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Science vs. religion… or science and religion?

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | March 26, 2015

Many of America’s cultural battles in recent decades seem to be face-offs between science and faith: over the teaching of evolution, the reality of climate change, the value of stem cell research, the personhood status of an embryo, and the so on. Many on the liberal side of these issues see the controversies as part of a confrontation between ignorance and knowledge. For the more philosophically inclined, it is about a centuries-old tension between Faith and the Enlightenment’s assertion of reasoned observation. (Scientific American writer Michael Shermer’s “Skeptic” column is largely devoted to this theme.) Recent research suggests, however, a more complex structure to these debates and Americans’ views: Many of those on religious side are far from scientific naifs; some are scientifically quite knowledgeable. It’s when science directly touches faith that the conflict flares up.

Facts and faith

person watching the night sky

Watching the Milky Way

A newly-published study by sociologists Timothy O’Brien and Shiri Noy (gated) “indicates that the conflict between science and religion may be limited to a few specific issues,” specifically evolution and creation. Religious Americans are not less knowledgeable about or supportive of science generally, “but may choose to interpret events in a religious light.” There may be less to the reported “conflict between reason and faith” than appears, O’Brien and Noy write.

Using the 2006, ‘08, and ‘10 General Social Surveys (GSS), which include many questions testing respondents’ scientific knowledge (for example, knowing about electrons, the earth’s core, genetics, and how antibiotics work) and a few questions measuring respondents’ attitudes toward religion, the authors distinguish three sets of Americans. A plurality, 43 percent, might be considered conventional. The scientific knowledge of people in this group was spotty, their views of science somewhat cautious, and they were conventionally religious as Americans go – believers and moderate church attenders. Another group, 36 percent of the sample, knew much more science and were science enthusiasts; they reported weak religious ties and half said the bible was essentially a set of myths.

The remainder, however, 21 percent, looked interestingly different. They were the most seriously religious group; they favored conservative (white) Protestant denominations more than the other groups did and none among them said that the bible was just a set of myths. Yet they were just as scientifically knowledgeable as the science enthusiasts but with one serious disagreement: about the big bang and evolution. Hardly any among this third group considered true the ideas that the universe began with a huge explosion or that human beings evolved from earlier species. (Another sociologist analyzing the same GSS data, J. Michael Roos, argues (gated) that the two items in question measure part of a “Young Earth Worldview,” which is more of a religious than a scientific matter for most Americans. See also here, gated.)

In yet an additional analysis of some the same data, researchers found that, on average and with factors like education held constant, more religious Americans were just as interested in and as knowledgeable about science as were less religious Americans. However, the religious were more skeptical that science or scientists are benefiting mankind. The authors cite yet another study arguing that religious Americans may have confidence in the science but not the scientists — plausibly perhaps because they suspect not the scientists’ findings, but their moral positions.

Non-GSS surey data point to a similar pattern. In a 2006 Pew Survey, white evangelical respondents and secular respondents differed by only 18 points on the question of whether global warming was happening (70% v. 88% answering yes), but they disagreed by 55 points on the truth of evolution (28% v. 84%). In another Pew survey, half of scientists said that they believed in God or a higher power. Many Americans are scientifically knowledgeable but dissent at the very specific points where science clashes with biblical faith. (On the flip side, Americans who say they have no religion are as likely as or more likely than those who do claim a religion to say they believe in ghosts and witches.*)


Political polarization has strongly affected public debates over science in recent years (gated) and religious Americans tend to be politically conservative, which might incline them to be science deniers. (GSS respondents’ views on whether there is consensus among scientists on global warming depended more on their politics than on their education, I found looking at the 2006 and ‘10 surveys, and depended almost not all on their view of the bible’s literal truth.) Given our political polarization, that there is so much agreement on most science issues is striking. By a huge margin, a Gallup Poll shows, Americans disagree that “science and religion are incompatible” (69% to 17%).

Thus, underlying Americans’ views, these studies suggest, is not a simple divide – knowledge versus ignorance, Reason versus Faith, or science versus religion – but a complex combination of science and religion. Science is appreciated except for its claims about creation. And there are, at more sophisticated levels, some who combine religion even with acceptance of the big bang and evolution.

* My analysis of two surveys archived at the Roper Center (#USAIPOGNS 2005-25; #USCBS2011-098).

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American Life from American History.

Comments to “Science vs. religion… or science and religion?

  1. Religion and science are typically seen as being incompatible, and this is mostly true if there is a focus on specific issues, such as evolution. As a researcher and psychiatrist with eclectic interests, I have arrived at a concept that merges religion and science based on a common feature, information, presented in The Informative God book. The concept cannot be adequately presented in a comment section, but essentially relies on how information can be preserved indefinitely, and how this aligns well with a religious orientation. My approach then utilizes how scientific processes can provide for more than “the end” after our time is over.
    Brad Bowins, MD

  2. It would not be difficult to come to an agreement as to what we understand by science. Science is the century-old endeavor to bring together by means of systematic thought the perceptible phenomena of this world into as thoroughgoing an association as possible. To put it boldly, it is the attempt at the posterior reconstruction of existence by the process of conceptualization. . .

    . . . Accordingly, a religious person is devout in the sense that he has no doubt of the significance and loftiness of those superpersonal objects and goals which neither require nor are capable of rational foundation. They exist with the same necessity and matter-of-factness as he himself. In this sense religion is the age-old endeavor of mankind to become clearly and completely conscious of these values and goals and constantly to strengthen and extend their effect. If one conceives of religion and science according to these definitions then a conflict between them appears impossible. For science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain value judgments of all kinds remain necessary. Religion, on the other hand, deals only with evaluations of human thought and action: it cannot justifiably speak of facts and relationships between facts. According to this interpretation the well-known conflicts between religion and science in the past must all be ascribed to a misapprehension of the situation which has been described.

    For example, a conflict arises when a religious community insists on the absolute truthfulness of all statements recorded in the Bible. This means an intervention on the part of religion into the sphere of science; this is where the struggle of the Church against the doctrines of Galileo and Darwin belongs. On the other hand, representatives of science have often made an attempt to arrive at fundamental judgments with respect to values and ends on the basis of scientific method, and in this way have set themselves in opposition to religion. These conflicts have all sprung from fatal errors.

  3. I do not see much difference between science and religion. At times the two talks about the same thing from a different angle. For example John chapter 1 of the Bible states “in the beginning was the word and the word was with God, and the word was God … and the word created all things … and the word became fresh.” The difference between word and sound is ‘meaning’. If you know the meaning of a sound you say it is a word. If you don’t know the meaning you say it is a sound or noise. If the sound is high enough, you call it is an explosion. So, word, sound, explosion, big bang is a different degree of the same thing.

    Science and spirituality/faith/religion is the same. Where we have the explanation, the math etc, we say it is science. Where we have no explanation and the math, we say it is a miracle/magic or just have faith. The caveman will see me with this laptop and iphone and internet chatting with people 1000s of kilometers away as a god or miraculous at least.

    As you’ve already said, most of the hotspot of science vs faith debate lie at the illusion the beginning of all things and the evolution theory. I do not believe in “the beginning” because to believe in the beginning is to buy into the illusion of time and space. From the “big bang” point of view, if the big bang was the beginning of things, what set up the big bang? Something must have existed prior to the big bang to set up the big bang. The big bang suggests something exploding and who created the explosive material prior to the explosion?

    The Bible says “in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” This means God existed prior to the beginning to create at the beginning. The Bible is therefore talking about the beginning of something rather than the beginning of all things.

    The scientist should not argue with religion too much. We all know what particle accelerators, hadron colliders etc has done to the Dalton atomic theory. Dalton atomic theory claimed atoms where indivisible. Today scientists have not only divided the atom but the sub-atomic particles. I have seen later scientific theories making rubbish of older ones. Who knows, the scientific facts with which you argue with religion today may rubbish and declared false by another scientific finding tomorrow.

  4. I’d rather believe in faith then reason and facts. Facts and reasons explaining are nothing but stating why it’s here. So science is interesting but dumb to a point. You’ll go on forever explaining why shit is here.

    Faith is the invisible force that we don’t see but still feel is right. So we can all just be know-it-all and act like the devil and think we know it all because we can calculate it. Or you can believe and walk around earth submitting yourself to the flow of life and learning and experiencing.

    I would rather go out dying knowing that I have faith in a god and a future than go out thinking I figured out everything. Why? Because life is mysterious like God and we will never know everything. We can only enjoy and experience what we see.

    We can write down facts, but don’t say God isn’t real just because you understand something a little better. I hope that makes sense.

    • “Faith is the invisible force that we don’t see but still feel is right.” So it’s absolutely subjective, anyone can claim that he talked to god. Which is OK.

      One problem with religion is that its followers usually try to convert people to their faith – having them follow arbitrary rules and making promises that might as well come from a 101 scam guide. I won’t say “God isn’t real” but I can confidently say that gods as religions portray them are fictitious.

      Since nothing can be proven, religious views won’t get regular updates and often end up lagging behind (catholic church, islam). Imagine science still sticking to Newton ignoring everything that Einstein has added to our understanding of gravity…

  5. Or science and religion? or rather science and spirituality? Because religious explanations and practices are devoid
    of the scientific method.

    Why wouldn’t you eat certain types of food – because it’s in a holy scripture, that some people who claim to have talked to god
    wrote?! Like lots of other things that’s based on faith alone.

    And what kind of scientist would believe stories that make no sense from a scientific pov without proof? Or the huge up-bringing bias just sticking to a faith because you were raised with it – that wouldn’t be scientific either.

    About religious people having knowledge that contradicts their faith? That would fall right into doublethink i’d say.

    • science is a better option, it can be proved and it is more likely creditable because it develops with more experiments n researches.

  6. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.

    So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.

  7. As the origin of new beings was the mystery of mysteries of the 19th century, it seems that the origin of consciousness is the mystery of mysteries of the 21st. The singularity in the Big Bang theory threatens fundamentalists’ concepts of creation. The singularity in the rapture of the geeks threatens the concept of the human soul. The science wars seem destined to intensify.

    And the demarcation between natural science (biology, physics and the like) and axiomatic science (mathematics, logic and the like) is likely to be as important in discussions about that second singularity as the demarcation between natural science and pseudoscience has been to discussions about the first.

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