HOSTILITY towards religion in favour of science is declining, new research suggests. The youngest adult respondents to a new survey are more likely to value the place of religion in the modern world than older generations.
The public perception of a conflict between science and religion remains, however: more than 80 per cent of people in the survey said that the two were incompatible.
The findings were published on Monday in Science and Religion: Moving away from the shallow end, produced by the Christian thinktank Theos and the Faraday Institute. The report is largely based on a fieldwork study of 5153 UK adults conducted by YouGov between 5 May and 13 June 2021. It also draws on 101 hour-long interviews carried out in 2019 and 2020 with academics, journalists, scientists, and philosophers, among them Professor Brian Cox, Baroness Greenfield, Andrew Brown, and Dr A. C. Grayling.
One interviewee told researchers: “I want it on record, don’t just list me as an atheist in the Richard Dawkins type. Because I am not an atheist like him at all.”
Sixteen years ago, at about the time of the publication of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, ComRes found that 42 per cent of UK adults polled agreed with the statement: “Faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.” The new research tested the same proposition. The proportion now agreeing is 21 per cent.
Furthermore, 46 per cent of all respondents agreed that “all religions have some element of truth in them.” Half (49 per cent) agreed that “humans are at heart spiritual beings”; and nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) agreed that “there are some things that science will never be able to explain.”
More than half of participants also agreed, however, that “science is the only way of getting reliable knowledge about the world.”
“THE angry hostility towards religion engineered by the New Atheist movement is over,” say the authors of the Theos report, Nick Spencer and Hannah Waite. This is owing in part to the open-mindedness of young people today, they suggest.
A breakdown of the survey findings by age found that more than half (57 per cent) of the 471 participants from Generation Z (born between the late-1990s and early-2010s) did not agree with the statement that “religion has no place in the modern world.”
Baby boomers were of a similar mindset, with 56 per cent of a much larger pool of 1658 participants also disagreeing with the statement. Among the 1668 Millennial respondents (born 1981-96) and the 1356 Generation X respondents (1965-80), 46 per cent disagreed with the statement.
Generation Z were also in stronger disagreement with the statement “You can’t be a good scientist and be religious” (67 per cent) than any other generation, whose answers ranged between 57 and 59 per cent. A similar proportion of Generation Z (64 per cent) also agreed that “it is possible to believe in God and in evolution”, compared with between 43 and 53 per cent of other generations.
Confidence in the theory of evolution and the Big Bang was highest among the youngest generation: 83 per cent and 74 per cent respectively, compared with 73 per cent and 59 per cent of all respondents.
The report notes: “Although much of the science-and-religion debate has been focused around evolution, the data show that only a small minority of people (including religious people) reject evolution.”
This narrowing of debate has led to the public misconception of conflict between science and religion, the authors write. In the same survey, more people agreed that the relationship between science and religion was incompatible (57 per cent; 26 per cent strongly so) than compatible (30 per cent; eight per cent strongly so). Men were more hostile towards religion than women, and non-white ethnic groups were more positive about religion than white respondents.
These findings were due in part to the commonness of simplified views of “science and religion” that did not take into account the “vast, sprawling, ill-defined categories” relevant to how people live their lives.
Debate has too often been narrowed down into binary choices — evolution v. creation, Big Bang v. God — which creates loud and unrealistic arguments, the authors write. “The debate over religion and science is like the proverbial swimming pool, where all the noise is up at the shallow end.”
The report is part of a three-year project, funded by the Templeton Religion Trust, which seeks to explore attitudes towards science and religion in the UK.
Read more from Nick Spencer here.
Listen to an interview with Nick Spencer on the Church Times Podcast.