Political divisions, in the United States in particular, have led us to assume that much about the “other side,” including the notion that they don’t care about the same things as us. But we all want some form of human thriving – our desires just might be mediated and facilitated by different institutions. In one person’s world, it may be their university; in another’s, their church. These lead to fragmented worlds where people can’t understand each other’s language. However, identity is not binary, and we are increasingly finding that there are people who can fill the gap. What special role do those with a foot in both of those worlds have to play? How can we identify our vulnerabilities so that we can speak more clearly and honestly with one another?
Elaine Howard Ecklund, PhD. is the Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology in the Rice University Department of Sociology, director of the Religion and Public Life Program in Rice’s Social Sciences Research Institute, and a Rice Scholar at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy. Most recently, she and John Evans, of the University of California at San Diego, have received a $2.9 million grant to create a new field of sociological research examining how identities and beliefs are related to attitudes about science and religion. She is the author of Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (2010) and most recently, Secularity and Science: What Scientists Around the World Really Think About Religion (2019).
Next week, January 26th, at 2 pm Eastern, we will speaking with Briana Pobiner, PhD, who is a paleoanthropologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, as well as a Sinai and Synapses Fellow.Read Transcript
Welcome, everybody to the sixth episode of “Sacred Science: Gleaning Wisdom from Science and Religion.” I’m Rabbi Geoff Mitelman. I’m the founding director of Sinai and Synapses which bridges the worlds of religion and science. I am thrilled to be sitting here with a friend and an advisory board member, and one of the preeminent sociologists on the world of religion, and religion and public life, Professor Elaine Howard Ecklund, who directs the Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University, which uses research on religion to build common ground for the common good. Over the past several years, Elaine’s research has explored how scientists in different nations understand religion, ethics, and gender. Most recently, she and John H. Evans of the University of California in San Diego have received a $2.9 million grant in order to create a new subfield of sociological research, examining how identities and beliefs are related to attitudes about science and religion. I’ve gotten to learn from Elaine now several times; she’s the author of multiple books that really break down a lot of misconceptions about science and religion. And so Elaine, I’m thrilled to be sitting with you here this afternoon.
Elaine Ecklund: Thank you so much for having me, and just for the work that you’re doing, it’s really needed.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, as we were talking before we were on air, I said, “You’re the one who actually does the work that is so crucial,” because so much of this conversation – and we’re recording this on January 19th, so the day before a new administration comes in – part of the challenge in America right now, and we talk about this all the time through Sinai and Synapses, is this false perception that we are living in a world where there are two poles, that one side is viewed as scientific and educated and liberal, and the other side is viewed as religious and uneducated and conservative. And there are misconceptions – there’s actually a lot of research that – at least you can confirm or deny if this is accurate – that we tend to demonize not actually the people in front of us, but our perception of what the other side is like. So we tend to attack the straw-man argument, and a lot of the work that you’ve done [has been] in Evangelical communities, and in scientific communities, helping to break down that misconception, to be able to say “There’s actually much more common ground than we might expect.” So I’d love for you to share a little bit about some of the findings that you found about science and religion, and what surprised you in some of that work.
Elaine Ecklund: I think the top-level finding in the past 15 years I’ve been doing with the team at Rice University’s Religion and Public Life Program work on what scientists think about religion and what religious people think about science. And if you are going to sum up, I hate to do this because I want to keep getting funding for my work, but perhaps some of our work can be summed up in about one sentence, which is there are more religious scientists than you might think. But that has kind of profound implications because people tend to see religious people and scientific people as two different communities, two different camps. And there are people who have a foot in both worlds and I think that’s extremely important. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of findings that really have broken my own stereotypes about the scientific and the religious communities.
Geoff Mitelman: It’s interesting, because a lot of what we’re grappling with, still dealing with with COVID, of the power of religious leaders being able to advocate for science or being able to say, wearing a mask is saving a life, getting vaccination, getting vaccinated, encouraging your congregation to get vaccinated, that’s saving a life. In a lot of ways, it’s a little bit easier to have a religious leader be an advocate for science. I’m curious, where do scientists come in? In a lot of ways, I would think they would be a little bit hesitant to share what their religious outlook would look like.
Elaine Ecklund: Yeah, I think it’s really important right now for scientists, especially those scientists who are themselves persons of faith who are involved in religious communities, to speak out of their identities as religious persons. We’ve found over the years, through our research, that people are likely to trust those that they share at least a partial identity with. And so it’s important for scientists who can connect to religious people who are not scientists, to share openly about their religious identities, especially in these times. I think there has never been a more important time, in my lifetime at least, for scientists who are persons of faith to speak up and say, “Look, I’m a scientist, I’m going to help my faith community translate this scientific information well.” I think that’s particularly important.
Geoff Mitelman: And when you talk about sharing identity, I think that’s a key piece. Because people trust who they trust. They’re going to trust their leaders who have been speaking to them and have built a relationship over decades, often, whether that’s somebody in the scientific community or in the religious community. I think one of the challenges of science is that, almost by definition, it’s very specialized and you’ve got to have a lot of expertise. And I don’t understand precisely how and why vaccines work, but I’m going to trust what Anthony Fauci or Francis Collins are going to say, rather than the Facebook post that someone shared there.
But being able to say, “I trust this person, I have a shared identity with them, I have a shared connection with them,” I think can allow a lot more trust to go in both directions here.
Elaine Ecklund: I think that’s exactly right. So finding that out, my friends in social psychology have taught me that people trust people that they know. And so I think you put it just right: people trust people who they trust. And so, I would say about the first 10 years of my career, I was super focused on trying to get the right ideas out. I think excellent information is needed. It’s never been more needed. But I have found also through social science research that it’s important to build relational bridges with people first. And that’s really flipped the way that I’ve done things. And I’ve stopped just doing my research, and started also doing work through the Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University, where we actually lead a lot of conversation groups. In typical times, when people could meet together, we would have people to my home and to other’s homes, to have a lot of conversations, and then after we got to know each other, then start sharing information. And so we need these kind of relational bridges, and then to build those bridges, and then pass the information over the bridge. And so that’s why it’s really important to talk about these shared identities, because hopefully, people will understand that they’re in the same kind of community, and they will trust people in their community, so people start to be a little bit more open with multiple facets of their identities and start to build bridges relationally. Then I think we can get more and better information out to people, or far-reaching, expansive, and in ways that will truly be heard.
Geoff Mitelman: Were there any statements or phrases or ideas from all these different conversations that surprised you to hear words coming out of a scientist’s mouth or surprising to hear from a person of faith’s mouth like, “Wow, I was not expecting that person to say that.” “Wow, I’m still thinking about that years later.”
Elaine Ecklund: I think that we have found that people had a lot of stereotypes about scientists and who they are. And so there were religious leaders who are educated people, who have multiple degrees, but just have not had very much exposure to science in the scientific community, who have been genuinely surprised to find scientists that are themselves persons of faith. So that’s been a huge surprise. There have also been real surprises across political differences. I know it’s really touchy right now, and we just have so much hatred being thrown around in our society. And we need to name that. But we have found over the years of doing these conversations that people are surprised that they have commonalities with people who are from a different political persuasion. That’s actually been shocking to some people.
I usually know everyone who’s in the room when we do these conversations. But I don’t tell people too much about each other, we usually just say people’s names, and if people want to say an organizational affiliation or profession, they can, but they don’t have to. I want people to come together, and to really know each other as human beings first, and then to start talking about their work and the kinds of organizational affiliations and leadership positions that they have. And hopefully those kind of relational ties will lead to an openness to sharing information.
And even I’m trying to figure out how we can set aside differences to reach commonalities. There’s not very much public conversation right now about commonality across differences. And I’m really hoping that some of the work that I and others are doing, that you’re doing, shows that people can relate across differences and work together on common issues. I remember one conversation I had with an academic colleague, who said, “Wow, at your home I met this religious leader who was really concerned about poverty in Houston and alleviating poverty. And I was shocked, I had never met a religious leader, a conservative,” the academic colleague said, “who is concerned about poverty. I didn’t know conservatives could be concerned about poverty.” And I thought “That’s a win.”
Geoff Mitelman: There are all sorts of different ways of framing the question so that it achieves its goal, right? If the goal is – and we talk about this a lot through our work – “Do we want to be effective, or do we want to be right?” And I think too often, we want to be right. And we’re not as concerned with “Let’s actually try to achieve the goal that we’re trying to achieve here.” And [there is] one line that I always loved, that is used in community organizing, which is asking people, “What keeps you up at night, and what gets you up in the morning?” And that opens up those kinds of conversations where it’s a personal story. And they find, “I care about this because my mother grew up in poverty and had to work three jobs to be able to put food on the table, and I care about that issue.” And that would never have come up if the conversation starts talking about a minimum wage, or abortion, or all of the hot button issues – that’s actually going to pull people away. But being able to say, “Tell me a story of what keeps you up at night? What makes you nervous? And what gets you up in the morning? What energizes you? What excites you?” Those are different kinds of conversations where you can build those kinds of connections and relationships there.
Elaine Ecklund: I think that’s right. I want to be clear with the listeners that building common ground doesn’t mean that we pretend differences don’t exist. I think a little bit about [how] some of your listeners have done a lot of research into psychology and trauma. And there’s lots of research done on families that are not healthy. And sometimes the mark of a truly unhealthy organization, a truly unhealthy family, is “Behind closed doors, we are mean to each other, abusive to each other, but then we pretend it’s all happy to the outside world.”
And so building common ground is not that. It’s not pretending we’re all happy to the outside world when really we have deep differences. It’s not pretending that injustice doesn’t exist. I know your organization is very concerned about issues of justice and thinking about Judaism, and its relevance to injustice, broadly, which of course, Judaism has a rich, rich tradition to think deeply about these issues. And so it’s naming injustice. But it’s also coming to others with a sense of humility, and saying, “I should not pretend that I know everything that there is to know about you.” There are things, just because you’re another human being walking around in this world with different experiences than I have – that there are always things that I can learn from the other that will make me better, and make me do better work in the world. And so for us as leaders, creating those kinds of communities and spaces where we can openly and honestly talk about injustice and pain that’s just everywhere in our world right now, but also have a spirit of humility, a spirit of learning from the other.
Geoff Mitelman: One thing that we would love to be able to learn a little bit from you, because this is something that you know much more about than I think many of us do, I think a lot of people who are watching and listening here come from the Jewish tradition and are focused on a lot of questions of Judaism and social justice, and so know very much about Judaism and how it focuses and what its emphases are. And one thing I honestly did not even really know the the difference between until maybe five or six years ago, is the difference between Evangelical and fundamentalist, because that’s not something that a lot of Jews understand the distinction of. Or difference of Black Evangelicals versus white Evangelicals and different people of color, and where Catholicism comes in, and different Christian traditions as well, and other non-Abrahamic traditions, also.
What are some of the ways in which we’re seeing different religious traditions interact with public life? We talk in America very strongly about, and in Judaism as well, about the importance of the separation between church and state. That’s something that a lot of Jews, understandably, feel very strongly about. But I don’t think you can disentangle religion and politics. And I think we need to be able to understand how do different religious communities view different kinds of political and public issues?
Elaine Ecklund: Yeah, that’s a complicated question about which many books have been written. So I’ll try to describe it in three minutes. Some big principles here are that most people are not using their religion in politics in the US. So a lot of Americans are not very politically involved, for good or for bad. I’m not sure that sounds really good, but I think the reality is that a lot of people are not using their religion in politics. A lot of people think religion and politics should not be connected.
But you do have some very loud voices. And what happens when voices are really loud is that people start to think that those opinions are much more numerous than they really are. Louder often means bigger cognitively, and that’s not always the case. It sometimes is the case, it’s not always the case. So something that’s been interesting is that until the past 40 years or so, Evangelical Christians in the US – so those who think that the Bible has authoritative import in their lives, think that salvation comes through Christ, and that there is the possibility of salvation and care a lot about individual salvation – those folks weren’t really very involved in politics at all, actually. And interestingly, Billy Graham, a Democrat, was the first really openly evangelical – not Billy Graham, Jimmy Carter, wow, I’m in a different world here. Jimmy Carter was the first openly evangelical president as a Democrat. So we have this kind of wonky thing that’s happened over the last few years where rightist politics and white evangelicalism have become very much intertwined. I would also add with that, that is their particular kind of far-right politics. And it’s often very disconnected from actual church participation.
My colleagues and I call these folks sometimes “Fox News Christians.” Christianity is a particular kind of identity that merges with a particular type of far-right politics. And it is not something that necessarily leads to more church attendance or more involvement in a community. Those who are very involved in churches, who are Evangelicals, tend actually to have more mixed views about social issues, tend not to have very black and white views about social issues. Does that make sense? So it’s almost as if the act of being part of community tends to moderate folks a bit. So you might think that evolution is not necessarily accurate, but think that we should believe scientific information about climate change, for example. You don’t have just polar views, there are things that kind of are case by case, issue by issue.
Geoff Mitelman: And it sounds like also the more people are involved in church – and I see this actually a little bit of my rabbi friends who are on Twitter, who are also very involved in a lot of interfaith work. [They] tend to say, “Look, if you read the New Testament, if you read Christianity, it tends to be pretty liberal.” If you were to read of taking care of the underprivileged and helping the immigrant, right, there’s a lot in church teaching that talks about that. And it sounds like the people who are actually involved and attending church and learning the lessons tend to be, sounds like more moderate, and some… there’s a decent chunk of left-wing Evangelicalism that I think is often overlooked.
Elaine Ecklund: Absolutely. So about one in five Evangelicals would think of themselves as Democrats. Those folks are not getting a lot of press right now. So that’s kind of interesting. There’s a kind of nuanced view there, which is not easy. It’s not really a soundbite kind of view, if that makes sense. And so then that makes it harder to communicate about. Mainline Protestants, so those who are part of, historically, the Presbyterian traditions, Methodism, Episcopalianism, those folks do tend to lean left politically as well. And they tend to have a bit less church attendance and participation than Evangelicals do. But those folks tend to lean left. Both groups are largely white, Evangelicals, and mainline Protestants to some extent, although Evangelicalism has been massively changed by recent immigration, post-1960s, by especially those who have migrated from East Asia and from South America who are really changing literally the face of Evangelicalism and Catholicism in the US, and the mainline traditions to some extent, as well. And those folks tend to be all over the map, politically.
Geoff Mitelman: I’m curious also, because there has been some data from Pew and some other places as well about identification and attendance. The story, – I don’t know if this is accurate, this is why I’d love to hear from you – but the story that’s often told is that: more right-wing religion, that those numbers tend to be going up, more mainstream and left-leaning religion, that there tends to be a lot lower attendance. And the largest growing group is the “nones,” which doesn’t mean that they’re not religious, it means that they’re not connected with an official religious community here. Is that picture that we’re seeing in the media, is that an accurate picture? And how does that play itself out in terms of questions of science policy, of general public policy here? There are a couple questions in there, I know.
Elaine Ecklund: So the “nones,” and those who are Evangelicals, do both seem to be growing to some extent. And the “nones” (I always like to say “none,” not “nun,” of course “nuns” are Catholic nuns), those who say that they have no religion, are not necessarily atheists, they’re not necessarily those folks who were not raised with a religious tradition. So they may have a religious tradition in their past, some kind of attachment to religion. And they may often consider spirituality to be very important in their lives. So definitely an increasing number of people who consider themselves spiritual, but not religious. So those who want to think about things that are a part of the higher-order, very concerned about higher-order questions of meaning, say that they have spiritual practices like prayer, meditation, other kinds of spiritual practices. So those folks are out there as well.
I always like to say, as a sociologist of religion, it’s not that religion is necessarily decreasing, it’s complexifying. So it’s becoming more complicated, more complex, and in ways that I think are very interesting. And, in some ways, more thoughtful. And I think it depends whether you see the glass half-empty or half-full. The usual institutional church is definitely changing form, potentially declining in some corners. But alongside that is an increase in Black and Brown people in institutional churches, in institutional church leadership, an increase in the number of people who are spiritual, and having reflective conversations across religious traditions. And so there’s a lot going on there that I think we need to be attuned to, and to think through deeply how these dynamics have an impact on public life.
Geoff Mitelman: And I think COVID is also impacting that tremendously, because religion, almost by definition, it’s in-person, it’s physical, it’s communal, and it’s interactive. It’s coffee hour, it’s kiddish, it’s visiting somebody who’s died, it’s going to a wedding. That’s where those things happen. Now, with a lot of COVID there are elements where like,”We’re having this conversation by Zoom,” and there are elements where there are relationships that can get built, but it’s a much more of a one-to-many. And it’s interesting – I’m wondering, and seeing, there are some churches and synagogues that have tremendous, wonderful infrastructure, and probably more people gravitating towards those kinds of experiences, versus the smaller churches and the smaller synagogues, they probably have their same group that are there, but it’s probably harder to attract new people into that community there.
Elaine Ecklund: Absolutely. In our tour of the religious landscape, we didn’t get to the piece of the conversation about the Historically Black Church in the United States, and just the impact that the Black Church has had on civil rights, as well as on current calls for racial justice, which we’ve never seen, really, we’re in a sort of a second almost civil rights movement right now, which is extraordinary. And related to what you’re saying about COVID, those churches that are populated by Black people, the “Historically Black Church,” as we call it in sociology of religion – those congregations tend to be smaller, often. They tend to be also often in the poorest communities in our country. There are certainly wealthy Black mega-churches, we have some in Houston. But typically, the historically Black Churches are in the poor communities.
They are also what we might call “first-line” – we talk a lot in our society right now about front-line workers, these are front-line organizations. So when there are natural disasters, when there is massive poverty in a community, these kinds of congregations provide a lot of practical help to people, but in the current state of our society, for going on a year now, these are also massively under-resourced organizations that have not been easily able to transfer to doing everything online. They’ve not had the money, they’ve not had the technological resources. And so some of the work that we’ve been doing in the Religion and Public Life Program is we’ve been trying to bring in scholars and religious leaders and think through “What does it mean for churches and synagogues and other kinds of religious organizations to join together around common efforts? How might they do technological outreach to one another in a way that’s useful, or have Zoom conversations with scientists from the communities in order to transfer excellent information about COVID and what that means practically for religious organizations?”
All of that’s going on, and I think it is really important to remember, and especially how other kinds of social stratification like racism – and we’re seeing gender discrimination – come up here in massive ways, as the disproportionate amount of care work resulting from COVID has been taken up by women. There’s a lot going on that we, as those folks who care about religion in society, need to be thinking about.
Geoff Mitelman: I’d love to hear a little more, and you referenced a few of these, of the ways in which religion is “complexified,” and ways in which there are going to be some losses without a doubt, and there are going to be some potential gains and maybe even unexpected gains. And that’s one of the things: when there’s a pain point, we don’t quite know, are we going to grow and rise from the ashes? Or is the thing just going to die out? And you don’t know in that moment, until years later. I’m curious, we’d love to hear what are some of the ways in which you’re seeing religion becoming more complexified in American society right now.
Elaine Ecklund: I think that it’s really hard for congregations that we might call the “historically white church,” we don’t usually like to be called that. And I know a lot of white Christians, right now, myself included, are embarrassed and ashamed by the ways in which the white churches have not stood against racial injustice. It’s harder now to get by without having hard conversations. And so I think that can potentially be an “up from the ashes” kind of situation that you’re talking about, Rabbi Geoff, and it can also lead to a kind of discouragement that people don’t know how to go forward from here. There are some people who are engaged in a deep sense of mourning at being involved in institutional Christianity, being involved in historic and present-day racism, and looking around for models for a way forward. And I think that there can be a lot of goodness that’s coming forward from this time of racial reckoning.
So that’s one thing that I think is very important to name. A second thing is that the religious organizations – and I’ve seen this a lot, actually, among synagogues in Houston and in churches and mosques, those are the three traditions that our program engages most closely with – that there is a sense that the pace of technology within religious organizations has jumped ahead about a decade. That even relatively small organizations are saying, “We need to be providing live streams of our services to reach people who are at home and can’t get to the actual service, even after COVID we’re going to continue doing this, we’re going to get the right technology, we’re going to train people, we’re going to keep going.” And I think that’s opening up a lot of doors for people to think through how to do things creatively, technologically, and in a way that’s relationally deep. I’m sure you can tell me as a religious leader, yourself, a thing or two. So I feel like I’m speaking a little out of turn here. You know stuff, I’m sure about that!
Geoff Mitelman: What’s interesting is that religious communities build – there are two kinds of relationships, there are the thick kinds of relationships, and there are the thin kinds of relationships, and you need both. You need the thick relationships, of the people that you’re really close with. And when somebody’s sick, or when there’s a baby that’s born, like who’s going to show up and do the work? Our synagogue, as a lot of synagogues [do], observes Martin Luther King Day, and there were wonderful social justice programs, and really trying to be able to say, “We are going to do elements of work here.”
But there are also the kinds of the thin relationships, of getting to know people that you may not know otherwise. And what happens when there are a Democrat and a Republican who are next to each other, and having that kind of just greasing the wheels of that kind of conversation, I think in many ways, ensures that society continues to function. Because where we are right now, particularly with COVID, everybody is in their echo chambers. And we’re not interacting, we’re not having any kind of real argument. The best kinds of arguments are the ones that happen in-person, where you can see the body language and you can see how you’re reacting. But now you can just send a tweet out and get everybody angry, and somebody else becomes angry in response to that. And the argumentation, I think, has become so toxic because we’ve lost the ability to have those kinds of in-person conversations, or at least COVID has accelerated that.
Elaine Ecklund: That is exactly right. One of the things that I and some other faculty try to do is when we get a snarky email from a student or another colleague, we try really hard not to respond, we try really hard to pick up the phone. Because those kinds of things can just go on and on. The example I just said is magnified times a thousand with something like Twitter.
I think – perhaps I’m too optimistic of a person by nature – but I do think that this can provide a space for ethical reflection about how we use social media in these times in a way that honors each other’s humanness. That we are not thinking deeply about these as relational tools. And so this is where religious communities, I think, have a lot to say, and are spaces where we can really be leaders, and how to use social media and all kinds of media technologies well. So the technology piece, I think, is enormous. And it sounds like you all are already doing a lot of that kind of reflection.
And then I think another big thing – racism, technology, and then I think thirdly is that COVID has brought to us the realization of just how much care work women do. And for Black and Brown communities, that is magnified enormously. And so even as women who are relatively wealthy and leaders have had to take on the brunt of care for, say, those of us who are fortunate enough to have our children be able to have great internet connection so that they can go to school online. Still, all those interruptions are being taken on, of course by single mothers, who there are so many of – but disproportionately, by women. And our religious communities have tended to be quite male-dominated, historically and presently, there are certainly exceptions of a lot of creative gender-egalitarian work going on in religious communities, and I want to be honest about that. But still, I think this has made it impossible to ignore the disproportionate care work that women do, and what our religious community is going to do about that. And how are they going to address that well. Even as men working inside the home now has also then provided moments of reflection and space – this is the positive, right –, space for reflection for them as well.
Geoff Mitelman: And looping back to something you mentioned earlier, which is we’re looking for common ground. And sometimes if we do “common ground” too quickly, we’re paving over the big differences. We’re not having those kinds of hard conversations. And thinking about Martin Luther King. Yesterday, I was struck that there was a study that was done I think, in ’65, or ’66, which was “Were sit-ins and civil rights movements, were they helping or hurting – ” the phrasing was, “the Negro’s cause.” Because that was the language that was being used. And 85% of people said that was going to hurt the civil rights movement. 85% of people at the time thought that Martin Luther King and the whole civil rights movement, they were actually being counterproductive.
And there are lots of people who are tweeting out these wonderful phrases of quotes from Martin Luther King from right-wing people, not recognizing that a lot of what King talked about was universal basic income, and voting laws, and all of these… someone did a very funny thing where they had Clippy from Microsoft Word that said, “Hi, you’re quoting Martin Luther King out of context, without grappling with the long history of American racism. Would you like some help with that?” Because it’s very easy to be able to send a tweet out without really struggling with what has happened with racism in America, gender disparity in America, we want to be able to say, “Oh, can we all just come together? Isn’t this all fine?” And we’re not realizing that “Wait a second, we’re now grappling with the same kinds of questions that people were grappling with 50 years ago.”
Elaine Ecklund: That’s exactly right. And sometimes those hard questions need to be grappled with in communities of others who share an identity with us. And sometimes they need to be grappled with in communities of those who have different identities. So meaning that sometimes women need to grapple with these questions together. Sometimes men and women need to work together, and to hear each other’s stories. And I think there’s really space for both. And in the ideal sense, those who share a moral community, who are part of the same religion do, can be those kinds of safe spaces. And so how can we as those of us who are religious leaders who are listening, provide that kind of leadership to start those conversations, recognizing, of course, that we probably have issues we’re dealing with ourselves.
Geoff Mitelman: One thing that’s also interesting that I’d love to unpack for a little bit – I’ll also let people know that if you’ve got questions, you can type them in the chat here. But one of the interesting things that you’ve unpacked in a lot of your work is how Evangelicals view science. And what’s interesting is when we think about how do evangelicals view science? And you phrase it that way, it’s probably going to be like, “I’m not so sure about science, I’m not so great about you, I’m not sure.” But then if you ask about very specific kinds of things, they tend to be either neutral or even positive about that. And so thinking about technology, thinking about different elements of climate change, there are different aspects of, reproductive genetic technologies, and if you ask evangelicals very specific questions, they’ll go “Oh, actually that’s something I could be behind here in this kind of way.” How does that change the conversation if we move from religion versus science, to looking at “What is going to be an effective way for me to use social media in my synagogue? What should I do if I’ve got a woman who’s struggling with infertility, and I need to be able to talk with my rabbi or my minister and I’m also talking with a doctor, right?” How can it be more helpful to be thinking about these questions on a more granular level?
Elaine Ecklund: Yeah, I actually wrote a recent book, which I think you know about, specifically for Christian communities, it’s my first book for specifically religious communities. I’m kind of stepping outside of my scholarly role a little bit. It’s called Why Science and Faith Need Each Other: Eight Shared Values That Move Us Beyond Fear. And I felt compelled to write that book because I personally have been part of churches all my life. And I thought, “Wow, I maybe have a responsibility to translate some of this research to the kinds of communities that I’ve been a part of.” And I’m really hoping that maybe someone else can write a book for the Muslim community in the US, and maybe someone else can write a book for the Jewish community.
So I do comparative work in that book, but it’s really specifically for a Christian audience. And the reason that I did that is because I do think people need good translators. They need the rabbi and the minister to translate what the scientific issues mean for them in their moral community, in their specific situation. Science is a set of research, a set of facts, a set of ideas. Science doesn’t tell us what to do with science. For that we need someone else – we need other kinds of interpreters. And so I thought, “I’m going to try this out and write this little book that’s specifically for Christian audiences, and hope that maybe I can be in conversation in the future and someone else will write a book for another religious audience.” But I think those kinds of interpretive works are really important, that’s one thing I would say.
The second thing is that you said this really nicely, Rabbi Geoff, in the beginning of the conversation, that people generally don’t think of science or religion, they think of particular relationships. So “the scientist that I know,” or “my idea of a scientist,” or “the religious leader that I know,” or “the religious person that I know.” So I think it’s really important to see science and religion, not only as sets of ideas, but also as communities of people, and communities of people that can have shared values. Humility is one that I focus a lot on in the book, for example, as one of the shared values between the scientific community and some religious communities. This idea that there’s always more out there that we don’t know. Both Jews and Christians use the phrase, “God is God, and I am not,” right, “There’s something larger than myself,” that “I’m finite, and God is infinite.” And so there is also that shared principle in science, where we’re always just having a little bit of knowledge of how the natural world works, and there’s always more to know. And that sense of humility, I think, too, can be used as a principle to bring these communities of people together. So this idea that we need translators, and then also, we need to see each other as people, as being part of communities, and start thinking about, looking for, the shared values that we have between communities.
Geoff Mitelman: And if I remember one of the things that’s referenced, and I think it’s the last of the eight values, is you’re talking about shalom, which connects to the Hebrew word of [HEBREW] of fullness and wholeness and harmony. And I think one of the things that’s important in thinking about a level of shalom, of peace, and again this links with Martin Luther King Jr.’s work, which is that “There’s no peace without a level of justice.” And it’s not an empty piece of “Can’t we all just get along? We’re here, lalala, everything’s wonderful.” And because it’s not wonderful, there are a lot of problems here. And being able to say, “There are real differences here, we need to be able to engage in these kinds of conversations, I need to grapple with the system that I’ve been a part of,” and being able to say that we can have differences and still come together without papering over the differences here. And being able to be fully rooted in who each individual person is without just saying, “Let’s just all be peaceful and ignore all the problems here, because there needs to be a level of justice before there can be a level of peace.”
Elaine Ecklund: That’s exactly right. And I’ve learned a lot from the Jewish concept, you’ll correct me if I’m saying it incorrectly, but tikkun olam, this idea of world repair. And so to repair the world, we need to know what needs repairing, right? Repairing the world is not pretending that the world is already repaired. And so we had a conversation, actually, a conference about eight months ago, on the values from the book – the Why Science and Faith Need Each Other book. And some who were in attendance found it odd that I talked about justice in the same chapter as I mentioned this idea of shalom. And the point of that chapter is that both scientists, and in the case of the book that I was writing, Christian communities, do try to make the world better. They’re very interested in seeing a sense of peace in the world. So some in attendance kind of pushed back and said, “Why would you talk about justice?” And I think exactly for the reasons that you just said so well, that we absolutely need to clearly and truthfully recognize what’s wrong with the world and to name that before we seek to repair the world and look for peace in the world.
Geoff Mitelman: And that’s a lot of where science comes in, too, of trying to be able to see, and religion as well, of seeing the world as it is, to be able to transform it into the world that it could be.
Elaine Ecklund: That’s right.
Geoff Mitelman: And yet, we can’t do that without understanding “What is the world right now?” And I think that’s part of the challenge right now is that we’re living in entirely different worlds right now, where we’re not even agreeing on what’s actually factual in front of us right now. So some of that is “How can we create a level of shared facts?” That’s been a challenge in not just the religious community, and not just, I don’t think it’s that much of an issue in the scientific community the way we would normally think about it, but it’s definitely an issue in the larger American society right now.
Elaine Ecklund: I think that’s exactly right. And it’s important to remember that world repair is a long haul game, right? It’s something that we have to think of as not quick fixes, but as long-haul and done in community together. And so we have in our religious communities the capacity to activate a lot of social good if we live towards the highest ideals of those communities.
Geoff Mitelman: I’ve not always loved when tikkun olam, which I strongly believe in and love, has been sort of subsumed all forms of doing good. And in Judaism, there’s the element of tikkun olam, of repairing the world, and then there are also acts of gemilut hasadim, acts of loving kindness. And they’re separate, right? There’s a difference between delivering soup at a soup kitchen, which is absolutely needed – and that’s an act of love and kindness – versus advocating for structural social changes, to try to prevent people from needing to have soup kitchens at all.
Elaine Ecklund: Yes, that’s right.
Geoff Mitelman: I think it’s important to be able to use the language accurately and effectively, because it’s all about making the world better. Everyone wants to make everyone’s life a better place, but I think there’s a difference between justice and charity.
So there’s a question that was raised a lot, which was, “How much does the belief that Christianity is the one single truth impact various Christian ideas about science?” That is, do some of these people not feel that there’s always more that we don’t know in religion, and thus aren’t as open to the same thing as science?
Elaine Ecklund: That’s an interesting question. So sort of this idea that, it’s a social psychologists talk, I can’t remember right now, sadly, what it’s called, but this idea that it’s something like “binary thinking.” It’s either good or bad, it’s right or wrong. People can’t think with very much nuance. And I think actually, the answer is found, not through letting go of Christian thinking, but leaning a bit more deeply into it. That in the deepest theological works that I’ve read, the idea of humans as being so incredibly limited, that there needs to be a deep sense of humility, actually gets us around that and makes us much more open to science, and even provides a reason to do good science. Because you know that there’s always more to know. And that it’s not that we can’t know anything, but that our knowing is always incomplete. So that’s how scientists who are Christians have explained it to me, and I find that quite a compelling answer.
Geoff Mitelman: And I love the idea, I find that starting with conversations about what don’t you know, of a level of humility. And also, I think an aspect of awe and wonder and majesty. And that’s something that I think is a wonderful entry point for some of these conversations between religious leaders and scientists.
Elaine Ecklund: Absolutely. And there are, within all of the world’s great religious traditions, that sense of awe, and wonder, and beauty, found in different kinds of conceptions of God, found in those traditions. And that that sense of beauty and awe is reflected in the natural world. And that provides a reason to study and try to understand the natural world as a kind of gift. And that I found over and over again in my research, across religious traditions, across scientists from different religious traditions, who really are utilizing their faith tradition as a reason to do good science. And as a reason to understand the beauty that’s found through their scientific work.
Geoff Mitelman: One question that we haven’t had a chance to ask, and I’d love to spend just a couple of minutes on this, is a phrase that’s used often in religion and in politics, which is the phrase “sacred values.” And that’s a word that’s used, generally, very positively. I’m not as much of a fan of that because, particularly in the political world, because if it’s a sacred value, there is zero compromise you can do about that.
Elaine Ecklund: That’s right.
Geoff Mitelman: Politics is, almost by definition, sort of horse trading, and imperfect and ugly. That’s the line of “The two things you don’t want to see how they’re made: laws and sausages.” That being able to understand “I’m willing to compromise on this, sometimes that’s really valuable.” And sometimes “Look, this is a sacred value and I’m not going to give up on this.” Where do you see religious communities phrasing and talking about “this is a sacred value,” which, by the way, is used on both the left and the right, of what a sacred value is, and when do you see religious communities being more willing to compromise? And if they do, are they viewed as hypocrites or weak or actually not being as devout as other people?
Elaine Ecklund: Yeah, I shouldn’t mention this because we’re doing a podcast right now, potentially. But the Religion and Public Life Program has a podcast too, which is called Religion Unmuted, and I interviewed a woman, Laura Olson, who’s a political scientist at Clemson who I asked a similar question as the one you just asked me. So I’m going to steal Laura’s answer! “People are letting, right now, their politics drive their religion, rather than the religion drive their politics.” And I thought that’s such a great thought. And it’s really relevant here, that they are looking at political interest in political power as the sacred value. And rather than thinking about truly sacred values, and she said, as someone who studied religion for several decades, that it’s not that people are bringing too much religion in, is that they’re not really leaning enough into the depth of their religious tradition. They’re not bringing enough religion in, they’re bringing too much politics in. And I thought that was such an interesting statement that if you study the – really, I mean, we’re talking about two great traditions here, Judaism and Christianity. If you study either of those traditions in great depth, you can’t escape true justice, you can’t escape true humility, you can’t escape true wonder and beauty and hope. And those are all the things that we see missing in much of political discussion. Discussion is too lovely a word to use, political hatred that’s being thrown around. And so it’s that we need the right kind of religious values, the values that truly are sacred. And I thought her answer was so good. I’ve really been thinking about that since I interviewed her about it.
Geoff Mitelman: One of the lines, of people being able to say, “I am pro-life and what I mean is for some people, it’s from birth until death, right?” Pro-life means healthcare, pro-life means economic security, pro-life means being able to have access to women’s health, right? Pro-life is environmental justice. That’s really what pro-life is. And a lot of it is being co-opted, or used in ways that make the other side uncomfortable, right? Because if I were to say “I am pro-life,” that’s not going to fly for what actually the word most people think pro-life… if someone says, “I’m pro life,” that’s going to have a whole bunch of markers that I am going to disagree with here. But being able to say “I am somebody who believes that everyone should have the basic requirements and needs for a full life, from the moment they’re born to the moment that they die,” how can they find that language in a sacred kind of way? I think there’s a lot of religious backing for those kinds of phrases.
Elaine Ecklund: That’s exactly right. And it’s very hard to enact them through sound bites. So right now, we need more. I would argue that we need more sacred practice right now. That we’re getting in a space where words are just being thrown around in extraordinarily difficult and hateful ways. And so what does it mean? And this is going to be for the religious leaders in our midst, who are doing such honorable work? What is it going to mean to care well for those who are under our care in these times? And really empower them to live to the fullest extent their true faith practices, is very, very difficult right now, given all that we’re all facing and the suffering and the grief that we’re facing.
Geoff Mitelman: Someone said the other day, politics has gone from reality to reality television. And we can sort of understand why that’s the case. What gets exciting with reality television is manufactured drama and all the fights and that’s what gets people engaged when reality is actually kind of boring and a slog and not so easy and often there’s a lot of agreement, also. To be able to move away from the reality television element of both religion and politics to be able to deal with what’s the reality? What are the issues that we’re facing in this world? And what do we need to be able to do to help improve them and that’s a much harder thing.
Elaine Ecklund: That’s very hard. It’s very hard work. It’s very hard work, and it’s lifetime work. It’s work that you don’t just do “one day, and it’s one and done.” So I think there’s a lot here that we can ponder. It’s so hard to feel hopeful right now. But yet, I do see in Houston and other places around the country, there are really excellent grassroots kinds of things going on where people are in communities of practice together and they’re moving forward in very positive ways, which I think will make a long term difference.
Geoff Mitelman: And that’s why I want to thank you for taking the time here this afternoon, because your work is on religion and public life, it’s not about presidential politics, it’s about public life. And politics is about public life. And in less than 24 hours, there’s going to be a new administration, but our day-to-day lives with each other are actually not going to change all that much – unless we ourselves change them, unless we build those kinds of relationships and build common ground, what our speaker last week, Tania Lombrozo, had said, which was “charitable ground.” Being able to say “I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt.” And if we’re able to do that, hopefully, we’ll be able to build more of a better public life and a better integration of religion and politics for ourselves, and our society and the world as a whole. So, Elaine, thank you so much for the work that you’re doing, and for the insights that you brought here this afternoon.
Elaine Ecklund: Thank you so much. And again, I want to thank you for the work you’re doing. Sinai and Synapses is amazing, and just all that you’re doing. So thank you so much.
Geoff Mitelman: Thank you. And you can follow Elaine at Twitter at @RiceRPLP, and you can Google that at the Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University, where you can find out more about her and her work. You can find us at sinaiandsynapses.org and on Facebook and on Twitter. And our conversation next week is going to be with Michael Shermer, who is an author, the editor of Skeptic Magazine, one of the world’s experts on conspiracy thinking – how and why people buy into conspiracies, and when are conspiracies really right? Because sometimes there actually are conspiracies, and how do we distinguish what’s accurate and what’s not? And what’s the interplay of religion and science in terms of our thinking and what happens inside of our brains? So I hope you’ll join us next Tuesday at 2pm. Thank you, Elaine, for taking the time. And thank you, all of you for joining us here this afternoon.