Jonathan P. Hill
 on November 03, 2015

What the New Pew Study Actually Reveals

The unaffiliated believe the conflict about science and religion to be mostly “out there,” while Evangelicals mostly believe the conflict is an in-house affair.


What Americans believe about science and religion—and evolution in particular—is of intense interest to both Christian and secular communities, judging by the number of popular articles that appear when results of a new study are released.  When Calvin College sociologist Jonathan Hill published his BioLogos-funded National Study of Religion and Human Origins last year, the results were covered by The AtlanticChristianity Today (Jan/Feb 2015 print issue), Huffington, and over a dozen well-known blogs.  Hill’s work carries academic weight among sociologists of religion, but he also helpfully brings to the public square some much-needed nuance to the often-oversimplified picture of conflict.  We invited Hill to comment on the new Pew study released in late October; below he points out what the study tells us and where further questions are needed.  

A new study released by Pew finds that 59 percent of Americans believe science and religion are “often in conflict.” This is consistent with other national surveys in the past few years—most affirm that slight majorities side with the conflict position. The survey question itself is vague though. What do people mean when they say they believe in conflict? Is this a fundamental epistemological conflict about how we gain knowledge about the world? Or is this a narrow conflict about one or two substantive issues? When people say there is conflict, do they believe this conflict is inherent in the nature of science and religion, or do they mean that scientists or religious leaders are stepping out of bounds and engaging in conflict when there should be none? Elsewhere I have used survey data to parse some of these distinctions, arguing that people are almost certainly imputing multiple meanings to this question. We simply need additional questions to better map what people mean when they think about the interaction of science and religion.

Although the Pew survey cannot settle all of these questions, it does include an additional survey item that lets us better understand the following question: When people respond that science and religion are in conflict, do they mean that their personal religious beliefs are in conflict with science, or do they mean that others’ beliefs are in conflict? The results seem to suggest that both are happening. For example, although 44 percent of white Evangelicals1 say they believe science and religion are “often in conflict” (15 percentage points lower than the national average), fully 40 percent report that science sometimes conflicts with their own religious belief (10 percentage points higher than the national average). This means that most Evangelicals are probably thinking about their own religious beliefs when they answer the conflict survey question.2

The unaffiliated, on the other hand, are more likely than the national average to report that religion and science are “often in conflict” (76 percent), while simultaneously being less likely to say that their own religious beliefs are sometimes in conflict with science (16 percent). For the unaffiliated there is a 60 percent gap between these questions; for white Evangelicals this gap is only 4 percent. These are some remarkable differences. We can safely read this as meaning that the unaffiliated believe the conflict to be mostly “out there,” while Evangelicals mostly believe the conflict is an in-house affair.

Two Conflict Stories

As part of the National Study of Religion and Human Origins (NSRHO), I concluded that there are really two different narratives driving this belief in conflict—one more likely to be adopted by Evangelicals and the other more likely to be adopted by the unaffiliated. For some Evangelicals the belief in a conflict—especially the conflict over human origins—is a clear dividing line between trusting in God (and what God has said in the Bible) and trusting in “man.” Sociologically speaking, such lines can actually strengthen and clarify the boundaries of a group’s identity.3 Those who are incredulous at the high rates of creationism in the United States often fail to understand these sociological dynamics. For most people, rejecting evolution has more to do with identity and belonging than intellectual arguments.

The second conflict narrative is more likely to be adopted by those who distance themselves from organized religion. When the NSRHO asked why it was important to have certain beliefs about human origins, the unaffiliated frequently responded with statements about the superiority of science and rationality over faith and superstition. The conflict, for this group, is characterized by the belief that science needs to replace religion. Religion is dangerous because it stands in the way of scientific progress, and scientific progress is our only hope for the future of humanity.

Both of these narratives are problematic for the position that BioLogos holds. The careful study of the natural world should not be so easily dismissed if one believes God speaks through nature. It’s not a simple matter of what God says versus what “man” says. Likewise, putting a salvific hope in science, and believing that science alone can be the grounds for humanity’s deepest longings and desires, is imputing values to science that science itself cannot generate or sustain. It is, in essence, forcing science to function as religion.

In the NSRHO I included some of my own questions about science and religion. I tried to distinguish between the feeling that science and religion sometimes conflict and the belief that they were ultimately compatible. I noted that there were actually some surface-level similarities between creationists and the atheistic evolutionists on these questions. Neither group was particularly likely to be committed to the belief in the ultimate compatibility of science and religion (only 33 percent of creationists and 21 percent of atheistic evolutionists agreed with this position). Only the theistic evolutionists had a majority holding this view (54 percent). This is the case despite the fact that creationists and theistic evolutionists equally claimed they sometimes felt a conflict (about half of each group).

When one feels tension between faith commitments and scientific findings, perhaps it is easiest to draw a line between the two and choose a side. Holding on to the belief in the ultimate compatibility between science and faith, even when one is unsure how precisely that compatibility should be realized, is an uneasy task. For those individuals and organizations committed to this position (such as BioLogos), the new Pew survey does provide some good news. Although 30 percent of respondents believed that science sometimes conflicted with their own religious beliefs, this has fallen 6 percentage points from a previous survey in 2009. The decline is even more pronounced for Evangelicals—falling to 40 percent in the most recent survey from 52 percent in 2009. Although we do not know the full story yet behind this trend, it can be seen as an encouraging sign that fewer people today are living with a sense of conflict between their faith and science.

About the author


Jonathan P. Hill

Jonathan P. Hill is Associate Professor of sociology at Calvin College. He is author of Emerging Adulthood and Faith (Calvin College Press, 2015) and coauthor of Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church (Oxford, 2014) and The Quest for Purpose: The Collegiate Search for a Meaningful Life (SUNY, 2017). He has published articles and book chapters on higher education and religious faith, volunteering, and charitable giving. He also directs the National Study of Religion and Human Origins, a project that explores the social context of beliefs about human origins.