Study Dissects the Religious/Scientific Worldview


Biblical creation and the fall as depicted by Giovanni di Paolo, 1445 © Corbis

How do we balance our multiple and often-contradictory worldviews? How do we cobble together an understanding of the visible and invisible universe from the scientific, cultural, mythic and spiritual elements at our disposal?

To quote the great, fictional Egg Shen, "We take what we want and leave the rest, just like your salad bar."

Or at least that's the line of reasoning I always come back to. In my own life, I try to keep science as the somewhat solid ground upon which I arrange an ever-shifting assemblage of philosophic, cultural and spiritual elements. In other words, my salad will always be mostly spinach, but the additional fixings depend on a number of factors.

But that's just me. Let's see what science has to say about it all. That's right, religion, I'm not seeking your input on this.

A new study from University of Evansville study, published in the American Sociological Review, takes a thorough look at the way Americans process religion and science. Authors Timothy L. O'Brien and Shiri Noy crunched data from three waves of the General Social Survey and found that U.S. adults hold one of three perspectives based on their knowledge and attitudes about science and religion.

The first two are long established, while the third is entirely new:

Modern perspective: A world view that favors science over religion. (36 percent)

Traditional perspective: A world view that favors religion over science. (43 percent)

Post-secular perspective: A world view that values both science and religion, but "rejects science in favor of religion when it comes to topics such as creation and evolution." (21 percent)

These post-seculars occur across all demographics. Individuals from all religious backgrounds accept some facets of science and reject others. For instance, they may appreciate the practical benefits of science, but reject specific well-established scientific theories like evolution and the big bang. For that matter, a post-secular could conceivably buy into a rather biologically-sound view of the human condition, but still belief in the immortality of the soul or the survival of consciousness.

'Expulsion from Paradise' by Pontormo
© Arte & Immagini srl/CORBIS

I won't attempt to summarize the entire paper here. It's well-worth seeking out and reading for yourself. But the authors make some very thought-provoking suggestions about what all of this means:

• While there are elements of faith vs. reason in all of this, there's also a lot to be gleaned regarding the compatibility of science and religion. Sometimes that compatibility takes less-desired forms (pass the science, hold the evolution), but I suppose even that beats an outright rejection of science.

• The post-secular perspective is not a mere midpoint between the traditional and modern, but rather a unique way of looking at reality through the combined lenses of science and religion. You could think of it as a hybrid view.

• While it's easy to assume the post-secular perspective emerges from the modern and the traditional, the reverse may also hold true. The authors point to Puritanism's role in the professionalization of science and 20th century schisms between scientific and religious institutions over evolution.

Perhaps we're all star-crossed Sneetches, forced to continually fall in and out of harmony with each other.


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.