How do Americans balance science and religion? A Q&A on recent research

How do Americans resolve the conflict between science and religion? University of Dayton's Joshua Ambrosius reflects on recent research.

Photo by Steve Rainwater via Flickr Creative Commons

Science FishThe American Sociological Review recently published Timothy O’Brien and Shiri Noy‘s research on the ways Americans approach the perceived conflicts between scientific and religious worldviews. Some people are religious and poo-poo science; others view science as authoritative. O’Brien and Noy uncover a third group they call the post-seculars. These post-seculars are highly religious, accept many scientific accounts, but remain skeptical of scientific theories that conflict with their religious cosmology.

To better understand the implication of their analysis, I sent some questions to University of Dayton’s Joshua Ambrosius who has a forthcoming article in the journal Space Policy on how religion shapes attitudes toward space exploration (read our post on his research).

Read RNS’s story on O’Brien & Noy’s research

What are O’Brien and Noy reporting that we didn’t already know?

While setting out to discover “if favorable perspectives on science and religion can coexist in the minds of the U.S. public” (p. 93), O’Brien and Noy ultimately show that religion and science do conflict—eight out of every ten Americans prioritize scientific (the moderns) or religious (the traditionals) authority over the other. Their contribution is the identification of a third group (post-seculars) who accept many scientific accounts while maintaining high religiosity.

How do these findings change how we understand science and religion?

They confirm a conflict view—so in some sense, their findings were predictable. To me, post-seculars are simply a group of traditionalists: very religious, quite conservative, skeptical of secular views of origins, and respectful of scripture as God’s word. What makes them unique is their greater acceptance of non-controversial science—like understandings of radioactivity, the earth’s rotation about the sun, and plate tectonics.

So in essence, I think they’ve created a ‘new, but old’ category in which we can place the likes of Ken Ham—people who consider themselves “pro-science” despite their rejection of key scientific theories. I’m not sure that this group would appreciate the post-secular label or if others will be comfortable calling them anything other than traditional.

What are some findings that jumped out to you?

Interestingly, they don’t find any evidence for a predicted fourth group—the postmoderns—who would reject both religious and scientific narratives. This confirms what Bob Dylan famously sang: you “gotta serve somebody”!

They also don’t find evidence for a distinct group that accepts the fullness of both religion and science—a group that would claim National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins and adherents of his BioLogos view of theistic evolution. For some reason, this camp was subsumed into the other three by the statistical analysis.

Are these findings good news or bad news for science educators? Why?

I’d label it a mixed-bag. O’Brien and Noy find that a sizable chunk—about one-fifth—of society is inclined to accept scientific authority in, what they label, “most” areas. Only about one-third of the public accepts scientific authority over religious authority—the moderns.

This research certainly shows that science educators have their work cut out for them in convincing two-thirds of Americans to accept the full scientific consensus on origins. Because most physicists and biologists would see the respective theories of the big bang and biological evolution as foundational to their fields, I’m sure they will be dismayed to learn that a supposed ‘third-way’ between science and religion still, largely, involves the rejection of these essential theories—by all but 4-6% of this post-secular group.

The question becomes whether science educators can at least appreciate that this new group accepts other, non-controversial scientific findings that still seem to confound over two-fifths of America (the traditionals).

Bottom line: why is this important? And why should we care?

I appreciate that O’Brien and Noy go beyond simply identifying this distinct group, but also construct statistical models to predict the characteristics of those in each group as well as the policy implications of group membership.

Both the traditionals and the post-seculars are significantly more likely than moderns to hold conservative views on culture war “life” issues like abortion and public funding for stem cell research. To me, this just signals the continued importance of religiosity and origin views in shaping a super-majority’s stances on these issues. The groups did not, however, differ on politically controversial but “non-life” views like fuel economy standards and nuclear energy.

Good research not only gives answers, it creates new questions, too. What are some questions that we should now explore in light of this research?

I’m interested in learning more about the mechanisms by which these three groups come to hold their respective views of scientific and religious authority. What role does education, both from the pulpit and the blackboard, play in moderating socialization at home? Also, are there more ways than three of dividing up the populace on issues of science and religion?

The supporting information shown by O’Brien and Noy suggests that this trifold division may be the best fit for the General Social Survey data they analyze. Nonetheless, I’m not convinced from one study of one dataset, albeit three biennial iterations, that all Americans can fit this pattern. I, for one, am unsure to which I would belong! Finally, from a practical angle, what other policy issues might be affected by views of religion and science? I’ve posited space exploration—I’m sure there are many more.

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