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Which group of Americans is most likely to believe science and religion conflict?

For those who do report a conflict, the most contentious issues involve the creation of the universe and evolution.

A man looks at a model of a head of homo neanderthalensis during a visit to the Smithsonian Institution's National History Museum in Washington.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Most Americans believe science and religion often conflict, but this belief seems to stem from their perceptions of the conflicts experienced by other people, not themselves, according to the findings of a survey (PDF) released by the Pew Research Center last week.

Specifically, the survey found that 59 percent of Americans believe, in general, that religion and science are at odds in today’s society, while 38 percent maintain there is no such conflict.

Yet when people are asked about their personal beliefs, less than a third (30 percent) say their own faith is fundamentally at odds with science. The vast majority of Americans (68 percent) find their religion and their understanding of science to be entirely compatible.

For those who do report a conflict, the most contentious issues involve the creation of the universe and evolution. For example, one-third (31 percent) of the adults surveyed — and 60 percent of the white evangelical Protestants surveyed — said they believed humans have not evolved, but have always existed in their present form.

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The Pew Research Center’s results are based on a representative national sample of 2,002 adults who were surveyed by landline or cellphone in August 2014.

Somewhat surprising

Interestingly, people who are the least religiously observant (measured by how often they report attending worship services) appear to be the most likely to think religion and science are in conflict — other people’s religion, that is.

Seventy-six percent of the survey’s respondents who reported no personal religious affiliation said religion and science were often in conflict. But only 16 percent of these religiously unaffiliated people said their personal beliefs were in conflict with science.

By comparison, 40 percent of white evangelical Protestants who were surveyed said their faith sometimes conflicts with science, while a majority (57 percent) said it does not.

Divided opinions

Here are two other interesting findings from the study, as summarized by Carey Funk, the associate director of research at the Pew Research Center:

* The public is closely divided about whether churches and other houses of worship should be involved in science policy debates, such as climate change. Half of U.S. adults say churches should express their views on scientific policy issues, while 46% say they should not do so. Most white evangelical Protestants (69%) and black Protestants (66%) say churches should express their views.

But a majority (66%) of those who are unaffiliated with any religion disagree, saying that churches should keep out of such matters. Catholics, like the public as a whole, are divided on this question, with 45% saying churches should express their views on scientific policy issues and 49% saying they should not do so.

*People’s religious differences do not play a central role in explaining their beliefs on a number of science-related topics – ranging from views about climate change to the safety of genetically modified foods.

One exception is human genetic modification, where religious observance is tied to public opinion. For example, 61% of U.S. adults who attend worship services at least weekly, regardless of their particular religious tradition, say genetic modification to reduce a baby’s risk of serious diseases would be “taking medical advances too far.”

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By comparison, among adults who seldom or never attend worship services, 41% say genetic modification for this purpose would be taking advances too far.

You can access the report through the Pew Research Center website (PDF).