One Nation, United? Science, Religion, and American Public Opinion

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By Shiri Noy and Timothy L. O’Brien

Debates about science and religion—whether they conflict and how they factor into public opinion, policies, and politics—are of longstanding interest to social scientists. Research in this area often examines how those in elite positions use science and religion to justify competing claims. But, more generally how do members of the public incorporate science and religion into their worldviews? The assumption that science and religion inherently conflict with one another has come under increasing scrutiny and recent studies reveal that science and religion are more compatible than previously assumed. Some argue that science and religion lead to conflicting opinions only when enlisted in controversies, which relate directly to science or religion, such as genetically modified organisms and stem cell research. In a recent study we asked whether public perspectives on science and religion also relate to issues where science and religion are not directly implicated.

We analyzed a representative survey of adults in the United States, and found that views on science and religion fall into three groups, which we labelled: a “modern” worldview that is most favorable towards science and least religious, a “traditional” worldview that is religiously devout and least oriented toward science, and a “post-secular” worldview that blends elements of science and religion. For example, although the post-secular perspective is familiar with and appreciative of science, it is also deeply religious and it rejects scientific explanations of topics such as evolution and the big bang. We also found that these three worldviews are distinct from individuals’ religious denominations and political beliefs, and that they predict attitudes about controversies related to science and religion, such as abortion and genetic engineering. But, do they relate to public opinion on controversies where science and religion are not implicated?

When we put this question to the test, we found widespread differences in the social and political attitudes of moderns and traditionals. Moderns tended to hold more liberal or progressive opinions about race, civil liberties, sexuality, gender, and families, while traditionals tended to be more conservative or orthodox on all of these issues. However, post-seculars stood apart from both other groups. For example, post-seculars were the most conservative group when it came to gender and sexuality, but they were relatively progressive on issues related to criminal justice and civil liberties. In other words, science and religion mapped onto people’s socio-political attitudes in far-reaching yet often unexpected ways.

Importantly, the post-secular worldview, shared by just 20% of adults in the US, may play a disproportionately large role in electoral politics and public policy decisions. Moderns and traditionals each account for about 40% of US adults and their political views reflect the usual conservative/liberal divide. However, while post-seculars have leaned Republican in the past, their distinctive opinions about many of the most pressing social and political issues in the current political landscape suggest that they may be an especially important bloc of voters going forward. Given their potential to swing majority public support on key issues, post-seculars may seem like an especially attractive group for candidates, parties, and other stakeholders to court. However, mainstream political actors may find that this task is complicated by the fact that post-seculars’ social and political beliefs do not fit the standard liberal or conservative molds.  

Domain of Social Life

Traditional

Modern

Post-Secular

Human Life Less permissive than Moderns, more permissive than Post-Seculars. Most permissive. Least permissive.
Gender and Sexuality Less permissive than Moderns; similar to Post-Seculars. Most permissive. Less permissive than Moderns; similar to Traditionals
Race and Civil Liberties Least inclusive on civil liberties; more likely than Moderns to attribute race differences to individual causes. More inclusive than Traditionals on civil liberties; more likely than Traditionals and Post-Seculars to attribute race differences to structural causes. Similar to Moderns on civil liberties different on racial attitudes.
Government Spending and Social Assistance Least likely to attribute life success to social rather than personal causes. Most likely to think US will go to war in the next 10 years. Most likely to attribute life success to social rather than personal causes. Least supportive of government intervention and government efforts to improve standard of living.
Crime and the Police Most likely to approve of police force except against murder suspects and due to vulgar speech. More likely than Moderns to support courts’ harsh treatment of criminals. Less likely than Moderns to support marijuana decriminalization. More likely than Traditionals to support courts’ harsh treatment of criminals and police force if attempting to escape, assaulting the officer, ever. Most likely to support marijuana decriminalization. More likely than Traditionals to approve of police force against murder suspects and due to vulgar speech. Least likely to support marijuana decriminalization.
Children and Schools Greater emphasis than Moderns on child obedience. Least emphasis child independent thinking. More likely than Moderns to approve spanking. Greatest support to school prayer and greatest emphasis on child popularity and independent thinking. Greater emphasis than Traditionals on child independent thinking. Greater support for school prayer and emphasis on child obedience than Moderns. Greater support for child independent thinking than Traditionals.

 

Personal Well-Being Lowest level of interpersonal trust. Higher level of interpersonal trust than Traditionals. Higher level of interpersonal trust than Traditionals.
Note: Summary of findings adapted from Noy, Shiri and Timothy L. O’Brien. 2016. “A Nation Divided: Science, Religion, and Public Opinion in the United States.” Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World (2): 1-15.

 

Shiri Noy is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wyoming. Follow Shiri on Twitter @shiri_noy

 

 

 

Timothy L. O’Brien is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

 

 

 

Their research focuses on the intersection of science, religion, and politics. They are currently expanding their research beyond the U.S. context to examine attitudes and perspective on science and religion cross-nationally. Their work on science, religion, and political culture in the U.S. has recently appeared in American Sociological Review and Socius

This summary is based on the following articles; you can e-mail Shiri (snoy[AT]uwyo[DOT]edu) for electronic copies:

O’Brien Timothy L. and Shiri Noy. 2015. “Traditional, Modern, and Post-Secular Perspectives on Science and Religion in the United States.” American Sociological Review 80(1): 92-115.

Noy, Shiri and Timothy L. O’Brien. 2016. “A Nation Divided: Science, Religion, and Public Opinion in the United States.” Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World (2): 1-15.