Do science and religion conflict? It’s all in how you ‘see’ it

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Deep space elements courtesy of NASA.

Photo courtesy of Bruce Rolff via Shutterstock

Deep space elements courtesy of NASA.

"Most Americans Say Science and Religion Conflict, But Fewer Say Their Own Beliefs Conflict With Science." Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center

“Most Americans Say Science and Religion Conflict, But Fewer Say Their Own Beliefs Conflict With Science.” Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center

(RNS) Most Americans see a conflict between the findings of science and the teachings of religion.

But “see” is the operative word in a new Pew Research Center report issued Thursday (Oct. 22).

Examining perceptions leads to some unexpected findings.

While 59 percent of U.S. adults say they saw science and religion in conflict, that drops to 30 percent when people are asked about their own religious beliefs.

It turns out that the most highly religious were least likely to see conflict. 

And those who said they saw the most conflict between the two worldviews in society are people who personally claimed no religious brand, the “nones,” according to the report.

“Our perceptions of others are often different than our perceptions of ourselves and this plays out here. It’s the most striking finding,” said Cary Funk, associate director of research and co-author of the report.

READ: Science vs. religion? There’s actually more of a three-way split

"Least Religiously Observant Are Most Likely to Say Science and Religion Are Often in Conflict." Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center

“Least Religiously Observant Are Most Likely to Say Science and Religion Are Often in Conflict.” Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center

The report is an analysis of several surveys but chiefly relies on a 2014 survey of 2,002 U.S. adults conducted in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In that survey:

  • 40 percent of evangelical Protestants said their personal religious beliefs conflicted with science.
  • 50 percent of highly religious adults (people who said they attend religious services at least weekly) saw science and religion often in conflict.
  • 76 percent of religiously unaffiliated said they saw such conflict in society. But when asked about their personal beliefs, just 16 percent saw such conflict.

READ: God knows, evangelicals are more science-friendly than you think

The analysis looked at 20 science issues and found that on most — including climate change, genetically modified foods and space exploration — religious differences were part of a matrix of influences that include age, gender, education, political affiliation and ideology.

Funk said the analysis found “only a handful of areas where people’s religious beliefs and practices have a strong connection to their views about science.”

The hot topics were views on the creation of the universe, on evolution and on whether religious congregations should take positions in debates over public policies on scientific issues.

Overall, half of Americans (50 percent) said congregations should express their views on policy decisions about scientific issues and 46 percent said they should not.

Catholics were the most divided, with 49 percent saying churches should not express their views and 45 percent calling for churches to speak up. (The main survey relied on an August 2014 analysis, one year before Pope Francis issued a powerful teaching document on the environment citing scientific voices calling for action on climate change.)

READ: Pope Francis’ environment encyclical: game-changer or dead letter?

"A Minority of Public Says Science and Personal Religious Beliefs Conflict." Photo courtesy of Pew Research Center

“A Minority of Public Says Science and Personal Religious Beliefs Conflict.” Photo courtesy of Pew Research Center

About 2 in 3 white evangelicals (69 percent) and black Protestants (66 percent) supported churches’ expressing views. But most of those with no religious affiliation (66 percent) were firmly against it.

On evolution, 31 percent of U.S. adults said humans and other living things “have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” Most (65 percent overall) said that “humans and other living things have evolved over time.” This includes:

  • 86 percent of the religiously unaffiliated
  • 73 percent of non-Hispanic white Catholics and 59 percent of Hispanic Catholics
  • 71 percent of white mainline Protestants
  • 49 percent of black Protestants
  • 36 percent of white evangelicals.

(The margin of error was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points for overall findings but higher for subgroups, ruling out analysis of Jews, Muslims, Hindu and other small religious groups.)

The Pew analysis found wide differences among major religious groups when it came to perceptions of scientists. People were asked whether they saw scientists as divided or united on the creation of the universe.

The nones were the only major group in which a majority (61 percent) said scientists were unanimous that “the universe was created in a single, violent event.”

That Big Bang theory doesn’t resound for most others, however.

Overall, 42 percent of U.S. adults perceived scientific consensus about the creation of the universe.

Most (52 percent) see scientists as divided, including nearly 7 in 10 (69 percent) of white evangelicals and 62 percent of Hispanics Catholics.

Jennifer Wiseman, an astronomer, is program, director for the the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion.

Photo courtesy of Deryck Chan, via Wikimedia Commons

Jennifer Wiseman, an astronomer, is program director for the the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion.

READ: #SSSR15 brings together researchers studying religion scientifically

Americans did come together on one issue — strong public support for government investment in science. Overall, 71 percent of adults said government investment in basic science research “pays off in the long run,” while 24 percent said such investments are not worth it, the report says.

The AAAS, mindful of how attitudes toward science can influence society, just finished a three-year “Perceptions Project” through its Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion to engage religious communities, particularly evangelicals, in conversation with scientists.

The perception gap highlighted by the Pew analysis can be addressed by building bridges between both groups so that they don’t rely on “media stereotypes,” said Jennifer Wiseman, an astronomer and program director for DoSer.

“We found that everyone from the least to the most religious seems fundamentally interested and positive about science,” she said.

Although there were “a few areas where people stand apart,” Wiseman said, “we found a lot of shared desire to use science and technology for the betterment of the world and the human condition. There’s a lot of common ground.”


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  • Larry

    There is no conflict between science and religion. Merely people who misunderstand both. That people believe such conflicts exist go to fundamental flaws in their education/knowledge.

    Scientists don;t need to account for religion at all in their professional work. Belief based on faith and belief based on evidence are opposite to each other. Religious belief is entirely subjective, personal and irrational. Science is objective, universal and must be rational to be believed. The two have no points in common.

    The only people who perceive a real conflict between the two are religious types who have no trust in the faith required for their belief. Those who seek to browbeat others into accepting their belief because they lack the skills to inculcate faith outside themselves.

    Creationism has no merit as religion or science. It attacks religious belief by falsely denying the necessity of faith. It has no evidence for scientific credibility. Its acceptance is a sign of shame.

  • Barry the Baptist

    I often wonder if the surveying group differentiates between “science” and “engineering” for those they interview. Most people seem keen on engineering, using science to improve our lives and abilities. Scientific research seems more contentious, as it often asks questions people think don’t need to be answered, are uncomfortable asking, or simply don’t care about.
    I’ve seen my fair share of religious people who love physics and its broad applicability but are dubious on biology because they find its suggestions about their origins and motivations conflicts with their personal views; it doesn’t help that it’s still a fairly new science with applications and implications that are often too subtle for the average reader.

  • Bernardo

    And the biggest conflict of all???? The religious belief in deities!!!

  • ben in oakland

    Thanks, Larry. you saved me the trouble.

    Look at the process.

    Scientist A says that X is true, based upon evidence. Scientist B says that not x, but Y is true, based upon evidence. Scientist C investigates A and B’s claims, and concludes that in fact, Y is true, and here is the evidence to prove it. Scientist D goes on to say that in addition to Y, Z is also true. Scientists can continue this process ad infinitum. People who are not scientists can design an airplane or vaccine based upon their findings. If true, the plane flies.

    Religionist A says that X is true, based upon his holy book and the faith of his followers. No evidence besides the book and faith is required. Religionist B says Nyuhh-uhh, Y is the only truth, because book and faith. Religionist C says they are both wrong, because book and faith. The three religions either kill each other off, or live next to each other with their unchanging truths. No one creates an airplane or a vaccine.

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  • Greg J

    I think a ship builder walking onto a completed cruise ship for the first time experiences something different than the cruise passenger walking onto the same ship for the first time. The Wright bros. built a flying machine. Boeing built a 747. There is a good part of us that creates things, improves things, discards things when they no longer serve our purpose. I think that is a foundation for good science. If that is the foundation of my belief in God I have created an idol. I don’t believe man created God, though by observation sometimes it looks like there is a lot of evidence for that. I can understand the reasoning of why some would make that claim. I believe God created man. I have confidence in mans ability to create, improve, and discard that he would, as a whole, a long time ago. For me, to understand/believe in a God I can’t control I have to get out of linear thinking. I don’t see that as a bad thing, I see it as a different experience. But don’t try it with science.

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  • Greg J

    For me I want to have a balance of thought in what I believe should improve and what remains constant. When that balance is lost people tend to discard any good knowledge we might have because they see no purpose in it for themself. I think that applies for people standing on both sides of the ship.

  • Bernardo


    Might want to what your god has wrought in the area of horror diseases and their death toll. Yes, we all die from something but your god saw fit that billions of its creations died in excruciating pain.

    The top five:

    1. 300,000,000 approx.

    2. 200,000,000 ?

    3. 100,000,000 approx.
    Black Death

    4. 80,000,000–250,000,000

    5. 50,000,000–100,000,000
    Spanish Flu

  • Bernardo

    Make that “might want to see what your god has wrought”.

  • “Americans did come together on one issue — strong public support for government investment in science. Overall, 71 percent of adults said government investment in basic science research “pays off in the long run,”



  • @Larry,

    As long as science teachers get death threats for teaching evolution
    Religion remains a clear and present danger to science.

    Religion refuses to stay in the designated place you have drawn around it. It repeatedly forces itself into our government (Kim Davis, et al), meetings and our public schools and beyond.

    Religion remains a threat to Science, reason, civilization and to our Constitution. It should be abandoned for the good of science and the commonwealth.

  • Fallacy Spotting 101

    Post by ‘Greg1’ presents a form of the Secret Decoder Ring fallacy.

  • truedat


    The big 3 religions all believe that disease is a result of man’s sinning. That God originally planned a universe without such things but man corrupted it through his rebellion unleashing a Pandora’s box. Obviously the biggest issues in our world today come from man’s own greed and lack of care for his neighbor.

    But let’s say there is no God. So then what? Who cares if billions of accidentally evolved higher primates die? It really doesn’t matter does it. Your own worldview does nothing to alleviate such suffering. In fact, you can’t even call it evil in your worldview–it just random consequences from a random universe.

  • Ben in oakland

    Who cares?

    Compassionate people.

    Your argument sets up a 10 inch high straw man, and doesn’t even begin to knock it down. It just complains about wasting so much good straw.

  • Greg J

    I think you are right we should look at those things. I don’t understand the reason for the suffering. Im sure some who suffered had no belief in health or sickness. Some surely had a faith in health that was lost in sickness. Maybe some saw God in there sickness. It seems there is always that group that has a faith that is unshaken even in the worst of times. Those people who are nameless to the world, nobody would know if they cursed God or not, who maintain that quite personal belief have a conviction. I get there are some who have no conviction. Those who do though, they may not prove a God but they live for something greater than what is killing them weather anyone notices or not. That, is defiantly worth seeing.

  • @Trudat,

    “But let’s say there is no God. So then what? Who cares if billions of accidentally evolved higher primates die?”

    If you need your ridiculous belief in God to keep you from killing innocent people then keep believing in your God! You are obviously a danger to humanity otherwise.

  • larry

    Only Christianity attributes disease to sinning. Not “the big 3”.

    If your concern for fellow people is because God is looking over your shoulder, you are probably a sociopath.

    If you can’t recognize an evil act unless instructed, you are probably a sociopath.

    Without God, my urge to commit random murder and mayhem is the same as with God. Absolutely none whatsoever.

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