Science versus Religion—they may not be as opposed as you think

CDS’s affiliated faculty member Paul DiMaggio examines the culture wars with a data-driven approach

American policy debates about issues like abortion, euthanasia, genetic engineering, and the teaching of evolutionary theory arose from a cultural conflict between science and religion in the 1980’s. While this may suggest that science and religion are inherently opposed systems, a new study by CDS Affiliated Faculty Member Paul DiMaggio, Professor of Sociology, suggests that the reality is more nuanced.

The new research from DiMaggio and his research team surpasses the typical limits of research about American attitudes toward science and religion in two significant ways. First, it incorporates spiritualism as a third dimension to the debate. Second, it uses two types of data analysis to classify attitudes.

DiMaggio and collaborators applied their two methods of data analysis to the 1988 General Social Survey (GSS) which included 1018 respondents. The first method of data analysis they used, Latent Class Analysis (LCA), identifies subsets of respondents who are in agreement. Members within each subset share positions—for example, members of one subset might agree that science should be trusted more, while members of another subset might put more trust in religion. LCA identified five subsets among the 1988 GSS respondents: Pro-science skeptics (29% of respondents), Anti-clerics (10%), Religious traditionalists (24%), Institutionalists (23%), and Spiritualists (14%).

The second method of data analysis used by DiMaggio and collaborators, Relational Class Analysis (RCA), identifies subsets of respondents who agree about relationships between items. Members of one subset identified by RCA might, for example, share the attitude that science and religion are inherently opposed, while members of another RCA subset might believe that science and religion do not impinge on each other and can coexist. Members of RCA subsets do not necessarily agree about the issues, but they agree about how items are related. RCA identified three subsets from the 1988 GSS: Science vs. Spiritualism (39%), Religion vs. Science (40%), and Domain Decoupling (a subset that did not construe an opposition between science/religion/spiritualism) (21%).

LCA and RCA together reveal that science and religion are not entirely opposed within American public opinion. While some groups see the two domains as opposed, others perceive an opposition between institutionalized modes of thinking (both science and religion) and modes of thinking separate from cultural institutions (spiritualism).

The inclusion of spiritualism as a dimension in DiMaggio’s research was critical to exposing this separate dichotomy, but the researchers caution that the survey included responses about spiritual experiences rather than attitudes. They also caution about extending generalizations from their research to the present, given their reliance on data from 1988. Still, their work offers a framework for future research about cultural attitudes, and highlights a potential pathway for alliances between conservative Christians and Americans who have more faith in science.

by Paul Oliver