What do religious Americans really think about science? We recently concluded a five-year study to find out. Our study included a survey of over 10,000 Americans, in depth interviews with over 300 individuals, and visits to mosques, churches, and synagogues. The findings from this endeavor were recently published in our new book, Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think (Oxford University Press, 232 pages, $29.95).
While the book presents results on a wide range of issues, one of the consistent themes that comes from our data is that Americans’ approach to science is shaped by two fundamental questions: First, what does science mean for the existence and activity of God? And second, what does science mean for the sacredness of humanity?
Contrary to popular media and pundit opinion, we found through our survey and interviews that religious people love a lot of things about science. The large majority of individuals across all religious groups in our survey said that there will be more opportunities for future generations because of science. Indeed, religious individuals–compared to the non religious–were not disproportionately likely to report negative attitudes about science. For instance, only 14 percent of evangelical Christians, a group often pointed to as disliking science the most, said in our survey that science does more harm than good. This does not differ from the percentage seen among all respondents. Similarly, individuals perceive conflicts only with the forms of science that seem to have implications for God’s role in the world and the value and sacredness of humanity.
We saw this dynamic play out in a number of specific issues. For instance, many people might at first claim to be young-Earth creationists, but in fact they are actually much more open to different narratives about the origin of the world and the development of life on earth than this initial label might suggest. In our survey we offered several different narratives concerning the origins of the world and development of life; we then asked individuals to rate how likely each narrative is to be true. We found that only 27 percent of individuals are willing to pick only one narrative and state that it is definitely true. Rather than being committed to any particular details about the age of the earth or even the role of evolution, the most important issue for many people is the potential for God to have a role in the world and their lives.
Similarly, we found that religious people are also supportive of technological advancements, including ideas that are typically controversial like human genetic reproductive technologies and human embryonic stem cell research, but religious individuals, and especially evangelical Christians, do want scientists to reflect more on what this work means for how we think of humanity’s special nature and role.
Beyond trying to understand the broad factors that influence how religious Americans think about science, our book also offers suggestions for how to improve relations between scientific and religious communities. Indeed, such relationships can be mutually beneficial, by increasing support for science as well as, helping the natural world, and the people in it.
Here we highlight two central suggestions. The first is to recognize the many shared interests and goals of the scientific and religious communities. Many religious communities are greatly interested in science that has the potential to improve the wellbeing of humanity and society as a whole. To the extent that scientists can connect their work to those goals, they will often be able to harness the support of communities of faith.
Our second suggestion is to recognize that, in addition to having overlapping interests, the religious and scientific communities also have overlapping membership. Several studies, including some of our own, have shown that scientists working in universities are much less religious than the general US population. These gaps in religious identity, however, are much smaller if we broaden our lens beyond PhD-level university professors. For example, about 12 percent of evangelicals in our survey said that they are working in a scientific occupation. This is only slightly less than the 14 percent we find when looking at all of our survey respondents.
In sum, those sitting in the pews are likely sitting amongst individuals who are engaged in work that has some scientific components, and those working in jobs that engage with some scientific components are likely working amongst individuals who are religious. Recognizing this reality could go a long way toward decreasing conflict and increasing collaboration.