August 27, 2007

How the Public Resolves Conflicts Between Faith and Science

by David Masci, Senior Research Fellow

The relationship between faith and science in the United States seems, at least on the surface, to be paradoxical. Surveys repeatedly show that most Americans respect science and the benefits it brings to society, such as new technologies and medical treatments. And yet, religious convictions limit many Americans’ willingness to accept controversial scientific theories as well as certain types of scientific research, such as the potential use of embryonic stem cells for medical treatments.

Science and religion have traditionally, and often incorrectly, been viewed as enemies. This perception has been fueled in part by a number of famous episodes in history that have pitted scientists, like Galileo and Darwin, against the prevailing religious establishments of their time. But more often than not, scientists and people of faith have operated not at cross purposes but simply at different purposes.

Today the situation is much the same. Certainly, there are modern scientists who are actively hostile to religious belief. British biologist Richard Dawkins, for instance, in his best-selling book, The God Delusion, argues that many social ills – from bigotry to ignorance – can be blamed, at least in part, on religion. In addition, a significant number of scientists – roughly a third according to a 2006 Rice University survey of more than 750 professors in the natural sciences – do not believe in God, compared with only one-in-twenty in the general population. But regardless of their personal views, most scientists tend to view the two disciplines as distinct, with each attempting to answer different kinds of questions using different methods. The late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould famously referred to this complementary relationship as “non-overlapping magisteria.”

But there are times when the “magisteria” do overlap. The debate over the origins and development of life is the most compelling example of this. All but a small number of scientists regard Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection as an established fact. And yet, a substantial majority of Americans, many of whom are deeply religious, reject the notion that life evolved through natural forces alone.

Indeed, according to a 2006 survey from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 42% of Americans reject the notion that life on earth evolved and believe instead that humans and other living things have always existed in their present form. Among white evangelical Protestants – many of whom regard the Bible as the inerrant word of God – 65% hold this view. Moreover, in the same poll, 21% of those surveyed say that although life has evolved, these changes were guided by a supreme being. Only a minority, about a quarter (26%) of respondents, say that they accept evolution through natural processes or natural selection alone.

Interestingly, many of those who reject natural selection recognize that scientists themselves fully accept Darwin’s theory. In the same 2006 Pew poll, nearly two-thirds of adults (62%) say that they believe that scientists agree on the validity of evolution. Moreover, Americans, including religious Americans, hold science and scientists in very high regard. A 2006 survey conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University found that most people (87%) think that scientific developments make society better. Among those who describe themselves as being very religious, the same number – 87% – share that opinion.

So what is at work here? How can Americans say that they respect science and even know what scientists believe and yet still disagree with the scientific community on some fundamental questions? The answer is that much of the general public simply chooses not to believe the scientific theories and discoveries that seem to contradict long-held religious or other important beliefs.

When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll. Indeed, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin’s theory.

This reliance on religious faith may help explain why so many people do not see science as a direct threat to religion. Only 28% of respondents in the same Time poll say that scientific advancements threaten their religious beliefs. These poll results also show that more than four-fifths of respondents (81%) say that “recent discoveries and advances” in science have not significantly impacted their religious views. In fact, 14% say that these discoveries have actually made them more religious. Only 4% say that science has made them less religious.

These data once again show that, in the minds of most people in the United States, there is no real clash between science and religion. And when the two realms offer seemingly contradictory explanations (as in the case of evolution), religious people, who make up a majority of Americans, may rely primarily upon their faith for answers.