Research & Insights

Where does your compass point? Toward science or religion?

New research out of the University of Evansville and the University of Wyoming and published in the February 2015 issue of the American Sociological Review suggests that people tend to be either scientifically or religiously inclined when it comes to interpreting the world, and that influences their receptivity or skepticism about major social issues.

To find out how religious beliefs affect attitudes toward science, sociologists Timothy O’Brien and Shiri Noy examined the responses of nearly 3,000 Americans to questions about the importance of science and religion reported by the General Social Survey (GSS).

They found that when it comes to deciphering the world, we tend to identify with one of three different schools of thought. People with a traditional perspective favor a religious understanding of the world, and are less knowledgeable about science in general. These people made up 43 percent of the sample. A second group of people, about 36 percent of the population studied, holds modern views on science and religion. They tend to be less religious and more optimistic about science’s role in society. They also accept the scientific worldview on issues where there tends to be religious controversy – like human evolution and the big bang theory. Finally, the post-seculars weighed in at 21 percent of respondents. Like people with modern views, they tend to have a scientific view on most things. But, like those with traditional views, they come down on the side of religion when science and religion collide (again, think evolution).

“Most people in the United States are inclined toward either science or religion, but not both,” O’Brien and Noy explain.

A smaller group of people appear to have a positive view of both religion and science, but this relationship is somewhat strained. “[R]ather than a fully compatible view [of science and religion], even these individuals cannot reconcile some scientific and religious accounts,” O’Brien and Noy note. “This third perspective is consistent with recent findings that many religious individuals are scientifically literate yet prefer some religious explanations to scientific ones.”

This has implications for people working to communicate science-related issues. In an interview with Science Daily, O’Brien says the work reminds us that people can have a deep respect for and understanding of science while still holding to the tenants of their faith. The findings “show…that differences in people’s views of science and religion do not necessarily reflect a lack of knowledge or understanding.” For communicators, then, O’Brien suggests that “bridging gaps between different groups of people may have less to do with reducing knowledge deficits among them and more to do with increasing empathy for and awareness of different lifestyles and cultural preferences.”

American Sociological Review

Timothy O’Brien, University of Evansville
Shiri Noy, University of Wyoming

Posted: May 8, 2015
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