CHICAGO, IL — A new large-scale survey indicates that although scientists and religious people disagree on specific issues, significant portions of both groups are open to increased collaboration.

graphicInitial findings from the “Religious Understandings of Science” (RUS) study, conducted by researchers at Rice University, were released at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Chicago. AAAS’s Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER) commissioned the survey and says it will use results to promote dialogue between religious and scientific communities.

Although the survey included respondents with diverse religious views, AAAS is most interested in the views of evangelical Christians, according to DoSER director Jennifer Weisman, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Evangelicals represent nearly 30 percent of the U.S. religious community, hold mainly conservative political positions, and are interested in public policy. The initiative, funded by the Templeton Foundation and AAAS, is to run through 2015.

Conflict or Collaboration?

The RUS survey involved collecting “an unprecedented quantity and depth of data,” according to principal investigator Elaine Ecklund, a professor of sociology and director of the Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University in Houston. Researchers invited 16,746 people to participate and received 10,241 responses (national surveys often have samples ranging from about 1,000 to 2,000). Among 9,138 participants who returned complete surveys, 15.5 percent described themselves as nonbelievers (atheists, agnostics, or nonreligious). Others said they belong to a broad spectrum of religions, including evangelical Protestants (22.9 percent), mainline Protestants (26.9 percent), Catholics (23.8 percent), Jews (1.9 percent), and non-Western faiths such as Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Jain (2.6 percent).

The sample included 574 scientists, defined broadly to include people having at least a bachelor’s degree in science; working in specific occupational categories, such as computing, medicine and engineering; and self-identifying as scientists. The researchers said this approach sought to capture views of rank-and-file scientists and not primarily those of university professors.

Researchers supplemented the survey with more than 300 in-depth interviews in Houston and Chicago, including 142 with those describing themselves as evangelicals. These interviews lasted as long as two-and-one-half hours. “There were people who wanted to talk about this issue so much [that] we literally had to walk away from them,” Ecklund said.

Initial findings released at the AAAS conference focused on evangelicals and scientists. Compared to the general public, evangelicals were two to three times more likely to consider themselves religious (44 percent, compared to 18.8 percent for all recipients) and engage in activities such as praying, attending services, and reading sacred texts. By the same measures, scientists were only slightly less religious than the general public. However, the sample included 104 scientists who said they are evangelicals, and more than half (51.2 percent) said they are very religious.

To assess perceptions of the relationship between religion and science, the researchers asked respondents which statement best described their view: “For me personally, my understanding of science and religion can be described as a relationship of …”

  • Conflict … I consider myself to be on the side of religion.
  • Conflict … I consider myself to be on the side of science.
  • Independence … they refer to different aspects of reality.
  • Collaboration … each can be used to help support the other.

Among the general public, most respondents said they believe religion and science are independent (35 percent) or that the two can collaborate (38.3 percent); 13.9 percent sided with science and 12.9 percent with religion. Some evangelicals (29.4 percent) sided with religion, but nearly half (48.4 percent) said they believe religion and science can collaborate.

Evangelicals’ Opposition on Climate … More Political than Religious

“We recognize that we have some issues within our community,” said Galen Carey, government relations director for the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), speaking at the conference. Carey acknowledged, for instance, that some evangelicals place undue trust in religious leaders for issues of science, and that evangelicals by and large may have less formal science education than the general population. But scientific inquiry is compatible with evangelical views, Carey asserted: “We shouldn’t be worried about further exploration of God’s world, because evangelicals are oriented toward truth.”

Moreover, Carey said, evangelicals care deeply about social issues such as feeding the world’s poor and protecting the weak from harm. In 2011 the NAE published “Loving the Least of These,” a 56-page discussion of climate change and its impacts on the world’s most poor and vulnerable populations. The document did not take policy positions, but urged readers to pray for wisdom, take steps to make their lifestyles more sustainable, and support relief and development agencies working to help communities around the world adapt to climate change.

“Many evangelicals oppose actions to slow climate change not on a religious basis but politically, because they believe the government wants to take away their freedom,” Carey said. “‘Loving the Least of These’ was a response to that view.”

In 2012 the evangelicals group took a stronger step on a different environmental issue in endorsing the Obama administration’s proposed rule limiting mercury and emissions of air toxics from electric power plants. NAE based its position on what it sees as threats to public health, especially pregnant women and unborn children, whom it views as among society’s most vulnerable members.

As speakers at the AAAS session noted, evangelical Christians in the U.S. are a large and diverse community. Some organizations, such as the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good (NEP), the Evangelical Environmental Network, and Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, strongly support action to slow climate change. But they of course can’t claim to speak for or represent the vast and diverse community of evangelicals overall.

“Gradually, the community is changing. The movement is led by younger evangelicals and those who aren’t beholden to the Republican Party,” says NEP president Richard Cizik, who held Carey’s position at the NAE until he resigned in 2008 after his statements of concern over climate change and other issues drew criticism from some evangelicals.

Turning to Whom for Answers about Science?

The RUS survey also probed respondents’ interest in science. Asked whether they were very likely to read a full story about a new scientific discovery in a newspaper or on a website, 20 percent of evangelicals and 25 percent of all respondents said yes. But only 21.3 percent of evangelicals said they were “very interested” in new scientific discoveries, compared to 31.5 percent of the general public. And when evangelicals are concerned about science issues, they appear more than twice as likely as the general public to consult religious sources, such as a text or a leader or member of their congregation.

“We need to consider the powerful role that religious leaders play in evangelicals’ lives,” said Ecklund. Both Ecklund and Carey also singled out evangelical scientists as a group that could play a powerful role mediating between their religious and professional communities. (Within the field of climate science, former IPCC lead author Sir John Houghton and Texas Tech University associate professor Katherine Hayhoe are well-known evangelical Christians. Hayhoe was among 200 U.S. evangelical scientists who wrote to Congress last July urging action to slow climate change.)

Extrapolating from the numbers of survey respondents who identified themselves as scientists and as evangelicals, Carey estimated that roughly two million U.S. scientists are evangelicals. “We need to know more about them,” he said. “Who are they? What disciplines do they work in? Do they need theological training to be good ambassadors [to congregations]?” [Editor’s note: A number of religious news outlets’ accounts of this panel incorrectly reported that the study itself showed two-million U.S. scientists to be evangelicals. In fact, according to the National Science Foundation’s biennial Science and Engineering Indicators report, released in February, size estimates for the entire U.S. science and engineering workforce as of 2010 ranged from 5 million to 19 million, depending on definitions of scientist.]

Strong Differences on Evolution/Creation

The issue of evolution and creation evoked strong differences between scientists and evangelicals, with 43.3 percent of evangelicals supporting a “strong creationist” view (“God created the universe, the earth, and all of life within the past 10,000 years”), compared to 21.5 percent of the general public and 9.2 percent of scientists. Another 23.3 percent of evangelicals said they agree with the statement that “God created the universe and the Earth billions of years ago; God started and has guided human evolution over millions of years,” along with 17.6 percent of the general public and 8.4 percent of scientists.

But evangelicals were no more likely than the general public to support the idea of “intelligent design.” Just 5.5 percent of evangelicals, 5.4 percent of general public, and 3.5 percent of scientists agreed that “the universe and Earth came into being billions of years ago, and humans evolved over millions of years according to the design of an Intelligent Force.”

The issue of human origins is closely linked with the central role that the Bible plays in many evangelicals’ lives. One evangelical interviewed for the survey said that if the creation story could be disproven, “that just devastates my way of life, my entire being.” But another evangelical recalled believing the strong creation theory in his youth and commented that he had experienced “a big swing” toward understanding the theory of evolution and geologic time.

“Conflict [between religion and science] often isn’t about the actual science, but about how understanding based on that science might be used,” said James McCarthy, a professor of biological oceanography at Harvard University and a past AAAS president. “We need to break down barriers to public understanding of science wherever they occur, and understanding religious views is part of that mission.”

Researchers at Rice University are analyzing other findings from the survey. On Monday, April 14, AAAS’s Wiseman is scheduled to speak at Rice on “A Conversation on Religious Understandings of Science.” Later this year Rice and AAAS are expected to organize regional workshops bringing local scientists and evangelicals together to discuss science-related issues of concern to both groups. And in 2015 AAAS is to organize a national conference with high-profile leaders from the scientific and evangelical communities to discuss the survey findings and ways to continue building bridges among scientific and evangelical interests.