Science vs. Religion Is Really a Three-Way Split

“Post-Seculars” are religious and scientifically minded, but break with both packs when the two collide.

Meet the “Post-Seculars” — the one in five Americans who seem to have gone unnoticed before in endless rounds of debates pitting science vs. religion.

They’re more strongly religious than most “Traditionals” (43 percent of Americans), and more scientifically knowledgeable than “Moderns” (36 percent) who stand on science alone, according to two sociologists’ findings in a new study.

“We were surprised to find this pretty big group (21 percent) who are pretty knowledgeable and appreciative about science and technology but who are also very religious and who reject certain scientific theories,” said Timothy O’Brien, co-author of the research study, released Thursday (January 29) in the American Sociological Review.

Put another way, there’s a sizable chunk of Americans out there who are both religious and scientifically minded but who break with both packs when faith and science collide.

Post-Seculars pick and choose among science and religion views to create their own “personally compelling way of understanding the world,” said O’Brien, assistant professor at the University of Evansville in Indiana.

O’Brien and co-author Shiri Noy, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wyoming, examined responses from 2,901 people to 18 questions on knowledge of and attitudes toward science and four religion-related questions in the General Social Surveys conducted in 2006, 2008 and 2010.

Many findings fit the usual way the science-religion divide is viewed:

— Moderns, who stand on reason, scored high on scientific knowledge and scored lowest on religion questions regarding biblical authority and the strength of their religious ties.

— Traditionals, who lean toward religion, scored lower on science facts and were least likely to agree that “the benefits of scientific research outweigh the harmful results.”

However, the data turned up a third perspective — people who defied the familiar breakdown. The authors dubbed them “Post-Secular” to jump past a popular theory that Americans are moving way from religion to become more secular, O’Brien said.

Post-Seculars — about half of whom identify as conservative Protestants — know facts such as how lasers work, what antibiotics do and the way genetics affects inherited illnesses.

But when it comes to three main areas where science and Christian-centric religious views conflict — on human evolution, the Big Bang origin of the universe and the age of the Earth — Post-Seculars break away from the pack with significantly different views from Traditionals and Moderns.

Areas where the factions are clear:

The universe began with a huge explosion:

Traditional:  21 percent
Modern: 68 percent
Post Secular: 6 percent

Human beings developed from earlier species of animals:

Traditional: 33 percent
Modern: 88 percent
Post-Secular: 3 percent

The continents have been moving for millions of years and will move in the future:

Traditional: 66 percent
Modern: 98 percent
Post-Secular: 80 percent

“Post-Seculars are smart. They know what scientists think. They just don’t agree on some key issues, and that has impact on their political views,” said O’Brien.

When the authors looked at views on the authority of the Bible and how strongly people said they were affiliated with their religion, Post-Seculars put the most faith in Scripture and were much more inclined to say they were strongly religious. And where science and faith conflict on hot-button issues, they side with the religious perspective.

For example, Moderns are the most supportive of embryonic stem cell research and abortion rights for women, but Post-Seculars, who are nonetheless largely positive about science and society, are more skeptical in both areas, O’Brien said.

Candidates running in the 2016 elections might take note.

Where people fall in these three groups can predict their attitudes on political issues where science and religion both have claims, O’Brien said, even after accounting for the usual suspects — social class, political ideology or church attendance.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

  • Carstonio

    The conflict isn’t necessarily between science and religion That’s merely the approach of journalists who believe that neutrality amounts to giving both sides their say.

    The real issue is that scientific findings in recent centuries have shown the falseness of the conceit that the universe exists for humanity. This inherently conflicts with American fundamentalism, but for political reasons rather than theological ones. Fundamentalism here began as a rationalization of slavery, and today it remains a rationalization of injustice. Its approach to political and social issues assumes not just American exceptionalism, but also wealthy straight white Christian male exceptionalism. Science questions the whole concept of exceptionalism, suggesting it’s not an inherent value but a value that humans assign. So for fundamentalists, opposition to evolution is really a proxy battle to preserve their position as their god’s elect. Half the time, they aren’t even trying to refute natural selection, but argue against a straw man of “evolution” that’s an atheistic mishmash of natural selection and abiogenesis.

    The poll results suggest to me that creationists have largely succeeded in deceiving “post-seculars” about the nature of the issue. Many people who otherwise accept evolution say things like “Science can’t answer the big questions,” such as “why are we here.” But “why” assumes a creator, and that concept deserves to be treated as a proposed hypothesis and not as a philosophical construct. Gould’s concept of non-overlapping magisteria fails to recognize that theologies like creationism do make claims about the “natural world.” Thanks to creationists, “post-seculars” wrongly believe that the origins of the universe and of life are too big to be addressed by science.

    • bakabomb

      I don’t see the problem as being inherent in Gould’s concept of non-overlapping magisteria (as concept), but rather his flawed explanation of it. He does cut too much slack for the creationists; they are indeed treading in the territory of scientists, and that’s a perfect example of a failure to grasp Gould’s concept. Odd he didn’t spot that himself. But the fault isn’t with his concept, rather it stems from his own imperfect illustration of it.

      • Carstonio

        What would be a better illustration of his concept that doesn’t have those flaws?

        The issue isn’t just creationism. Any theology that asserts that gods cause events to happen in the universe intrudes on science’s magisterium. Even the idea of a divine plan behind evolution amounts to an attempt to amend the hypothesis, ruining it by tacking on an unfalsifiable cause.

        • bakabomb

          What would be a better illustration? Simple. One that eschews crossing the line Gould himself drew (and then selectively ignored).

          But in reply, you offer an argument that intrudes on spirituality’s magisterium by asserting that a higher power or powers than humans simply cannot exist outside the spacetime continuum, and/or affect events in said continuum. You’re merely trying to apply the scientific method in an area where it has zero traction (remember, when your only tool is a superconducting supercollider, everything looks like Higgs bosons).

          In so doing, of course, you’re repudiating Gould’s bottom-line concept of non-overlapping magisteria. In fact, your position is a perfect mirror image of the creationists’ — and the lot of you are all missing Gould’s point.

          • Carstonio

            I make no such assetuon – I don’t know if higher powers exist or not, so I take no position on their existence.

            My point is that the idea of beings or objects existing outside the spacetime continuum is unfalsifiable. Anyone can claim that such beings exist as purported fact and such claims are conveniently unprovable. That doesn’t mean that the beings are nonexistent, it means that the claims are no different from speculation. No one knows if there is a realm beyond the spacetime continuum, and asserting the existence of such a realm is a claim of fact. All claims of fact should be subject to scientific method in principle. The scientific method only appears to have zero traction in that area because the claim is designed that way – it’s like creating a role-playing character who can defeat any other character that can possibly be created.

            On what basis are you asserting a distinction between religion and spirituality? Every definition I’ve heard of the latter has amounted to branding a sectarian claim as nonsectarian. Similar to some Christians who wrongly treat all other religions as if they also believe in a single deity.

  • W Maxwell Cassity-Guilliom

    The findings suggest that some people are becoming partially educated, but the job is not yet done. Less “post-secular”, more “half-secular” especially if we consider that increased education also increases progressive views on science and reduces theism.

  • Zuleykha

    Long time ago I did read about a study regarding superstition. Birds were fed at random times and after a while they improvised weird behaviors, thinking their behavior would lead to food.
    Our view of the world and our logic work exactly the same way. We improvise weird reasonings to provide our biased assumptions.
    We, Post-Seculars and scientists are no exception.
    What theist should recognize, is that progressive views on science don’t reduce theism. Why? Because science can only study the physical world, meaning it can only improve animality. Religions don’t show you the way to have good sex and live forever as an animal. Religions try to teach humanity. Science will never find ways to improve character or to put it in other words teach you forgiving/loving/loyalty.
    Science improves on Viagra but cannot teach you being loyal to your wife/husband. Social sciences tell you, most people divorce because of bad sex. Religions tell you, calm down the whore in you (the animal in you) for that you don’t divorce (disloyalty) because of bad sex.
    Who wants peace in this world must calm down the animal. Science in this regard is no help. How can the world become more peaceful when we improve the animal? Meaning the more science improves, the more wars we will witness, the more science improves, the more the riches and power-fulls will try to control everyone else, sooner or later leading to big conflicts.

    • bakabomb

      Well said, and clearly you recognize the value of both science and spirituality — each in its proper place in our worldview.

  • nwcolorist

    Recent Gallup polls on religion have shown that, while the numbers of people identifying as members of denomination churches have been decreasing, the number of people identifying as religious but non-denominational has been increasing.

    I’m wondering if there might be a correlation between this group and the post-seculars.

    • bakabomb

      They may also be SBNR’s, “spiritual but not religious”, a subtle but important distinction.

  • bakabomb

    Clearly, there’s got to be a fourth category of progressive Christians who believe the Big Bang and evolution are facts, but also augment their scientific viewpoint with a spiritual perspective that science necessarily omits. I know this category exists because I’m a member of it.

    Where science differs with dogma, I’ll choose science every time. But in matters of spirit, science lacks the tools to investigate it using its vaunted methodology — and this is where spirituality comes into its own. Noted evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould terms this condition “Non-Overlapping Magisteria”; when this concept is boiled down, it simply means that science and spirituality have largely separate purviews that only come into conflict when the tools of one magisterium are improperly applied to things that in the purview of the other magisterium.

    Those who apply church doctrine to cast doubt on the accuracy of scientific hypotheses are transgressing the border between these magisteria. Rejecting evolution because it doesn’t fit the two (different) creation stories in Genesis is a well-recognized example.