Feb 17 2014

New Science and Religion Survey

A new Rice University survey of 10,000 people explores issues of science and religion. Surveys are always fascinating, giving us a “lay of the land” of what people around us believe. However, they are also very tricky. Results can vary wildly based upon how a question is asked, and what questions surround them. This study was presented at the AAAS meeting, and is not published, so I don’t have access to the actual questions.

With those caveats in mind, here are the main results:

50 percent of evangelicals believe that science and religion can work together, compared to 38 percent of Americans.
18 percent of scientists attended weekly religious services, compared with 20 percent of the general U.S. population;
15 percent of scientists consider themselves very religious (versus 19 percent of the general U.S. population);
13.5 percent of scientists read religious texts weekly (compared with 17 percent of the U.S. population)
19 percent of scientists pray several times a day (versus 26 percent of the U.S. population).
Nearly 60 percent of evangelical Protestants and 38 percent of all surveyed believe “scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories or explanations.”
27 percent of Americans feel that science and religion are in conflict. Of those who feel science and religion are in conflict, 52 percent sided with religion.
48 percent of evangelicals believe that science and religion can work in collaboration.
22 percent of scientists think most religious people are hostile to science.
Nearly 20 percent of the general population think religious people are hostile to science.
Nearly 22 percent of the general population think scientists are hostile to religion.
Nearly 36 percent of scientists have no doubt about God’s existence.

Some of those figures are counterintuitive, but I actually don’t find any of them surprising. Again – a lot depends on how the survey was conducted. But taking the results at face value, what do they mean? Here’s what the author, Elaine Howard Ecklund, has to say:

“This is a hopeful message for science policymakers and educators, because the two groups don’t have to approach religion with an attitude of combat. Rather, they should approach it with collaboration in mind.”

I guess I’m in the “entrenched” camp because I don’t see things that way. At the very least, more context is needed. Here is the most problematic result, “Nearly 60 percent of evangelical Protestants and 38 percent of all surveyed believe ‘scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories or explanations.'” It seems likely that the greater desire for science and religion to work together on the part of evangelicals stems from this belief – that science should be used to confirm their religious beliefs.

This notion stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of how science works. Science cannot consider miracles – because by definition miracles are not falsifiable. They are not subject to hypothesis testing, and so don’t meet the first criterion of science. Science is like a structure built brick-by-brick. Each brick has to sit on top of bricks below it. You cannot have structures floating in mid air, but that is what a “miracle” is.

This is not “hostility” (which seems to be a premise of the survey). Rather, it is simply internally consistent philosophy. Science must follow methodological naturalism. Even if you accept the maximally non-hostile doctrine formulated by Stephen J. Gould of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), which postulates that science and religion are both legitimate but completely separate intellectual pursuits, there cannot be any mixing. (How valuable religion is as an intellectual pursuit is a separate question.)

Science and religion are, in fact, in conflict. They conflict every time someone imposes their religious faith onto others by using it as a justification for fudging or suppressing science. The teaching of creationism in public schools is the most obvious example.

Science and religion, however, do not have to conflict (that’s the idea of NOMA). As long as religious faith respects two boundaries: It stays out of the realm of science, of factual knowledge about the natural world. And it is not used as a method of imposing personal morality onto the public. Science needs to follow scientific methodology, and public ethical discussions should follow logic and principles that stand on their own and do not require any particular faith. Violations of either of these principles violate the separation of church and state and the requirement of individual religious freedom.

People are free to believe anything they wish, and can follow whatever religious practices they want (as long as they don’t conflict with the rights of others or the laws of the land). But they don’t have the right to impose those beliefs on others.

It is also highly misguided to believe that science is going to confirm your faith. Such endeavors are usually hopelessly doomed (see, for example, creationism). You can’t constrain science to a pre-existing belief system. You also cannot mix miracles into science – the two are fundamentally incompatible. Further – true faith does not require evidence. If you have evidence, then it’s not faith. It’s just accepting the evidence.

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