GUEST POST: Is it time to undo the taboo against religion in science engagement?

Thomas Rockwell  The Exploratorium

Thomas Rockwell
The Exploratorium

A 2012 Pew Research Center report tells us that 80% of Americans identify as “religiously affiliated.” More than half of the remaining 20% that identify as “unaffiliated” (a group that has been growing rapidly) are either “unaffiliated but religious” or “spiritual but not religious”. This means that, even with a recent decline in religious affiliation, around 9 out of every 10 Americans consider themselves either religious or spiritual.

This poses a curious puzzle for science engagement. At the Evolving Culture of Science Engagement (ECSE) meeting in Cambridge we discussed emotion, subjectivity and mystery, but we pretty much steered clear of religion or even spirituality. We bemoaned the lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity both among practitioners and audiences, yet during the event no one even commented on the absence of religion or spirituality in our discourse. 

This silence extends to most science engagement venues. The San Francisco Exploratorium, where I work, very rarely engages in conversations about science and religion or spirituality, and most other science centers are similar. There are exceptions, such as the Deutsches Hygiene Museum in Dresden (see photos below), and occasional lectures, books or radio shows, often supported in the US by the Templeton Foundation or Unitarian Universalists. But the rarity of these exceptions proves the rule.

There are many reasons for this. First of all, I will guess that the participants at the ECSE meeting were disproportionately “unaffiliated,” probably with more than a fair share of “atheists and agnostics.” Another Pew study from 2009 tells us that scientists as a group (represented by AAAS members) are much less religious than the general public, although I’ve heard elsewhere that this is less true for engineers and doctors. It is also likely that science communicators are less religious than the general public. But even so, personal religious or spiritual identification (or lack thereof) doesn't mean that the religion as a topic need be avoided. By comparison, the fact that most of the attendees at the Cambridge meeting were white didn't prevent us from discussing the relative absence of people of color.

So what is happening? A process of secularization and anti-clericalism that started in the 18th century has clearly grown to the point where avoidance of religion as a topic has become the norm in many circles. This is exacerbated by the fact that there are many challenging topics at the boundary between science and certain religions. Topics such as evolution, miracles, and a literal interpretation of scripture can spark seemingly unresolvable conflicts, leading to fatigue and dismissal on both sides. Militancy, be it fundamentalist and religious or materialist and atheist, has left many wary of engaging in these border skirmishes. The result is a modern-day taboo, part conscious choice and part unconscious cultural habit, that ensures that religion is rarely discussed in many intellectual circles. 

I propose that we, as science communicators, take another look at this taboo. Do we really want to endorse an avoidance of religious perspectives that borders on prohibition? Are we comfortable with the demographics and politics implicit in this taboo? Is it defensible to exclude a whole field of human discourse given the inclusive goals of today’s science engagement? Each of us may come to different conclusions about these questions, but at least opening up the topic within our field could lead to productive insights and new strategies for science engagement.

I can understand why there might need to be a boundary between religious and scientific discourses at the formal, professional level where scientific research is practiced: call it a separation of church and laboratory. I can’t, however, justify the separation of religion/spirituality from public science engagement. When we ask ourselves how science fits into and contributes to the larger cultural landscape, ignoring religion seems at best incomplete and at worst ideologically blind. When 90% of Americans are religious or spiritual, how can we be effective in talking about cosmology, mystery, emotion, awe, meaning-making or personal relevance without acknowledging or dialoguing with the spiritual? How can our rhetoric about democratizing science be serious if science education entirely sidesteps the beliefs of 90% of Americans? This is even more troubling when you consider that the Pew study also tells us that many demographic groups that are under-represented in science, such as women, African Americans and Latinos, are more religiously inclined than their white male counterparts.

The taboo against religion and spirituality seems especially indefensible when we want to address applied, technological topics that require broad human action and moral choices. Unless we fundamentally rewire 90% of Americans, religion and spirituality will remain a key element of decision-making in domains as diverse as sexuality, dying, legal and illegal drugs, pollution, and climate change. Morality can be tricky to negotiate among people with different belief systems, but I don’t think we have any choice. To hope for purely factual, rational resolutions of moral conflicts, unpolluted by spiritual or religious sensibilities, seems naïve at best. Wouldn't we be smarter to acknowledge that such beliefs serve as key heuristics in human decision-making and allow them a respectful place at the table? 

Personally, I belong in the “spiritual but not religious” camp. Although raised as a Christian, I was never comfortable with the emphasis on theistic scripture. I left the church as soon as I was allowed to. But even then I maintained a sense of cosmological wonder and an interest in spiritual, meditative states. I followed these sensibilities into science education and the arts, while still keeping a mostly respectful attitude towards human spiritual impulses. Now, later in life, I even find myself returning to some religious teachings and practices. In so doing I am integrating disparate parts of my education and cultural background. I assume that many others are on a similar journey. Which leads me to wonder whether a greater quantity and diversity of people would be drawn toward scientific ways of knowing if the path for integrating religion and science were better understood and more well-traveled.

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Tom Rockwell

Thomas Rockwell is director of the Exhibits and Media Studio at the Exploratorium. He leads the group that is responsible for exhibit development at the museum and globally, as well as the web, editorial, and design departments. He was responsible for overseeing the planning and design of the exhibit galleries for the Exploratorium's 2013 move to Pier 15/17 on San Francisco's Embarcadero. Also at the Exploratorium, Tom was principal investigator for the Geometry Playground exhibition, and coprincipal investigator for the Science in the Stacks collaboration with the Queens Borough Public Library. Training in the visual arts at Brown University and a lifelong interest in combining art and science led Tom to work first as an educator in science museums (Franklin Institute and Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia), and then as a designer and construction coordinator of community-built science parks and playgrounds (Leathers and Associates, based in Ithaca, New York). In 1995, Tom founded Painted Universe, Inc., where projects included traveling exhibitions such as It’s a Nano World (with the Ithaca Science Center and Cornell University), The Enchanted Museum: Exploring the Science of Art (with the Berkshire Museum), and illustrations for The Elegant Universe by Brian Green. Tom has been at the Exploratorium since 2005.