Science on Religion

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Science and religion conflict in the unconscious

Science key headThe conflict between science and religion seems ubiquitous. Just recently Bill Nye, “The Science Guy,” and Ken Ham debated the origins of life: Nye argued for evolution while Ham for intelligent design. While on the surface that matter seems to be one of evidence, philosophy, and reasoning, something subtler may be at work. Psychologists Jesse Preston (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) and Nicholas Epley (University of Chicago) recently found that religion and science conflict in people’s minds at an unconscious level.

Preston and Epley admit that science and religion need not conflict, but that for certain issues the two disciplines offer competing rather than complementary explanations. As Preston and Epley define it, if explanations compete, then when the probability and plausibility of one increases, the probability and plausibility of its rival decreases. Relying on this basic assumption, the psychologists developed a test that would see if scientific explanations render religious ones less credible and vice-versa. As psychologists, they care less about the philosophical arguments involved in the “science vs. religion” debate and more about the personal, unconscious factors that lead a person to side with science or with religion (in other words, important decision-making can occur outstide of conscious awareness).

Their test consisted of two experiments, both of which pitted science and religion against each other over ultimate explanations. The first experiment concerned the origins of the universe and the origins of life. Student volunteers (129 in all) volunteers from the University of Chicago, the University of Western Ontario, and Harvard University sat in front of a computer and read articles describing scientific theories for the origins of the universe and of life. Not all participants read the same articles. In the “weak explanation” condition, the articles concluded with the lament that even the best scientific theory to date fails to account for all of the relevant observations. By contrast, the “strong explanation” condition ended its articles with the emphasis on how much data these theories do account for.

In order to test the effects of the strong and weak explanations on the unconscious, the psychologists then had the students take a priming test. The students had to classify words as either positive or negative, with the catch that these words would flash with a 250 millisecond “premask” that shows the number of letters but not what the letters are (like typing in a password) followed by a 15 millisecond reveal of the actual word, and ending with a 50 millisecond “postmask.” In this period of just over 300 milliseconds, the students had to hit the correct computer key indictating whether they thought the word was positive or negative. Words included straightforward positive (“excellent”) and negative (“awful”) words, neutral words (“hat”), and two words relevant for the experiment: “God” and “science.” As expected, those in the weak explanation condition group rated the word “God” much more positively than the word “science,” while the reverse held true for the strong explanation condition group.

The second experiment shifted the issue from the content level to the level of usefulness. That is, how useful are religious and scientific explanations? And how valuable are they? In particular, the experiment tested whether an increase in the perceived value of a religious explanation led to a decrease in the perceived value of a scientific explanation and vice-versa. This experiment had 27 undergraduate volunteers from Harvard University. The psychologists split the students into two groups: one group had to list six things that God can explain, and the other had to list six things that can explain or influence God. After completing this task, all of the students did the same priming test from the first experiment. It turned out that those in the first group (listed things that God can explain) evaluated God more positively than science in the priming test, but those in the second group rated neither God more positively than science nor science more positively than God.

From these experiments the researchers conclude: “These data suggest that using scientific theories as ultimate explanation can serve as an automatic threat to religious beliefs, and vice versa. Perhaps more important, these findings also indicate that explanatory weakness in one belief system can bolster automatic evaluations of the other.” Of course, these conclusions should be tempered with the qualifications that (1) this happens at the unconscious level, and that consciously an individual may have sophisticated ways of integrating religion and science, and (2) the participants were undergraduates (and, in the second experiment, Ivy League at that) who do not necessarily represent the general population. Still, the fact that the human mind seems to default unconsciously to a dichotomy between religion and science is something both religious people and scientists need to explain.

For more, see “Science and God: An automatic opposition between ultimate explanations” in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

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