SCIENCE AND RELIGION: THEY DON’T NEED TO BE STRANGE BEDFELLOWS
Recently, researchers from Case Western Reserve University published a discovery that the conflict between science and religion may be all in our heads — the brain to be exact. The research suggests that the circuitry of our brains actually pits the areas associated with moral concern and analytic thinking at odds with each other. If this is indeed what our biology dictates, it is only part of the story. While Pew Research Center found that roughly 60 percent of Americans think science and religion conflict, only 30 percent feel that science conflicts with their own personal beliefs. So what causes the gap between perceived conflict and the reality of people’s everyday lives? The answer seems to lie with our political leaders who focus on wedge issues while ignoring major issues that need people of faith and science to come together.
Last month, elected officials in Louisiana led by a Democratic legislator refused to remove a decades-old law that required teaching creationism and evolution side-by-side in science classes, even though the Louisiana Supreme Court struck down the law in 1987. Further, the rhetoric from this year’s Republican presidential candidates demonstrates how the enduring debate between science and religion is now taking on alarming, undiscovered territory. Skepticism of science is moving beyond the fight over evolution and textbooks into issues like climate change, where the consequences of the political divide are much more dire.
The conventional wisdom is that Christian conservatives who are skeptical of evolution are also doubtful about climate change, and some research supports this idea. A study from Yale University shows that evangelical Christians are among the most skeptical of climate change, and even among those evangelicals who do believe in climate change, many do not believe it is caused by human activity. Considering the political power of this group, this perspective cannot simply be dismissed.
Yet, there are some in the scientific community who have done just that. Prominent scientists such as Lawrence Krauss espouse a brand of militant atheism (his own term) and argue that no scientist should ever have to take the views of religious people seriously when dealing with law and policy. Given the reality of our pluralist democracy, however, that approach is not a winning proposition. Plus, it appears that Krauss is vastly outnumbered even among scientists. According to research from Rice University, nearly 80 percent of scientists consider themselves part of a religious tradition.
As a computational biologist and a practicing Christian, I believe that there is room for both faith and science, just as there is room for ideology and action. Time and again I have observed young people creating space for both their faith and evidence-based decision-making. While I was teaching biology to devout Latter-Day Saint students at Brigham Young University, I was able to see my students develop nuanced thinking that allowed them to simultaneously maintain their beliefs and to learn from and act on scientific evidence.
We cannot allow narrow ideology to guide public policy, nor contend that science does not need the acceptance of a wide swath of religious believers to maintain its crucial influence. It is vital that, as scientists, we continue to discuss what is and isn’t scientifically sound decision making while also respecting others’ beliefs. At the same time, people of faith shouldn’t hesitate to seek answers that can reconcile scientific realities (e.g., climate change, evolution) with their personal beliefs.
I am far from alone in seeking common ground when science seems to conflict with religion. Despite the rhetoric at the extremes, there are promising signs that people of faith and people of science are trying to see more eye-to-eye. The American Association for the Advancement of Sciences’ Perceptions Project brought together hundreds of scientists and people of faith to develop relationships and identify areas of common understanding. And, in perhaps the most famous recent example of science and religion working together, Pope Francis released his groundbreaking encyclical “Laudato Si,” which relies on the latest science to deliver his deeply religious call for urgent action on climate change.
Hopefully, these developments are just the start of an ongoing effort to reduce skepticism of science, particularly when it comes to policymaking — because we certainly need one. From climate change denial to the anti-vaccine movement to anti-GMO hysteria, we are witnessing an apparent rise in groups — both religious and secular — that sustain beliefs in pseudoscience with their ideological bias against evidence and scientific consensus.
Evolution is a process, as is development of one’s personal beliefs. Now more than ever, scientists and believers alike must resist their impulses towards rejecting each other’s ideas out of hand with righteous certainty and instead be willing to engage each other, challenge their beliefs and evolve their thinking. To solve humanity’s most pressing problems, we must let evidence be our guide while acting in good faith. Our fitness for survival depends on it.