Though Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is considered rock solid by scientists and researchers all over the world, politicians and public policy-makers alike have wrestled with how scientific and religious communities contrast, overlap and occasionally conflict.
A study titled “Religious Communities, Science, Scientists, and Perceptions: A Comprehensive Survey,” was presented February 13 at the 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Annual Meeting with the goal of getting hard data about where the Americans who comprise the nation’s foremost religions stand on science.
The study surveyed 10,241 Americans who identified as being in one of eight religious groups: Evangelical Protestants, Mainline Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Muslims/Hindus/Buddhists/Sikhs/Jains, Atheists/Agnostics/no religion and Something Else. Survey respondents were asked questions regarding their religious practice, consumption of scientific news, whether science and religion conflict, scientific education in schools, and views on evolution.
“There’s a lot of stereotypes and myths [about religious people],” said Chris Scheitle, co-author of the study and professor of sociology at Saint John’s University. “If you ask someone who’s not religious, ‘What does a religious person think about science?’ you might get a response like, ‘Religious people hate science,’ or ‘They’re against science.’ The reality is much more complicated than that. When you look at some questions, religious individuals express a great deal of interest in science. In some cases, depending on how you word the question, they’re equivalent to anyone else.”
The survey revealed that nearly 70 percent of Evangelical Christians do not view science and religion as being in conflict. Forty-eight percent of Evangelicals view science and religion as complementary to one another, compared to 38 percent of Americans overall. Twenty-one percent of Evangelicals consider science and religion to be entirely independent of one another, compared to 35 percent of Americans, according to the study. Of all respondents, 22.9 percent identified as Evangelicals.
“What you find is people aren’t particularly strongly opinionated about any particular narrative,” Scheitle said. “Whether or not it’s 10,000 years [of] creation or 6 billion years, what’s important is they seem to want some sort of role or to maintain some sort of place for God within that process.”
A disconnect between religion and science does become apparent when topics such as evolution were addressed in the study, according to Connor Wood, director of communications at the Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion.
“There are some pretty big gaps in the percent of Evangelicals who do not accept the reality of evolution,” Wood said. “These are self-reported Evangelical Christians, [and] 76 percent doubt that life on earth, including humans, evolved through a process of natural selection. Nearly 60 percent of Evangelicals doubt that climate change is human-caused. About 56 percent doubt the Earth is 4.5 billion years old. These are all significantly higher percentages than the American populace as a whole and they’re much higher than scientists.”
Wood said it is important to emphasize a widespread understanding of scientific research.
“Anybody who doesn’t see how [this data] is important is not paying attention,” Wood said. “Data suggests global warming is a real thing, it’s going to really affect us, and we can’t get it together to start really tackling it because more than half our population doesn’t accept the science. If we learn who the folks are who don’t accept it and what their motivations are, that’s the first step toward bridging that gap and coming to a consensus on climate change, evolution and these kinds of cultural divides.”
Celebrating religious holidays or attending services creates a community for a religious individual, and scientific research that conflicts with one’s religious beliefs threatens that sense of community, Wood said.
“There are parts of our brains that are aware, that get triggered when we sense that our foundations of our community are being attacked,” Wood said. “For an Evangelical Christian, the Bible and the Christian teachings, as interpreted by their pastors, are the foundations of their community.”
The cognitive dissonance people can experience when their core beliefs are challenged can result in the perception of a real danger, Wood said. It can feel like a life-or-death level threat.
Evangelical Christianity does not have a governing body to distribute its official stances on scientific matters, according to Jacob Heiss, associate pastor at The First Evangelical Free Church of Chicago in Andersonville.
“Evangelicals have a diverse set of responses to science, but in general, a positive one,” Heiss said. “Most Evangelicals that I have encountered or that I’ve researched would be really reticent to dismiss the results of science offhandedly. Most Evangelical Christians value theology, they value science, and what they want to do is try to resolve those two spheres of inquiry as much as possible.”
Scheitle said the purpose of the study was to create a better understanding of the relationship between religious and scientific communities, as well as debunk popular myths and stereotypes of religiously observant Americans.
“What we are trying to do is provide a little more nuanced portrayal of what religious Americans think about science,” Scheitle said. “It’s not necessarily one of pure and inherent conflict between religious people and science or scientists. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any tensions or any areas of real conflict, but it’s not something where religious people are balling up because of scripture and putting it in their ears and ignoring science. Many religious individuals are interested in science and want to understand science, but have concerns about what science means for their view of God or humanity.”