Religious People Like Science

Religious people do not like science – or so many people, especially in the University, seem to think. The new book by Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher P. Scheitle, Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think, explores the myth and reality in this impression. Not surprising to most Christians, Ecklund and Scheitle find this statement to be a myth – reinforced, however, by some elements of reality.

Scientifically (Il)literate? First, the statement that “Religious people do not like science” could mean a number of different things. It could mean “religious people actively dislike science and view it as the enemy” or “they are not interested in science relative to other activities” or “religious people are not knowledgeable about or competent in science.” (p. 14)

Surveys that test these questions need some nuance. While it is true that religious people will provide different answers to some questions – especially questions involving evolution – this is not tied to knowledge or competence. The religious people probably understand the scientific consensus as well as the general public. However these questions are considered contested – religious people are less likely to take the scientists word for it. In contrast, religious people give answers indistinguishable from the general public on questions that are not contested – such as “antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.” Religious people are not especially illiterate or incompetent when it comes to science.

Science and Religion are in Conflict? Ecklund and Scheitle find that the religiously unaffiliated (including atheists and agnostics) are more likely (52.4%) than religious people of all persuasions (evangelical protestants, mainline protestants, Catholics, Jews, or non-Western religions) to consider religion and science to be in conflict. Evangelicals run second (30.7%). (Note: Ecklund and Scheitle report both unadjusted percentages and adjusted percentages that account for other factors to isolate the influence of religion from factors such as education and other social differences, I will quote the unadjusted percentages unless otherwise indicated.) Although Ecklund and Scheitle don’t bring this up, the reason for the difference may well relate to the way the options are presented. Conflict, Independence (they refer to different aspects of reality) and Collaboration (each can be used to help and support each other). A more neutral expression of “independence” that didn’t implicitly define religion as a description of reality might have drawn more of the atheists or agnostics away from the conflict motif.

One key point here – explored in more detail in the next chapter (and post) is that most evangelical protestants separate science from the positions of scientists on certain issues. Many do believe that scientists overstep the purview of science on some issues (e.g. evolutionary biology).

Interested in Science? Evangelical protestants are less likely to be interested in new scientific discoveries than the general public or all other groups. This true for both unadjusted and adjusted percentages. In contrast, when the question is focused on new medical discoveries the differences vanish for the adjusted percentages. Religion does not impact interest in medical discoveries. Other factors such play a bigger role here.

The finding could suggest that the relationship between religious affiliation and interest in science differs depending on whether we are talking about more basic science … or more applied science (p. 21)

Protestants were least likely to agree with the statement that “Scientific research is valuable even when it doesn’t provide immediate tangible benefits,” while Jews and the religiously unaffiliated were most likely to agree with this statement. Ecklund and Scheitle suggest that “religious people show lower levels of interest in basic science activities and careers because such activities and occupations are not as clearly connected to the values and goals that their religious traditions emphasize.” (p. 22)

In general all groups disagree with the statement that “modern science does more harm than good” (14.9% agree) and agree with the statement that “because of science and technology there will be more opportunities for the next generation” (71.3% agree). In the adjusted percentages, only one group shows a statistically significant difference from all respondents – more of the religiously unaffiliated including atheists and agnostics are optimistic on the future impact of science (76.0% agree compared with 72.3 % of all respondents).

Respondents were wary of too much faith and power in the hands of science … limitations on science are supported often using Nazi practices and militarization as examples. Values should direct the practice and utilization of science.

Miracles? While several common perceptions are false – religious people do not generally see science and religion as in conflict, nor are they incompetent or uninterested in science ( any more than the general public). However, religious people are more open to the ideas of miracles and 60% of American evangelicals agreed that scientists should be open to considering miracles compared with 38% of all respondents. As Ecklund and Scheitle state “ideas about miracles can create tensions between religious believers and scientists.” From experience (not this book) this can also create tensions between Christian and atheist/agnostic scientists – even when both agree on the proper practice of science in the laboratory. (Ard Louis, Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Oxford, wrote a series on Science and Miracles at BioLogos that gets into some of this.)

Lessons? Ecklund and Schietle suggest that scientists would do well to emphasize the practical and potential applications of science and to allow for the potential of miracles. This doesn’t mean allowing miracle as a scientific explanation – it means exercising intellectual humility. “For scientists who want to engage religious Americans in science, it may be helpful for them to stress that when it comes to questions about divine intervention or the potential of miracles, science actually does not provide answers.” (p. 30) Try to avoid confusing scientific and metaphysical conclusions.

Do these observations agree with your experience?

What is the value of scientific exploration?

Is this a faithful “Christian” occupation?

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