He looked really uneasy. I'd just finished giving my first lecture of 8.282, MIT's freshman astronomy course, but this one student stayed behind in my classroom. He nervously explained that although he liked the subject, he worried that my teaching conflicted with his religion. I asked him what his religion was, and when I told him that it had officially declared there to be no conflict with Big Bang cosmology, something amazing happened: his anxiety just melted away right in front of my eyes! Poof!
This gave me the idea to start the MIT Survey on Science, Religion and Origins, which we're officially publishing today in honor of Charles Darwin's 204th birthday. We found that only 11 percent of Americans belong to religions openly rejecting evolution or our Big Bang. So if someone you know has the same stressful predicament as my student, chances are that they can relax as well. To find out for sure, check out the infographic below.
So is there a conflict between science and religion? The religious organizations representing most Americans clearly don't think so. Interestingly, the science organizations representing most American scientists don't think so either: For example, the American Association for the Advancement of Science states that science and religion "live together quite comfortably, including in the minds of many scientists." This shows that the main divide in the U.S. origins debate isn't between science and religion, but between a small fundamentalist minority and mainstream religious communities who embrace science.
So why is this small fundamentalist minority so influential? How can some politicians and school-board members get reelected even after claiming that our 14 billion-year-old universe might be only about 6,000 years old? That's like claiming that my 90-year-old aunt is only 20 minutes old. It's tantamount to claiming that if you watch this video of a supernova explosion in the Centaurus A Galaxy about 10 million light-years away, you're seeing something that never happened, because light from the explosion needs 10 million years to reach Earth. Why isn't making such claims political suicide?
Part of the explanation may be a striking gap between Americans' personal beliefs and the official views of the faiths to which they belong. Whereas only 11 percent belong to religions openly rejecting evolution, Gallup reports that 46 percent believe that God created humans in their present form less than 10,000 years ago. Why is this "belief gap'' so large? Interestingly, this isn't the only belief gap surrounding a science-religion controversy: whereas 0 percent of Americans belong to religions arguing that the Sun revolves around Earth, Gallup reports that as many as 18 percent nonetheless believe in this theory that used to be popular during the Middle Ages. This suggests that the belief gaps may have less to do with intellectual disputes and more to do with an epic failure of science education.
As a father, it bothers me if we pollute our kids' education with pseudoscientific nonsense rather than prepare them for the technologies and challenges of tomorrow. As an astrophysicist, it bothers me that we're distracted by such silliness and losing sight of the big picture. Here we are together, 7 billion of us, on this precious and beautiful blue planet that the American futurist Buckminster Fuller called "Spaceship Earth." As it blazes though cold and barren space, our spaceship both sustains and protects us. It's stocked with major but limited supplies of water, food and fuel. Its atmosphere keeps us warm and shielded from the Sun's harmful ultraviolet rays, and its magnetic field shelters us from lethal cosmic rays. Surely any responsible spaceship captain would make it a top priority to safeguard its future existence by avoiding asteroid collisions, on-board explosions, overheating, ultraviolet shield destruction and premature depletion of supplies? Well, our spaceship crew hasn't made any of these issues a top priority, devoting (by my estimate) less than a millionth of its resources to them. In fact, our spaceship doesn't even have a captain!
I feel that people bent on science-religion conflict are picking the wrong battle. The real battle is against the daunting challenges facing the future of humanity, and regardless of our religious views, we're all better off fighting this battle united.
What do you think? See how your views compare with others:
A version of this appears in Issue 37 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, Feb. 22.