Book Review: Why Science and Faith Need Each Other by Elaine Howard Ecklund


There is no shortage of books addressing the interaction between science and faith. But Why Science and Faith Need Each Other by Elaine Howard Ecklund is truly unique. Most books on this topic approach it from either a philosophical or historical perspective. Ecklund, however, tackles the science and faith dialogue from a sociological perspective, emphasizing group dynamics rather than isolated ideas. While the contents of the book are from her academic research, Ecklund has made the discussions easily accessible to those with no academic training or prior experience with the topic.

Part 1: Building Blocks

Ecklund opens by laying the cards on the table. It is no surprise that a perception of conflict between science and faith ahs led to problems within Christian communities, including people leaving the faith altogether. This phenomenon is especially prominent in evangelical communities. But in this book Ecklund aims to show how the core virtues that underpin science are similar to those that underpin the Christian faith. Furthermore, she hopes to encourage both communities of people to recognize that common ground.

It is also no surprise that many Christians feel a sense of discomfort when it comes to engaging with science. Ecklund discusses several interviews and studies that she has conducted revealing that this experience is largely shared across denominations, though, in varying degrees. What is surprising, however, is that despite the feeling that scientists can treat those of faith unfairly, the bulk of Christians actually believe that science and faith can work together. To this end, Ecklund recounts testimony after testimony of how congregations have successfully integrated science and faith by engaging directly with scientists they could trust – often from within the congregation.

Ecklund wastes little time before addressing the elephant in the room: evolution. Whenever science and faith are discussed together, this topic will come up. Through her research, Ecklund has found that ther’s a wide array of views on evolution from within Christian communities. Some accept evolution as sufficient with little to no involvement from God guiding the process. Others, however, reject it entirely. Those in this latter group provide various reasons for doing so, but the most prominent reason given is the impact those individuals believe evolution would have on the idea of humans being made in the Image of God. Nevertheless, many scientists have figured out ways to align evolution and their faith, and Ecklund has found it helpful for those with doubts about evolution to listen to what these scientists have to say.

Part 2: Process

In the second section, Ecklund dives into the discussion of shared virtues between science and faith. The first is: curiosity. This is an unsurprising virtue of science since science is all about investigating the world and answering questions. But many don’t see this as a virtue of faith. In fact, the reason people often give for seeing conflict between science and faith is having effectively been punished for their curiosity within the faith community. Nevertheless, Ecklund shows how curiosity is essential to both science and faith, and therefore a shared virtue.

When people think about science, the idea of doubt often comes to mind. Science is viewed as a place where doubt is essential. In contrast, many Christians fear doubt. But Ecklund identifies doubt as the second shared virtue between science and faith. Through her research, she has found that when Christians experience doubt – particularly doubt arising from the sciences – but were given the opportunity to wrestle with it within the confines of the church, the doubt ultimately produced a more mature faith. So whether in science or in faith, when doubt is handled correctly, it leads to deeper understanding.

In the reverse scenario, humility is a virtue often identified in Christian circles, but not so much when talking about scientists. Nevertheless, Ecklund points out how humility is really just the willingness to listen to others and the openness to being wrong. It is a recognition that nobody has everything figured out. With that understanding, humility is not only an essential characteristic of both Christianity and science, it becomes a bridge between the two.

The next virtue Ecklund discusses is that of creativity. With that said, her approach to this discussion is different from the previous three. Instead of talking generally about how the virtue is exemplified in both Christianity and science, she discusses how the act of creating life is a significant way Christians participate in God’s creation. Ecklund points out how this leads many Christians to avoid talking about infertility issues – issues for which science helps provide the solution.

Part 3: Redemption

The world is plagued with suffering. To this Ecklund responds by exploring the Christian’s imperative to alleviate suffering – to bring healing. Medical technology has been and will continue to be used to help accomplish this task of healing. In a sense, Ecklund’s point is to encourage her readers to consider the moral benefit the world may have by ending certain means of suffering. But in reality, much of the discussion reads like an apologetic for human embryonic stem cell research, which will likely be a turn off for many readers.

Christians who practice science often report an extreme sense of awe when they study the world. This, Ecklund argues, is in line with the attitude that scripture teaches we ought to have toward God’s creation. What she notes, however, is that non-religious scientists report similar experiences of awe as their religious counterparts. Even though they don’t hold to specific religious doctrines related to the creation of the world, they see the beauty in the world and find value in studying this. Unfortunately, few Christians outside the sciences see the value in studying the world for the sake of studying the world – instead preferring science as a means to an end. It is here that Ecklund suggests scientists can help expose those in the church to the awe-inspiring aspects of the world.

Ecklund identifies “shalom” as the next virtue of both science and faith. By this she means the peace and harmony resulting from when the world is allowed to flourish. This concept is what many scientists describe as their main motivation for the work that they do. To put it simply, they want to make the world a better place. Ecklund connects this to mankind’s calling to be stewards of the earth according to Christianity. This idea of stewardship is what leads many Christian scientists to focus on the work they do. That is, they see science as their calling.

Bringing the book to a close, Ecklund identifies the role gratitude plays in both scientific and religious communities. Those in religious communities often experience gratitude toward God for the opportunities they have. Those in scientific communities experience gratitude for their opportunities as well, though this is not necessarily directed toward a God. What is the same, however, is that both groups express gratitude for the way science has improved the quality of life through medical advancements and they express gratitude toward religious communities for improving quality of life from a social perspective. In both cases, gratitude is a virtue that helps improve the quality of life and the quality of work of those who experience it.

Final Thoughts

Overall, Why Science and Faith Need Each Other is a book worth reading. This is especially true for pastors and church leaders. While there will surely be some areas of disagreement for most readers, this book contains essential insights into how to effectively lead a religious community that embraces science instead of hiding from it. Given the hostility many believe exists between science and faith, successfully integrating the two is one of the most important challenges that any congregation needs to overcome. That task will be made much easier thanks to this book.

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