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UW Professor: Many Religious People View Science Favorably, But Reject Certain Scientific Theories

January 29, 2015
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Shiri Noy

A new study by a University of Wyoming professor finds that many U.S. adults -- approximately one in five -- are deeply religious, know a lot about science, and support many practical uses of science and technology in everyday life, but reject scientific explanations of creation and evolution.

Shiri Noy, a UW Department of Sociology assistant professor, co-wrote “Traditional, Modern and Post-Secular Perspectives on Science and Religion in the United States” with colleague Timothy O’Brien, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Evansville and the lead author of the study. O’Brien is a UW graduate, receiving sociology and psychology degrees in 2005.

Their research paper will appear in the February issue of the American Sociological Review. The National Science Foundation funded the study.

Noy and O’Brien’s study relies on nationally representative data on U.S. adults from the 2006, 2008 and 2010 general social survey. The study considers people who self-identified as Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and followers of other faiths, and also individuals who did not identify with religious groups.

Noy says their research indicates that one in five Americans is knowledgeable about science and appreciative of its practical uses, but rejects certain well-established scientific theories, particularly the big bang -- the universe’s creation -- and evolution.

“These people know the scientific explanation for the origins of humanity and the universe because they are, overall, knowledgeable about things like genetics, radioactivity, planetary motion and other scientific issues,” Noy says. “However, they disagree that the universe began with a big explosion and that humans evolved from other species of animals. This indicates that it is not that they don’t know the science; they just don’t agree with it.”

Noy, who has been at UW since 2013, says this finding is particularly noteworthy because Americans who hold the “post-secular perspective” -- what she and O’Brien call this group -- have relatively high levels of education and income. Many social scientists assume that people with higher levels of education and income know more about science and hold more favorable views of science and technology in everyday life.

“We argue that some individuals reject certain scientific theories not because they lack information or knowledge, but because of a personal preference to interpret certain aspects of the world in a religious light,” Noy says.

She and O’Brien determined that U.S. adults hold one of three perspectives based on their knowledge and attitudes about science and religion. Twenty-one percent hold a post-secular perspective, which values both science and religion, but which rejects science in favor of religion when it comes to topics such as creation and evolution. Forty-three percent hold a traditional perspective, which favors religion over science; and 36 percent hold a modern perspective, which favors science over religion. 

“These three world views are held across religious groups, political parties and social classes,” O’Brien says. He adds that social scientists have typically focused on studying people’s perspectives on science or views on religion separately rather than looking at them simultaneously.

“Our study is the first study that looks at how individuals view these two knowledge systems in tandem with one another,” Noy says. “Previous studies that look at both science and religion tend to use very blunt measures of science and religion that ignore the underlying complexity of people’s views of science and religion.”

She adds that their research is unique because they studied views of science and religion using a variety of survey questions about individuals’ knowledge and attitudes about particular aspects of science and religion.

“Given the continued popular and sociological interest in this area, and the limitations in existing studies, we wanted to provide a more holistic investigation of people’s scientific and religious opinions and understandings,” she adds.

Noy says she and O’Brien worked on this project because both are interested in politics and political conflicts, in particular. They noticed that some of the biggest public controversies in the U.S. today are about biomedical research, genetic engineering, and reproductive rights and family planning. Those groups often use science and religion to support competing political positions.

“For example, people who engage in political arguments about issues such as this often say things like  ‘scientists say this’ and ‘religious leaders say that’ to support their positions. The way that science and religion are described in these settings suggests that science and religion are conflicting systems of knowledge,” Noy says. “The assumption that science and religion are at odds with one another has a long history, both in social science and in the popular imagination. Many people assume that if you are scientific, then you cannot be religious, and vice versa.”

She and O’Brien wanted to know if, and to what extent, this assumption actually is used to describe the views of U.S. adults.

“We wanted to know if a scientific orientation was incompatible with a religious one or if some people hold relatively favorable views of both science and religion,” Noy says.

She received her bachelor’s degree from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and her Ph.D. in sociology from Indiana University. At UW, she teaches an introductory sociology class and an advanced research methods seminar to the department’s master’s degree students. Noy also teaches courses cross-listed with global and area studies, international development and global political economy.

For more information, contact Noy at (307) 766-2101 or email snoy@uwyo.edu.


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