A new Pew Research poll released yesterday yields some fascinating insights into the perceived conflict between science and religion. The poll confirms previous findings that a majority of Americans (59%) think science and religion are “often in conflict.” However, this poll also asked respondents if science conflicts with their own religious beliefs. This yielded a very different answer - only 30%! Furthermore, non-religious people are much more likely to say that science and religion are generally in conflict compared to highly religious Americans (76% vs. 50%).
In other words, people who aren’t religious themselves, who likely have little everyday contact with religious people, see the most conflict between science and religion. They are picking up on the conflict model that is commonly quoted in our culture and regularly reinforced by extreme voices on both sides, but haven’t heard the voices of many religious people who don’t see a conflict. In contrast, those who are highly religious themselves have generally positive attitudes toward science (as previously found in Elaine Ecklund’s work). Evangelical Christians generally believe that science is important, and don’t have any issues with the vast majority of scientific research.
Yet Evangelical Protestants remain opposed to consensus science about origins at much higher levels than any other group. This presents a puzzle. How can many Evangelicals see science in general in a positive light, yet reject the findings of modern science about evolution and the age of the Earth? The new survey may give the key—a distinction between science and religion in general, and science and one’s own beliefs. In our experience at BioLogos, we see many evangelical Christians who love science in general, yet believe that young earth creationism is supported by scientific evidence and that evolution is merely an atheistic idea without any scientific basis. Evangelicals, according to the Pew poll, are the most likely group (by far) to think that scientists are “divided” about the science of evolution and the age of the universe. So it’s not that Evangelicals reject science, but they perceive mainstream origins science as far less “settled” (or even “scientific”) than other types of science.
These numbers show that the task of BioLogos is not to convince Christians that science is an important way to discover truth about God’s world—most Christians already believe that. If they didn’t value science in this way, they wouldn’t care so much about this issue. Instead, we are working to show Christians (especially Evangelicals) better ways to understand the harmony between God’s Word and God’s world—including a clear presentation of the evidence in God’s world for evolution and age, and a serious discussion of what the Bible is really teaching on these topics.
The new Pew survey also confirms what sociologist Jonathan Hill found in his own research (published last year at BioLogos), that Americans take positions on issues of science and faith for a host of cultural, social, and religious reasons that make it impossible and illogical to separate them into broad categories of “pro-science” and “anti-science.” One step forward is to promote more effective dialogue between scientists and non-scientists, and between believers and non-believers, so that false stereotypes on all sides can be removed. Speaking of which, the Pew poll was done in conjunction with AAAS, whose “Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion” program is headed by BioLogos board member Jennifer Wiseman. Wiseman has done great work in creating this sort of dialogue, including the Perceptions project at AAAS.
For more coverage of this important poll, we recommend this article by Slate reporter Rachel Gross, or this post at by Cathy Lynn Grossman at Religion News Service. We expect to publish a full response by Jonathan Hill next week. His article will discuss how the new poll results help us dialogue better about faith and science.