Do Science and Religion Conflict?

Not according to highly religious people.

Stained glass window by Louis Comfort Tiffany and Tiffany Studio
Education, a stained glass window by Louis Comfort Tiffany, depicts Science (personified by Devotion, Labor, Truth, Research, and Intuition) and Religion (personified by Purity, Faith, Hope, Reverence, and Inspiration) in harmony, presided over by Love.

Courtesy of Sage Ross/Wikimedia Commons

The finding sounds, at first, like a head-scratcher: “Highly religious Americans are less likely than others to see conflict between faith and science.” After all, don’t religion and science represent two opposing worldviews, as fundamentally incompatible as oil and water? Isn’t it true that the more committed you are to the one, the more likely you are to reject the other?

Well, no. And if you believe that, you’re probably not religious. That’s the takeaway of a newly released Pew Research Center survey on religion and science, which asked more than 2,000 respondents whether they believed that science and religion were in conflict. Those who subscribe to the idea that science and religion exist in tense, perpetual opposition are largely those without a religion themselves, the survey found.

As Pew has found in past surveys, the majority of respondents said that religion and science did conflict: About 60 percent answered in the affirmative, a slight uptick from a survey last year. But break those numbers down, and you’ll notice something strange: A dramatic difference between the devout and the nonobservant. Among the latter, a full 76 percent saw religion and science to be in conflict while among the highly religious—those who attend religious services at least weekly—that percentage was only 50 percent.

You’d think the religious would know what contradicts their own beliefs, right? In fact, the findings say more about the assumptions of nonreligious Americans than they do about religious ones, says Robert P. Jones, a religion scholar and CEO of the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute.

“The people who are farther away from religion themselves tend to see stronger conflict, because they’re not as close to actual religious people,” says Jones. “They aren’t seeing all those people who don’t have a conflict.” Instead, what they see of the religious community is generally what’s depicted in the media: all-out warfare. The media tends to focus on those rare flashpoints of controversy, such as fights over evolution and the content of science textbooks, and to highlight the most outspoken conservative fundamentalists. For the nonreligious, these strong voices become the faces of religion, and these flashpoints become evidence that religion and science are in conflict.

In fact, religious Americans by and large support science, says Jonathan Hill, a sociologist at Calvin College. As the new Pew survey shows, they want to see more government investment in science, and their religious views hold little bearing on their opinions on the vast majority of scientific issues—including experimental medical treatments, bioengineered organs, genetically modified foods, climate change, and space exploration. That’s not to say conflict doesn’t exist; it does. But most religious people don’t view science in general as the enemy. Instead, they bristle at a few specific issues: Of those who said science conflicted with their own personal beliefs, most cited the specific example of Darwinian evolution, followed by abortion and the Big Bang.

In fact, the number of people who perceive a conflict is most likely far lower than surveys like Pew’s show, says Hill, who has tracked this question for several years. The reason: “This particular question is super sensitive to how you ask it,” he says.

One of the limitations of most of these surveys is that they force respondents to fit themselves into a narrow box: Either science and religion contradict each other, or they don’t. In reality, many of those who choose “conflict” probably mean something far different, Hill wrote in 2015. “What they’d probably prefer to answer is that they have nothing to do with each other; they’re separate domains that don’t interact,” he says. This becomes evident once you give respondents this as a third option, which Hill did in the National Study of Religion and Human Origins. When respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with a third statement—“Science is about facts and religion is about faith. The two do not overlap”—a full one-third agreed. If the Pew survey gave the same option, you might expect fewer people to answer that they conflict.

All this is to say that we may know less than we think about those who are different than us.