Religious and Scientific Communities May Be Less Combative Than Commonly Portrayed

CHICAGO -- One of the largest surveys of American views on religion and science suggests that the religious and scientific communities may be less combative than is commonly portrayed in the media and in politics.

Only 27 percent of those surveyed said that they viewed science and religion as being in conflict with each other, with about equal percentages of those people "siding with either religion or science," said Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund at the AAAS Annual Meeting. The survey was commissioned by the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER) project and presented at the meeting on 16 February. (Watch a related news briefing.)

27%

The portion of people surveyed who said science and religion are conflict with each other

48%

The portion of evangelicals who said science and religion can work in collaboration

Perhaps more importantly, given the large population of evangelical Christians in the United States (up to 30 percent by some estimates), nearly half of the evangelicals surveyed said they felt that science and religion were in a collaborative relationship.

But there are still some significant differences among those surveyed, said Ecklund, who also serves as director of Rice's Religion and Public Life Program. For instance, she noted, evangelicals "were more than twice as likely as the rest of the sample to say that they would turn to a religious leader or text if they have a question about science." The survey also found that 43 percent of evangelicals supported a strong creationist view in which "God created the Earth, the universe and all life within the past 10,000 years. "

More than a third of all respondents in the survey agreed that "scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories or explanations."

The study included over 10,000 people who took a 25-minute survey online, along with 300 personal interviews with Christians, Jews and Muslims. About 5 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as scientists.

DoSER commissioned the survey as the start of a far-ranging project to bring together scientific and religious communities into a more fruitful partnership, less burdened by misconceptions of each other's views, said DoSER Director Jennifer Wiseman.

"Previously, studies have focused on what various groups think about a particular issue involving science, such as evolution or climate change...but this survey is different because it's asking where people look to for authoritative information on science, who do they trust as their authority figures, and how important do they think scientific issues are in their daily life," Wiseman said.

DoSER's advisory committee requested that the project contain a particular focus on evangelicals, "who are typically very interested in national policy and in science and technology, but are significantly underrepresented in the sciences themselves," Wiseman noted.

Galen Carey, vice president for government relations at the National Association of Evangelicals in Washington, D.C., said that he was pleased with the survey's findings. "There is quite a bit of scope for both of our communities to learn more about the other, to combat some of the ignorance which we see, which sometimes gets in the way of collaboration."

After the survey results have been thoroughly analyzed, DoSER will hold a series of regional workshops with leaders from local science communities and evangelical leaders to discuss improving communication between the two groups. They also plan a national conference in 2015 that builds off the issues discussed in the regional workshops.

Another session at the AAAS Annual Meeting discussed public opinions on science and technology as gauged through surveys by the U.S. National Science Board, the Pew Research Center, and the polling company Gallup. (Watch a related news briefing.)

The NSB 2014 Science Indicators study, released earlier this month, found that roughly seven in 10 Americans believe that the effects of scientific research are more positive than negative for society -- a number that has remained roughly the same since 1979.

Other recent surveys show a partisan political gap, however, in views on scientific topics such as evolution and climate change.

Between 2009 and 2013, the gap between Republicans and Democrats on the question of evolution grew by 11 percentage points, said Cary Funk of the Pew Research Center. "There had been a partisan gap before, but the size of the gap is now bigger. And what happened is that fewer Republicans said humans and other living things evolved over time."

Recent polling on climate change science reveals a similar kind of gap, said Gallup researcher Lydia Saad. "What we've seen in the last ten years is a polarization of views, with Democrats clearly becoming more supportive of climate science and Republicans less supportive."

"With the politicalization and debate about this in Washington, we have a situation where some Americans are skeptical of scientists and believe that scientists are now partisan or the science is affected by the politics," Saad added.