Science and Religion: Mixed Results by Rusty Pritchard

Science and religion are at war. Or, at least that’s the impression you might get from bloggers who watch the spectacle of Republican primary candidate debates. Columnists at the New York Times and the Washington Post are up-in-arms at the hostility toward, and ignorance of, science on the part of the candidates, who seem to be vying to outdo each other in their anti-intellectualism. Some want to lay the blame for the Republican Party’s anti-science lurch at the feet of evangelical religion, using the statements of Republican candidates as a sign of attitudes in conservative churches. But evidence from a number of recent sociological studies indicates that the picture is a lot more complicated.

John H. Evans, professor of sociology in the UC San Diego Division of Social Sciences, wrote about his recent research in the Los Angeles Times, where he compared conservative Protestants—regular church attenders who take the Bible literally—and those who don’t admit to any religious participation. He concludes:

The conservative Protestants are equally likely to understand scientific methods, to know scientific facts and to claim knowledge of science. They are as likely as the nonreligious to have majored in science or to have a scientific occupation. While other studies have shown that the elite scientists who work at the 20 top research universities are less religious than the public, it appears that the vast majority of people with workaday scientific occupations are like their neighbors, religiously speaking.

Evans concluded that church-going conservative Protestants at the grassroots don’t at all sound like Rick Perry or Michelle Bachman or Rick Santorum on questions of science. For Evans, the seeming conflict between science and religion is much more over values that over facts. He even argues that the evangelical rejection of evolutionary theory isn’t a sign of being anti-science.

Science and Religion are Friends

Some support for the argument that religious people actually see compatibility between science and religion comes from Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and Furman sociologist Kyle Longest, who just published a paper showing that 18-29 year olds are more integrative in the way they view science and religion (Sociological Forum, behind a firewall). As quoted by Rod Dreher at The American Conservative, Smith and Longest find the following:

Most clearly, high religiousness, in the form of importance of faith, frequently reading scriptures, and committing to live one’s life for God, increases the likelihood that emerging adults agree that religion and science are compatible and not in conflict. Counter to the prevailing wisdom on highly religious youth, emerging adults who are more religious are not less but more likely to believe that religion and science can be integrated. Interestingly, attending a Protestant high school, often portrayed as being the training ground for religiously sectarian or militant youth . . . is one of the strongest predictors of the integration perspective, as these emerging adults are extremely likely to agree that religion and science are compatible and their faith has been strengthened by science, as well as being significantly unlikely to agree that the two are in conflict. This shared context appears to have created a cognitive norm of viewing religion and science as potentially symbiotic, rather than overtly hostile to each other. These emerging adults are able to maintain the authority of religion by finding a harmony between faith and science.

(Dreher’s column is worth reading in full.)

Another study showing that religiosity leads to harmony between science and religion comes from Baylor University, where researcher Aaron Franzen finds that increased frequency of Bible reading is tied to, among other things, improved attitudes toward science. “Respondents were 22 percent less likely to view religion and science as incompatible at each step toward more frequent Bible reading,” according to David Briggs, who reported the Baylor study for Association of Religion Data Archives. (Interestingly, higher rates of Bible reading were also correlated with greater support for social and economic justice, simple lifestyles, humane treatment of criminals, and with lower support for abortion, same-sex unions, the death penalty, and the expansion of the war on terrorism.)

Are Evangelicals Science-Friendly But Still Ignorant?

Set against those salutary findings is evidence that conservative religion goes along with decreased science literacy, as measured by a standard large-scale survey of Americans conducted since 1972, which, since 2006, has contained a standard set of elementary (mostly true-false) science questions (“True or false: All radioactivity is man-made” or “True or false: Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria”).

Darren Sherkat of Southern Illinois University analyzed the results (paper in Social Science Quarterly —behind a firewall). He threw out questions relating to hot-button issues for religious conservatives, like evolution, but kept in questions on the big bang and continental drift. Even when they got a pass on evolution questions, Sherkat found that sectarian Protestants (that is, evangelicals), Catholics, and fundamentalists scored significantly lower than secular Americans on the basic science literacy quiz. He controlled for variables like low educational attainment, income disadvantages, ethnicity, and regional effects (like being in the South), and still found that conservative religious affiliation drove scores down. Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education found the same thing.

Is there a way to reconcile these seemingly disparate results? Could it be that increased bible reading and other signs of religiosity really do drive greater thoughtfulness and a deeper appreciation for science? Does reading the Bible regularly build a more expansive and integrative worldview than merely holding to evangelical beliefs? In that case, the reports about lower science literacy might be due to individuals who give lip-service to orthodox beliefs, but who don’t put them into practice (cultural Christians, as it were). The Baylor study mentioned above did find a divide between those who read the Bible a lot and those who believed it to be literally true but who didn’t read it.

A less favorable interpretation is that those Christians who find compatibility between science and their faith are picking and choosing which bits of science they consider “science,” or even that they confuse science and technology.

Image sourced from Flickr and used under a Creative Commons License.