Expert Commentary

How scientists negotiate the boundaries between religion and science

2011 study from researchers at Rice and Baylor Universities published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion about how scientists and academics view and religious beliefs.

Science and religion have a long history of conflict, but also of mutual study and profound debate. A 2011 study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, “Scientists Negotiate Boundaries Between Religion and Science,” examined interviews with 275 natural and social scientists — from disciplines such as physics and chemistry to political science and psychology — to look at their views on reconciling science with religious belief.

Past research efforts have defined religious believers by such data as church or synagogue membership. This study, written by researchers at Rice and Baylor Universities, takes into account the wide range of religious beliefs that the interview subjects might have, whether or not they are actively affiliated with religious institutions.

The study’s findings include:

  • Among the scientists interviewed, 15% felt that religion and science were in permanent conflict, 15% thought they were never in conflict, and the remainder “gave specific contexts in which religion and science are in conflict and others where they are not.”
  • A majority of those who said religion and science were always in conflict said religion’s role was “a way to distinguish what science is and what it is not; this group believed scientific knowledge trumps all religious knowledge.”
  • Among those who said the two categories were never in conflict viewed religion and science, for various reasons, as being “so irrelevant to one another that they were not even in conflict.”
  • The largest group — the 70% whose views were more fluid — “understood the boundaries between religion and science as largely porous, with the possibility of either one influencing the other.” Furthermore, for many, “religion was often personally important, and it shared with science some similar knowledge parameters.”
  • Distinguishing between religiosity and spirituality helps account for the fluid views of the 70% that saw less conflict between religion and science, with 68% of those surveyed considered themselves “spiritual.”

“When religion is defined as evangelicalism or fundamentalism the boundaries between religion and science — unsurprisingly, given current public debates at the time these data were collected — are strong,” the researchers state. “In contrast, however, a significant group of scientists think that religion and science are sometimes in conflict and sometimes not in conflict. In particular, these natural and social scientists view science differently when held in contrast to religion compared to the way they view science when held in contrast to spirituality. When religion is redefined as spirituality it has the potential to flow from as well as into science.”

Keywords: religion, science

About The Author