As an American, I can readily find places where science and religion intersect. We’re in the midst of a presidential election cycle where the influence of candidates’ religious beliefs on their perspective of scientific topics is fodder for discussion, research from Pew and others on science and religion questions regularly makes headlines, and we have multiple museums dedicated to religiously motivated alternatives to mainstream science. The abundance of American voices can make it challenging to remember that America is not the world. Helpfully, a new study has been published which surveyed scientists from 8 countries around the world, asking them about their views of religion. You can read the results here, or watch a talk about them below.
Some highlights from the survey:
- Scientists are generally less likely to identify as religious than the general population of their countries, but in Hong Kong and Taiwan they are actually more likely. However, all of the general population data is taken from other studies and not demographically matched to the scientists in this survey, so other factors beyond a science career may explain the differences in religious identification.
- While not always personally religious, most scientists see religion as complementary to science; only a minority view religion antagonistically.
- Similarly, atheists have diverse views and many are not explicitly anti-theist or anti-religion. Some continue to participate in traditional religious services as a cultural or community activity. (How might our local congregations make sure these folks feel welcome?)
- Scientists are interested in religion beyond keeping up with doctrines that might align with or contradict scientific theories. One scientist expressed admiration for the discipline bred by daily prayers; others indicated the positive contributions religion offers to the ethics of science practice.
- Scientists are generally aware of the need to be sensitive to the public’s religious beliefs and practices in communication and study design. Pragmatically, accounting for those beliefs and practices can lead to greater cooperation, engagement, or participation.
Given all of that variety and nuance, why does everyone want to talk about Richard Dawkins and militant disputes over science and religion? Actually, the talk hints at that question as well. Apparently social scientists are aware of a phenomenon where a vocal and prolific individual or subset can disproportionately influence outside perception of a larger group. In this case, because Dawkins (and Jerry Coyne and Lawrence Krauss and others) write and tweet so often against religion, they create the impression that many/most/all scientists are against religion. Not to mention that a simple dichotomy of science vs religion is much easier to communicate than anything more nuanced. I wonder then if it is even possible for more moderate voices to become prominent. Is that the case in Hong Kong or Taiwan, for example? And are there other lessons we Americans can learn from the rest of the world about how religion and science can interact?