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Science and religion: A false divide

Op-Ed

On most issues, there is very little conflict between religion and science.

October 10, 2011|By John H. Evans

Rick Perry has generated a lot of ink lately — for trumpeting his religious faith and for his attacks on evolution and global warming. I have no magic insight into the mind of the candidate jockeying for the GOP nomination, and I'm not a member of the religious right. But, as a sociologist studying religion in the United States, I do know that the fundamentalists and evangelicals who are disproportionately represented in the ranks of Republican primary voters don't all sound like Perry, or Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin.

While many conservative Protestants disagree with the scientific consensus about evolution, you cannot infer their perspectives on other scientific issues such as climate change from this one view alone. Fundamentalists' and evangelicals' relationship with science is much more complicated than the idea that they "oppose science."

I recently conducted survey research comparing the most conservative of Protestants — those who identify with a conservative Protestant denomination, attend church regularly and take the Bible literally, or about 11% of the population in my analysis — with those who do not participate in any religion. 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.

On most issues, there is actually very little conflict between religion and science. Religion makes no claims about the speed of hummingbird wings, and there are no university departments of anti-resurrection studies — scientists generally are unconcerned with the vast majority of religious claims and vice versa.

There are, of course, a few fact claims in which conservative Protestant theology and science differ, such as the origins of humans and the universe. Here we find that typical conservative Protestants are likely to believe the teaching of their religion on the issue and not the scientific claim.

We could complain that they are being inconsistent in believing the scientific method some of the time but not always. Yet social science research has long shown that people typically are not very consistent. The people who are more consistent are those who are punished for inconsistency: philosophers, media pundits, political activists and politicians.

Besides, conservative Protestants don't think of their own views as inconsistent, and they have a long-standing way, going back to at least the mid-19th century, of dividing the scientific findings they believe and don't believe. They tend to accept scientists' claims that are based on direct observation and common sense and to reject those based on what might be called unobservable abstractions. Since nobody was around for the Big Bang and for human evolution from lower primates, these unobservable claims are treated with more skepticism than measurements of the effect of airborne carbon on planetary temperature. (Despite biblical passages suggesting the contrary, conservative Protestants believe the Earth orbits the sun, which is observable by scientists in the present.)

The greatest conflict between fundamentalists, evangelicals and science is not over facts but over values. While scientists like to say that their work is value-free, that is not how the public views it, and conservative Protestants especially have homed in on the moral message of science. William Jennings Bryan, famed defender of the creationist perspective at the Scopes "monkey trial," was not just opposed to evolution for contradicting the Bible but also concerned that the underlying philosophy of Darwinism had ruined the morals of German youth and had caused World War I.

The situation today is not that different: Contemporary "intelligent design" advocates, for example, are deeply worried that the teaching of evolution has a negative effect on children's values.

The same research that shows fundamentalists generally believe in science's ability to gather facts about the world also shows that they do not want scientists to lead the public debate on issues concerning morality.

Is it still futile then? Can the two "sides" never agree?

No, it isn't futile. Understanding what concerns the "other side" would help. Those wishing to affect public policy on issues such as climate change, for example, need to make it clear to conservative Protestants that the science of global warming is based more on direct observations than on analytic abstractions, that it is more like determining the average body temperature of a human than where humans came from.

Conservative Protestants, in turn, should make distinctions between scientific areas where in which they are in moral conflict with science, such as embryonic stem cell research, and those areas where they are not.

To move forward, we, as a country, need to lower the political conflict. Yes, the views found in fundamentalist churches are not exactly the same as those at the National Science Foundation. But we would see less of the polarizing "we real Americans" rhetoric from the religious right if its members were not ridiculed as know-nothings. Conservative Protestants are not fundamentally opposed to all science.

John H. Evans, professor of sociology in the UC San Diego Division of Social Sciences, is the author of "Contested Reproduction: Genetic Technologies, Religion, and Public Debate" and the forthcoming "The History and Future of Bioethics: A Sociological View."

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