The Pew Research Center has just released a new study about how religion affects Americans’ views on science, and there are quite a few fascinating key takeaways.
The most important finding was that the common refrain that “religious people don’t embrace science” is simply not true. Only 30% of people felt that their religious views conflicted with science, and even more interesting, it was non-religious people who were more likely to think science and religion were in conflict than religious people.
But Pew also went deeper, and asked people about critical policy questions where science plays an important role, such as GMO’s, the space station, fracking, vaccinations and climate change. And while there are certainly some topics where religion influences people’s view on science — evolution, abortion, the origins of the universe — the report noted that “on a number of other science-related topics, there is no independent effect of religious affiliation or frequency of church attendance on public attitudes.”
So what do we do with these findings?
It means we need to change the conversation. Too often, the discussion about religion and science is focused on the points of conflict and disagreement. We read about schools teaching intelligent design, or presidential candidates who don’t accept evolution, and yes, when I read those stories, it makes my blood boil.
But when people are interacting with science on a day-to-day basis, they are rarely thinking about the origins of the universe. Instead, they are thinking about the issues that face us as individuals and society, such as how technology is changing our lives, or the ethical implications of genetic engineering, or how we can engender more compassion in our society.
So as the Pew Report seems to indicate, when we drill down and talk about specific subjects, we can stop yelling at each other and trying to convince the unconvinceable. We can stop talking past each other, and start talking to each other, and say, “This topic is complicated and nuanced. Reasonable people can disagree on it. So as we talk about it, where does science come in, and where do value judgments come in?”
That’s why my organization, Sinai and Synapses, approaches it like this: we don’t look at scientific questions. We don’t look at religious questions. We look at human questions, and try to see where science and religion can contribute to the conversation.
After all, both science and religion are human endeavors, performed by human beings, in the service of enhancing individual people’s lives and bettering our world. Can each be misused? Of course. But does each one have the possibility of bettering ourselves and our world? Most definitely.
So rather than asking, “How do you view science and religion?”, it’s better to ask questions like, “Genetic knowledge is rapidly expanding, and knowledge is certainly power, so how do we use that power?” “Is social media helping or hurting social justice causes?” “What factors incentivize terrorists?”
If we can approach these kinds of questions with humility, openness and curiosity, we move beyond a “science vs. religion” conversation. Instead, we begin to ask, “These are critical issues we face. How can I constructively bring all of who I am to the discussion?”
Indeed, this Pew report also confirms some findings run by the Perceptions Project, run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER) and Rice University, which Sinai and Synapses was a partner on. Crucially, the Perceptions Project emphasized personal connections and relationships. After all, “scientists” and “religious people” are abstractions. The person sitting next to you is a real person, with a real story, and a real contribution.
As Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, Director of DoSER, remarked on this Pew report, “[W]e found a lot of shared desire to use science and technology for the betterment of the world and the human condition. There’s a lot of common ground.”
So rather than asking “Do you see science and religion in conflict?”, let’s ask, “What’s the issue we are facing, and what can science or religion bring the table?” If we can do that, not only will we elevate the discourse surrounding religion and science, we’ll make people’s lives a little more whole, and our world a little better.