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Perceptions Project Hits the Road

Perceptions Project Hits the Road

Small group discussion moderated by Public Agenda | AAAS/David Buller

With foundational work from two focus groups and a nationwide survey of nearly 10,000 people to inform it, DoSER’s Perceptions Project took to the road in May, hosting the first of three regional workshops.

Participants in the Pasadena, California, meeting of scientists and evangelical leaders reported benefiting from this unique opportunity for dialogue regarding their perceptions of science and of each other.

“There will always be disagreement that is irreconcilable. There was, however, a gentle middle ground, where discussion could be had,” said one scientist.

“I found the pastors and religious leaders more diverse in their views than I had expected. … I was also impressed with the openness most of them showed toward the scientific viewpoint,” said another.

The workshops are professionally facilitated conversations about the science/religion interface using discussion guides tested during focus groups hosted by DoSER in collaboration with the National Association of Evangelicals and Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research and public engagement organization.

For the most part, workshop and focus group participants echoed perspectives discussed at DoSER's February 2014 AAAS Annual Meeting symposia, “Religious Communities, Science, Scientists, and Perceptions: A Comprehensive Survey."

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Workshop participants visit Caltech | AAAS/David Buller

The nationwide AAAS/Rice University survey yielded a wealth of data that will inform DoSER-facilitated dialogue going forward. The survey found, for example, that evangelicals are only slightly less likely (20%) than other respondents (25%) to report that they would read a news report about a new scientific discovery.

"Evangelicals value scientific writing and draw upon scientific sources for knowledge even if they are suspicious of some forms of science," principal investigator Elaine Howard Ecklund wrote in her preliminary findings summary.

"Evangelical Protestants, however, are more than twice as likely as the overall sample to say they would turn to a religious text, a religious leader, or people at their congregation if they had a question about science," she added.

This is one reason why this round of workshops focuses on engagement with evangelical leaders. 

A pastor who attended the Pasadena workshop said he was surprised that academic scientists cared about his perceptions of science. “My subliminal image of scientists was significantly defanged,” he said.

One-on-one conversation with a scientist gave another pastor greater respect for that scientist’s work. This pastor also said a workshop field trip to science labs at the California Institute of Technology was “a rare and valuable opportunity to see the care and integrity with which hands-on science is done.”

DoSER's preliminary work with its project partners has established a strong foundation for future dialogue. It has also revealed areas of continued concern.

On the question of teaching evolution in public schools, the survey found that 42.3% of evangelicals strongly favor teaching only creationism, whereas only 10.3% of respondents who work in scientific or technical fields strongly favored this approach. "Evangelical scientists are closer to their evangelical peers [37.4%] than their scientist peers,” wrote Ecklund. These scientists, however, are more likely than their evangelical peers to support the teaching of evolution along with creationism and\or intelligent design, she said.

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Warren Brown delivers Neuroscience lecture| AAAS/David Buller

A few religious scientists who attended the Pasadena workshop were surprised by the views of their fellow believers. Areas of concern ranged from what some considered antiscientific views among their peers to what others considered accommodation to a materialistic worldview.

Overall, there was general appreciation among this group of what Ecklund might call “boundary pioneers” for the opportunity to discuss what are, for many of them, dual commitments. A religiously oriented scientist, for example, said the workshop was one of the few times in his 30-year career that he has been able to discuss the science/religion intersection with people whose knowledge and judgment he respects. “For the previous 30 years, I pretty much kept all of this to myself,” he said.

Two more workshops will bring together scientists and evangelical leaders in coming months—one in Colorado and the other in Georgia. 

Lessons learned from the survey and from DoSER’s work with evangelicals will inform three additional workshops later this year geared toward other faith traditions. Those workshops will facilitate dialogue between scientists and leaders from Catholic, Mainline Protestant, and Jewish communities.

The Perceptions Project will conclude in spring 2015 with a national conference in Washington, DC, at which highlights and outcomes from the project will be presented.