(RNS) Scientists and Christian evangelicals can collaborate for the good of society but it will take some serious effort, experts said as they launched a new campaign to change perceptions between the two groups.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science and its Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion program released a major research project on Sunday (Feb. 16), at the AAAS annual meeting in Chicago, and announced an upcoming series of conferences mixing believers, scientists and many who are both.
The massive survey of views on God, religion, and science included 10,241 respondents and took a particularly close look at the views of evangelicals and people in science-related occupations.
The concern is not whether “science and religion can co-exist. They already do,” said lead researcher Elaine Howard Ecklund, a sociologist and director of Rice University’s Religion and Public Life Program. “The question is how to do it well.”
“The stakes are very high,” said Galen Carey, vice president for government relations for the National Association of Evangelicals, which is an advisor on the project.
Carey shared the stage with Ecklund in panels, press conferences and a live chat on the research and dialogue plans.
“We face so many issues as a nation and a world community where the contributions of both are needed to bring a better world,” he said.
Among the findings of the study, “Religious Understandings of Science”:
* Nearly 36 percent of scientists have no doubt about God’s existence.
* 18 percent of scientists attended weekly religious services (compared with 20 percent of the overall U.S. population).
* 17 percent of scientists consider themselves evangelical.
* 15 percent of scientists consider themselves “very religious” (19 percent of the overall population).
* 13.5 percent of scientists read religious texts weekly (17 percent overall).
Ecklund said 72 percent of evangelical scientists, and 48 percent of all evangelicals, see opportunities for collaboration across the two worldviews. Carey said there are more than 2 million evangelical scientists committed to both faith and science and able to serve as a bridge.
But not everyone is singing “Kumbayah” around the campfire.
“If you are looking for conflict, there’s a place to find it in the data,” Ecklund pointed out in a live online chat for AAAS’ “Science” magazine. The study reports:
* 22 percent of scientists and 20 percent of the general population think most religious people are hostile to science.
* 22 percent of the general population thinks scientists are hostile to religion.
* 27 percent of Americans feel that science and religion are in conflict.
* Of those who feel science and religion are in conflict, 52 percent sided with religion.
The groups are not synonymous. The study found:
* Evangelical Protestants are 23 percent of the general population but 17 percent of scientists.
* Catholics have a similar gap — 24 percent of the population but only 19 percent of scientists.
* For mainline Protestants, the gap is smaller — 27 percent overall and 25 percent of scientists.
* Atheists, agnostics and people with no religious identity are 22 percent of scientists but, according to this study, just 15.5 percent of the general population.
By almost every measure of religiosity — attending worship, reading sacred texts and prayer — evangelical scientists claim higher levels of observance than evangelicals in general.
About 19 percent of the general population and 16 percent of all scientists say they consider themselves to be “very religious.” However, among evangelicals, the rate rises to 44 percent and for evangelical scientists, it’s 51 percent.
On whether they have “no doubt” that “God really exists,” evangelical scientists (85 percent) and evangelicals in general (87percent) are statistically tied. Both share higher rates of conviction than the general population (55 percent) and scientists in general (35.9 percent).
Ecklund, Carey and Jennifer Wiseman, director of DoSER, said the survey data would serve as a basis for a series of regional conferences in 2014 leading to a national conference next year. While the hot-button issues such as evolution may remain points of tension, both groups must persevere to build connections, they said.
Ecklund cited shared concerns such as bringing diversity to the science professions, a focus on social justice and solving issues such as food insecurity or care for the environment. “I don’t want to sound Pollyanna-ish but we can start with areas of commonality,” she said.
Carey said the NAE is preparing a resource booklet for pastors and Sunday school classes to foster thoughtful discussion between science and religion.
“We respect the fact that science has a role to play,” Carey said. “It doesn’t have a way to study spiritual reality. It doesn’t mean spiritual reality isn’t there. We believe it is. But it has to be approached by using different methods and tools.”
But Carey also reiterated that “science needs the understanding, support and funding of society. … We share a common vocation in the search for truth. ‘All truth is God’s truth,’ as Augustine said. “We have the same calling to serve society.”