It’s a common view among the public — and certain intellectuals — that science and religion are in fundamental opposition to each other, despite claims to the contrary. As Richard Dawkins put it in his essay The Great Convergence, “To an honest judge, the alleged convergence between religion and science is a shallow, empty, hollow, spin-doctored sham.”
Part of this conviction that science and religion cannot be reconciled comes down to a belief that the two doctrines are psychologically incompatible. How can someone put their faith in a divine being while also trying to make sense of the world through careful observation and hypothesis testing?
But a new study in Social Psychological and Personality Science casts doubt on the idea that religious people tend to be less scientifically-minded. Jonathon McPhetres from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and colleagues find that while the link between religiosity and negative attitudes towards science is pretty robust in the United States, in other countries that relationship is very different.
The team first explored Americans’ religiosity and attitudes towards science across a series of nine studies comprising more than 2,300 participants. Each study used the same measure of religiosity: participants rated themselves on six statements like “I believe in God” or “I consider myself religious”. But the studies varied in their approach to measuring participants’ stance on science. For instance, in some studies participants rated their own interest in scientific topics (e.g. robotics) vs neutral topics (e.g. music), while in others they responded to statements about their attitudes towards science (e.g. “The world is better because of science”).
In pretty much all of the studies, scores on the religiosity scale were negatively associated with scores on the science scales. That is, people who were more religious tended to have less interest in science, or more negative attitudes towards it.
(Interestingly, these studies also included an experimental manipulation: some participants were first “primed” to think of religion, by listing reasons that religion is good, for instance, or by copying a snippet of text about religion. But this had no impact on the results, adding to other recent findings which have cast doubt on many priming effects).
So far, so unsurprising. But would the same relationship hold up outside of the United States? To test this, the team conducted a couple of further studies. Firstly, they looked at data that had already been collected from a large, global survey. As part of that assessment, participants had rated their agreement with three items concerning science (e.g. “Science and technology are making our lives healthier, easier, and more comfortable”), and had answered three questions about religiosity (e.g. “How important is religion in your life?”).
The team looked at data from more than 66,000 participants across 60 countries. And, overall, they found a small negative correlation between religiosity and science attitudes. But this was far from consistent between the different countries: some nations showed positive correlations, while others showed no relationship between the two at all.
To delve further into differences between countries, the team asked people from Brazil, the Czech Republic, the Philippines, South Africa, and Sweden to complete the same measures of interest in science and attitudes towards science as in the first set of studies. This time — and in stark contrast to the American results — there were small positive correlations in each country: those who were more religious tended to be a little more interested in science and had more positive attitudes.
Overall, the results suggest that, for much of the world, rejection of science is not necessarily a feature of religion. Instead, the authors write, “apparent conflicts may be the product of other sociocultural and historical features of specific countries.” For instance, American Christianity has certain aspects of religious fundamentalism, such as a literal interpretation of the bible, and many political conservatives in the US have strong ties to the Christian right. These sorts of factors may help to explain why the country seems to have developed a unique conflict between science and religion.
There are other interpretations, of course: perhaps scientifically-minded Americans tend to reject religion, rather than the other way around. I also expect that some people would label the simultaneous holding of both scientific and religious views as “irrational”, and argue that the research says little about reconciling the two ideologies.
Fine — those kinds of philosophical arguments are unlikely to end any time soon. More interestingly to me, the study neatly illustrates the problem of relying solely on data from American participants (or participants from other Western, industrialised societies) in psychological research. Whatever your take on the results, it’s clear that making sweeping generalisations based on such a narrow group can lead to stories about how we think and behave that are just not true for vast swathes of humanity.