Elaine Howard Ecklund is a member of the sociology faculty at Rice University, where she is also Director of the Program on Religion and Public Outreach, Institute for Urban Research. Her new book, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, investigates the unexamined assumption of what scientists actually think and feel about religion. Surprisingly she discovered that nearly 50 percent of the scientific community is religious. In the excerpt below we learn how religious scientists incorporate their faith into teaching.
“My Faith is Simply Part of Who I Am”
About 39 percent of the nearly 1,700 scientists I surveyed considered their religious or spiritual beliefs influential on their interactions with students and colleagues. Specifically, faith can create an ethos for teaching. In other words, the faith of these scientists is a part of their everyday lives to the extent that they see it shaping the what, how, why of their teaching.
A Catholic chemist was especially forthcoming about his religious views after I turned off my tape recorder. A recent immigrant, he thinks that academics (and Americans in general) should talk more openly about religion and integrate it into their lives. He blames the present unwillingness to discuss religion on what he called the “political correctness” of the United States, which he contrasts with the religious discussions people have in his home country. Although he clearly had outspoken views about public discussions of religion, this scientist explained that at work, his faith influences him primarily through the ethos it provides for teaching: “I would say religion itself doesn’t come up, rather the values I get through religion…As a teacher you have, for example, a little bit more regard toward weaker students and trying to help them out and also communicate to them the joy of studying science.” Here, he explicitly contrasted himself with more secular colleagues who he thinks mainly spend time with the better students.
Similarly, a physicist said that his faith causes him to treat those who work in his lab compassionately, going out of his way to do things for them that do not necessarily benefit his own career. In his words, “I’m at an age where I see mentoring as one of the most important things I can do,…trying to get [younger scientists] on paths that will get them to the jobs that they want. And you know there’s no particular self-interest here. I mean the majority of [other scientists] I don’t think do this.” This physicist is also establishing a clear boundary between himself and his colleagues who, in his sense of things, care more about their own personal success than making sure that students are mentored well. Obviously, nonreligious professors might also mentor students well. The point is that religious scientists often mentioned this ethos of teaching as something that they believed separated them from their secular colleagues.
The Jewish economist…also said that his faith has a great impact on how he cares for students. He remembers his mother lighting candles on Friday evenings, a ritual that left him with “very peaceful imprints.” And this knowledge that he belongs to a broader faith community influences, for instance, how he thinks about promoting character development among his students, such as those who have failed a class. These students might then meet him in his office to request a higher grade:
And I say, “Well close the door and let’s talk now. Aren’t you ashamed to be here? What do you want out of life when your parents are spending money to keep you here? Are you really interested in this? What are you doing with your life?” Never have I anyone walk out. But I’ve had people come up afterwards and shake my hand and tell me, “Thank you so much for this conversation.”
So, in addition to religion being used by scientists who are experiencing environmental push as a way to (1) help students understand the differences between science and religion and (2) help protect science from the intrusion of religion, there is a specific utilization of religion/spirituality as a basis for a teaching ethos. And those who apply this faith-based ethos generally view it as differentiated from the habits and motivations of their colleagues without faith. We should notice, however, that scientists who talk about faith influencing the ethos of their teaching rarely mention any specific religious doctrines. Most of the students they interact with probably would not know that these scientists are religious. Rather, religion influences their teaching largely through the values it provides. Their faith comes alive through distinct relationships with their students that involve caring for them and promoting their better character.