Will Religious Conflicts Threaten the President's New Science Initiatives?

In his second State of the Union address, President Barack Obama called on Americans to reclaim our identity as a people who "do big things" and pledged new federal investment, particularly for scientific research.

We'll invest in biomedical research, information technology and especially clean energy technology. ... We're telling America's scientists and engineers that if they assemble the teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we'll fund the Apollo Projects of our time.

But will Obama's call to renewed public investment in scientific research and technology run aground in the choppy seas of religion and science conflicts? Historically, religious and scientific leaders alike have seen these realms in conflict, particularly in modern times. Many observers have thought the rise of science presents religious believers an unavoidable, stark choice: intellectual integrity or intellectual sacrifice. So can America, exceptional still among industrialized nations for its high levels of religiosity, also remain exceptional in the sphere of science?

A Pew Research Center poll on science offers some complex answers to these questions. On the one hand, scientists topped the list of professions who contribute to the well being of society (70 percent "a lot"), handily trumping clergy (40 percent "a lot"). More than eight-in-10 (84 percent) said science has had a mostly positive effect on society and has made life easier for people (83 percent). Moreover, six-in-10 Americans, including majorities of all major religious groups, believe government investment in research is essential for scientific progress.

Yet this same poll found that a majority (55 percent) of Americans say science and religion are often in conflict, and 36 percent say science sometimes conflicts with their own religious beliefs. A majority of white evangelicals (52 percent) and more than four-in-10 (44 percent) Catholics agree that science sometimes conflict with their religious beliefs.

But looking below the surface, it turns out that the conflicts are limited to specific terrain. Among Americans who acknowledge a conflict between their religious beliefs and science, one area of conflict stands out: evolution (41 percent). Americans' views on this subject are telling. Roughly one-third (32 percent) believe living beings have evolved due to natural selection, 22 percent believe a supreme being guided the evolutionary process and about one-third (31 percent) they have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.

The data suggests that the new science initiatives should find strong general support among religious Americans as long as they steer clear of the issue of evolution. But even on this issue, a majority of Americans seem to have avoided the "intellectual sacrifice" allegedly demanded of them by incorporating divine participation in the evolutionary process. That move may be yet another expression of American ingenuity at work.

This article was originally posted by Dr. Jones at the Washington Post's On Faith section. To read more from Dr. Jones, find his blog, "Faith in the Numbers," here.