The Survey Data on Science and Religion

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJul 3, 2009 6:30 PM


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Jerry Coyne has a new post--really, a long quotation--about this subject. Linking to a Pew essay relating many important public opinion stats on science and religion in America, Dr. Coyne observes that these data show science and religion aren't really compatible, "but Chris Mooney tweaks them a bit to claim the opposite." I am not aware of having "tweaked" any survey data. At issue is this post of mine, which doesn't even directly report any of the data--it merely links the Pew essay, quotes its conclusion, and broadly interprets the data therein differently than Dr. Coyne now interprets them. Let us assume that Dr. Coyne actually disagrees with my interpretation of the data, and is not really accusing me of data manipulation. Indeed, so far as I can tell the data themselves are completely uncontested by both of us. What is very contested, though, is what these data mean for the debate we are having over accommodationism. So let's dig into that question. Coyne quotes the following passage from Pew's David Masci, and suggests that it demonstrates science-religion incompatibility (Coyne's emphasis included):

Interestingly, many of those who reject natural selection recognize that scientists themselves fully accept Darwin’s theory. In the same 2006 Pew poll, nearly two-thirds of adults (62%) say that they believe that scientists agree on the validity of evolution. Moreover, Americans, including religious Americans, hold science and scientists in very high regard. A 2006 survey conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University found that most people (87%) think that scientific developments make society better. Among those who describe themselves as being very religious, the same number – 87% – share that opinion.

So what is at work here? How can Americans say that they respect science and even know what scientists believe and yet still disagree with the scientific community on some fundamental questions? The answer is that much of the general public simply chooses not to believe the scientific theories and discoveries that seem to contradict long-held religious or other important beliefs.

When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll. Indeed, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin’s theory.

Let me say at the outset that I find it regrettable, just as Dr. Coyne does, that people are rejecting scientific findings due to their religion. That's not cool. It's not acceptable. And it is of course one of the key reasons we have an "unscientific America." But where Coyne sees sheer science-religion incompatibility, I see something else: An opportunity. For it seems to me that if we could only dislodge the idea that evolution is contradictory to people's belief in "Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%)," then they would have no problem with evolution. In fact, the passage above shows that many of them (62%) already know evolution is good science--it's the perception of religious conflict that is holding them back. Take away that perception of conflict, then, and these Americans should be ready to accept science. Are the survey data really evidence of incompatibility, then? At the very least, that's debatable. I'm quite convinced that the data are an excellent reason to take Kenneth Miller's (and my) approach and try to convince people that science needn't be any threat to their religion--indeed, they show that this is a strategy which ought to work for many Americans. And this gets me back to what I was originally saying: Most Americans don't want science and religion to be in conflict. For as the Pew essay continues:

This reliance on religious faith may help explain why so many people do not see science as a direct threat to religion. Only 28% of respondents in the same Time poll say that scientific advancements threaten their religious beliefs. These poll results also show that more than four-fifths of respondents (81%) say that "recent discoveries and advances" in science have not significantly impacted their religious views. In fact, 14% say that these discoveries have actually made them more religious. Only 4% say that science has made them less religious.

These data once again show that, in the minds of most people in the United States, there is no real clash between science and religion. And when the two realms offer seemingly contradictory explanations (as in the case of evolution), religious people, who make up a majority of Americans, may rely primarily upon their faith for answers.

My view is that if we force-science religion conflict on much of America, then for a large portion of our citizenry, science is not going to prevail as the victor. But if we demonstrate compatibility, then that should be very good for the public understanding and appreciation of science. Granted, this assumes that the "public understanding and appreciation of science" is your goal, rather than the inculcation of atheism. I can fully see why those who above all want atheism to prevail would take a very different approach to the survey data.

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