Friday, August 31, 2007

Pew survey: If its down to science vs religion, religion will win

Back to the old question: how to approach touchy scientific issues that come in conflict with religion? There is an interesting recent survey that shows that American adults understand that science is important, they are in favor of science, but when it comes in conflict with core religious values, they side with religion. And more importantly, they know that the reason for their views are religious and not based on lack of evidence! This is problematic at one level (low emphasis on evidence for evaluating matters involving physical science), but it raises again the issue of how to properly address scientific issues that could possibly conflict with religion. From this perspective, Richard Dawkins' approach of attacking religion and presenting more evidence is clearly not going to work. Here is the survey: How the Public Resolves Conflicts between Faith and Science.

On the acceptance of evolution:
Indeed, according to a 2006 survey from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 42% of Americans reject the notion that life on earth evolved and believe instead that humans and other living things have always existed in their present form. Among white evangelical Protestants – many of whom regard the Bible as the inerrant word of God – 65% hold this view. Moreover, in the same poll, 21% of those surveyed say that although life has evolved, these changes were guided by a supreme being. Only a minority, about a quarter (26%) of respondents, say that they accept evolution through natural processes or natural selection alone.
But most people are pro-science and understand that there is scientific consensus on evolution:
Interestingly, many of those who reject natural selection recognize that scientists themselves fully accept Darwin's theory. In the same 2006 Pew poll, nearly two-thirds of adults (62%) say that they believe that scientists agree on the validity of evolution. Moreover, Americans, including religious Americans, hold science and scientists in very high regard. A 2006 survey conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University found that most people (87%) think that scientific developments make society better. Among those who describe themselves as being very religious, the same number – 87% – share that opinion.
Thus, the public simply ignore the scientists when scientific ideas come in conflict with religion - and evidence doesn't feature much in the debate:
When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll. Indeed, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin's theory.
But here is a surprising result from the survey:
This reliance on religious faith may help explain why so many people do not see science as a direct threat to religion. Only 28% of respondents in the same Time poll say that scientific advancements threaten their religious beliefs. These poll results also show that more than four-fifths of respondents (81%) say that "recent discoveries and advances" in science have not significantly impacted their religious views. In fact, 14% say that these discoveries have actually made them more religious. Only 4% say that science has made them less religious.
So the question is, how to best approach scientific ideas that clash with religion. Richard Dawkins' thinks that if you show evidence, all smart people will immediately side with it. This may still work, except he puts science and religion in opposition and makes one choose between them. The Pew survey shows that under these circumstances, most of the public will choose religion over science.

I think the starting point regarding that should be an emphasis on the use of evidence for physical phenomenon irrespective of ones' faith. Is it even possible? can use God for "meaning" - to answer the "why" questions and leave "how" questions to science and scientific evidence (in the same spirit of Gould's non-overlapping Magistaria and Galileo's two books: book of scripture and book of nature). Second, take advantage of the existing positive attitude towards science, and show how ideas like evolution has shaped modern medicine and is saving lives every day (Is it possible to show that a rejection of evolutionary theory in the modern world would almost be an immoral position from this perspective?). If this makes someone more religious...that is long as they accept that events in the physical world can be explained only by natural causes. Check out this article on Framing Science, published in Science, in the context of global warming debate, evolution, and the stem cells controversy. Also check out Krauss & Dawkins on this issue and also Michael Shermer.


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Nizam said...

I'm not sure how this may connect with the phenomenon described above, but many people see religion as static and science as being always changing as new theories develop and as technology enables different ways of observing the world. In this context, people may feel that if they put their "faith" in science as opposed to the religion of their choosing, they are putting their faith in something that is unstable and doesn't provide them with anything fixed or solid.

Perhaps one way to break down this impression would be to not emphasize specific scientific theories in opposition to specific faith-based explanations for natural phenomena (i.e. evolution v. creation), but rather to stress the scientific method and the philosophy of science as being the solid foundation of science that one may confidently adopt as an alternative to seeking truth in religious scriptures.

In other words, empiricism vs. dogmatism.

(One related difficulty will be people's concern that without religion, one supposedly cannot have morality. This can be adequately addressed using arguments constructed by Dawkins and others, showing that our morality does not, in fact, come from our religious texts and that independently-functioning human reason acts as a filter between scripture and our practiced morality.)

Salman Hameed said...


Well-said. Another related issue is about comfort - can science or empiricism provide comfort? This is again where two different approaches come into place. Do you want to be comforted by something that is unverifiable or you want to face all difficulties with the uncertainty inherent in science? Sagan, in his last book "Billions & Billions" has an amazing chapter called "In the Valley of Shadows". He wrote it when he knew that he had only a few months to live. He admits in it that it would be very comforting to know that there is afterlife and that he will again be united with his wife and kids. However, there is no evidence for afterlife. So he stressed on the value of evidence over something that is comforting and possibly not true. Ann Druyan (his wife) later wrote that Sagan didn't want to believe - he wanted to know.

Its a fantastic chapter. What made Sagan good was that he understood and appreciated the reasons why people choose to believe in these things. But he also articulated very clearly why he didn't.

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