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The News

A new study out of Rice University entitled “Scientists Negotiate Boundaries Between Religion and Science,” which appears in the September issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, suggests that only a minority of elite scientists view religion and science as being in direct, unassailable conflict.

The Study

The researchers interviewed a randomly selected sample of 275 participants, pulled from a survey of 2,198 tenured and tenure-track faculty in the natural and social sciences at 21 elite U.S. research universities.

Their results were as follows:

  • 15 percent of those surveyed view religion and science as always in conflict
  • 15 percent say the two are never in conflict
  • 70 percent believe religion and science are only sometimes in conflict.
  • Approximately half of the original survey population expressed some form of religious identity, whereas the other half did not.

The study also identified three strategies of action used by these scientists to manage the religion-science boundaries:

  1. Redefining categories – Scientists manage the science-religion relationship by changing the definition of religion, broadening it to include noninstitutionalized forms of spirituality.
  2. Integration models – Scientists deliberately use the views of influential scientists who they believe have successfully integrated their religious and scientific beliefs.
  3. Intentional talk – Scientists actively engage in discussions about the boundaries between science and religion.

Other findings of the study included:

• Scientists as a whole are substantially different from the American public in how they view teaching “intelligent design” in public schools. Nearly all of the scientists – religious and nonreligious alike – have a negative impression of the theory of intelligent design.

• Sixty-eight percent of scientists surveyed consider themselves spiritual to some degree.

• Scientists who view themselves as spiritual/religious are less likely to see religion and science in conflict.

• Overall, under some circumstances even the most religious of scientists were described in very positive terms by their nonreligious peers; this suggests that the integration of religion and science is not so distasteful to all scientists.

My Opinion

It is at first interesting to note that only a minority of scientists interviewed or surveyed viewed science and religion as “always in conflict.” However this result is not as telling as I think it may seem. As a scientist myself, I also do not think that science and religion are always in conflict; they are in conflict when religious beliefs make claims that could be scientifically tested. In this sense, science and religion are not always in conflict, and the fact that 70 percent of scientists surveyed agree with this “sometimes in conflict” definition proves my point.

Let’s not get confused; this study said that the majority of scientists agree that religion and science sometimes conflict. This rules out compatibility. While many scientists may be religious or “spiritual” themselves, these beliefs cannot always square with their scientific backgrounds. What we then see are scientists “redefining categories”, as mentioned in the study, to try to make their religious beliefs fit; using intellectual gymnastics to allow both systems to cognitively coexist. Is this really the mark of compatibility or of cognitive dissonance?

The study also tries to make significant the fact that the majority of scientists view themselves as “spiritual to some degree.” But this does not mean that therefore religious beliefs and science mix. Even I, as an atheist scientist, feel “spiritual” when I look up at the sky or hike to the top of a mountain or look at a picture of our cosmos. Everyone has this sort of feeling. Labeling yourself as “spiritual” says nothing about how the dogmatic beliefs of religion and the constructive views of science interact.

Also, let’s not make scientists out to be something that they are not. They are just humans, exactly like you, and can have any array of beliefs. Scientists tend to be more secular but that does not mean that a scientist cannot be religious. Furthermore, just because there are some religious scientists does not mean that the two belief systems are compatible. I’m sure somewhere we could find a biologist trying to prove intelligent design. This does not speak to the two systems of belief, but of the scientist’s inability to take these beliefs out to their logical conclusions. Modern biology and intelligent design do not mix, but some still try. Not even religious scientists agree with intelligent design.


What I think we are seeing here is what one might expect; most scientists acknowledge that science and religion sometimes conflict with each other. My assumption is that many religious scientists hold on to religion in the face of conflict because it fulfills a psychological need that is not truth-oriented. Promise of eternal life, for example, is more exiting than the structure of adenosine triphosphate.

Religious belief is a system that can and has made claims that directly contradict modern science. Whether or not every religious belief does this is not important. A scientist may be religious or spiritual, but she still has to reconcile these conflicts.

If the majority of scientists recognize that some religious beliefs directly oppose reality, that really is the point.

Source:Science and religion do mix