November 5, 2009

Religion and Science in the United States

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. Nevertheless, strong religious convictions can affect some Americans’ willingness to accept certain scientific theories and discoveries, such as evolution, and new, life-changing technologies, such as genetic engineering.

Religion and Science as Adversaries

Science and religion have often been viewed as adversaries. A number of famous battles between scientists and religious authorities have helped to fuel this perception. For instance, Italian scientist Galileo Galilei, who 400 years ago began the first systematic astronomical observations using a telescope, was tried and convicted of heresy by the Catholic Church for his defense of the Copernican model that put the sun, rather than the Earth, at the center of the universe. Roughly 250 years later, British naturalist Charles Darwin was criticized by Anglican Church authorities who rejected his theory that life evolved through natural selection, particularly when the theory was explicitly applied to human beings. (See Darwin and His Theory of Evolution.)

There have been and still are scientists who are hostile to religious belief. For instance, British biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins, in his bestselling book The God Delusion, argues that many social ills – from bigotry to ignorance – can be blamed, at least in part, on religion. Other scientists, such as Nobel Prize-winning American physicist Steven Weinberg, contend that one of the purposes of science is to free people from what they call “religious superstition.”

In addition, scientists tend to be much less religious than the public overall. A poll of scientists who are members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in May and June 2009, found that 51% of scientists believe in God or a higher power. That figure is far below the 95% of the American public that professes such belief, according to a Pew Research Center survey of the general public conducted in July 2006. (See Scientists and Belief.)

Religion and Science as Allies

Despite instances of hostility toward religion and high levels of disbelief in the scientific community, however, science and religion have often operated in tandem rather than at cross-purposes.

Indeed, throughout much of ancient and modern human history, religious institutions have actively supported scientific endeavors. For centuries, throughout Europe and the Middle East, almost all universities and other institutions of learning were religiously affiliated, and many scientists, including astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus and biologist Gregor Mendel (known as the father of genetics), were men of the cloth. Others, including Galileo, physicist Sir Isaac Newton and astronomer Johannes Kepler, were deeply devout and often viewed their work as a way to illuminate God’s creation. (See Religion and Science: A Timeline.)

Even in the 20th century, some of the greatest scientists, such as Georges Lemaitre (the Catholic priest who first proposed what became known as the Big Bang theory) and physicist Max Planck (the founder of the quantum theory of physics), have been people of faith. More recently, geneticist Francis Collins, the founder of the Human Genome Project as well as President Barack Obama’s choice to head the National Institutes of Health, has spoken publicly about how he believes his evangelical Christian faith and his work in science are compatible.

In addition, many scientists, including many who are not personally religious, tend to view science and religion as distinct rather than in conflict, with each attempting to answer different kinds of questions using different methods. Albert Einstein, for instance, once said that “science without religion is lame and religion without science is blind.” And the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould famously referred to this separate but complementary relationship as “nonoverlapping magisteria.”

Debates Over Evolution and Other Issues

There are times when these “magisteria” do seem to overlap, however. In the United States, the debate over the origins and development of life offers a compelling example of this conflict.

All but a small number of scientists accept Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection; according to the 2009 Pew Research Center survey of scientists, 87% of scientists accept evolution through natural processes. But a complementary May 2009 Pew Research Center poll of public attitudes toward science shows that only 32% of the general public fully embraces Darwin’s theory. One-in-five (22%) believe that evolution has occurred but that it has been guided by a supreme being, and 31% contend that humans and other livings things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. (See Public Opinion on Religion and Science in the United States.)

There is a similar divide between the public and the scientific community on the issue of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. But unlike the divide on evolution, which revolves around questions of fact, the division on embryonic stem cell research is largely driven by moral questions, including disputes over the status of embryos. (See the full Pew Research Center survey report for differences between scientists and the public on this and other issues.) And yet the poll of the public shows that the vast majority of Americans, including religious Americans, hold science and scientists in very high regard. (See Public Opinion on Religion and Science in the United States.)

What is at work here? How can majorities of Americans say they respect science and yet still disagree with the scientific community on some fundamental questions? The answer may be that many in the general public choose not to believe scientific theories and discoveries that seem to contradict religious or other important beliefs. When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, for instance, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people in an October 2006 Time magazine poll said they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept a contrary scientific finding.

Looking Ahead

Meanwhile scientists continue to use increasingly sophisticated instruments – from MRI brain scanners to the Hubble Space Telescope – to probe the natural world, raising the prospect that researchers in one field or another will continue to produce evidence that challenges some core religious beliefs. For example, some scientists claim that recent research on the human brain shows that the brain and the brain alone is the seat of consciousness and that such evidence disproves the existence of a soul.

While religion and science usually strive to answer different questions, the battles over issues such as evolution and the study of consciousness show that they also sometimes tread on each other’s turf. So far, at least in the United States, both faith and scientific endeavor have survived these clashes. And if the past is any guide, the United States will likely continue to be a nation of both high levels of religious commitment and high regard for scientific achievement.

This report was written by David Masci, Senior Researcher, Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.