Evangelicals’ surprising view of science and what it may mean

Ask fans of New Atheist scientists Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris what religious Americans think of science and there’s a good chance you’d get something to the effect of “religious people hate science.”

Yet what do we actually know about what religious Americans think about science, particularly evangelicals, who are often the implicit or explicit focus of such discussions?

Not much, it turns out.

Sure, there are loud voices that seem to feed into certain conclusions about what religious people think about science and scientists. (Consider creationist Ken Ham’s attempts to discredit the theory of evolution.) But, as with any issue, the loudest or most prominent voices are not necessarily the most representative.

Over the past five years we have conducted hundreds of interviews, visits to houses of worship and a survey of over 10,000 U.S. adults representing a wide range of religious perspectives, all with the goal of better understanding how Americans understand the relationship between religion and science. What we found does not support the conclusion that religious people are hostile toward, disinterested in or pessimistic about science.

We asked our survey respondents how they personally view the relationship between religion and science. Rather than saying that the two are in conflict, evangelicals were the most likely to say that they view religion and science as having a collaborative relationship in which the two spheres support each other (48 percent of evangelicals) or that religion and science are each independent and refer to different aspects of reality (21 percent of evangelicals).

Indeed, our in-depth interviews showed us that many evangelicals see support for their faith in science. As one evangelical we talked to said, “Science is fantastic and I thank God for this. … It isn’t as if He didn’t want us to find out about His incredible creation.”

Our research does show, though, that for evangelicals in particular, interest in science increases when they can see it connecting to concerns informed by their faith, such as serving others or alleviating suffering.

For instance, we asked survey respondents if they would recommend young people enter basic and applied science occupations such as biology or physics. Evangelicals were less likely to say they would recommend a young person pursue such careers compared with the nonreligious.

But when it came to more applied scientific occupations, such as medicine, evangelicals were just willing to recommend a career as a physician.

Of course, both career paths involve significant scientific education, but one is seen as more obviously redemptive (medicine). This provides insight into potential ways to leverage the interest and energy of evangelicals in support of science.

Our survey and interview data do highlight tensions. For example, our survey asked whether people thought “scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories and explanations.” About 60 percent of evangelicals agree with this statement, a much higher rate of support than among people of other religions.

This makes sense given that evangelicals — and many other religious Americans –believe in a God who has been and can be involved in the world and in their lives. This starting assumption inevitably shapes how they view and interpret the scientific process and scientific claims.

Many religious Americans, though, are quite willing to try to reconcile their starting assumptions about God with any scientific claims presented to them.

For example, our interviews and survey data show that, when it comes to issues like the origins of the universe and life, religious Americans appear rather flexible in their willingness to say that different origin narratives could be true as long as they leave room for God’s role in the world, even if this role is part of their personal and private interpretation of that origin narrative.

To be clear, we are not suggesting that scientists or science classrooms can or should start talking about miracles. Nor are we saying that only applied forms of science are worthwhile. But any attempt to connect scientific and religious communities, including the evangelical community, will be more productive if it begins by shedding the stereotypes presented by the loudest voices in society, and also understanding those communities’ core interests and worldviews.