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Science and Religion Are Happy to Collaborate, Except for When They're Not

A new poll bucks the idea that scientists and devout Christians are automatically at odds.
February 17, 2014, 7:25pm
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A new poll released Sunday suggests that, despite common pubic perception, perpetuated by things like Bill Nye’s creationism vs. evolution debate, scientists and devout Christians aren’t automatically at odds.

According to the poll, roughly half of evangelical Christians believe that science and religion are in a “collaborative relationship.” Just 27 percent of the 10,000 people surveyed by Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund viewed science and religion as being in direct conflict with each other. (Though let's not forget that Americans, as a whole, don't really know how to feel about science).

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On its face, that should be good news for those who want to advance scientific policy in the US. The problem, however, comes when you consider where the sticking points are between the two sides.

To wit: A third of those interviewed said that scientists should be more open to considering that “miracles” can explain much of the world, and 43 percent of evangelicals said that they believe in a creationist viewpoint in which “God created the Earth, the universe and all life within the past 10,000 years.” The survey found that 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.”

It’s easy for anyone, including devout Christians, to think science is a force for good (or at least one that’s not actively evil) when you consider things like technological advancements, the internet, energy production, and other relatively uncontroversial disciplines. Likewise, it’s easy for the pro-science crowd to take a look at religion and consider it beneficial to society when you think about, say, the charitable contributions many religions make. But when the two are in direct contradiction with each other, or when science has provided a means to directly contradict the teachings of Christianity and other religions—evolution vs. creationism, abortion, cloning—it’s a very different story.

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The poll was commissioned by the American Association for the Advancement of Science as part of its Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion project, which has been trying to facilitate conversation between scientists and religious leaders since 1995. The program seeks to “improve the level of scientific understandings in religious communities” and “encourage an appreciation among scientists, religious leaders and religion scholars of the ethical, religious, and theological implications of scientific discoveries and technological innovations.”

Jennifer Wiseman, director of the program, said the poll results suggest that evangelical Christians’ beliefs on science as a whole should be closer studied than, say, their view on how old the world is or whether evolution is a real thing.

"Previously, studies have focused on what various groups think about a particular issue involving science, such as evolution or climate change,” she said. “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.”

I suppose that’s something worth knowing, but let’s not pretend that, when it comes down to it, the two aren't diametrically opposed about some pretty damn important issues. For some evangelical Christians, it’s easy to think of science as a force for good as long it’s not doing things like proving homosexuality is something someone is born into, that the world is more than 10,000 years old, or creating safer ways of aborting a pregnancy. Just a third of white evangelicals believe in evolution. Less than a third of white evangelicals believe humans are contributing to climate change.

When campaigning politicians try to cater to the evangelical voter base, which makes up more than a quarter of Americans, these more divisive issues take center stage. And, in that case, it doesn’t really matter if evangelicals think NASA is kinda cool.