Science & Religion Aren’t Compatible (But Only in America)

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In my previous video, I talked about a study that looked specifically at American Christians (and how those who believe in a “controlling god” may be less likely to take action to stop global warming even though they claim to care about the topic). Today I’d like to talk about another study that also demonstrates how complicated it can be to figure out how religion might help or harm us. Unlike the previous study, this one specifically looked at the views of religious people not just in the United States but around the world, determined to figure out the tricky interaction between science and faith.

The study, published this past summer in Social Psychological and Personality Science, is titled Religious Americans Have Less Positive Attitudes Toward Science, but This Does Not Extend to Other Cultures. Oh. Well. Thanks for the spoiler alert, assholes.

Over the course of five different experiments, researchers first polled Americans by asking them to rate their religiosity and their interest in science. In each experiment they varied how they figured out the interest in science, because that’s a kind of vague data point. In some experiments they asked subjects to choose from a list of topics they wanted to read about, and in others they asked them to state how much they agree with statements like “It is not important to know about science in everyday life.” But for pretty much every one they found that the more religious a subject was, the less interested in science they were.

In a sixth experiment, they looked at international polling data to find that across 40 different countries, there were wild differences between whether people had a similar religion/science correlation as the US or no correlation at all. And, surprisingly (to me at least) they found that some countries had the opposite, positive correlation: the more religious people were, the more interested in science they were.

So for their seventh and final experiment, they gathered subjects in Brazil, the Czech Republic, the Philippines, South Africa, and Sweden, (countries picked because they seemed to have varying religion/science correlations) and gave them a similar test that they gave the Americans in the first set of experiments. Sure enough, they found a weak but positive correlation: the more religious a person was, the more interested in science they were.

It’s all very interesting, and particularly robust considering that the studies were registered — as I’ve talked about before, that means that the researchers submitted their hypotheses and statistical methods before conducting the research, meaning they couldn’t take advantage of having a large amount of data that they could just crunch in different ways until they find a statistically significant effect.

In my previous video I talked about how one of the things that makes it difficult to make a blanket statement about religion, like “religion is at odds with science,” is because there are many different ways to be religious, and because religion is so tied into culture. When so many people in a culture are religious, it’s hard to tease apart what is causing the problem.

This research suggests that we can’t simply say “religion and science are incompatible.” That may have some truth here in the United States, but in other countries the two things are perfectly compatible.

This makes sense! Fundamentalist Christianity in the United States has been particularly focused on being in opposition to science, demanding a literal interpretation of the Bible and pushing that science classes teach the Bible as though it’s obvious fables are equivalent to the past two millennia of scientific inquiry.

Atheists may still point out that religion by definition requires belief in the supernatural, or in something that cannot be proven, while science requires an understanding of the natural, and in proving what we thought couldn’t be proven.

Well, first of all that’s not a great definition of religion. There are religions out there with no supernatural beliefs, and religions that put knowledge and inquiry on a pedestal. It’s hard to figure out what beliefs we should even call a religion, because they’re so varied across the planet.

And that’s why it’s so easy to understand why there really might not be a blanket incompatibility between science and religion: because humans have always had weird beliefs, and always will have weird beliefs, and scientific inquiry has marched on despite them. We don’t always call irrational beliefs “religion” but they’re there just the same, in scientists like James Watson, who is the “father of DNA” but who also holds the irrational, unscientific belief that black people are genetically inferior to white people. Abject racism isn’t a religion but it’s just as silly as thinking that a supernatural deity is running the universe full-time.

Pierre Curie had a Nobel Prize in physics but also thought that psychics could make tables levitate by using ghosts (or possibly an unknown medium responsible for radioactivity). Even Isaac Newton was super into astrology and the Philosopher’s Stone, which was a rock thought to give people immortality.

So yes, if you build a religion specifically on the idea that science is heretical, then your religion is incompatible with science. But in general? Of course religion is compatible with science. Weird and wrong beliefs can certainly get in the way of scientific progress, but a speed bump isn’t a stop sign. If it were, we’d still be living in caves trying to figure out fire.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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One Comment

  1. The whole idea of using the Bible as a source of (what we would call) scientific knowledge is a modern invention, anyway. For most of its existence, people saw it as a guide to Godly behavior, plus a source of good stories.

    USAan fundamentalism is a reaction to the rapid changes in society, which have made a lot of people feel unsafe because they don’t know the Right Thing To Do, (and say, and believe.) Fundamentalism promises its adherents certainty in an uncertain world, as long as you live as your leaders tell you and believe what they tell you to believe. The conflict with science comes because it implicitly says that things may not be the way the leaders say they are. Note that fundamentalism is incompatible with an awful lot of stuff in the modern world, not just science.

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