Sunday, 2 September 2007

USA Polling Data on Science and Religion

reposted from
by Jason Rosenhouse

Reposted from:

jasonChris Mooney has a link to this analysis of recent polling data. The analysis was written by David Masci. The subject: How Americans feel about science and faith. Mooney thinks the data supports the Matt Nisbet line that people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens hurt the cause. I disagree.

Here's Mooney's main comment:

So here's my contribution: I merely wish to point out a good analysis of polling data over at Pew that strongly supports the broad Nisbet perspective. The gist: The American public doesn't generally perceive a necessary conflict between religion and science; but if you tell them there is such an either-or conflict, guess which one of the binary options they're gonna choose?

Yeah, that's right. White-beard-in-the-sky-guy--or some variation thereon.
The polling data described in the essay is remarkable for a couple of reasons. For example:

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.
Are these numbers accurate!? If they are, they would seem to indicate considerable progress in America's acceptance of evolution. I had always heard it was ten percent of the population that accepts fully naturalistic evolution, and that the percentage accepting "no-changeism" was a lot closer to fifty percent. Meanwhile, only sixty-five percent of evangelicals reject evolution? I would have guessed the number was closer to eighty.

There are also some places where I am not persuaded by Masci's analysis:

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.

Thinking that scientific developments make society better is not the same thing as holding scientists in high regard. I am not surprised that even very religious people like a steady supply of new technology and medical innovations, which is usually what people think of when they think of scientific progress. But that doesn't mean their respect extends to the process that leads to such progress, or the people behind the scenes.

However, these are not the main issues. Instead I recommend pondering this:

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.

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.

I think these are the paragraphs upon which Mooney bases his case. Sadly, they have nothing to do with the issue at hand. That issue, let me remind you, is whether the books of people like Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett help or hurt the cause of promoting good science education. Nisbet says they hurt. I say they don't.

The analysis says nothing about moderate religious people being driven over to the dark side by strong rhetoric from Dawkins et al, the point at issue in past flare-ups of this argument. Instead it tells us that among people who reject evolution, the large majority do so for religious reasons, and not based on any sober consideration of the evidence. They don't need Dawkins to tell them that evolution poses a challenge to religion, they have already figured it out for themselves. It is always nice to have hard data, but I suspect absolutely no one is surprised by this finding.

And let us not be comforted by the finding that a relatively small percentage of people perceive a conflict between science and religion. If the data is to be believed, this perceived lack of conflict is not born from any genuine lack of conflict. Rather, it is born from religious people standing with their hands on their hips saying, "Your puny science is no match for my religious biases! I will simply ignore any contrary data you throw at me!"

The data also tells us that more than three-fifths of Americans will accept the teachings of their religion over the findings of science. Reading people like Mooney and Nisbet, you get the impression that in the face of this finding the correct response is just to roll over and cower before the might of people's religious myopia. I'm picturing the scene from Blazing Saddles where Gene Wilder cautions Cleavon Little, who starts to reach for his gun as he goes to deal with the enormous, physcially formidable villain Mongo, "No, no. If you shoot him you'll only make him mad."

The desire to teach creationism in the schools is a symptom. The disease is the attitude of those sixty-four percent of the people who think their invented-from-whole-cloth religious beliefs are more reliable than the findings of science. As long as that attitude persists, there can be no long term victory for the pro-science side of these disputes. All we can do is go running pell-mell around the country, putting down one brush fire after another, patting ourselves on the back every time we manage to get a sane person elected to a red state school board. I don't mean to disparage the importance of such work, but it is not the ultimate solution to the problem.

Those attitudes, and the unflagging respect for religious faith that they entail, must be weakened. Can that be done? I don't know. It certainly isn't easy, but other Western countries have managed to do it.

But I am definitely certain that you can not weaken those attitudes by refusing to attack them.

These polls represent the state of affairs today. What got us here was not the vocal opposition to religion served up by Dawkins and the others. They are newcomers on the scene. Instead, what got us here is years of Republican pandering to the religious right, coupled with Democratic cowardice in the face of increasing challenges to church-state separation (among other factors, of course). As I have written before, it is the nicey-nice strategy of non-engagement endorsed by Mooney and Nisbett that is refuted by these polls.
The strategy where you publicly attack bad religious ideas has barely been tried.

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