“Conflict” Between Science and Religion

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The watershed event for the perceived conflict between science and religion in American culture was the Scopes Trial. After William Jennings Bryan’s speech opposing the admission of expert testimony on evolution in the trial, the lead defense lawyer, Dudley Malone, said he defied anyone “to believe that this is not a religious question.” Malone went on to say: “We feel we stand with science. We feel we stand with intelligence.” In his closing remarks, the chief prosecutor, Tom Stewart said: “They say it is a battle between religion and science. If it is, I want to serve notice now, in the name of the great God, that I am on the side of religion.” So the premise there was conflict between of science and religion was present within the Scopes Trial from the very beginning.

That battle continues today, notably by individuals like the biologist Richard Dawkins, who said: “I am very hostile to religion because it is enormously dominant, especially in American life. And I don’t buy the argument that it’s harmless.” But is this conflict model the way scientists today see science and religion? Recently, Elaine Howard Ecklund and a team of researchers completed a survey of over 22,500 scientists from around the world. They investigated the scientists’ perceptions of the interface of science and religion, as well as the personal religiosity of the scientists. Their study, “Religion Among Scientists in International Context,” can be found here.

Ecklund et al. acknowledged that globally, science and religion have an “uncertain” relationship. Richard Dawkins sees conflict; but Francis Collins, the Director of the National Institute of Health (NIH), sees compatibility. And the debates resulting from this uncertain relationship have been occurring outside the U.S. For example, there was an uproar among faculty at the University of Hong Kong when Hong Kong’s Education Bureau proposed guidelines to teach intelligent design in the public school system. Debates about science and religion are taking place around the globe and scientists are taking part in the discussions.

Do scientists from national contexts with very different approaches to religion still think the rationalism and supposed secularity of science will overtake the truth claims of religion? Or are they—especially when it comes to matters of personal religious identity—more similar to those in their local national contexts? Is a global science taking over the world of religion? Or are there even ways that religious communities and scientific communities can work together for the common good around the globe?

The Religion Among Scientists in International Context (RASIC) study assessed biologists and physicists from eight regional areas—France, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Taiwan, Turkey, the UK and the US.  RASIC looked at how scientists understood religion, how their religiosity compared to that of their local population, and the implications of their findings for different views on the connection between science and secularity.

In four of the regions, Italy, India, Turkey and Taiwan, over 50% of scientists had a religious affiliation. The highest percentage was in India, where 94% of scientists reported religious affiliations of some sort. The three regions with the lowest reported religious affiliations were France (16%), the United Kingdom (27%) and the United States (30%). In all regions except Hong Kong and Taiwan, a higher proportion of scientists indentified with a religion when they were 16 than they do now. Belief in God among scientists ranged widely from Turkey with the highest (61%) to France with the lowest (5%). The UK and the US, which are at the heart of the global scientific infrastructure, reported proportions consistent with earlier surveys of belief among so-called elite scientists.

Ecklund et al. said that from their data on religious beliefs, practices or identities, it was difficult to conclude that science and religion were in conflict. See “Scientist, What do You Believe?” for more information on the earlier surveys. Also see the table below, taken from the Ecklund et al. report of the RASIC study.

However, when scientists are compared to their local religious populations, there was evidence of lower religiosity among scientists. In France, the UK and the US, the proportion of the general population who attends religious services once a week or more were at least two time larger than the scientists from the same region. The gap was widest in the US, where 33% of the population reported at least weekly attendance, compared to 11% of scientists. “The majority of scientists in the US (60 percent), UK (66 percent), and France (81 percent) are nonattenders.” The proportion of scientists who have a religious identification was lower than the general population in every region but Hong Kong and Taiwan. See Figures 1 and 2 in the Ecklund et al. report for more information on these issues.

The views of scientists on the science-faith interface were counter-intuitive if you believed the conflict narrative. “A substantial majority of physicists and biologists in the eight regional contexts studied do not adhere to this view.” The conflict narrative would also presume most scientists would see the science-religion relationship as one of conflict, and then take the side of science. But only in the UK and the US did those percentages approach or exceed 30%.

The prevailing view among scientists is that science and religion are independent of one another. France, Italy, Taiwan and the US had 50% or more of their scientists seeing religion and science as independent of one another, while all other regions had at least 35%. Ecklund et al suggested that Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of science and religion as “nonoverlapping magisterial” was helpful here. The concept refers to science and religion as nonoverlapping spheres, with science dealing with the empirical observation of the natural world and religion dealing with meaning.

Another surprising finding for the conflict view was with how scientists thought their exposure to science influenced their views on religion. No more than 22% of scientists in the US thought their exposure to science made them less religious; and the US was the region with the highest percentage. See Table 3 taken from the Ecklund et al. report of the RASIC study for more information on these topics.

In her review of the study for BioLogos, Sarah Lane Ritchie gleaned “five surprising facts” from the study, repeating several of those noted above. Significantly for evangelical Christians, she thought the study went a long way in dispelling the myth that scientists themselves are hostile towards religion or not at all religious. When the public discourse surrounding science and religion consistently depicts “evolution-affirming scientists as being at war with evolution-denying religious individuals or groups … it is easy for public perception to become skewed in a way that does not reflect the facts.”

She concluded that not only were many scientists religious, but even those who were not religious generally held an independence view, rather than a conflict view, of how science and religion were related. “This research undermines both the conflict narrative surrounding science and religion, and the assumption that scientists themselves are not religious.” So the conflict model of the relationship between science and religion is not the dominant view of most scientists, but it seems to be deeply influential at the popular level, especially among evangelical Christians in the US. To a certain extent, this influence dates back to the Scopes Trial.

Alister McGrath, who holds advanced degrees in both science and theology, remarked in Science and Religion how the Scopes Trial was a public relations disaster for conservative, fundamentalist Christians. He noted how William Jennings Bryan had unwisely framed the trial as a “duel to the death” between Christianity and atheism. Clarence Darrow, a well-known attorney—and agnostic—on the Scopes defense team, was able discredit Bryan by simply calling him as a witness for the defense.

The legal move was as simple as it was brilliant: Bryan was called to the stand as a witness for the defense, and interrogated concerning his views on evolution. Bryan was forced to admit that he had no knowledge of geology, comparative religions or ancient civilizations, and showed himself to have hopelessly naïve religious views. The “monkey trial” (as it is widely known) came to be seen as a symbol of reactionary religious thinking in the face of scientific progress.

Several scholars consider the Scopes Trial to be a key event in the restructuring of American religion. One of those, Edward Larson, said it would be difficult to overestimate the importance of the Scopes Trial had in transforming Christian fundamentalism in the U.S. Afterwards elite American society stopped taking it seriously. The trial’s setting stamped the entire movement with an irrevocable image of the rural, small town South. The national media stopped covering its normal activities. Conservative Christians rapidly lost power within the mainline denominations. And most significantly, a string of defeats occurred for antievolution legislation in the northern states. While fundamentalists responded by withdrawing from political and cultural encounters for several decades, the Scopes Trial came to embody the “conflict” between science and religion.

The quotes in the introductory paragraph were taken from Edward Larson’s Pulitzer Prize winning book on the Scopes Trial, Summer for the Gods.


Scientist, What Do You Believe?

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In 1997, Edward Larson and Larry Witham sought to replicate a famous early 20th century survey by James Leuba on what typical scientists affirmed regarding  two central beliefs of Christianity. These two dogmas were belief in a personal God, and belief in human immortality. Leuba found that 58.2% of US scientists expressed disbelief or doubt in the existence of God. Roughly 50% believed in human immortality. Larson and Witham’s replication eighty years later found little change among American scientists: 59.8% expressed doubt or disbelief in a personal God; 61.9% doubted or disbelieved in human immortality.

Comparison among “regular” scientists



Belief in a personal God

Personal belief



Personal disbelief



Doubt or agnosticism



Belief in human immortality

Personal belief



Personal disbelief

about 20%


Doubt or agnosticism

about 30%


Larson and Witham noted that Leuba’s finding of widespread disbelief among US scientists 100 years ago was shocking at that time. It became a central element in the anti-modernism speeches given by William Jennings Bryan and others. Yet the similarity to their 1996 findings among “regular” scientists is equally shocking. “Today, many people presume that scientists are far less likely to believe in the supernatural than the general population.”

Despite the stability in the overall proportion of believers and disbelievers, there has been a significant shift in views held by the three professions surveyed—mathematics, biology and physics/astronomy. The 1996 survey showed that mathematicians are most inclined to believe in God (44.6%). And although biologists showed the highest rates of disbelief or doubt in Leuba’s day (69.5%), that ranking is now given to physicists and astronomers (77.9%).

The interesting twist was when Larson and Witham repeated Leuba’s survey of leading or elite scientists. Within the circle of elite scientists, Leuba saw doubt or disbelief in God rise to 73.6%. Larson and Witham found disbelief or doubt in God among elite scientists to be 93%. Only 7.0% of modern elite US scientists affirmed a belief in God, while 27.7% did so in 1914. The following table compares the findings of Larson and Witham to Leuba among so-called “elite” scientists.

Leuba thought his findings demanded a revision of public opinion on the prevalence and future of these two “cardinal beliefs.” He said: “The essential problem facing organized Christianity is constituted by the wide-spread rejection of its two fundamental dogmas.” Leuba saw this rejection as growing parallel to—and not caused by—the diffusion of knowledge and intellectual qualities that come with eminence in scholarly pursuits.

I conclude, therefore, that the greater loss of belief suffered by the greater men is probably not to be ascribed to their greater knowledge, but rather to certain temperamental qualities or energies which make it relatively easy for them to rid themselves of much of the social pressure to which others yield.

According to Leuba, the elite scientist existed in a social environment where “intellectual freedom is honored far above orthodoxy.” This removed him from the “lower circles where tradition holds undisputed sway.” Therefore they were relieved of the pressures, which bear upon their less favored colleagues. If they were from eminent families, then they were doubly favored because from an early age they have been freer than lesser men from influence of “narrow traditional opinion” upon youth. See a copy of Leuba’s original 1916 work, The Belief in God and Immortality, here.

Larson and Witham pointed out that given the ongoing persistence of the belief in God (about 90% of Americans believe in God), Leuba seems to have either misjudged the human mind or the ability of science to satisfy all human needs. Nevertheless, their own study indicated: “among the top natural scientists, disbelief is greater than ever — almost total.”

Leuba wrongly assumed that the rationalism and secularity of science would eventually overtake and replace the truth claims of religion within American culture. Ecklund and Scheitle noted how Leuba concluded from his research that in order for religion to continue to have an influence on American society, it should capitulate to science. They quoted the following from a 1934 article by Leuba:

In order to be again a vitalizing and controlling power in society, the religions will have to organize themselves about ultimate conceptions that are not in contradiction with the insight of the time. They will have to replace their specific method of seeking the welfare of humanity to appeal to, and reliance upon divine Beings, by methods free from a discredited supernaturalism.

While American society did not fall victim to Leuba’s prediction of a widespread decline in traditional forms of religiosity, his finding about the differences between scientists and the general population was supported. This corroborated the perception of a conflict between the principles of religion and those of science. It also seemed to confirm that individuals who pursued science tended to abandon religion—whether that abandonment was due to an inherent conflict between the knowledge claims of religion and science or because of the secularization of scientific education.

In 2007 Ecklund and Scheitle examined the religiosity of faculty members from randomly selected institutions in the University of Florida’s annual report, “Top American Research Universities.” Respondents were asked about their religious identity, beliefs and practices. This included questions about their view of God, religion and church attendance. A comparison of current religious affiliation and affiliation as a child was done between the responding scientists and the U.S. population. The following is an edited discussion of their findings. See the above link for a fuller discussion.

While nearly 14 percent of the U.S. population self-describe as “evangelicals” or “fundamentalists,” only 1.5% of the scientists from elite universities did. Almost 52% of the scientists said they had not current religious affiliation, compared to 14.2% of the general population. Ecklund and Scheitle’s findings did not report data on evangelical/fundamentalist affiliation as a child. However, there were noticeable differences in the religious affiliation of scientists now and when they were children. Scientists who affiliated as Protestant and Catholic as children decreased significantly as they grew older and were educated.  See the chart below.


U.S. Population

Current affiliation




Other Protestant















Affiliation as a child
















Ecklund and Scheitle did find that academics at elite research universities were less religious than the public. But assuming that becoming a scientist necessarily leads to losing religious commitments was untenable. “Our results indicate that people from certain backgrounds (the non-religious, for example) disproportionately self-select into scientific professions.” However, being raised in a home where religion was very important meant it was more likely that “a scientist would remain relatively more religious.” Scientists who said religion was important in their family when growing up were more likely to see truth in religion, to believe in God, and to attend religious services.

Finding that the strongest predictor of religious adherence among this group was childhood religiosity recasts previous theories about lack of religiosity among academic scientists in a new light. The idea that scientists simply drop their religious identities upon professional training, whether due to an inherent conflict between science and faith or institutional pressure, is not strongly supported by these data. If this was the case, then religious upbringing would have little effect on religion among scientists, with even those scientists who were raised in religious homes losing religion once they entered the academy or received scientific training. Instead … religious socialization and heritage remains the strongest predictor of present religiosity among this population of scientists.

So the assumed power of scientific rationalism and secularity has not been able to overtake and replace the religiosity of the general American population, as Leuba predicted. And although elite American scientists are less religious than the general public, it seems that demographic factors such as age, marital status and children in the home are stronger predictors of religiosity than their scientific training. “In particular, religiosity in the home as a child is the most important predictor of present religiosity.”

But I would think that it is the rich, fully embraced religiosity practiced in a home that has staying power as the child grows into adulthood. A shallow, conduct-oriented religiosity will fall away. When religion is a do-and-don’t-do system of regulation, it tends to fall away. But if a child is trained in a way that enables him to see and internalize the heart of his childhood religion, then when he grows old, he will not turn from it (Proverbs 22:6). Even if he is an elite scientist.