Many of America’s cultural battles in recent decades seem to be face-offs between science and faith: over the teaching of evolution, the reality of climate change, the value of stem cell research, the personhood status of an embryo, and the so on. Many on the liberal side of these issues see the controversies as part of a confrontation between ignorance and knowledge. For the more philosophically inclined, it is about a centuries-old tension between faith and the Enlightenment’s assertion of reasoned observation. (Michael Shermer’s “Skeptic” column in Scientific American is largely devoted to this theme.) Recent research suggests, however, a more complex structure behind both these debates and Americans’ views: many of those on the religious side are far from scientific naifs; some are scientifically quite knowledgeable. It is when science directly touches faith that the conflict flares up.

Facts and Faith
A newly published study by sociologists Timothy O’Brien and Shiri Noy (gated) “indicates that the conflict between science and religion may be limited to a few specific issues,” specifically evolution and creation. Religious Americans are not less knowledgeable about or supportive of science generally “but may choose to interpret events in a religious light.” There may be less to the reported “conflict between reason and faith” than appears, O’Brien and Noy write.

Using the 2006, ’08, and ’10 General Social Surveys (GSS)—which include many questions testing respondents’ scientific knowledge (for example, knowledge of electrons, the earth’s core, genetics, and function of antibiotics) and a few measuring respondents’ attitudes toward religion—the authors distinguish three sets of Americans. A plurality, 43 percent, might be considered conventional. The scientific knowledge of people in this group was spotty, their views of science somewhat cautious, and they were conventionally religious as Americans go: believers and moderate church attenders. Another group, 36 percent of the sample, knew much more science and were science enthusiasts; they reported weak religious ties, and half said the bible was essentially a set of myths. The remainder, however, 21 percent, looked interestingly different. They were the most seriously religious group; they favored conservative, white Protestant denominations more than the other groups did, and none among them said the bible was a set of myths. Yet they were just as scientifically knowledgeable as the science enthusiasts but with one serious disagreement—about the big bang and evolution. Hardly any among this third agrees that the universe began with a huge explosion or that human beings evolved from earlier species. Another sociologist analyzing the same GSS data, J. Michael Roos, argues (gated) that the two items in question measure part of a “Young Earth Worldview,” which is more of a religious than a scientific matter for most Americans. See also here, gated.

In yet another analysis of some the same data, researchers found that, on average and with factors such as education held constant, religious Americans were just as interested in and as knowledgeable about science as were less religious Americans. However, the religious were more skeptical of the contention that science or scientists benefit mankind. The authors cite a further study arguing that religious Americans may have confidence in science but not scientists—plausibly perhaps because they suspect not the scientists’ findings but their moral positions.

Non-GSS surey data point to a similar pattern. In a 2006 Pew Survey, white evangelical respondents and secular respondents differed by only 18 points on the question of whether global warming was happening (70 percent versus 88 percent answering yes), but they disagreed by 55 points on the truth of evolution (28 percent versus 84 percent). In another Pew survey, half of scientists said that they believed in God or a higher power. Many Americans are scientifically knowledgeable but dissent at the specific points where science clashes with biblical faith. On the flip side, Americans who say they have no religion are as likely as or more likely than those who do claim a religion to say they believe in ghosts and witches.*

Political polarization has strongly affected public debates over science in recent years (gated) and religious Americans tend to be politically conservative, which might incline them to be science deniers. (GSS respondents’ views on whether there is consensus among scientists on global warming depended more on their politics than on their education, I found looking at the 2006 and ’10 surveys, and depended almost not all on their view of the bible’s literal truth.) Given our political polarization, that there is so much agreement on most science issues is striking. By a huge margin, a Gallup poll shows, Americans disagree that “science and religion are incompatible”: 69 percent to 17 percent.

Thus, underlying Americans’ views, these studies suggest, is not a simple divide—knowledge versus ignorance, reason versus faith, or science versus religion—but a complex combination of science and religion. Science is appreciated except for its claims about creation. And there are, at more sophisticated levels, some who combine religion even with acceptance of the big bang and evolution.

* My analysis of two surveys archived at the Roper Center (#USAIPOGNS 2005-25; #USCBS2011-098).