Equipping Scientists to Better Understand and Converse with Religious Communities

Sunday, 16 February 2014
Regency B (Hyatt Regency Chicago)
Eugenie C. Scott , National Center for Science Education, Oakland, CA
Survey research shows that fewer scientists believe in God or a higher power than members of the general public, but by no means does scientist equate to atheist. Scientists, like bricklayers or ballet dancers, can be religious, non-religious, anti-religious, or religiously indifferent. Scientists who are nonbelievers sometimes generalize their views to all scientists, which can miscommunicate to religious communities and the public in general that science is incompatible with religion. Although some religious views clearly are incompatible with the discoveries of science, and certain religious perspectives clash with the evidence-based method science uses to derive conclusions, most religious perspectives found among Americans do not reject either the methods or the conclusions of science. This in itself, though a simple idea, is also one that scientists need to communicate to the public. Conservative Christians, in particular, often reject science because they believe that in accepting science, they will be forced to accept materialist philosophy. Distinguishing between the methodological materialism of science and the philosophical materialism of humanism and other non-theistic views frees science for acceptance on its own terms. Scientists also must realize that the presentation of science, though necessary, is not sufficient in itself. For topics such as religion or climate change, where there may be religiously-based opposition, “mere” science will not be persuasive on its own. Research shows that ideological orientation trumps empiricism: liberals are more likely to accept information if they believe the position originates from a fellow liberal, conservatives are more likely to accept the identical information if they believe the position originates from a fellow conservative, and so on. To overcome ideological barriers to the acceptance of science requires establishing a relationship of trust and respect. This relationship is most easily established by individuals of the same ideology, but it is not impossible for “outsiders” to do so. Otherwise, an adversarial relationship is the default, to the detriment of the public understanding of science