How US christians react to the religion-science conflict

Buddhist priests

Last post I looked at some of the ways science and religion interact without conflict in western culture. Today – what psychologists have found about how people in the US think about science and religion.

You may be surprised at some of their findings (I was).

How people think about science and religion

I have already reported that christians in the US generally have a better than average understanding of science, and generally find little conflict with their religion. The exceptions seem to be (i) the most conservative christians, who are suspicious of science generally, and (ii) a few contentious ethical issues (global warming and stem cell research) where many christians were suspicious.

For further information on such research, see An evidence-based rethinking of the religion-science conflict and Religious Americans: science is mostly okay.

But what leads them to conclude there is little conflict?

Philosophical assumptions were not helpful

One study used these definitions: “religion uses explanations that rely on non-physical concepts, and science uses explanations that rely exclusively on physical concepts.”

Philosophers had suggested three main approaches to science by believers – (1) conflict (the two are opposed), (2) independence (the two work in different areas and so cannot conflict) and (3) reconciliation (the two need not be in conflict). But the psychologists found that almost all the people they surveyed rejected 1 & 2 and opted for 3. They generally accepted that both the physical and the supernatural were part of life.

Why little conflict?

The psychologists found three different types of thinking about science and religion:

  1. in “target-dependent thinking,” people used scientific and religious explanations to account for different aspects of some matter – for example, evolution was considered to explain the origin of animals, but God was used to explain the origin of humans;
  2. in “synthetic thinking,” religion and science combined, often in a very ill-defined way, to form a single explanation; and
  3. in “integrated thinking” religious and scientific explanations were reconciled in a clear way – for example, in evolution God is seen as setting up the laws but science can discover how those laws led to the species we see.

Thus, in all cases, “scientific explanations did not replace religious ones, but coexisted with them in various ways”, and the researchers concluded that “supernatural reasoning seems to be a general feature of human cognition.”

But what about the scientists?

Sociologists from two US universities obtain survey responses from about 1700 randomly selected scientists from America’s 21 top research universities, and interviewed 275 of them. They asked them questions about religion and spirituality, how they defined these terms, and how they connected or conflicted.


Almost half of the scientists self-identified as “religious in a traditional sense” and another 20% self-identified as “spiritual” (one author described them as “spiritual atheists”), with their spirituality often deriving from their work as scientists.

Little conflict

The researchers report that most of the scientists had complex and nuanced approaches to the compatibility of science and religion:

  • Only 15% of the scientists thought religion and science were inherently in conflict. These scientists tended to believe that science was the only way to true knowledge, and tended to judge religion by fundmentalist belief.
  • Another 15% saw no conflict, because either the two looked at different questions, or because each could assist the other.
  • Fully 70% felt that religion and science were sometimes in conflict, but not necessarily. Some redefined the usual boundaries of science and religion so they were complementary, some pointed to religious scientists like Francis Collins as examples of how the two can be integrated. But most had engaged in personal inquiry and discussion that led to a well-founded view that there need be no conflict.

The vast majority of scientists do not think that religion and science conflict, and therefore they do not think that advances in scientific knowledge somehow strike a blow against religion.

Stereotypes are not always right!

It seems we may have to put aside some stereotypes – relating to christians and scientists. There is a wide range of opinion and belief, but not nearly as much conflict as we are sometimes led to believe.

Photo Credit: the_exploratorium via Compfight cc. I realise the photo portrays a minority religion in the US, but I liked the colours.