Elaine Howard Ecklund is the Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences, Professor of Sociology, and the Director of the Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University, where she also a Rice Scholar at the Baker Institute for Public Policy. Professor Ecklund is on Sinai and Synapses’ Advisory Board, and she is one of the world’s experts on the interplay between science and religion, especially sociologically. What is happening on the ground for faith communities as they interact with questions of science and health? As COVID-19 has taken over the world, faith communities are grappling with questions of access and justice, and the questions surrounding religion and science have become even more important and even more complicated. Last week, our Sinai and Synapses Fellows had a conversation with her, and we’re thrilled to be able to share her presentation with you now.Read Transcript
Elaine Howard Ecklund: Thank you so much, just for being here and just for being part of this group. I so respect the work that Geoff Mitelman and you all are doing through Sinai and Synapses, it’s been really something I’ve been following very closely as an Advisory Board member, and I’m really proud of the work you’re doing.
So I have five brief points I wanted to make. As Geoff said, my work has been concerned primarily, as a sociologist, with understanding what scientists think about religion. So I use classic sociological tools like survey research and in-depth interviews, and have just finished an eight-nation study of scientists’ attitudes towards religion in both societies which perceive themselves as highly secularized and societies which perceive themselves as being very religion-dominant. And so I’ve just put aside that study, and that resulted in a book called “Secularity and Science: What Scientists Around the Globe Really Think.” And then I’ve also been very concerned with trying to understand what different religious groups, primarily in the US, think about science, so the conditions under which they perceive a real collaboration between science and faith, and the conditions under which they perceive tensions.
And so then COVID-19 hit. It’s obviously horrific to have a pandemic, and I want to acknowledge that, that it’s horrific and painful on many, many different levels, but it also provides us [with a great deal to study]. And I think I sometimes jokingly say to colleagues from either side [that I use] what I call the sociological coping mechanism. When something is hard for me, sometimes I’m like “Oh how could I study that?” as a way of just coping. I mean, I have rheumatoid arthritis, and have been in the hospital for several joint surgeries, and I’m always like “Oh, you know, how do physicians perceive science and faith?” That’s one of the new things I’m thinking, you know, as a way of personal coping.
And so quickly I started thinking you know how does the landscape of my research as a sociologist but really from other disciplines as well, how are folks in the scholarly community who are interested in science very definitive about these topics? And then what, also, can we learn from religious practitioners? So leaders in faith communities, what are they doing? And so we started through the Religion in Public Life program writing a series of op-eds about our work on the science community and faith communities, and the faith and science interface. But then we’ve also, over the past few weeks, been able to raise a very small amount of money to start studying about 70 faith communities in Houston. As you might know, Rice University is in Houston, Texas, and Houston is a real hotbed of religious activity, but also of medical activity. So Houston, Texas has one of the highest density of medical centers of really any place in the world. And so you have these two major institutional streams of religion and science and medicine in the same city. So it’s a really, really interesting place. We can do our work online, even though Rice University has gone completely to home workstations, I transitioned the 17 people in the Religion and Public life program to at-home workstations to, but we’ve still been able to carry on some online tracking of the community, so that’s what some of my remarks are based on as well.
So here are five things that I’ve been thinking about, and I want to say that these are somewhat nascent ideas that I hope to amplify as we go. And some of you might have great information or contextual thoughts that I can really learn from.
So first, one question I’ve been asking is “How does COVID-19 have an impact on science acceptance among faith communities?” So Geoff said right at the beginning, we hear a lot about you know the churches that wouldn’t close, and, you know, the governors who are saying churches can be open and everything else has to close. And this is primarily around Christian communities, but just today there was a big incident related to a Hasidic community, and so you know, really poorly thought-through response, right, and shows just the importance of our work. And so we are not finding that science acceptance is really the issue here, so so far, if you look at a wide variety of religious organizations, by and large, religious organizations are, so far, of the 70 that work so that we’re tracking in Houston, among the first organizations to comply. Their leaders know that they are gathering spaces, and they are closing down when they need to close down.
But something else that we’ve been noticing, and this is like a point – (you know, this is why I’m an academic and not a journalist, right, I say I have five points and they have several sub-points, right, because I can never say anything in one clear sentence) – a sub-point of science acceptance as a theme is thinking about issues of inequality, and I want us to think deeply about that, because we did notice a lag in some poorer communities in religious organizations being able to close. And I use that language “being able to close” quite deliberately, because some organizations served very, very impoverished communities, and we think of those organizations as being almost first responders in times of crises. Sometimes they provide services that government organizations cannot provide or are not able to provide, because communities have been discriminated against so heavily that they’re quite mistrusting of bureaucratic government organizations, whereas they’re more trusting of their faith communities. So some of the historically black churches in Houston that serve very impoverished communities, and some of the largely Hispanic congregations in Houston, delayed closing about a week to 10 days because they didn’t have the technological apparatus to get online quickly and to live stream. And as we talk informally with some of those religious leaders, they said that, you know, “COVID-19, when it first came on the radar, was not the biggest of our problems. We serve people who are so at-risk in our society that it felt like other problems, frankly, are more significant than COVID-19.”
Now, I think that’s very different than saying that you do not trust science, or that you think that science is wrong, that’s a different – maybe the action is the same, the sort of lag in not closing, but there’s a different kind of rhetoric when we bring inequality into the mix that I think is really important to understand.
Secondly, I’ve been thinking a lot about congregational participation, and just the importance of congregational participation in this time, and how can organizations like Sinai and Synapses and other organizations studying faith and science use our work to encourage religious leaders to be really active conversation partners with public health officials, with those in the science and medical community? Because we know that congregations throughout the US, and really the world, often provide a lot of the resources and services that will be very helpful as we heal from the collateral impact of COVID-19. So of course, we’re all thinking about the health impact now. “Are we going to be sick?” “Are we going to, God forbid, lose loved ones?” “Are we going to, you know, just lose our health?” “What does it mean to stay socially isolated for me psychologically?” Those kinds of things. But of course, we’re starting to hear a lot about the collateral impact, so things like the economy taking an enormous downturn, and more of a downturn in some industries than other industries. Things like, you know, depression and even suicide rates increasing from severe isolation for certain communities. And so how can our organizations that study faith and science actually encourage the science and medicine community to be in serious conversation with religious leaders?
And I think, sadly sometimes, some in the science community, and even some in the medicine community – although I think there’s more openness there – see religious organizations as kind of a problem for what they do, like the initial framing is, “Oh, is this group of people going to cooperate, you know, where they could be a problem for us?” Instead, if we flip that a little bit and start to ask “Where are the potential synergies?,” we could – in Houston, I have close relationships with some scientific and medical leaders, and it’s very hard to encourage them sometimes to try and actually have significant conversations with religious leaders, like they just are not able to do that.
The third kind of thing that I think is very, very important, is thinking about the kinds of common values that both the scientific community and the religious community have. Now, people are a little bit suspicious when I start to say that, but I notice in my research – and this is very evidence-based – that when I talk to scientists and I talk to religious people, that there are common practices between those two communities. So things like humility as a virtue are cultivated deeply in many communities of faith. And it is also cultivated in the best science, right, that we have to have a sense of humility, that we might be wrong. The monotheistic traditions often say, you know, “God is God and I am not,” right, that’s to acknowledge very deeply our own human limitations. And so there are these common values which might become especially important.
My next book is written specifically for Christian communities, and it’s called “Why Science and Faith Need Each Other: Eight Shared Values That Move Us Beyond Fear.” And I’d love to see something like this written for Jewish communities, where, of course, there are multiple traditions within Judaism. Those on the call that know much more about this than I do, I want to acknowledge [you], but I think there needs to be probably books written that are practitioner books for faith and science that speak to different traditions. And so I tried to write one that would speak across Protestant and Catholic traditions within Christianity. But there is a need out there to think about the kinds of common values we need to be thinking about between these two communities and what ones might grow together during this time of COVID.
The other thing that I’ve been thinking about is the special role during COVID-19 for scientists who are persons of faith. Of course, you know, it’s sad. I’ve done lots of research and I have written, you know, I think a total (and I sound like I’m bragging, I’m not, but my team and I want to give a lot of credit to the students and postdoctoral fellows and others who have written) probably 1,000 pages about it. The Democrats hear about the faith and science interface, and all of that in the media is boiled down to one line quoted about our research, which is “There are religious scientists.” So, religious scientists exists. Like all of our 15 years of research can be summed up in that one line. That seems to be the only thing that is media-worthy. And it’s kind of sad to me, like it’s really a statement without any nuance at all, but it shows how entrenched the stereotype out there is that there aren’t any religious scientists – like that these folks just don’t exist, that that category itself is kind of, you know, an oxymoron.
And of course there are, depending on the national context in the field of science, as many as 50% of scientists [who] see themselves as religious, and 30 to 40% are very actively involved in their religious communities, at least in the US. And so these folks may have a very, very special role in the COVID-19 crisis. They may be bridge builders, who can bridge information between scientific and medical communities and faith communities, they may be folks who actually can be conversation partners for both of those communities. So they may have a very special role, or to use religious language, even a kind of calling during this time. And so just to think through – this is my fourth point – what are, what is, rather, the special role of scientists who are religious, and what might even be the, even going further down, the special role of Jewish scientists and Christian Scientists and Muslim scientists and Hindu scientists, depending upon the cultural context? There will be very specific things that those religious traditions might have to add separately, and the scientists in those religious traditions could be extremely helpful.
The next thing we might think about, and kind of going back to my first point, is “What about all of the collateral impacts of COVID-19?” And Geoff started mentioning some of those in that very nice set of questions that he mentioned at the beginning of our conversation today. I think, as a sociologist, about social inequality, so there will be people who are, you know – of course we’re seeing in the media some initial social science studies saying “Is COVID-19 a black disease?” I heard a report yesterday [about that], meaning that those who are African-American, because they have experienced such historic discrimination and structural marginalization, were the ones who were on the front lines and were not able to do work from home, were the ones who did not have the best health care when they became sick, were the ones who were the most exposed, were the ones who had to be necessary workers in the lowest-paying jobs, or who lost their jobs because those jobs couldn’t go forward and don’t have any economic safety net. We know that race and poverty do not always overlap 100%, but that those two are underrepresented minorities in our scientific institutions are also the folks that have been hardest hit so far by COVID-19, both as a health crisis and the collateral social and economic impacts.
So what can we do? We don’t usually talk about inequality in faith/science conversations, but I think some of us are really starting to bring those issues to the table. And what does it mean in the science and faith conversation to start to really struggle with issues of inequality, educational and scientific access, in the midst of the COVID crisis? And I think that kind of conversation is a really important one to have and start hearing in some of our studies in that area as well.