education
First, a bit of personal background. I attended public schools growing up, and all of my college and post-graduate education has occurred in secular public or private colleges and universities. My faith grew and matured both through my studies and through my involvement in Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. While pursuing my PhD I was involved in a very dynamic graduate student Bible study that challenged me to pursue a more thorough integration of my faith and my chosen discipline in geology. I was intellectually and spiritually stretched in a way that I might never have been otherwise. In addition, never once in my 12 years as a student in college and graduate school, nor in the nearly 20 years as a faculty member at a state university, have I experienced hostility toward my faith. By contrast, I have been encouraged to deepen my faith and to increasingly see all that I do in the academy as part of my Christian vocation. We all have that challenge, regardless of our occupation or situation, to live our lives in a consistent and transparent manner and to image God to the world.

Secular Academia: This is not Enemy Territory
Part of the perspective that underlies the portrayal of the secular academy as enemy territory is a broader secular/sacred dichotomy that pervades much of evangelical religious culture. Ignorance breeds fear, and the more Christians isolate themselves as a community from the rest of the world the more they will fear that world. This fear is misplaced, because the real enemy is not external but internal. And the interactions we have with others, both inside and outside of the faith, serve to help us more rightly see ourselves. We also are called to transform the world around us, and that requires being engaged with it. Seriously engaging the ideas and arguments of others is part of that challenge. Having someone reject or argue against our faith is an expected part of that engagement. This need not involve hostility or personal rejection, and, as I have stated above, I have experienced neither from my non-Christian teachers or colleagues. We Christians, I believe, are often too quick to claim persecution when others reject our arguments. Sometimes our arguments deserve to be rejected – we have often been lazy in our thinking, and failed to take seriously the stewardship of our minds. Furthermore, if our faith claims are never rejected, perhaps we are not talking to the right people.

The Scientific Establishment: No Pervasive Hostility to Faith
Like the claim made against the academy, the charge that the scientific “establishment” expresses a pervasive hostility to faith is similarly false. A very important feature of the scientific enterprise is that it takes place within a multi-cultural and interfaith community of scholars. At a typical professional scientific meeting there will be participants from a wide range of nationalities, cultures, and religious traditions. Yet those scientists from these various backgrounds can sit down together and productively discuss scientific questions, examine evidence and reach conclusions. They can do this because scientific knowledge is not tied to a particular religious or non-religious worldview – it is universally accessible. Though science as a discipline is religiously neutral, individual scientists are not – nor should they be. People of faith, including many professing Christians, are active respected members of their professional societies and occupy prominent leadership positions within these organizations. This is true of every professional (geology and paleontology) society of which I am a member. And the Christian representation is not a token one. There are thousands of Christians who are active scientists in academia, government and industry. Beyond their mere presence within the scientific community, Christians are becoming increasingly vocal about their faith in the context of their chosen vocation in science. This has been one very positive response to the increasingly loud voices of those who would see only conflict and hostility between faith and science.

Scientific Organizations: Building Bridges Between Science and Faith
Scientific organizations are also increasingly recognizing the destructive impact of the perception that science and religious faith are in necessary conflict. As a result, many are publishing statements, providing educational resources, and convening symposia that address the nature of science and attempt to dispel the “warfare” view. Such organizations include: the Geological Society of America, the Paleontological Society, the National Association of Biology Teachers, the National Academy of Science, and the AAAS. I personally have been involved in some of these efforts. It is important that the public recognize that the few prominent and vocal atheist activists do not represent the scientific community. Unfortunately, some Christians can see only an atheist face of science, and are blind to their brothers and sisters who have been called by God to serve in a scientific vocation in the academy.

Promoting a Christian Worldview in Science
I will conclude by quoting from a short essay that I co-wrote with my wife Ruth (a faculty member in Electrical Engineering):

“Finally, the academy, and professions, can be engaged by Christians who demonstrate a mastery of their disciplines, and who take seriously the views of others. It is the passionate pursuit of truth, not a defensive response to criticism or a reactionary denouncement of others, that will make the Christian worldview a respected voice. Above all, a life lived with integrity and in sacrificial service will reveal the reality of a God who demands our entire lives.”

(Miller, K.B. & Miller, R.D., 1997, “Taking the Road Less Traveled: Reflections on Entering Careers in Science,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, vol.49, no. 4, p.212-214.)

20 comments:

John Farrell said...

Outstanding post. We need to hear from more scientists like Dr. Miller.

Stephen Douglas said...

Wow - great info! As John said, we need to hear more from Christian scientists who find allegations of a vast atheistic conspiracy in academia to be created from whole cloth, since this is such a ubiquitous and scary charge in evangelical circles today. Heck, it was the whole basis for Expelled.

Thanks, Dr. Miller, for your time and efforts here. God bless you for all you do.

dennis said...

Thanks, Keith, for another excellent post. I too have never experienced any negativity in my (albeit shorter) academic career. In fact, I just returned from a scientific meeting where I experienced just the opposite - polite curiosity about how I reconcile science and faith, how I help students navigate the evolution issue, etc.

Many of my colleagues even expressed their own personal faith as a result of the discussion. Hardly the picture of what Expelled claims.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Keith,

Furthermore, if our faith claims are never rejected, perhaps we are not talking to the right people.
So true, so true.

As Dennis says, the reaction he gets is more curiosity, than either shock or hostility. You have stated that the outright hostility to faith within the science community is clearly overblown. I'm wondering if the "shock" factor (ie. those that are immediately taken aback when confronted with a Christian in science) is also overblown. My own view is that shock factor is there in all areas of society (eg. My business colleague’s question to me "You actually believe in the old white haired guy in the sky???), and not just science. Would your experience lead you to the same conclusion? Or do you think that although the level of outright hostility to faith is low, the misunderstanding of faith in the scientific community is higher than in other areas of society? (Maybe because the bridge has only recently re-opened).

Keith Miller said...

Steve asked:

"My own view is that shock factor is there in all areas of society ... and not just science. Would your experience lead you to the same conclusion? Or do you think that although the level of outright hostility to faith is low, the misunderstanding of faith in the scientific community is higher than in other areas of society?"

My personal experience would lead me to agree with you that the misunderstanding and rejection of religious faith is not particularly different among those in science than in the larger society. To the extent that we step outside of our closed Christian community, we will interact with people who do not share, or understand, our core beliefs.

What is probably most common are individuals who identify themselves as members of a faith community but who have not given that faith much serious thought. They can be as bewildered, or uncomprehending, of theological issues as a non-theist. This is not intended as a put down, but as an observation that much of the Christian community has not been well served by the church leadership. I have often commented that much of the current cultural warfare over science and faith is as much a failure of theologians, Christian scholars, and pastors, as it is the scientific community.

John Farrell said...

I have often commented that much of the current cultural warfare over science and faith is as much a failure of theologians, Christian scholars, and pastors, as it is the scientific community.

This is very true. Even among denominations that superficially accept evolution (like the Catholic Church), I find the mainstream of theology just has not grappled with science with the seriousness that it demands, to say nothing of the main corpus of Christian theology.

dennis said...

I have often commented that much of the current cultural warfare over science and faith is as much a failure of theologians, Christian scholars, and pastors, as it is the scientific community.

Or, to reverse the question: is the Christian community a hostile environment for science?

Sadly, yes. I already have experienced numerous instances of hostility and accusation of heterodoxy.

Stephen Douglas said...

We Christians, I believe, are often too quick to claim persecution when others reject our arguments. Sometimes our arguments deserve to be rejected – we have often been lazy in our thinking, and failed to take seriously the stewardship of our minds.

Definitely the best comment. So true!

Steve Martin said...

Dennis:
re: Christian community a hostile environment for science:
In many cases this is so true (as your own experience shows). It is tough when the bridge builders are getting shot at by a few snipers who do not want the bridge built.

Keith:
re: failure of theologians, christian scholars, and pastors.
Bang on! (with the qualification that I think pastors are much less culpable because the first two groups are not giving them the tools they need). I posted my thoughts on Timid Evangelical Theologians previously. I'm hoping Evangelical Theologians take this not so much as a complaint but as a request for help.

Steve Martin said...

And John, I take your point. I just think the log in the Evangelical eye is much bigger :-) .

James F said...

It is tough when the bridge builders are getting shot at by a few snipers who do not want the bridge built.

Steve,

We non-Evangelicals will do our best to distribute helmets and body armor to the bridge builders!

Chris said...

Keith,
Well put. However, what use is this blog if it is only read by those that agree with you?
You wrote:". . .no doubt [there are] some few particular departments at some institutions where there is a culture of antagonism toward faith. However, I will argue that these are exceptions."
While I have come to agree with you more over the years, I fear that you have not fully understood the "other half" of the academic community -- the humanities and "soft" sciences. (Perhaps this is what you meant by “few particular departments?”) Honestly, your post comes across as somewhat naive from the perspective of someone in the humanities. There is undoubtedly a conflict of ideas in fields such as art, history, literature, philosophy and anthropology. These disciplines are bound-up closely with their ideologies. But there is no feminist geology, no Marxist physics (as far as I know). Perhaps you will say that this is a virtue of science. Perhaps you are correct. But my point is simply that your having escaped three decades of higher education without an attack on your faith is more likely due to your being in the geology department than to an absence of religious hostility in the university.
Perhaps you only intended to claim that there is little or no conflict in the hard-scientific disciplines. I may grant this. However, this may be due to the fact that the hard sciences just aren't the sort of place one (often) finds ideological battles.* Please correct me if I'm wrong, but more than anecdotal evidence would be needed. But I suspect that the differences (with respect to ideological conflict) between the hard-sciences the humanities run very deep.
To sum up, if you are merely claiming that in the hard-sciences religious hostility is infrequent, then your thesis is unremarkable. However, if you are claiming that religious hostility is infrequent in the university as a whole, then you have not given any argument for your claim other than personal anecdotes. Moreover, the fact that you are relying almost solely on your own experiences to substantiate your argument is actually reason to think that your claim is false.
I say all this with great respect and love for you as a scholar, scientist, Christian and friend.

*Of course, there have been notable cases of this in history. Copernicus comes to mind. The contemporary conflict over ID certainly is a "war," even if it shouldn't be.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Chris,
Welcome. re: posting for those that agree with you.
First, Keith posted here at my invitation - I don't think he's targeting his message to the converted. Second, although this blog appeals to Evangelicals who accept the evidence for evolution, it includes participation from a wide variety of viewpoints (atheists, non-evangelical Christians, evangelical Christians who do no accept evolution). In fact, even Keith's first guest post Creation, Evolution, and the Nature of Science includes commments from those that do not accept his viewpoint.

You do raise some interesting points re: difference between humanities & sciences, and subjective vs. objective evidence for hostility in institutions of higher eductation. I'll let Keith have first crack at those.

Steve Ranney said...

Yes, the title is "Is the Scientific Academic Community a Hostile Environment for Faith?"
so the context would be science departments, not humanities depts. That is kind of a different can of worms and not really the domain of this blog, I wouldn't think. The issue Chris raises is big though.

I would take issue with the statement that 'pastors are much less culpable.' I heard a sermon by a guy who merely said, 'let those of us who believe in an old earth not look down our noses at those who believe in a young earth, and let those of us who believe in a young earth extend grace to those who accept an old earth.' That's leadership and I think pastors should expend some of their political capital on at least that level of tolerance.

Chris said...

My comment about "what good is this blog" was infelicitous. What I should have said was "what good is this post." In addition, it was strictly tongue-in-cheek. I should also add that Keith is a good friend of mine.

Keith Miller said...

Hi Chris:

Thanks for reading, and thanks for posting.

You are correct in that my comments were centered on the scientific community. That was both the topic that I was asked to address and is the context of my personal vocation. Unfortunately, it is the scientific community in particular that is seen by many in the public as especially hostile to faith. Furthermore, much of the current cultural warfare rhetoric has focused on science (and particularly evolutionary science).

You state: "To sum up, if you are merely claiming that in the hard sciences religious hostility is infrequent, then your thesis is unremarkable." I assume you are using "hard" in the comment above to contrast with the social sciences. However, unfortunately many perceive the natural sciences as especially hostile, and would even consider modern natural science as the foundation of a secular culture that denies God. It is that mischaracterization that has been the focus of my efforts.

I do recognize that some academic fields are more dismissive of religious faith than others. Your argument that the humanities are more ideologically hostile to faith than the sciences is likely true. However, I interact with faculty in the humanities, some of whom are outspoken atheists, over questions of faith, and have been treated with respect. My point here is that it is very important to distinguish ideological disagreement from personal hostility.

I think that it is also important to emphasize that Christians are not without voice in the academy across the disciplines. Through organizations such as IVCF Faculty ministry and the C.S. Lewis Summer Institutes in Oxford and Cambridge, I have had the privilege to interact with Christians who have a vocational calling in the arts and humanities at the secular university. I would no more hesitate to encourage a student of art or philosophy to pursue their education (and vocation) at a secular institution than I would someone who is interested in geology.

I am afraid that much of the evangelical church has given up on really engaging the academy (and the larger culture) in favor of a warfare model that encourages entrenchment behind defensive walls.

Tom said...

"Moreover, the fact that you are relying almost solely on your own experiences to substantiate your argument is actually reason to think that your claim is false."

how is that so?

Steve Ranney said...

>But there is no feminist geology, no Marxist physics = Chris

It seems to be the case that the ID or Creationist types are trying to impose the same doctrinaire environment on the academic community that is sometimes associated with these more radical fields that have apparently at time anyway, been co-opted by ideologues. So if they had their way, there would indeed be a 'creationist archeology' or an 'ID genetics.'

Keith Miller said...

I really did not address the question of the validity of personal anecdotes in my previous post. I agree that one cannot draw too broad of conclusions based on personal experience. However, my experience has been fairly broad in terms of my interactions with faculty at professional meetings and in other contexts. I am also a member of the American Scientific Affiliation and the Affiliation of Christian Geologists, so have have contact with many Christians in science.

There have been few well-constructed and administered surveys of the faith commitments of the scientific community. The most cited is the recent 1996 survey by Ed Larson and Larry Whitham that reproduced a survey made in 1914. They found that about 40% of American scientists believed in a God to whom we can pray. Many found this result surprisingly high. I know of no comparable survey of faculty in the humanities.

The survey above also found that only 10% of "elite" scientists (defined as those elected to the National Academy of Science) believe in God. The significance of this latter result has been debated. My response is that it is as mush a consequence of Christian culture as any systematic bias of the scientific community.

There are two factors that work against Christian scientists reaching high levels of international recognition. One is the huge time and energy commitments required - a level few can maintain while fulfilling their responsibilities to family and church. Second, is that the church has not done well at encouraging young Christians to pursue vocations in the sciences -- in some cases such pursuits are actively discouraged. Yet despite this there are still many Christians who have achieved such recognition (10% is not insignificant).

This will be my last post to this blog thread. Thanks to all who participated and to those who who took the time to visit. I encourage you all to continue the conversation, and I look forward to future posts by the other guests.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Steve R:
Re: culpability of pastors. I agree that an attitude of grace is required – and pastors that take this approach need to be applauded. Many (most) pastors have a very difficult, energy-sapping, and time-consuming vocation – and we can’t expect them all to be up on the scientific evidence or good theological approaches to that evidence. I believe what has changed in the last decade is that many more Evangelical scientists are standing up and saying “Hold it. The evidence for Evolution is actually quite strong”. So pastors now have some Evangelical voices in science to help guide their thoughts. What they haven’t received yet is significant theological support. That is what needs to change IMHO.

Keith:
I like your statement that it is “very important to distinguish ideological disagreement from personal hostility”. I think we are all too quick at times to progress from the former to the latter, which in turn causes those that disagree with us to reciprocate in kind.

Chris:
I agree with you that personal experience cannot be used as conclusive evidence for determining if “the scientific academic environment is hostile for the Christian faith”. (Although, with Tom, I don’t quite understand your last point that using personal experience alone somehow implies the claim is false). I would really like to see a study done on this - and, yes, I know it would be very difficult & full of potential land mines. Studies of “Hostility to beliefs” have to be much, much more difficult that studies on beliefs themselves.

The key point is that many within the Evangelical community (particularly those affiliated with the IDM) are making claims about the endemic hostility to faith within science based on various personal experiences & anecdotes (some, it would seem, that are slightly embellished). Keith’s post may be primarily his own personal experience (although I think you need to give some weight to his comments on the scientific community’s efforts at building bridges). But, his (and others) personal experiences are enough, I think, to demonstrate that things are not as simple as the IDM is trying to portray.

And most importantly, the antagonism within the scientific community seems primarily focused on the poor science arguments of anti-evolutionists, and not on their faith. Ie. The “Scientific Establishment” would also oppose biblical geocentrists because of their poor astronomical claims, not necessarily for their faith. The Dawkins etc. are the exception, not the rule.

Keith:
Thanks again for accepting the invitation to contribute (not just one but) two posts to this series. I appreciated both the posts themselves as well as your comments to various readers. Thanks again.

All:
Our next post in the series will be published tomorrow. It is by Dennis Venema and is entitled “Teaching Evolution in Christian Higher Education: Faith Shaking or Faith Affirming?”.