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God and science not an easy mix for many

Dec. 15, 2008
Courtesy University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
and World Science staff

Some phi­loso­phers, sci­en­tists and the­olo­gians have ar­gued that re­li­gion and sci­ence have no fun­da­men­tal con­flict. 

But many peo­ple seem to feel oth­er­wise, if a new study is to be be­lieved: un­con­scious at­ti­tudes to­ward sci­ence and God are of­ten op­posed. 

The sci­en­tists found that af­ter us­ing sci­ence or God to try to ex­plain ques­tions such as the or­i­gins of the uni­verse and life, most peo­ple in their tests dis­played a pref­er­ence for one type of ex­plan­ation—and a neu­tral or neg­a­tive at­ti­tude to­ward the oth­er. 

This ef­fect ap­pears to be in­de­pend­ent of a per­son’s re­li­gious back­ground or views, said Uni­ver­s­ity of Il­li­nois psy­chol­o­gy pro­fes­sor Jes­se Pres­ton, who led the re­search. The study ap­pears in the Jour­nal of Ex­pe­ri­men­tal So­cial Psy­chol­o­gy.

Pres­ton said she examined the question because if sci­ence and re­li­gion “are both ul­ti­mate ex­plana­t­ions, at some point they have to con­flict with each anoth­er be­cause they can’t pos­sibly both ex­plain ev­ery­thing.”

Pres­ton and col­leagues had 129 vol­un­teers read short sum­maries of the Big Bang the­o­ry and the “P­ri­mor­dial Soup Hy­poth­e­sis,” sci­en­tif­ic the­o­ries of the or­i­gin of the uni­verse and life. Half the vol­un­teers then read a state­ment that said that the the­o­ries were strong and sup­ported by the da­ta. The oth­er half read that the the­o­ries “raised more ques­tions than they an­swered.”

In the sec­ond ex­pe­ri­ment, which in­volved 27 un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dents, half of the study sub­jects had to “list six things that you think God can ex­plain.” The oth­ers were asked to “list six things that you think can ex­plain or in­flu­ence God.”

All the sub­jects were then re­quired to quickly cat­e­go­rize var­i­ous words as pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive on a com­put­er.

“What they did­n’t real­ize was that they were be­ing sub­lim­i­nally primed im­me­di­ately be­fore each word,” Pres­ton said. “So right be­fore the word ‘aw­ful’ came up on the screen, for ex­am­ple, there was a 15-millisec­ond flash of ei­ther ‘God’ or ‘sci­ence,’” or a neu­tral word.

A flash was too brief to reg­is­ter con­sciously, Pres­ton said, but it did have an ef­fect. Those who had read state­ments em­pha­siz­ing the ex­planatory pow­er of sci­ence were able to cat­e­go­rize pos­i­tive words ap­pear­ing just af­ter the word, “sci­ence,” more quickly than those who had read state­ments crit­i­cal of sci­ence.

Those who were asked to use God as an ul­ti­mate ex­plana­t­ion for var­i­ous phe­nom­e­na dis­played a more pos­i­tive as­socia­t­ion with God and a much more neg­a­tive as­socia­t­ion with sci­ence than those di­rect­ed to list oth­er things that can ex­plain God, the re­search­ers found. 

Sim­i­lar­ly, those who read the state­ment sug­gest­ing that the sci­en­tif­ic the­o­ries were weak were ex­tremely slow to iden­ti­fy neg­a­tive words that ap­peared af­ter they were primed with the word “God,” Pres­ton said.

“It was like they did­n’t want to say no to God,” she said.

“What is really in­tri­guing is that the larg­er ef­fect hap­pens on the op­po­site be­lief,” she said. “When God is­n’t be­ing used to ex­plain much, peo­ple have a pos­i­tive at­ti­tude to­ward sci­ence. But when God is be­ing used to ac­count for many events – es­pe­cially the things that they list, which are life, the uni­verse, free will, these big ques­tions – then some­how sci­ence loses its val­ue.”

“On the oth­er hand, peo­ple may have a gen­er­ally pos­i­tive view of sci­ence un­til it fails to ex­plain the im­por­tant ques­tions. Then be­lief in God may be boosted to fill in the gap,” she said.

“To be com­pat­ible, sci­ence and re­li­gion need to stick to their own ter­ri­to­ries, their own ex­planatory space,” Pres­ton sug­gested. But “re­li­gion and sci­ence have nev­er been able to do that, so to me this sug­gests that the de­bate is go­ing to go on. It’s nev­er go­ing to be set­tled.”


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Some philosophers, scientists and theologians have argued that religion and science have no fundamental conflict. But many people seem to feel otherwise, if a new study is to be believed. Researchers found that a person’s unconscious attitudes toward science and God are often opposed, depending on how religion and science are used to answer “ultimate” questions such as how the universe began or the origin of life. The scientists found that after using science or God to explain such important questions, most people display a preference for one and a neutral or even negative attitude toward the other. This effect appears to be independent of a person’s religious background or views, said University of Illinois psychology professor Jesse Preston, who led the research. The study appears in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. If science and religion “are both ultimate explanations, at some point they have to conflict with each another because they can’t possibly both explain everything,” Preston said. Preston and colleagues had 129 volunteers read short summaries of the Big Bang theory and the “Primordial Soup Hypothesis,” scientific theories of the origin of the universe and life. Half the volunteers then read a statement that said that the theories were strong and supported by the data. The other half read that the theories “raised more questions than they answered.” In the second experiment, which involved 27 undergraduate students, half of the study subjects had to “list six things that you think God can explain.” The others were asked to “list six things that you think can explain or influence God.” All the subjects were then required to quickly categorize various words as positive or negative on a computer. “What they didn’t realize was that they were being subliminally primed immediately before each word,” Preston said. “So right before the word ‘awful’ came up on the screen, for example, there was a 15-millisecond flash of either ‘God’ or ‘science,’“ or a neutral word. A flash was too brief to register consciously, Preston said, but it did have an effect. Those who had read statements emphasizing the explanatory power of science were able to categorize positive words appearing just after the word, “science,” more quickly than those who had read statements critical of science. Those who were asked to use God as an ultimate explanation for various phenomena displayed a more positive association with God and a much more negative association with science than those directed to list other things that can explain God, the researchers found. Similarly, those who read the statement suggesting that the scientific theories were weak were extremely slow to identify negative words that appeared after they were primed with the word “God,” Preston said. “It was like they didn’t want to say no to God,” she said. “What is really intriguing is that the larger effect happens on the opposite belief,” she said. “When God isn’t being used to explain much, people have a positive attitude toward science. But when God is being used to account for many events – especially the things that they list, which are life, the universe, free will, these big questions – then somehow science loses its value.” “On the other hand, people may have a generally positive view of science until it fails to explain the important questions. Then belief in God may be boosted to fill in the gap,” she said. “To be compatible, science and religion need to stick to their own territories, their own explanatory space,” Preston suggested. But “religion and science have never been able to do that, so to me this suggests that the debate is going to go on. It’s never going to be settled.”