November 5, 2009

Public Opinion on Religion and Science in the United States

Views on Science and Scientists

The United States is the most religious industrial democracy in the world. At the same time, the U.S. is a science superpower, leading the world in many key areas of scientific research and in most fields of technological development. While this combination of widespread religious commitment and leadership in science and technology could be a potential source of conflict, evidence from a May 2009 survey of public attitudes toward science conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that most Americans, including most religious Americans, hold scientific research and scientists themselves in high regard.

Indeed, while there are a few areas of conflict between science and religion in the United States, particularly regarding questions of life’s origins, more than eight-in-ten Americans (84% in the recent Pew Research Center survey) say they view science as having a mostly positive impact on society. Among those who attend religious services at least once a week, the number is roughly the same (80%).
Broad consensus
Source: May 2009 Pew Research Center for the People & the Press survey. For complete question wording, see survey topline. Numbers may not sum to 100 due to rounding.

In this research package

Religion and Science in the United States
An overview of the relationship between religion and science.

Public Opinion
Most Americans, including most religious Americans, hold scientific research and scientists themselves in high regard.

Scientists and Belief
Some scientists believe religion and science each examine legitimate but different realms of knowledge, while others see science as the only true way of understanding the universe.

Religion and Science: A Timeline
This timeline highlights key events in the debate about the relationship between religion and science.

The public also views scientists themselves in a positive light. According to the Pew Research Center poll, 70% of U.S. adults think scientists contribute “a lot” to society. In addition, a solid majority of Americans (61%) say that science does not conflict with their own religious beliefs. Even among those who attend worship services at least once a week, a slim majority (52%) sees no conflict between science and their faith. But while most people do not perceive a conflict between science and their personal religious beliefs, many do believe there is an inherent conflict between science and religion in general. When asked in a separate question whether science and religion, generally speaking, are often in conflict, a majority of Americans (55%) say yes, compared with 38% who believe the two realms are mostly compatible.

Interestingly, those who are the most religiously observant (as measured by frequency of worship service attendance) are the least likely to perceive a clash between faith and science; only 48% of those who attend religious services at least once a week see a conflict. However, among those who attend worship services once a month or less, as well as those who attend rarely if ever, perception of a conflict runs higher, at 58% and 60%, respectively. Those who have no specific religious affiliation are the most likely to perceive a conflict between religion and science (68%), while only 53% of all Protestants and Catholics feel this way.
Perceived conflict
Source: May 2009 Pew Research Center for the People & the Press survey. Numbers may not sum to 100 due to rounding.

QUESTION WORDING:
ASK ALL: Q. 25 In your opinion, generally do you think science and religion are often in conflict, or science and religion are mostly compatible? [OPTIONS READ IN REVERSE ORDER TO HALF OF SAMPLE]
ASK ALL: Q.26 Now thinking about your own religious beliefs, does science sometimes conflict with your own religious beliefs, or doesn’t it?

Evolution and Related Issues

In the last century, the sharpest and most persistent clash between religion and science in the U.S. has centered on evolution as the explanation of the origin and development of human life. According to 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, most scientists (87%) agree that life on Earth has evolved over time due to natural processes such as natural selection.
Consensus not shared
Source: Scientists data and general public data from Pew Research Center for the People & the Press surveys, May-June 2009. For complete question wording, see survey toplines. Numbers may not sum to 100 due to rounding.

By contrast, according to the 2009 Pew Research Center poll on public attitudes toward science, public opinion about evolution is divided. While six-in-ten (61%) believe that evolution has occurred, many (22% overall) say it was guided by a supreme being or a higher power. Fewer than a third of those sampled (32%) believe in evolution through natural processes. At the same time, 31% of Americans directly reject evolution, believing instead that humans and other living creatures have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.
Life's origins
Source: May 2009 Pew Research Center for the People & the Press survey. For complete question wording, see survey topline. Numbers may not sum to 100 due to rounding.

The strongest opposition to the idea of evolution comes from evangelical Protestants. A majority of evangelical Protestants (55%) say that humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time, while an additional 20% contend that life has evolved but under the guidance of a supreme being or higher power; only 10% think evolution occurred due to natural processes.

Among those unaffiliated with any particular religion, the numbers are nearly the reverse: Fully 60% accept evolution through natural processes and only 11% believe that life did not evolve at all. Catholics and mainline Protestants fit somewhere between evangelical Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated, with 32% of mainline Protestants and 33% of Catholics saying they believe in evolution through natural processes. (See Religious Groups’ Views on Evolution.) In both groups, about a quarter say that humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.

Although a significant number of Americans reject the idea of Darwinian evolution, most people (60%) believe that scientists are in agreement that human life has evolved over time. Indeed, even among those who reject the idea of evolution, 41% agree that there is a scientific consensus in this area.

Stem Cells

Unlike the disagreements surrounding evolution, the conflict over whether or not to conduct embryonic stem cell research is not primarily a factual dispute. Instead, the debate is largely focused on moral and ethical questions, similar to the abortion controversy.

However, as with opinion on evolution, the general public is more divided in its views about stem cell research than is the scientific community. Indeed, while 93% of scientists favor federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, only 58% of the public holds this view, according to the 2009 Pew Research Center poll on public attitudes toward science. And among those who attend worship services at least weekly, support for federal funding of the research drops to 42%, while a slight majority (51%) opposes it. By contrast, those who seldom or never attend worship services are much more supportive of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, with 70% in favor of it.

Substantial differences also exist among major faith traditions. For instance, while only 41% of evangelical Protestants favor federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, 57% of mainline Protestants and 60% of Catholics support it. And among those unaffiliated with a particular religion, nearly three-quarters (74%) favor federal funding for the research.

It is impossible to say whether the sort of religiously based misgivings that currently color public opinion on embryonic stem cell research and evolution might impact Americans’ views on other scientific issues at some point in the future. For, now, however, there is little evidence to suggest that there is widespread conflict between science and religion.

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

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