What Does it Mean to be “Pro-Science”? (and Why it Matters for Space Exploration)

Space exploration has been in the headlines over the past few weeks—including the Philae lander’s touchdown on Comet 67P (and its apparent discovery of organic molecules), NASA’s successful test flight of the next-generation spacecraft Orion, and the release and success of Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster space travel film, Interstellar. While once motivated by national self-interest, the exploration of outer space today seems to be more about pure science and our drive to understand our place in the cosmos.

We know religion influences how people understand science policy. Might religious variables, including belonging, behavior, and belief, also matter for space exploration? I argue, from original scientific analysis, that they definitely do. I analyzed reputable survey data (the General Social Survey & three Pew surveys) and presented the resulting research on religious influences on space policy attitudes at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion meeting in November 2014. My findings show that there is a clear “separation between church and space”—that some “Christians [are not] on-board with space exploration”.

In this post, I argue that Evangelical Protestants are the most apprehensive religious group on space policy and that this hesitation to support the study of the universe is, in part, linked to church leaders’ views of science in general. Because science means different things to different Christians, I also engage with the title question: what does it mean to be pro-science? For me, it means an appreciation of the natural (Earth and beyond) and social worlds, a mature understanding of faith in the light of reason, and an acceptance of scientific consensus on most matters for which I lack expertise.

Evangelicals are skeptical of space exploration

I find that Evangelical Protestants are, across the board, less interested in and supportive of space exploration than other types of Christians and followers of other world religions; but that positive messages from clergy—about science in general—can limit this opposition. Evangelicals—defined as born again Protestants—are lower than the population as a whole on nearly all measures of support for space exploration across four independent data sources. Evangelicals are much surer Jesus will return in the next 40 years (the period defined by the survey question) than that humanity will make significant strides in space exploration over this time (e.g., land an astronaut on Mars or discover life elsewhere in the universe). As for other religious traditions, Jews and members of Eastern traditions stand out as the most attentive and supportive while Catholics and Mainline Protestants occupy the middle ground. Not only does religious belonging matter, but measures of religious behaviors and beliefs do too. Regular church attendance and measures of traditional religious belief, like high views of the Bible and belief in creationism, are negatively correlated with most facets of support for space exploration.

But in an interesting twist, the support of one’s clergy member(s) for science exerts a significant positive effect on support among Evangelicals—making them twice as likely to recognize the benefits of space exploration if they perceive their pastor(s) speaking positively about science in general. If an Evangelical’s pastor speaks negatively about science, the probability of agreeing with the statement “space exploration does more good than harm” is less than one-half. If an Evangelical’s pastor speaks positively, the probability doubles to nearly 100%. Both probabilities hold other factors, like socio-demographics, constant. Clearly, a perception that one’s clergy member is “anti-science” leads to negative views about science policy, including space exploration.

The meaning of “pro-science”

As a scholar of religion and politics, a subfield of political science, I applied our discipline’s understanding of religion to a unique policy issue: space exploration. I used reputable data and statistical methods to arrive at the above conclusions. Several of the people writing comments on Jonathan Merritt’s article in The Week, or when it was shared on social media, said variants of “I never realized [Evangelical] Christians were ‘off-board’ with it.” Neither did I! That’s the beauty of the scientific method—it allows us to test our assumptions about the world, natural or social, and arrive at new knowledge.

The survey questions used to create the “clergy science support” variable ask about whether (a) clergy members speak about science, and (b) the nature of those messages—positive, negative, or neutral. My use of these questions relates my work to the contemporary “social networking” approach to religion and politics. That is, I attempted to control for the nature of science messages shared in church and to identify the implications for interest and policy views. How might survey respondents have interpreted these questions about the nature of science messages delivered from the pulpit? This highlights the difficulty of doing social science: how do we get inside people’s heads? Survey questions try to do this with careful wording in a “one size fits all” way that, to be honest, cannot overcome all challenges. One can imagine Catholics, for example, reflecting on their priest’s messages about stem cell research. Members of Eastern traditions, which display the highest knowledge, interest, and support of space, may have reflected on cosmic elements of their beliefs that mesh well with scientific views of space. What did Evangelicals think of when they heard these questions?

As an Evangelical myself, I’ve never heard a blatant anti-science (or even anti-evolution) sermon. Instead, anti-science perceptions are shaped by covert phrases that the faithful will understand, such as suggestions that “secular science” teaches that life developed “from goo to you by way of the zoo”. In other words, even when not fully spelled out, parishioners often understand the intent behind insinuations made from the pulpit. These messages may reinforce or question the audience’s preexisting beliefs about whether the acceptance of a scientific outlook necessitates an embrace of secular materialism. How would I have answered these questions? I would have recalled the times that my minister has made these subtle criticisms of secular scientific worldviews, but I would have also remembered the times he has praised science in general and described his personal interests in scientific knowledge. I’m not sure which response I would give. Which would you choose? My hesitance to make a choice—and maybe yours too—makes it even more interesting that I found such powerful results. Those who chose “negative” have, in some way, internalized a culture that downplays the value of science—and this has influenced their science policy views. I liken this process to social theorist Steven Lukes’ theory of power whereby our preferences are subconsciously shaped by the social institutions with which we interact.

What does it—or should it mean—for a Christian to be “pro-science”? For me, it means an appreciation of the importance of carefully studying the natural and social worlds, a mature understanding of the role of reason in the life of faith, and an openness to—if not full acceptance of—the scientific consensus on matters for which I lack expertise. All believers will likely accept the first two tenants—with, of course, varying interpretations. All Christians have faith and, I would think, believe their faith is reasonable. The latter tenant is the hardest to swallow for many Christians. It requires an acceptance that the scientific processes of observation, peer-review, and replication result in a consensus in any given area of inquiry (such as the origins of species or climate change, for examples) that is as close as we can get to fact. My “faith” in science is not centered on scientists themselves but on the scientific process. Sure, this process can be corrupted and misguided—but in the end, I have to trust that God’s created cosmos is meant to be understood by his created beings. Genesis tells me that God does not want us to be in the dark—“Let there be light!”

My research implies that Christian leaders and scientists, particularly space scientists, have to work harder to sell the importance of their work to the broader Christian tradition, particularly Evangelicals. Engaging with my findings, Jonathan Merritt did a great job making the case for space to all Christians. The kind of thoughtful discourse I envision is happening and can be successful at demonstrating science’s benefits to church leaders—see any of the work BioLogos is doing and also the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Perceptions Project. Perhaps you or I need to make a conscious effort to expand this kind of work into the space sciences—astronomy, astrophysics, astrobiology, and astronautics. I welcome your thoughts on how to accomplish this outreach successfully.

As believers in the gospel of Jesus Christ and our God-given ability to understand creation scientifically, let us continue to do the good work of promoting both our faith and our scientific outlooks. If my data is any indication, support for science by church leaders can go a long way in lessening antagonism toward science among believers.

Methodological addendum

My data sources are all publically available, random-sample surveys of the U.S. adult population. If you’re interested you can look the surveys up at the following links, download each, and analyze the data yourself: the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago’s 2010 General Social Survey and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press’ June 2011 Political Survey, the April 2010 Political and Future Survey, and the April-May 2009 General Public Science Survey. These datasets were chosen because they all include questions about both space and religion, code variables in the same or similar ways, and were administered around the same time (a roughly two year period) in the recent past.