Religion in science: More widespread than you might think

Science and religion have a fairly awkward relationship, as Galileo found out to his cost back in 1633. In the modern era, the likes of Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan have considered there to be a fundamental conflict between spiritual faith and the dispassionate study of science, but it turns out there are more religious people working in science than you might think. In short, not every scientist in the world is an atheist, especially when you move beyond the more secular West.

The study found that more than half the scientists in India, Italy, Taiwan and Turkey self-identified as “religious”. However, in general they proved to be less religious than the total population of that country – with the exception of Hong Kong, where scientists proved more religious than the population as a whole.

The study as a whole took in 9,138 respondents from eight different countries – the five mentioned above, plus the more secular UK, United States and France. Of these, 574 were scientists, of which 15% described themselves a “very religious” and 35.9% agreed with the statement: “I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it.” That’s much lower than the 55.5% of the overall total who agreed, but possibly more than you’d think.

More interesting is the attitudes that the scientists have had towards the religious, and the sample of evangelical protestants’ (the single largest religious group surveyed, at 2,149) view of scientists. Of all respondents, 19.8% either agreed or agreed strongly with the statement “most religious people are hostile to science,” while 21.9% signed up to the sentiment “most scientists are hostile to religion”. As you might expect, the idea that religious people are hostile to science was more widely endorsed by the scientists (21.9%) than the evangelical protestants (11.5%), but both groups were more likely to agree that scientists are hostile to religion than the general population: 24.1% of scientists and 36.8% of evangelical protestants. Of the 104 people who identified as both evangelical protestant AND scientists, that number rose to 57.2%, possibly indicating some first-hand experience from colleagues.religion_vs_science

Despite this, the researchers found that a relatively small number of scientists believed science and religion to be in direct conflict. The largest proportion of these were in the UK, with almost a third seeing an issue, but every other nation was well below that. This is an important thing for international co-operation, says Elaine Howard Ecklund, the founding director of Rice University’s Religion and Public Life Program. “Science is a global endeavor and as long as science is global, then we need to recognise that the borders between science and religion are more permeable than most people think,” she said.

Amen to that. While you’d have every right to be dubious of a geneticist who believes in creationism, the religious spectrum is – if you’ll forgive the pun – quite a broad church of beliefs, ranging from “the world was created in seven days, and we’re all related to Adam” all the way to “I believe in something out there”. Science arguably covers an even broader range of disciplines, from stem cells to space travel. Co-operation in matters as important as science is vital and there are plenty of prominent scientists who believed and believe in a higher power.

“No-one today can deny that there is a popular ‘warfare’ framing between science and religion,” said Ecklund. “This is a war of words fueled by scientists, religious people and those in between.” Perhaps those of us in between should stand back, stop fanning the flames and let the scientists get on with things.

Then again…

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Images: Steve Rainwater and Charles Clegg and used under Creative Commons

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