Is religion vs. science a real divide among Americans? Not so much, says poll.
The notion that science and religion are at odds is out of touch with how Americans see the issue, according to a new Pew survey.
If you believe that science and religion just don't get along, chances are you haven't been in a church recently.
That's just one finding from the Pew Research Center's just released survey of religion and science, which suggests that the idea of a faith-based culture war is more overhyped media creation than a daily dilemma real people face.
Yes, 59 percent of respondents think science and religion are "often in conflict," while 38 percent find them "mostly compatible."
But scratch the surface, and that conflict dissolves. When asked how science clashes with their own beliefs, most Americans say it's not a problem: just 30 percent say their personal faith conflicts with science.
"People’s sense that there generally is a conflict between religion and science seems to have less to do with their own religious beliefs than it does with their perceptions of other people’s beliefs," Pew summarized.
In fact, those who attend religious services on a weekly basis were far less likely to be troubled by the "science vs. religion" narrative than those who stay away. Nearly three quarters of those without a strong religious affiliation reported a conflict between the two, versus half of regular church-, mosque- or temple-goers. (Of those who do not often attend services, only one third called themselves atheist or agnostic; most described themselves as "nothing in particular.")
The findings show just a small shift since 2009, when 55 percent said there was a general conflict between the two, and 36 percent reported a clash between their personal beliefs and science.
Pew's results may come as a surprise to a nation that thinks it's mired in a decades-old "culture war," where faith is assumed to dictate Americans' positions on a number of polarizing topics: gay marriage, abortion, and climate change, to name just a few — many of which are influenced by science.
One year ago, Emory University professor Alan Abramowitz spoke with the Public Religion Research Institute about Americans' increasing polarization into "ideologically uniform 'silos,'" as the Pew Center called them.
Given how many cultural issues have crept into the political sphere, Dr. Abramowitz said, Democrats and Republicans have "an increasing tendency to see the other party not just as wrong, but also as immoral.”
While one's religious denomination used to be a good predictor of political affiliation, such as evangelicals leaning Republican while Catholics stuck by the Democratic party, Abramowitz argued that the sectarian divide is "no longer very salient" compared to pure religiosity: how religiously observant you are, no matter what faith.
But other experts challenge the theory that religion dominates our decision on hot-button issues.
According to Pew, religiosity can help predict whether a person accepts evolutionary theory, but it's of little use in forecasting opinions on other topics the media has framed as "science vs. religion."
Climate change, for instance: Although there's certainly a partisan divide in whether Americans see evidence of global warming, it's not necessarily caused by religious views, which were a weak predictor.
Dr. Robert P. Jones, a scholar of religion, told Slate that he suspects the findings say more about nonreligious Americans than anyone else.
By relying on the media to show them 'how the other half lives,' so to speak, they wind up hearing about only the most extreme versions of faith. "They aren’t seeing all those people who don’t have a conflict," he says.
With differently-designed questions, even fewer religious Americans might report feeling a conflict. In 2005, when Gallup asked whether science and religion "agree with each other," "conflict with each other," or are "not related in a meaningful way," 24 percent picked the first option, 35 percent the second, and 36 percent the third.
Then again, "science" and "religion" may be hard to define.
Many of Americans will say their views are supported by science, not realizing the extent to which religion has influenced them, says University of Washington Prof. Mark A. Smith: respondents often "interpret science through their religious beliefs, so naturally they’re not going to see a conflict.”
But conflict or no, Dr. Smith suggests that Americans are actually enjoying a relative respite from religiously-influenced debates: evolution, intelligent design, and stem cell issues have all somewhat faded from their headline-grabbing power of a few years ago.
As he argues in a new book, "Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics," Americans of all stripes agree far more often than they disagree, despite what increasingly ideological media outlets would have us believe.
Journalists assume "there's nothing to say" about consensus, he says, and zoom in on "the craziest thing the people on the other side have done today":
When all the attention focuses on areas where we disagree, naturally people say, "Oh, I guess we’re really at each other’s throats."... When you put the areas of disagreement and the areas of agreement in the same basket, then we don’t look so polarized.