Perspectives on Changing Minds on Science and Religion in the U.S.


by Luis

In our meeting last week, Yann described the paradox observed in the US wherein many political conservatives combine good knowledge of science with completely non-scientific opinions on certain ‘sensitive’ topics. I wanted to know more so via Google I found this sociological study, published precisely on the day of our meeting, on the “perspectives on science and religion in the U.S.”

This article seems to have drawn quite a lot of attention from the media (example here), mainly because of the identification of that paradoxical group, which the authors call “post-secularists”.

I read the article in full and realized that its results are actually quite richer, and can provide insights about how to promote a more scientific mindset in the U.S. I am sending you my observations with you in case you want to share them in your blog.

First of all, the authors identify three groups in the U.S. population based on their attitudes towards science and towards religion. They have called them “traditional”, “moderns” and “post-secularists”. “Post-secularists” are “religious and scientifically literate”. These guys score relatively well in non-controversial scientific questions (e.g. the temperature of the center of the Earth or how to design experiments) but overwhelmingly reject the notion of Big Bang (94% against) or human evolution (97% against). Half of them define themselves as “conservative Protestants” and 84% of them are “non-Latino whites”. They mostly oppose abortion and are slightly more numerous in the South. The study doesn’t say it but it’s not hard to guess what news channel they watch and what party they vote for. I suspect that any debate with such people regarding their ‘touchy’ topics is doomed to fail: they simply refuse to believe anything that contradicts their “superior source of truth”. If the Bible says the Earth is flat, then the Earth is flat and that’s it. Fortunately for us, “post-secularists” are a minority only represent 21% of the US population today.

The group of “traditionals” (i.e. religious and non-scientific) is double the size, at 43% of the population. These folks mostly deny Big Bang too (79%) but they also ignore the existence of natural radioactivity (53%) or that electrons are smaller than atoms (64%). Almost half of them (46%) actually think that the Sun turns around the Earth! They say they are quite religious but nowhere close to the fanaticism of the post-secularists. “Traditionals” are the most racially diverse group: only half of them are non-Latino whites. More than 70% of African-Americans and Latinos are classified here. “Traditionals” rank substantially lower in income and years of education than “moderns” or “post-secularists”, and 60% of them are women. All this actually gives me hope because I tend to think that, with better education and access to science, many “traditionals” could eventually become “moderns” (i.e. those who prefer science to religion as source of ‘truth’). They don’t refuse science because of religion, they just have no idea of what science is or says. Campaigners for science should therefore target minority girls and poor neighborhoods, and make sure that their message is available in Spanish.

Finally, the “moderns” are those who score well in all scientific questions even if they contradict conservative Christian beliefs. This group represents around 36% of the US population, is overwhelmingly White (88%), and slightly more liberal and more male (58%) than average. This is the only group that strongly supports the unconditional right to abortion. Interestingly, atheists/agnostics tend to be classified here but they remain a minority even within this group: only 36%, versus 19% in the overall population. That means that almost two thirds of the “moderns” seem to be able to reconcile their religious affiliation or spirituality with a scientific view of nature. This is another piece of good news for me (even if I am an atheist) because it means that supporters of science need not destroy religiosity in order to impose their views. I suspect that would be doomed to failure anyway, since spirituality is an innate human intuition and feeling. A balance can seemingly be found where scientific mindset and a certain level of spirituality can coexist.

Summing up, if I had to devise a strategy to give science a more prominent role in U.S. minds, I would do the following: 1) promote education and access to science among the poorer communities, especially African-American and Latino; 2) allow religions and spirituality to slowly move their focus to realms beyond the current borders of science, those areas where the scientific method has not yet made many inroads; 3) not waste time trying to persuade the educated religious fanatics, who actively refuse to even challenge their beliefs, but expose and counter their propaganda whenever necessary.

Link to download the original study:

Click to access Feb15ASRFeature2.pdf

Commentary in The Huffington Post:

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