The Hidden Religion and Science Conflict

More than 150 years have passed since Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and we’re still arguing about science and religion. Outrageous public statements from religious and scientific leaders reinforce the impression of endless conflict, whether it’s Richard Dawkins claiming that religion is a “God delusion,” or Pat Robertson suggesting that opponents of Intelligent Design should not expect God’s help when disaster strikes.

Why? Why does it continue? Why do science and religion seem to generate contentious public debate?

Most answers to these questions assume that something about religion or science causes public conflict to become contentious and intractable. Maybe scientists do not understand religion. Maybe religious people do not understand science. Maybe science and religion offer conflicting claims about human origins, life, or truth. Or maybe religion and science are fundamentally different spheres of life, wherein science is concerned with truth and knowledge, and religion is concerned with values and meaning.

If these explanations are right, then we should expect religion and science to be perpetual sources of confrontation, conflict, and unproductive debate. And if these explanations are right, anyone seeking to minimize this conflict should promote dialogue and reconciliation that reduces misunderstanding of science, religion, or both.

But what if the problem isn’t religion or science? What if there’s a deeper, hidden conflict?

For over a decade, I’ve studied religion and science in American public life. I’ve looked at public arguments about topics ranging from human origins and sexuality to environmental policy and stem cell research. As a sociologist and computational scientist, I’ve used research methods ranging from large-scale machine learning to individual interviews with ordinary Americans. And I’ve come to a surprising conclusion:

Public conflict involving religion and science reflects a fundamental conflict over good debate.

Wait, what? Conflict between religion and science isn’t —> Read More