Social Sciences Can Inform Debates in Science and Religion

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Many insights derived from social and psychological studies shed light on the nature of religious beliefs. Moreover, the research could usefully illuminate the public discussion of religion and science, which can otherwise descend into negative cultural wars. And yet, says Cristine Legare, Associate Professor of Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin, “A lot of the research has not percolated into the popular science literature at all. Public discussions and social scientific discussions of these topics are often highly discrepant.”

Addressing this gap was the goal of a recent workshop, Breaking New Ground in the Science-Religion Dialogue. Supported by the John Templeton Foundation, it showcased a wide range of studies, from the psychological foundations of religious and scientific beliefs to examinations of the impact of the media’s portrayal of these debates. The talks and presentations are now available online.

A number of important results were highlighted during the workshop. For example, one panelist argued that scientific reasoning is neither natural nor psychologically intuitive, meaning that science is often difficult to understand. When religious or cultural resistance is added to accepting theories, such as evolution, embracing the science becomes even more challenging.

Other studies show how it is crucial to think about the impact on young people, when a child is told one thing at home by individuals they respect and love, but taught something contradictory at school in science lessons. This can pit the need to “belong” against assessment of the evidence, and thus exacerbate conflicts. “Alternatively, applying evolution to microbes is quite a different thing psychologically to applying it to humans,” Legare continues. No less a figure than Charles Darwin recognized as much by not discussing human evolution in The Origin of Species.

“Educational interventions need to be tailored to people who have very different beliefs and degrees of flexibility in their beliefs,” explains Legare. Putting all believers in the same box is not helpful. “From a popular science outreach perspective, you have to understand this variability.”