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

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
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.

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.

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.”

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).

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 10/30/2015 - 10:56 am.

    Fundamentalism Was Born Out of this Conflict

    a bit more than 100 years ago (yes, it’s not an ancient perspective, but a recent offshoot of traditional Christianity).

    The crude sciences of the enlightenment left zero space for anything which might seem “miraculous” to occur in the natural world, and, because of this, many “enlightened” people of that time were beginning to dismiss ALL faith as mere “superstition.”

    The fundamentalists countered this by declaring the Bible to be some variation of the “True and inerrant word of God,”….

    i.e. declared the Bible to be TRUER than science.

    The vast majority of Christians never went there, however. Neither did their pastors or their denominations,…

    either patiently waiting until now, when some of them have come to believe science and religion are just answering different questions,…

    or, believing that the greater truth that science would eventually reveal would prove that science and faith need NOT be in conflict.

    Such truth has, indeed, been revealed in the realms of cosmology, quantum mechanics, and subatomic particle physics,…

    all of which leave ample room for what the “enlightenment”-era scientists would have regarded as miracles.

    In the end “fundamentalism” will be revealed to be an understandable but misguided hiccup in the history of Christianity (and Islam, too, for that matter).

    “Modernism” and science are not necessarily betrayals of the wisdom of our ancestors,…

    who were, after all, every bit as human and limited in their understandings as we, ourselves, are,…

    but are more likely to be the means by which God calls us into the better future God has in mind for all the people of this planet and whatever planets we eventually inhabit.

  2. Submitted by Jim Million on 10/30/2015 - 11:07 am.

    Very interesting findings, indeed

    One caution regarding conclusions relates to margins of error. These are rather high in statistical terms, perhaps due to relatively small internal group sizes. Any number approaching 5 (and certainly above 5) signals caution. These survey results are certainly not conclusive, but are very intriguing.

    Also intriguing is that White protestants are classified as “evangelical” or “mainstream,” while Black protestants are not. Was this survey designed to reveal the “evangelical effect,” if you will?


  3. Submitted by Noel Martinson on 10/30/2015 - 03:16 pm.


    this study has as much to do with the degree of cognitive dissonance that participants tolerate. It would be interesting to see if there are other questions in the study that might lend insight along those lines. I suspect our perceptions of conflict when comparing such broad areas as science and religion might be related to the internal consistency we require for our own philosophy or faith.

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