Science and Religion: Mixed Results

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December 14, 2011 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now

Today's entry was written by Rusty Pritchard. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Science and Religion: Mixed Results

Today's article comes courtesy of Q.

Science and religion are at war. Or, at least that’s the impression you might get from bloggers who watch the spectacle of Republican primary candidate debates. Columnists at the New York Times and the Washington Post are up-in-arms at the hostility toward, and ignorance of, science on the part of the candidates, who seem to be vying to outdo each other in their anti-intellectualism. Some want to lay the blame for the Republican Party’s anti-science lurch at the feet of evangelical religion, using the statements of Republican candidates as a sign of attitudes in conservative churches. But evidence from a number of recent sociological studies indicates that the picture is a lot more complicated.

John H. Evans, professor of sociology in the UC San Diego Division of Social Sciences, wrote about his recent research in the Los Angeles Times, where he compared conservative Protestants—regular church attenders who take the Bible literally—and those who don’t admit to any religious participation. He concludes:

The conservative Protestants are equally likely to understand scientific methods, to know scientific facts and to claim knowledge of science. They are as likely as the nonreligious to have majored in science or to have a scientific occupation. While other studies have shown that the elite scientists who work at the 20 top research universities are less religious than the public, it appears that the vast majority of people with workaday scientific occupations are like their neighbors, religiously speaking.

Evans concluded that church-going conservative Protestants at the grassroots don’t at all sound like Rick Perry or Michelle Bachman or Rick Santorum on questions of science. For Evans, the seeming conflict between science and religion is much more over values that over facts. He even argues that the evangelical rejection of evolutionary theory isn’t a sign of being anti-science.

Science and Religion are Friends

Some support for the argument that religious people actually see compatibility between science and religion comes from Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and Furman sociologist Kyle Longest, who just published a paper showing that 18-29 year olds are more integrative in the way they view science and religion (Sociological Forum, behind a firewall). As quoted by Rod Dreher at The American Conservative, Smith and Longest find the following:

Most clearly, high religiousness, in the form of importance of faith, frequently reading scriptures, and committing to live one’s life for God, increases the likelihood that emerging adults agree that religion and science are compatible and not in conflict. Counter to the prevailing wisdom on highly religious youth, emerging adults who are more religious are not less but more likely to believe that religion and science can be integrated. Interestingly, attending a Protestant high school, often portrayed as being the training ground for religiously sectarian or militant youth . . . is one of the strongest predictors of the integration perspective, as these emerging adults are extremely likely to agree that religion and science are compatible and their faith has been strengthened by science, as well as being significantly unlikely to agree that the two are in conflict. This shared context appears to have created a cognitive norm of viewing religion and science as potentially symbiotic, rather than overtly hostile to each other. These emerging adults are able to maintain the authority of religion by finding a harmony between faith and science.

(Dreher’s column is worth reading in full…)

Another study showing that religiosity leads to harmony between science and religion comes from Baylor University, where researcher Aaron Franzen finds that increased frequency of Bible reading is tied to, among other things, improved attitudes toward science. “Respondents were 22 percent less likely to view religion and science as incompatible at each step toward more frequent Bible reading,” according to David Briggs, who reported the Baylor study for Association of Religion Data Archives. (Interestingly, higher rates of Bible reading were also correlated with greater support for social and economic justice, simple lifestyles, humane treatment of criminals, and with lower support for abortion, same-sex unions, the death penalty, and the expansion of the war on terrorism.)

Are Evangelicals Science-Friendly but still Ignorant?

Set against those salutary findings is evidence that conservative religion goes along with decreased science literacy, as measured by a standard large-scale survey of Americans conducted since 1972, which, since 2006, has contained a standard set of elementary (mostly true-false) science questions (“True or false: All radioactivity is man-made” or “True or false: Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria”).

Darren Sherkat of Southern Illinois University analyzed the results (paper in Social Science Quarterly —behind a firewall). He threw out questions relating to hot-button issues for religious conservatives, like evolution, but kept in questions on the big bang and continental drift. Even when they got a pass on evolution questions, Sherkat found that sectarian Protestants (that is, evangelicals), Catholics, and fundamentalists scored significantly lower than secular Americans on the basic science literacy quiz. He controlled for variables like low educational attainment, income disadvantages, ethnicity, and regional effects (like being in the South), and still found that conservative religious affiliation drove scores down. Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education found the same thing.

Is there a way to reconcile these seemingly disparate results? Could it be that increased bible reading and other signs of religiosity really do drive greater thoughtfulness and a deeper appreciation for science? Does reading the Bible regularly build a more expansive and integrative worldview than merely holding to evangelical beliefs? In that case, the reports about lower science literacy might be due to individuals who give lip-service to orthodox beliefs, but who don’t put them into practice (cultural Christians, as it were). The Baylor study mentioned above did find a divide between those who read the Bible a lot and those who believed it to be literally true but who didn’t read it.

A less favorable interpretation is that those Christians who find compatibility between science and their faith are picking and choosing which bits of science they consider “science,” or even that they confuse science and technology.

  1. How does the actual practice of Christianity influence your own view of the compatibility of science and faith?
  2. Does your growing faith cause you to be more accommodating or more critical of scientific findings?

Editor's Note: This image is of NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory snap of a very young and powerful pulsar.

Rusty Pritchard is the CEO of Flourish, a ministry that equips Christians to engage the world of environmental science and action. He holds a Ph.D. in natural resource economics and a masters degree in systems ecology.

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HornSpiel - #66566

December 14th 2011

The Dreher article mentioned above concludes:

Or you could say, as the researchers suggest, that they have come to
define “religion” and “science” in nontraditional ways that allow for
the possibility that the two have something useful to say to each other.

This is exactly what I was thinking also. I think the ID movement’s popularity is an example of people reconciling faith and science by redefinition. The reality is that science literacy is abysmal in this country. I really do not see evangelicals going into science in any way near the numbers they should, it it really is about learning about Gods Creation.

Another interesting quote from the Dreher article:

In other words, it is possible that the non-religious may be effectively discouraging religious believers from choosing a vocation
in the sciences, even though the believers see no reason why they can’t
be religiously observant and good scientists.

This rings true to me. I do think some scientists do not trust religious people to be good scientists. (One can  look at the distrust in some quarters to Francis Collins becoming  NIH director.) Why this is so I can only speculate. But it is certainly legitimate concern.

For me, my faith causes me to consider both science as human endeavors prone to error and human weaknesses. So yes I am more critical of science because of my faith. Not so much of the findings themselves though, but of unwarranted extensions of those findings into areas of values, morality and religion.

On balance I believe that faith and science are complementary views into creation so they must be compatible. At the same time I try to avoid applying conclusions from one to the other too hastily. I am comfortable with some tension because I see that tension on the periphery of my faith, not at the core.

James R - #66703

December 20th 2011


“I think the ID movement’s popularity is an example of people reconciling faith and science by redefinition.”

Your meaning is not clear.  Which supporters of ID “reconcile faith and science by redefinition”?  And what do they redefine, and how do they redefine it?  

Most ID supporters I know support the classic understanding of science (e.g., Newton) and (depending on confessional ties) one of the classic understandings of faith (Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, Cranmer, Hodge, Machen, etc.).  And they see these things as being in harmony.  I don’t see that they redefine anything.

HornSpiel - #66765

December 23rd 2011

Sorry for taking so long to respond.

I think ID redefines science by advocating for design as an explanatory dimension to scientific theory. Essentially this going back to including Final causes, or tetological explanations in science. Modern science does not allow this. Ian Hutchinson expresses this idea in a recent essay as follows:

Aristotle’s science depended upon Final Causes, even for inanimate
objects. In modern science the effects follow the causes in accordance
with the impersonal, reproducible dictates of natural laws, not because
there is any aim in view but because of a specific microscopic causal
chain. Seeking Efficient Causes is the modus operandi of science.

I am not saying ID is exactly going back to Aristotelian science, but that ID does not accept the current “the modus operandi of science.” This, I contend, is a fundamental redefinition of science.

btw: I think that Newton’s science though it may be “classic”, to the extent that He proposed divine explanations for certain phenomenon, is not modern.

Jon Garvey - #66769

December 23rd 2011


Design is an efficient cause, not a final cause, surely. Hutchinson has already excluded all the human sciences from his definition, which is suspect. But just as excluding design from consideration in human artifacts would give a truncated and misleading view, so if there is a designer it will do so in natural science.

Where design is present, it is generally the most important factor: how this post was made is less significant than that it was planned. It would be legitimate to study the electronics, the informatics and so on - but only with the tacit acknowledgement that it is a teleological artefact. Without that, it’s not been understood at all.

James R - #66773

December 23rd 2011

Thank you, Hornspiel.

I suspected this was what you had in mind.  And yes, Hutchinson would agree.  Note, however, that when challenged here by some historically informed critics, he has not showed up to answer objections to his statements.

It is partly misleading to say that ID does not accept the current modus operandi of science.  It is more correct to say that ID believes that some of the methods of certain modern sciences—archaeology, forensic science, cryptography, etc.—have application to other modern sciences—including biology.  People like Dr. Hutchinson put up an iron wall of separation between two different types of modern science, as if the insights of one would contaminate the other.

If you are referring to Newton’s proposal of the need for periodic divine adjustments to the solar system, I have already given an adequate answer regarding that to beaglelady.  Newton’s view on that was not central to his thinking.  Even the parts of Newton you would consider “modern science” (because they don’t invoke such a tinkering God) allow for teleological reasoning.  Again, read the General Scholium.  He says that we can infer something of God through his effects—and by effects, he is not referring to divine interventions in natural processes, but rather, to the character of the natural processes themselves.  This is what ID people do, infer the existence of intelligent design from the character of biological processes.

We can quarrel over mere words, or we can get to the substance.  It is true that “modern science” as you define it generally excludes teleological reasoning.  But in calling for the return of a limited application of teleological reasoning, ID is hardly calling for witchcraft, phrenology, and tea-leaf reading.  It is returning in some respects to the richer, broader notion of “science” that preceded Descartes and Bacon.  It is saying that “modern science” will often give inadequate explanations of nature by failing to discuss the role of design.

If you merely want to win the current culture-war battle, you can stick with the narrow definition of “modern science” and you will get more votes than ID people will, because most modern scientists and their journalistic admirers will agree with you.  But if you are concerned to understand the truth about nature, you will consider whether modern science in the narrow sense can give an adequate account of nature.  ID people are concerned first and foremost with understanding nature, and think that “science” should be scrapped or modified if it fails to do justice to nature; people like Dr. Hutchinson think that we should make “nature” conform to a definition of “science” that is convenient for modern scientists.  (And I’m not making that up; he said it directly, and when challenged on that point by jon garvey and myself, he has remained silent.)  I’m more concerned with explaining nature than with preserving a particular human activity called “modern science.”

But even if, for the sake of argument, I granted that ID achieves harmony between science and theology by redefining science, what about TE?  It achieves harmony by redefining Christian theology.  Many of the statements about God,  Christ, the Bible, providence, etc. made by TEs are heretical or at least border on heresy; and on TE websites the only Biblical exegesis you see presented is Biblical exegesis which acknowledges Enlightenment premises about God’s action and about the character of the Biblical text.  How many times have statements been made here about what orthodox thinkers like Calvin and C. S. Lewis thought, and been challenged by people who know those writers?  And why is it that those challenges are never answered here?

Merry Christmas, Hornspiel.

Jon Garvey - #66582

December 15th 2011


You write: This rings true to me. I do think some scientists do not trust religious
people to be good scientists. (One can  look at the distrust in some
quarters to Francis Collins becoming  NIH director.) Why this is so I
can only speculate. But it is certainly legitimate concern.

I guess there are only two possible explanations for this. The first is that there is some peer-reviewed evidence that Christians make poor scientists, which could no doubt be cited.

The other is that the scientists you mention bring an irrational prejudice to their assessment of their religious peers severe enough to cloud their judgment of the latter’s work. Such a profound intellectual bias certainly would be a cause for concern.

Larry Rudd - #66690

December 20th 2011

You wrote: “For me, my faith causes me to consider both science as human endeavors prone to error and human weaknesses.
Is this thought you have about this subject also prone to error?

Admittedly, hostility toward “science” and “scientists” is a very real phenomenon in some evangelical circles. So are big purple hairdo’s and slapping people in the forehead on TV for money to “heal” them. Christians and unbelievers have erred in the past and will continue to do so until Judgment Day. The mistake made in this regard is to paint with a broad brush, the whole enterprise of science, by using the interpretation of creation by non-believers as a means to categorically demonize the investigation of it. On the flip side, there is a scientific community dominated by people who are blessed by God with profound intellects (and yet do not glorify Him for that) which are rank unbelievers that have been successful in the 20th Century at redefining the enterprise of science as only valid if it originates from a purely naturalistic world view.

Even scientifically literate Christians successfully take the bait and pursue the arguments in a myriad of unproductive ways while the opponents sit back and intractably stick to the party line that their definition of science must originate from a naturalistic world view.

Some try to find a middle ground and capitulate important theologically orthodox truth in order to create a hybrid, naturalistic/theological view that is rejected by naturalists and heretical enough to render their religious view meaningless (i.e. biologos.)

Science should

be the study of the creation that God has made. My view is not changed, even though I will happily accept the science used by an unbelieving heart surgeon as he or she takes my heart out of my chest and puts it back again. It does not change the fact that what should be the case isn’t what always is the case.

Melding naturalism with Christianity by integrating macro evolution into theology and denying a millennium of orthodoxy is not the answer. It still makes you a disregarded laughing stock in scientific circles while simultaneously joining a long line of heretics in the history of Christianity.

HornSpiel - #66768

December 23rd 2011


I realize that I left a couple would out of the sentence you quoted above. I meant to write:  “For me, my faith causes me to consider both science and theology as human endeavors prone to error and human weaknesses.” And yes I do consider that statement prone to error. The fact that I left out two words proves it!

I think though that you are blaming science for rampant 20th century scientism, rather than addressing the root causes that affect scientists and scientific culture, which are spiritual. Although it may seem expedient to address this issue by seeking to make science god-friendly by introducing “design,” this strategy has lots of pitfalls. These include:

  • God-of -the-gap explanations that are science-stoppers.
  • Sectarian science
  • Making an unnecessary and theologically unsound differentiation between “natural law” and God at work.
This last point is reflected in your statement:



be the study of the creation that God has made.

A far better strategy, it seems to me, is to affirm science and theology as complementary ways of understanding the same reality. That all truth is god’s truth. If our understanding of one seems to contradict our understanding of the other, it is a problem with our scientific or theological interpretations of the data and/or Scripture.

Case in point: Science is a good corrective (reality check) for Young Earth Creationism, which is not at all orthodox. It is, in fact, a result of Seventh-Day Adventist Ellen White’s mid-nineteenth century visions. Science guides us back, many believe, to a more orthodox understanding of Creation and Genesis.

Science is the study of the Creation, whether or not the scientist doing it believes it or not—-if you believe as I do, that natural laws are God at work sustaining the universe.

RE: your last paragraph. I simply disagree.  Lets be careful and not throw around the word heretic lightly. Even if you are not directing that at me personally, you seem to be smearing the character many Christian scientists.

Larry Rudd - #66692

December 20th 2011

For clarification, the “you” in my last sentence is intended to be taken generally and not directed specifically at you personally.

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