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Conservative Protestants conflict with scientists over moral and social issues

Jesus and monkeyAs seen from sociologist John Evans’s (University of California, San Diego) previous research, Christians, including conservative ones, have as much scientific literacy as the non-religious. The real religion-science conflict, he argued, occurs over moral and social issues. Now Evans continues his argument: not only do conservative Protestants disagree with scientists over moral and social issues, but this conflict has increased over time.

The suggestion that conservative Protestants’ protest against scientists' meddling in social and moral issues has increased over time may seem unlikely given that the fundamental issue has not changed since the 1920s. That is, scientists treat human beings as machines and the result of chemical processes, whereas conservative Protestants insist that humans have spirit, indeed are primarily spiritual creatures. The net result, according to many conservative Protestants, is that scientists at least imply that (1) morality comes from chance circumstances and has no basis outside of the subjective, and (2) the universe, and therefore life, has no meaning. Of course, select scientists have been treating the scientific method metaphysically since the 19th century, and so it would seem that the conflict here between religion and science should be stable over time.

Evans suspects that the conflict has actually increased from 1984-2010 due to the birth of the “religious right” movement in the late 1970s. During this time, conservative Protestants from the 1950s and 1960s who opposed communism joined Catholics who opposed abortion, leading to the list of issues that currently defines the stereotypical socially conservative person: abortion, birth control, cloning, stem cell research, genetic engineering (of humans), and euthanasia.

To test his theory that conservative Protestant opposition to scientists over moral and social issues has increased since 1984, Evans used data from the General Social Survey (GSS). Unfortunately, the GSS asked only one question about science through its history: “I am going to name some institutions in this country. As far as the people running these institutions are concerned, would you say you have a great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all in them?”—“scientific community.” More have been added since 1984, but including them would not allow Evans to make the long-term conclusions he needs.

To get around the problem of having only one question about science, Evans implements several controls. First, another question asks how influential “medical researchers” should be in the issue of deciding funding for stem cell research. This question helps to eliminate conservatives who oppose scientists on factual grounds (that is, conservatives who think science does not produce knowledge). Likewise, a number of questions tested each participant’s scientific knowledge, furthering this elimination (of course, Evans distinguishes between facts that are contested and uncontested by conservative Protestants). Next, Evans controlled for people with a low view of those running institutions in general. Lastly, Evans need a control group: in comparison with whom are conservative Protestants more opposed to the influence of scientists on socio-moral issues? Evans answers with “nonparticipants in religion.”

After running the appropriate analyses, Evans confirmed that “fundamentalists are interpreting confidence in science as a statement about morality” without them being ignorant of science or denying that science discovers real facts about the world. Interestingly, Evans also found that the educated, young, male, rich, white, and nonrural had more confidence in the moral and social stances of scientists than their counterparts. Evans speculates that African Americans having less confidence than whites or Latino may stem from scientifically justified horrors such as the Tuskegee experiment. As for the issue of waning confidence, Evans indeed found support for his hypothesis: in 1984, the probability of a fundamentalist having confidence in the socio-moral stances of scientists was 36.4% and this dropped to 26.5% in 2010 (the nonreligious experienced no change).

Evans further speculates about the reason for this decline: “Over the time period fundamentalist Protestants moved from not being publicly concerned with issues concerning the body to deep involvement with these issues. At the same time scientists started engaging in research that centrally touched on issues typically thought to be ‘religious’ having to do with the body and reproduction. Social conflict ensued, and fundamentalist Protestants became increasingly opposed to the social role of science in public debates about socio-moral issues.” His findings present a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the religion-science conflict seems shallower than before because it’s not so much about “facts” as about values. Yet, on the other hand, precisely because it is about values, it seems more serious than ever.

For more, see “The Growing Social and Moral Conflict Between Conservative Protestantism and Science” in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

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