Supporting Science: Reasons, Restrictions, and the Role of Religion

Abstract: Religion sometimes appears to motivate objections to science and technology. But how and when does religion matter? I examine this question from a novel perspective. Given the opportunity to limit scientific research, and having good reasons to do so, are religious persons likely to support such limits? Through individual interviews with 62 respondents, I find that the answer generally is “no.” Religious and non-religious respondents alike deploy multiple reinforcing arguments for supporting science in order to resist any proposed limits. With rare exceptions, religious and non-religious persons concur in their unwavering support for ongoing scientific research.

Author: Michael S. Evans

Keywords: values, modernity, fundamentalism, Christianity

Notice: The final, definitive version of this paper has been published in Science Communication 34(3):334-362, 2012, doi:10.1177 / 1075547011417890. For quoting or citing, please refer to the published version.

1 Introduction

Does religion interfere with support for science? According to the conflict narrative that dominated scholarly and popular work on science and religion for more than a century, it should (Evans and Evans 2008). In recent years, historians and sociologists systematically have debunked the various forms of the conflict thesis (see Numbers 2009). But religion remains a particular concern for scholars of science communication and public understanding of science (e.g. Gaskell et al 2005, Nisbet 2005, Weasel and Jensen 2005, Priest 2006, Nisbet and Goidel 2007, Jensen 2008, Brossard et al 2009, Liu and Priest 2009, Nisbet and Scheufele 2009, Ho, Scheufele, and Corley 2010). Of course mass media coverage of religion in general is a concern for communication scholars, as mass media institutions tend to publicize controversies and minimize important religious differences (Buddenbaum 1998, Hoover 1998, Buddenbaum 2009). The more specific concern for science communication is that public resistance to scientific authority on such issues as stem cell research, human evolution, and climate change seems particularly to originate in religious traditions and beliefs (Nisbet 2005, Weasel and Jensen 2005, Binder 2007, Mooney 2008, Brossard et al 2009).

To be clear, such particular concern with religion is not a simple reaction against religious participation in public debates about scientific and technological issues. Communication scholars note that religious opposition on these issues may well increase the overall quality of public debate (Gaskell et al 2005, Priest 2006, Jensen 2008, see also Shields 2009, Klemp 2010). Rather, the concern reflects the puzzle that religion presents for science communication. Certainly some religious persons sometimes disapprove of, for example, government funding for embryonic stem cell research (Nisbet 2005). But religious influence on support for science is inconsistent. In America, for example, the vast majority of people are religious in some form, yet agreement with positive statements about science, technology and progress on national surveys is nearly universal (see, e.g. NSB 2008). And scholarly claims about “religion” are often claims about single dimensions of religiosity, such as church attendance, that do not account for the complexity of motivations and reasons that prompt (lack of) support for science among religious persons (see Chaves 2010). Religion is sometimes relevant to support for science, but how and when it becomes relevant remains unclear.

Most current science communication research suggests that religion is a distinct source of values that sometimes (but not always) generates resistance to science. This explanation is broadly consistent with the theory that religion provides part of a cultural “toolkit” (Swidler 1986) from which persons sometimes (but not always) draw in order to manipulate their symbolic and conceptual worlds (see also Wuthnow 1996, 2007, Edgell 2008). From this perspective, religious persons should be expected to employ distinctive reasons, arguments, beliefs, and stories as they evaluate information, reason out responses, and justify their conclusions about scientific and technological issues. In some versions, religious persons mobilize distinctive reasons and arguments because the implications of particular issues (e.g. embryonic stem cell research or nanotechnology) threaten the legitimacy of their religious “worldview” (Nisbet 2005, Brossard et al 2009). Other versions suggest that persons who are more religious simply are more likely to mobilize religious objections to science (Gaskell et al 2005, Priest 2006), or that different religious traditions produce characteristic forms of moral reasoning or trust in religious authority that manifest as distinctive religious objections (Weasel and Jensen 2005, Jensen 2008, Liu and Priest 2009).

But current sociological theory also suggests that cultural toolkits are often incomplete, inconsistent, and unevenly deployed (Vaisey 2009, Martin 2010). Certainly religious persons might differ in support for science because they come from different religious traditions that provide different cultural resources, as suggested above. But in theory, religious persons from the same religious traditions might differ based on their variable access to, or deployment of, the reasons, arguments, beliefs, and stories that constitute a particular religious toolkit. And religion might not matter at all, as even religious persons might reach for other “tools” such as political rationales, economic arguments, or other non-religious resources for evaluating science and technology. The implication for science communication is that there is no necessary or predictable link between personal religious characteristics (e.g. church attendance or belief in omnipotent God) and support for science. Since most current science communication research focuses on the shared religious characteristics of objectors to various controversial public issues (e.g. stem cell research, nanotechnology, climate change, see above), such possibilities remain largely unexplored.

In this paper I take a different approach. I interview 62 respondents, selected from a wide range of religious backgrounds (including non-religious), to unearth the reasoning behind their decision whether or not to limit scientific research. Using a fictional scenario where a proposed moratorium on basic scientific research is prompted by moral and ethical concerns, I deliberately avoid specific issue-based opinion questions in order to get at more basic and fundamental reasoning and commitments. The primary purpose is to see when, or if, distinctively religious reasons or arguments surface in a situation where reasons and argument are required, but not explicitly attached to established issues in public debate. Instead of asking “does religion inhibit support for science? ” or “how does one particular religious tradition inhibit support for (e.g.) nanotechnology? ” this study asks “how and when does religion matter, if at all? ”

I find that in almost every case, both religious and non-religious respondents oppose the proposed limits on scientific research on the grounds that scientific research should continue. When confronted with arguments or contrary evidence that undermined their initial reasons, respondents move among multiple reasons as required to maintain their position of support for ongoing scientific research. Such support holds even when faced with objections that align with respondents’ own opinions and beliefs about moral or ethical issues. Not only does religion rarely inhibit support for science for the respondents in this study, it is only rarely invoked explicitly as relevant or meaningful in their responses. This finding suggests that links between personal religious characteristics and support for science may not stem from religion-specific “worldviews” or “value predispositions” (Brossard et al 2009, Ho, Scheufele, and Corley 2010), but rather are mediated or even constituted by other forms of culture (see also Nisbet 2005, Nisbet and Goidel 2007, Critchley 2008). I conclude by suggesting that emphasizing common cultural resources in science communication may be more fruitful than responding to apparently religious opposition.

2 Science and Religion

According to the conflict narrative that dominated scholarly and popular work on science and religion for more than a century, religion should inhibit support for science. First popularized by John William Draper in his book History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (Draper 1874), the conflict thesis posits that religion and science are inherently conflicting domains of human knowledge with mutually exclusive explanations for how the world works. In this view, religion and science are essential and enduring categories of human life, extending back into antiquity (Freeman 2005) and likely projecting into any visible human future (Dawkins 2006). Citing such examples as the trial of Galileo and the Scopes trial, scholars and popular sources attribute particular instances of conflict to an overarching and inevitable conflict between religion and science (e.g. Boorstin 1983, White 1896). From this perspective, religion necessarily interferes with support for science.

But over the past thirty years, historians and sociologists systematically have debunked the various forms of the conflict thesis (Evans and Evans 2008, Numbers 2009). In many different times and places, religion and science have been allies rather than opponents (Livingstone 1987, Yalçinkaya 2010). Successful academic scientists consistently avow religious beliefs and engage in religious practices (Leuba 1916, Ecklund 2010). And though science rarely has proceeded without resistance, historically speaking such resistance is as likely to result from other versions of science (e.g. Baconian science, see Garroutte 2003, Evans 2009), from battles over professional jurisdiction and institutional resources (Turner 1978, Gieryn 1983, Cadge, Ecklund, and Short 2009, see also essays in Smith 2003), or from the failure to realize material benefits from scientific discoveries (Norris and Inglehart 2004), as it is to result from religious opposition.

Most scholarship in science communication and public understanding of science has moved beyond the naive “epistemological conflict” model (see Evans and Evans 2008). But religion remains of particular interest for scholars of science communication. In part this is because well-documented problems at the intersection of religion and media also implicate science and its publics. As Buddenbaum (1998, 2009) and Hoover (1998) have demonstrated, journalists covering religion tend to focus on unrepresentative controversies and scandals, and often simplify the complex realities of religion on the ground, despite the increasing connections between religion and the media in contemporary society (Hoover 2006). While these problems sometimes manifest in public issues unrelated to science (e.g. televangelist sex scandals, see Buddenbaum 2009), they also manifest in issues that involve science and technology. Mass media institutions, particularly in the United States (see Reis 2008), tend to reiterate the naive conflict narrative by framing, or in some cases, constituting public controversies over science and technology issues as “religion vs. science.” For example, journalistic norms of objectivity and balance can result in stories that validate religious positions on human origins as legitimate scientific alternatives to evolution, even though scientific experts may disagree (Taylor and Condit 1988, Grimm 2009). Or, as in controversies over embryonic stem cell research, mass media coverage may effectively present a “scientific” frame against a “religious” (or sometimes “moral”) frame for interpreting the meaning and implications of new technology (Pardo and Calvo 2008, see also Nisbet, Brossard, and Kroepsch 2003).

But the more basic concern about religion in science communication stems from empirical findings that resistance to science on a few significant issues originates particularly among persons with religious characteristics. For example, religious persons (especially Catholics) are more likely to be opposed to embryonic stem cell research (Nisbet 2005). Fundamentalist Christian leaders have been “particularly vocal” in public debates over human cloning (Weasel and Jensen 2005). Respondents who make stronger claims that religion provides guidance in their everyday lives are less likely to support funding for nanotechnology research (Brossard et al 2009). Efforts to change public school science curricula to include Intelligent Design as a legitimate scientific theory of human origins mostly originate among conservative Protestants (Forrest and Gross 2004, Binder 2007). And some of the most visible political figures expressing skepticism over climate change, such as U.S. Senator James Inhofe, are committed evangelical Christians (Mooney 2008). At least for some religious traditions and some controversial issues, religion obviously plays a role in science communication.

To be clear, the concern is not that religious persons are involved in public debate, or that religious persons unhelpfully oppose scientific or technological developments that should progress unimpeded. From a normative perspective, religious involvement may well improve the quality of debate by attracting additional participants, expanding the scope of discussion, and providing a requirement for justification that raises the quality of arguments on all sides (Gaskell et al 2005, Priest 2006, Jensen 2008). Of course it remains an open empirical question whether and how religious involvement in public debate improves the quality of debate. For example, current research in political science suggests a fundamental and perhaps irresolvable tension between participation and deliberation in the public involvement of the Christian Right in American politics (Shields 2009, Klemp 2010). The important point is that concern over religion in science communication is not simply a reaction against religious involvement in public debate.

Rather, the concern is that it is not clear how and when religion will surface as relevant when religious persons encounter information on scientific and technological issues, whether that is in a mass media outlet, in instructional settings such as church and school, or through conversation with others. At least in the American case, the people who express support for science and the people who are religious are mostly the same people. Approximately 90 percent of Americans show support for science in national surveys such as the General Social Survey and National Science Board Science and Engineering Indicators (e.g. NSB 2008). At the same time, approximately 80 percent of Americans are religious in some form (see ARDA summaries at thearda.com). The “unique national characteristics” (Nisbet 2005:92) that mark America as religious do not seem to inhibit general support for science. As a recent Pew Research Center for the People and the Press report said about the American public, “Overwhelming majorities say that science has had a positive effect on society and that science has made life easier for most people” (Pew Research Center 2009). Nor is this support a recent development. As the National Science Board has noted, “Americans consistently and by large margins endorse the past achievements and future promise of science and technology. This support has been evident in surveys conducted since 1979” (NSB 2008).

Complicating matters further is the fact that “religious” is not a monolithic category. What it means to be religious is notoriously difficult to specify. While mass media may contribute to getting religion wrong (Hoover 1998), it may be impossible to get it right given the types of data available. Even professional sociologists of religion continue to disagree about what “religiosity indicators” such as church attendance, beliefs about God, or denominational affiliation actually indicate on surveys (Sherkat and Ellison 1999). It is increasingly unclear whether or not similar answers on religiosity indicators are even talking about the same thing (see Chaves 2010 on the “religious congruence fallacy”). Church attendance, to take one example, disregards important differences not only between denominations or affiliations, but between different local congregations within the same denominations (Scheufele, Nisbet, and Brossard 2003, Djupe and Gilbert 2009). Without a clear, contextual, and specific understanding about what “religion” means and why it would matter, it is especially difficult to link personal religiosity to support for science, whether in general terms or on specific controversial issues.

3 Religion as Culture

Most current research in science communication suggests that religion (or personal religiosity) is a source of certain “values” that sometimes generate resistance to science (e.g. Gaskell et al 2005, Nisbet 2005). In this view, under certain circumstances religious persons employ distinctive reasons, arguments, beliefs, and stories as they evaluate information, reason out responses, and justify their conclusions about scientific and technological issues. Religious beliefs, in particular, are seen as “perceptual filters” (Brossard et al 2009) or “value predispositions” (Ho, Scheufele, and Corley 2010) that shape responses to information. The implication for science communication is that some issues will prompt resistance or opposition from religious persons, either because specific scientific and technological developments (e.g. embryonic stem cell research) appear to threaten the legitimacy of a religious “worldview” (Nisbet 2005), or more generally, as Brossard et al (2009:547) put it, because science and religion “provide a different understanding of the nature of the world.”

Current science communication research is therefore broadly consistent with the theoretical perspective that “religion” describes part of a cultural “toolkit” (Swidler 1986) that provides a variety of tools for persons to manipulate their symbolic and conceptual worlds. Religion in this sense is not only a set of institutionalized behaviors (such as church attendance), professed beliefs (such as biblical literalism), or group memberships (such as denominational affiliation), but also a loosely-bounded set of discursive resources such as distinctive language, arguments, and reasons that ordinary persons can use to organize concepts and ideas and to justify practical action (see also Wuthnow 1996, 2007, Edgell 2008, Vaisey 2009).

To be clear, such distinctive language, arguments, and reasons need not be explicitly about God or even religious authority. Religious persons sometimes use “God talk” to articulate their objections, for example, that human cloning is “against the will of God” (Weasel and Jensen 2005). But often “religious” is taken to mean “moral,” such that religious persons have characteristic moral objections that surface with regard to science, particularly as new technologies of life, such as reproductive genetics or nanotechnology, emerge (Ellison and Musick 1995, Evans and Evans 2010, Evans 2010). Likewise, the “values” described in science communication research are often actually moral concerns about the status of human life or the ethical limits of interference with biological processes, rather than explicit religious claims (e.g. Gaskell et al 2005, Nisbet, Brossard, and Kroepsch 2003, Nisbet 2005, Priest 2006, Doolin and Motion 2010).

Understanding religion as culture is useful for explaining why some scientific and technological issues (e.g. evolution, embryonic stem cell research, nanotechnology, human cloning) draw religious objections, while other scientific and technological issues (e.g. medical imaging, aeronautics, space exploration) generally do not. As a form of culture, religion is a “set of potentials for experience” (Martin 2010:240) that may or may not be realized in any particular situation. The implication of this approach is that when people evaluate and respond to scientific and technological issues, sometimes religion matters, but sometimes it does not matter, depending on a variety of other factors (including, e.g., media framing of issues, see above).

Most science communication research that involves religion focuses primarily on the shared religious characteristics of persons who have already expressed some form of resistance or opposition on a given issue. In some cases, the shared religious characteristic is simply “strength of religiosity” irrespective of religious tradition. For example, Liu and Priest (2009) find that support for stem cell research is lower for those who attend “service at a place of worship” more often (see also Nisbet 2005, Priest 2006, Brossard et al 2009). In other cases, shared religious characteristics are similar denominational memberships or specific beliefs. For example, Weasel and Jensen (2005:3) focus specifically on “Christian fundamentalist pastors” whose church’s “official websites espouse fundamentalist beliefs,” while Nisbet and Goidel (2007) focus on “Christian conservatism and social ideology” (see also Evans 2002, Gamble and Kassadjian 2008). Such focus on religious characteristics has been productive and useful, both in moving beyond the simple conflict narrative of religion and science, and also in identifying the importance of understanding religion as a form of culture that is deployed unevenly across different issues.

But understanding religion as a form of culture also entails acknowledging that, given the limitations of human experience and cognition, religious “tools” are neither uniformly available nor consistently useful (Wuthnow 2007, Martin 2010). The implication is that even shared religious characteristics do not necessarily predict how religious persons will incorporate religion into their evaluations, responses, and justifications. To take a recent example, persons who identify as conservative Protestants may in general be more likely to oppose reproductive genetic technologies. Some of these conservative Protestants make sense of (e.g.) genetic deafness through a religious discourse of “meaningful suffering” drawn from the Bible. But many conservative Protestants have never encountered such a discourse, or would apply it differently to different kinds of genetic conditions, such as Down syndrome or cystic fibrosis (see Evans 2010, esp. chapter 6). Even when a “religious” tool such as a “meaningful suffering” discourse is available, it is an empirical question whether or not a given person will reach for that tool to understand or justify what they think and do. If religion is culture, then personal religiosity is only loosely coupled to the deployment of distinctive religious language, arguments, and reasons.

In this project I seek to address this further implication of religion as culture. I ask 62 respondents from a wide range of religious backgrounds to respond to a provocative scenario that requires them to assess and sort out various reasons, arguments, and potential outcomes with regard to science and technology. Instead of asking questions about a specific public issue where religious objections have already been lodged, I use a fictional scenario about proposed scientific limits to provoke respondents to draw on their own cultural resources as they craft a response. Instead of focusing only on one religious group, I present the scenario individually to respondents from a wide range of religious backgrounds and commitments (including non-religious) to see how and when religious differences are relevant to their responses. And, acknowledging that even persons with similar religious characteristics may vary in their deployment of religious tools, I pay close attention to how and when respondents deploy reasons and arguments to make sense out of the proposed scenario. This study thus contributes to a growing literature in science communication and public understanding of science that focuses on reasoning and deliberation processes rather than personal characteristics (see Macoubrie 2006, Gamble and Kassadjian 2008, Nisbet and Scheufele 2009, Doolin and Motion 2010).

4 Research Design

The data for this paper come from a larger research project about how ordinary Americans understand and make sense out of public debates over “religion and science” issues such as human origins, environmental policy, stem cell research, and the origins of sexuality. (By “ordinary Americans” I simply mean residents of the United States who are not themselves elite participants in public life such as media commentators or issue activists.) To this end I conducted multi-part, semi-structured interviews with 62 respondents across two different locations in the United States.

The interview schedule consisted of five distinct components, one of which provides the data for this analysis. The first component asked open-ended questions about personal characteristics, such as age, religion, and education. The second component asked open-ended questions about knowledge of, and participation in, debates over “religion and science” issues. The third component consisted of a semi-structured exercise where respondents evaluated specific persons involved in public debates (e.g. Pat Robertson or Al Gore) based on their descriptive characteristics and on the content of their public statements. The fourth component asked open-ended questions about who should be involved in policy decisions. The fifth and final component, from which the data in this paper are drawn, asked respondents about their reactions to a fictional scenario about placing limits on basic scientific research. I describe the scenario in further detail below.

The sample for this research project was highly purposive, and designed to maximize range (see Weiss 1994:22-24). Given the target size of the sample (approximately 60 respondents) the goal was not to achieve statistical representativeness, as a random sample might not actually capture enough different cases to derive useful theoretical insight. Rather, the goal was to enforce variation in the sample. Because of the religion and science content of the debates, I set purposive recruitment targets to ensure that religious affiliation (proportional to general US population, approximately 20% mainline Protestant, 33% evangelical Protestant, 25% Catholic, 20% Other/Non-religious) and occupation (specifically, whether or not the respondent’s occupation is explicitly bound to science or technology, approximately 80% non-scientific/technical, 20% scientific/technical) remained heterogeneous in the sample.

I recruited respondents at multiple sites to maximize heterogeneity and to guarantee that idiosyncrasies of one site would not skew results (Weiss 1994). Limited resources for the research project constrained site selection to two sites. 75% of respondents came from a Southern California city of over 1.5 million residents that is known for high-tech industries and military presence. The remaining 25% came from a South Florida city of fewer than 200,000 residents that is primarily known as a tourism and retirement destination. The sites are similar in some respects. Both contain significant percentages of foreign-born residents and residents who immigrated from other American cities. Both locations also have multiple colleges and universities, and both locations have high levels of racial/ethnic diversity. But in addition to geographic and regional differences, demographic differences are a significant source of heterogeneity between the two sites. For example, the distribution of non-white populations differs substantially between the two sites, as does the distribution of religious affiliations within the “Other/Non-Religious” category. The South Florida site also skews higher in age, which is unsurprising given its status as a retirement destination. The different demographic characteristics of the two sites helped ensure heterogeneity among the sample, even with the same purposive recruitment strategy in place.

I recruited the initial set of respondents through intermediaries known to have access to the purposive target groups. For the Southern California site, I constructed an initial list of personal acquaintances known to have access to (e.g.) local congregations and non-religious organizations. For the South Florida site, I constructed an initial list of local congregational leaders and civic leaders who might provide access to members of their communities. In both cases I asked these intermediaries for the names of potential respondents, then contacted potential respondents by email or telephone to attempt recruitment. I continued the snowball strategy (Weiss 1994) by asking both successfully and unsuccessfully recruited prospects for referrals to other potential respondents who would be interested in being interviewed, being selective as necessary to enforce heterogeneity for religion and scientific/technical professions in the sample. The resulting sample met the purposive targets (that is, the target distribution of different cases) at each location as well as within the total sample. The sample ranged in age from 18 to 79 years (average 40) and included 34 women and 28 men. Interviews ranged in total length from 49 minutes to just over 2 hours, though the amount of time spent on individual components of the interview varied substantially.

For this paper, the relevant data come from the fifth and final component of the interview schedule. I designed a scenario that would answer the following research question: Given the opportunity to place limits on scientific research, and given good reasons to do so, would religious respondents agree to such limits? And if so, what role would religion play in their assessment? To get at these aspects of the question, that is, to get at the reasoning processes and not just the outcomes, I defined the scope of the qualitative research question in open-ended terms: under what conditions (if any) would people support a moratorium? I created the following scenario about a (fictional) proposed 10-year moratorium on basic scientific research:

Let’s say someone proposed a 10 year long moratorium[i] on basic scientific research. Their reasons are 1) we need to assess our current data, 2) we need to get consensus on policy positions resulting from research findings, 3) we need to think about the moral or ethical implications of science. Would you support such a plan?

On its face a moratorium might seem like an extreme proposition. But talk of moratoria is hardly uncommon or exceptional. Since Asilomar (see Berg et al. 1975), scientists have occasionally imposed voluntary moratoria on controversial areas of research such as human cloning (SDB 2003). Several American state and local governments have also instituted legal moratoria on human cloning (see NCSL 2008). Moratoria of various extents are often proposed as solutions in public debate, either to assuage public concerns over safety or to settle (temporarily) debate over contentious moral issues (e.g. Bach and Fineberg 1998, Frankel and Chapman 2000, Joy 2000). And in the political arena, moratoria are sometimes seen as possible where outright bans are politically intractable (see Malakoff 2002). So while respondents might see a moratorium as a provocative proposition, in itself a moratorium is neither obviously exceptional or a particularly extreme proposal with regard to public debate.

The “reasons” offered in the scenario were designed to offer different categories of reasoning that respondents might find compelling in support of a moratorium. “Assessing current data” appeals to practical economic reasoning. “Get consensus on policy positions” appeals to political reasoning. “Moral or ethical implications” appeals to moral and ethical reasoning. I followed the scenario description with open-ended questions intended to provoke thinking out loud about whether or not science should be restricted, and why. In each case I also followed up as necessary with additional questions and reasons in order to probe the limits of the respondent’s commitment to their views, for example by increasing the severity of the (fictional) consequences, or by reducing the scope of the proposed limits (e.g. a 5-year moratorium rather than a 10-year moratorium). At the discretion of the interviewer, followups could also include direct arguments about why a moratorium should be imposed, based on the respondent’s own expressed value commitments. Qualitative research methodologists (e.g. Luker 2008) suggest that such tactics provide valuable data with regard to how respondents think and reason through their responses. The followup questions did not reach the level of open confrontation, but did provoke responses that illustrated the limits of respondent commitments.

I pilot tested this scenario, along with the rest of the interview schedule, prior to recruiting the sample for the research project. For this particular component of the interview schedule, the main concern (other than intelligibility) was that the content of prior components of the interview might prime or otherwise direct responses. For example, having discussed particular debates over religion and science, respondents might then be more likely to ask for the general scenario to be specified in terms of a particular issue (e.g. as a moratorium on a specific kind of stem cell research). Or respondents might feel compelled to frame their responses in terms of religious language, or to provide reasons to limit science on religious grounds. Neither of these problems materialized in pilot testing. And given the findings below, it is clear that neither of these possible problems proved significant in respondent answers.

All interviews were digitally recorded and professionally transcribed. Responses tended to run to multiple paragraphs, usually interspersed with interviewer followup comments and questions. Following generally accepted practices of axial and open coding (see Babbie 1998, esp. chapter 13), I developed a coding scheme as I collected interview data. For each interview I manually analyzed the relevant portion of the transcript to identify important concepts, adding to the coding structure and reviewing prior interviews as necessary when new themes emerged in later interviews (see Glaser and Strauss 1967). Such themes were usually identified in substantive terms, for example the common theme that limiting science would “impede progress.” But as guides to qualitative research (e.g. Luker 2008) often suggest, common qualitative features of interviews also emerged as important data. For example, as respondents tactically managed their reactions and responses to followup questions, they commonly switched to another reason or argument to support their conclusion. Both types of themes proved important to the findings below.

5 Findings

The summary finding is that in almost every case, respondents oppose the proposed moratorium for reasons that align with support for ongoing scientific research. This is consistent with general public opinion research as described above. In probing further, however, I find that this support holds even when faced with objections that align with respondents’ own opinions and beliefs about moral or ethical issues. When confronted with arguments or contrary evidence that undermined their initial reasons, respondents moved among multiple reasons as required to maintain their position of support for ongoing scientific research. The bottom line finding is that respondents maintain a commitment to ongoing research that exceeds their commitment to any single objection, reason, or justification.

5.1 Initial Responses Oppose Moratorium

Out of 62 respondents, 60 immediately rejected the moratorium as initially proposed. The most common reaction to the scenario as presented was surprise that anyone would want to limit science, despite having been primed with reasons why such limitation might be helpful. Susanne and Bonnie (in separate interviews) showed indignance and disbelief, respectively:

To stop all scientific research just to catch our breath is absurd…I just cannot imagine stopping research. I mean, that’s like saying, “Everybody turn off your brain for a little while.” –Susanne, 51, homemaker, atheist

It’s such a fundamental ‘no’ that I’m having trouble putting the ‘why’ into words. Who knows what we would miss during those ten years? Who knows what we could have have discovered that would have saved lives that were lost in those ten years? Why would we ever want to stop learning? -Bonnie, 32, software engineer, evangelical Protestant

Most respondents were more measured in their responses, but still did not support limitations on science as initially proposed. The vast majority of objections fell into two analytical categories: “impede progress” and “not necessary.” Of course the analytical process involves condensing a wide range of codes into higher-level categories, so there is some range within each category. For example, one respondent might say it is unnecessary because we already have good oversight in place, while another might say it is unnecessary because scientists are inherently good.

The most common reason for rejecting the proposal was an expressed connection between scientific research and human progress, such that limiting science might even be harmful to society. Solomon, for example, offered a typical explanation for why we should not limit science, even for good reasons:

At first, again this is an interesting question. As you started to ask the question, I thought gee, it makes sense, let’s stop there and assess what we have. But I think that we are in a day and age in which there are so many possibilities, so many exciting things being discovered now as we speak and being studied that I would not want that stopped. I think we would regress instead of move forward. –Solomon, 43, artist, Unitarian

Charles echoed Solomon’s concerns about progress:

I wouldn’t support that because I think that that would really, I mean obviously that would set so many things back a decade. Think about how many things have been discovered in the last decade, how many important things have been discovered and looked at and researched …I mean imagine going into 2000, but only having the technology of 1990. I mean, the world would look so different. –Charles, 28, non-profit program manager, non-religious

And for Josefina, limiting scientific research would get in the way of solving important problems:

I think we should keep doing [scientific research] because, I mean, there’s other countries that are in need of aid and that in those ten years we can, we can help them, which is why we’re having environmental issues right now, right? –Josefina, 41, sales, non-religious

Put another way, most respondents linked opposition to a moratorium to reasons based on support for scientific research, not on objections to the act (based either on principle or characteristics of the act itself) or to the scenario as presented. The core point here is that respondents overwhelmingly see a moratorium as an impediment to ongoing scientific research, which they see as desirable for many different reasons. While the commitments to particular reasons differed in the initial responses, the commitment to ongoing scientific research held across respondents. This is consistent with higher-level survey results that indicate a general support for science.

5.2 Mobility of Reasons Resists Moral Concerns

As previously described, part of the interview process was to probe and push back against whatever reasons a respondent offered, in order to find out the limits of commitments and determine under what conditions a respondent might support a moratorium. After the first several interviews, however, it became clear that the specific content of responses was less interesting than the tactics that respondents used when they were challenged. In almost all cases, respondents continued to oppose a moratorium on scientific research. What is more interesting is that respondents invoked and then moved among multiple reasons, values, and narratives in order to find ways to continue their support for science, even when faced with possible dilemmas by the followup questions. Take, for example, Holly’s mobilization of her personal experience when I proposed an alternative one year break from scientific research:

No, not even. Never. Because why, why take a cure from somebody, you know? My, my grandfather had a heart attack and he had arteriosclerosis and they came up with a cure the next year. He died in 1969, and in 1970 they came out with something that would clear out the arteries. You know had that been available to him, he would have been alive still. –Holly, 33, waitress, Roman Catholic

For Holly, scientific benefits are tangible, and her assessment of science reflects its the alignment of scientific benefits (in this case a medical cure) with her own personal experiential concerns about the value of human life and health. Other respondents mobilized more abstract reasons to continue in the face of moral concerns. Lydia, a lifelong performer and teacher, discusses why she thinks science ought not to be limited:

Because it’s the creative process. I’m an artist, and science is still the creative process. In the questioning, the constant questioning. The constant problem solving. The constant data collecting. Something new is revealed. Don’t cut off the pipeline. You do not know …So, you just have to be courageous in the face of “don’t know.” –Lydia, 59, dance instructor, spiritual

Given the scenario’s explicit discussion of moral objections, one of the more interesting responses to challenge was when respondents did not directly address moral or ethical issues, then when pressed on this point, offered different ways that moral concerns either do not or should not matter to evaluating science. Initially, Susanne did not engage the objection about moral or ethical issues, focusing instead on how moratoria would limit the growth of human knowledge (see “absurd” quote above). When pressed on the possibility that scientific research has moral or ethical implications, she confidently replied “If education is done correctly, there won’t be a moral or ethical issue, and if there is, it can be solved.” A similar response came from Damien, a high school chemistry teacher. When pressed about limiting science for moral or ethical reasons, he also detached the scientific process from moral accountability:

A: I think that the cool thing about science is – so much of it isn’t through our efforts. Like meaning I think the vast majority of science discoveries are purely accidental …I think in terms of the real discoveries in science, you know, like – people just do stuff and then something goes wrong and that’s a huge discovery all of the sudden. So I’m – because of the scientific process I would say let science continue.

Q: Even if there’s something bad that comes out of that?

A: Even if there’s something bad that comes out of it, yes. –Damien, 32, high school chemistry teacher, evangelical Protestant

Another common tactic was to begin by suggesting that moratoria would limit progress, then when pressed on this point, to respond by saying that even if it would not, that you could not, or should not, stop science anyway. For Zoe, debates should be avoided precisely because they might lead to limitations on science. When I pushed her on the possible moral concerns raised by those who might oppose science, she replied:

A: …I know that’s a tough one, but…

Q: Why is it tough?

A: Because then somebody might say “Why not stop? ” Cuz, you know, it’s just depending on which side of the debate you’re on. –Zoe, 18, student, atheist

Both Peter and Grace (in separate interviews) recognized that moral and ethical concerns are important, but provided reasons that a moratorium could not happen anyway. After I pressed Peter on whether or not a scientist should have to think about moral or ethical implications, he replied:

A: They never have. That’s not in their nature generally. I shouldn’t generalize about people, but yeah, that’s not generally in their nature. They want to know how something works at all costs. We could talk about the atomic bomb, that the atomic energy thing was not meant to be a bad thing at first, but anything that has the potential to become a weapon becomes one regardless.


Q: So science is going to go on regardless [of any restrictions]?

A: Yeah; well it will. It would be like Prohibition. If somebody’s really a scientist he isn’t going to listen to rules like that anyway …So you can’t stop science now. –Peter, 32, private music teacher, non-religious

Grace offered a more sweeping version of this argument, employing a broad definition of science to defend her position that moral and ethical concerns could not be addressed:

Well, science is everywhere, you can’t stop it. I mean, you can’t – you eat food, that’s science. I mean, you have babies, that’s science. You have, you know, everything is science. You cannot stop science, I mean, it just happens. Bad people and good people doing science are going to happen no matter what. You can’t stop it. -Grace, 46, student/tutor, evangelical Protestant

Perhaps the most striking outcome of this mobility of reasons is that some respondents expressed agreement with moral and ethical concerns to the extent of offering reasons why scientific research might be stopped, then when faced with the prospect of limiting research based on those reasons, immediately suggested that they should be disregarded so that research could continue:

Q: What’s a good reason to stop [doing scientific research]?

A: Things that injure people. I think that the sanctity of life is really important, and I think that any time that that might be compromised, that’s a good place to stop.

Q: But don’t you think that we should stop and figure that out first? We should wait until it happens and then stop it?

A: Sometimes you just have to, sometimes you don’t, sometimes people have differing opinions on things, and so you just – I don’t know, I still think you should go forward. -Chantal, 27, human services, evangelical Protestant

Respondents in this study mobilized many different explanations and reasons, but they did so to support science, offering examples of how scientific research should continue despite expressed concerns. They also discounted and dismissed moral or ethical concerns about science as valid reasons to limit science. Finally, multiple respondents found ways to exempt scientific research from moral considerations, even if that meant overriding the moral concerns they had expressed themselves.

5.3 Underlying Commitment to Ongoing Research

The finding that there is an underlying commitment to ongoing scientific research (rather than just opposition to the use of moratoria) is further reinforced by the few cases where respondents were open to the use of a moratorium. Erika rejected the initial proposal, but offered a five-year moratorium as a counter-proposal. While she acknowledged that we might lose out on something coming out of everyday lab work, she recognized the importance of the concerns in the proposal. Yet even this concern had limits. When asked why five years would be okay but ten years wouldn’t, she cited concerns over losing an educational generation of future scientists:

Well because I think – well I don’t think five years is long enough to examine all that’s there, but I think after five years you have a whole new group of students coming out of schools, and they’re gonna want to research things and they’ll probably have lots of really good ideas. –Erika, 51, librarian, unaffiliated

Even after expressing sympathy for moral and ethical concerns, Erika’s support for a moratorium depends on the future ability to do more science. And she added immediately thereafter “I don’t think there should be a moratorium on invention,” signaling that even her support for a moratorium may not actually have been intended to stop research. In a similar vein, when pressed for a shorter time limit, Bernard makes his commitment to ongoing science part of his support for a shorter moratorium:

To take a deep breath and step back, and make sure the research was better directed, better funded, better understood, better outcomes, make decisions on the ethics and moral side of it in that shorter period of time, yeah, I could support a couple years. -Bernard, 60, retired executive, mainline Protestant

And Dwight emphasizes that the only legitimate reason to limit research is if available resources are scarce:

I would not support [a moratorium] as an overarching policy statement, any period of time basically. If, during the debate about where resources are allocated, and we’re short of resources or there’s just nobody really interested in doing it or something like that, then yes, I can see that happening and would support [a moratorium] to that extent. -Dwight, 49, consultant, Unitarian Universalist

Only a few respondents were willing to use any version of a moratorium, even when continually pressed with reasons to do so. Other than the two respondents discussed below, none supported the original proposal. And even though some respondents agreed that a shorter moratorium on scientific research might be acceptable, their reasons did not reflect concern, moral or otherwise, about science. Rather, the proposed limits depended on commitments to continued scientific research.

5.4 The Exceptions

There were, however, two respondents who had no qualms or hesitation about a ten-year moratorium as initially proposed, and who did not immediately offer reasons to support science. When presented with the scenario, Felix, a 77-year old retired accountant, immediately responded “Sure. I would support that.” Norma, a 59-year old purchasing agent, similarly replied “Yeah, it sounds reasonable to me.” What distinguishes Felix and Norma from a sampling perspective is that they are fundamentalist Protestants. Here, for example, is Felix’s rationale for supporting a moratorium:

Well, like I indicated, I think society has gone off from a wrong foundation that we have now a society that doesn’t accept that there is a God creator. Without that as the base, all of the decisions following that I feel are all wrong. So any moral or policy issues would have serious implications for me. Red flags as I see them, because I think all of the debates, all of the issues, are flowing from the initial concept that there is no God creator.

On its face, this finding seems to support the largely discredited idea that there is epistemological conflict between religion and science (see Evans and Evans 2008). But true fundamentalist Protestants in the US are a small religious minority, probably less than ten percent of the overall population.[ii] These anomalous cases illustrate by contrast an interesting feature of the responses to the moratorium scenario. Throughout the sample, religious respondents (including all other evangelicals/conservative Protestants) consistently mobilized reasons and arguments to support science. And some respondents explicitly drew on religious commitments to support, rather than oppose, scientific research. For Phoebe, science should continue without limitations because we will work out the right things to do over time:

I just think it’s funny because, you know, God gives us free will and we as humans will take things as far as we can. We’ve got this new thing, like stem cell research, we want to see how far we can go with it. I can’t tell you where that will be, but I think that God gives us free will and then it just takes us a long time to learn, you know, but we do eventually. -Phoebe, 45, stay-at-home mom, Catholic

Likewise, Meg sees scientific research as a part of what we are supposed to be doing:

I just cannot imagine living in a world where you weren’t exploring, where you weren’t questioning, where you weren’t learning. You’d almost be going back into the Dark Ages. It would be like a ban on living. I think God gave us the inquisitiveness that we have. We just have to be careful how we use it. -Meg, 63, retired, mainline Protestant

Instead of illustrating how religion interferes with support for science, the two exceptions seem by contrast to show how aligned the other 60 respondents are in their support for science, despite having a wide range of religious commitments. Put another way, unwavering support for science binds together evangelical Protestants, Catholics, mainline Protestants, other religious believers, spiritual-but-not-religious, and non-religious Americans in the interview sample. What distinguishes Felix and Norma, then, is not specifically that they are religious, but that they totally reject the assumptions that are shared by 60 other respondents.

The key here is to see that Felix’s answer is not just a reference to God or religious beliefs, but rather a fundamental critique of modernity as something that has “gone off from a wrong foundation.” For some scholars of religion (e.g. Marty and Appleby 1991) it is precisely this critique of modernity that defines fundamentalism, rather than any particular religious commitment (hence there can also be Islamic fundamentalists, Hindu fundamentalists, and so forth). As the exceptions in this study, Felix and Norma illuminate how very uncommon it is to oppose science, and how such opposition is not grounded simply in religious commitments, but rather in a fundamental critique of the entire apparatus of modernity, of which science is a primary product. Ultimately, even Norma acknowledges that science will probably continue:

I think everybody is just out there to find answers and we don’t want to stop and you know, we’re pursuing to find answers and maybe we can’t even find the answers, but we don’t want to stop because there is always the possibility that you’ll find the answer. -Norma, 59, purchasing agent, fundamentalist Protestant

6 Discussion

With the exception of two genuine fundamentalists in this study, religion or religious commitments did not usefully predict support for, or inclination to limit, science. Rather, what I see in almost every interview is an extraordinary faith in science. This faith and confidence in science trumps differences in religion, education, race and ethnicity, age, and gender. Likewise, the reasons offered by religious persons are not distinct from those offered by non-religious (or differently religious) persons in the sample. For example, no matter what their background or experience might indicate, respondents do not understand moral or ethical concerns to be legitimate reasons to support a moratorium. To the contrary, they mobilize multiple reasons and values to justify ongoing scientific research, even when confronted with arguments that suggest that these values should be in conflict with science. Whether religious or not, and despite significant heterogeneity of religious characteristics, respondents basically draw on the same default responses, provide the same reasons, and resort to the same strategy of switching among reasons as necessary to support their conclusions.

Given the sampling strategy and qualitative approach, this project is not intended to be generalizable in the statistical sense. However, it is fairly unusual to find such strong agreement even in a limited sample, and even more so given the purposive approach to interviewing respondents from widely varying backgrounds. Of course it would be worthwhile to do further research in this direction with a larger interview sample. But based on this sample, I would expect approximately the same findings, with variation occurring in the processes of justification for science rather than the basic and unwavering support for science. That ordinary people from a range of religious backgrounds have extraordinary faith in science is a highly robust finding, and therefore informative for how we think about the relationships between religion and support for science.

The most important implication of this finding is that the link between religious characteristics and the deployment of religious cultural resources is not automatic. While many respondents are religious along dimensions that would register in surveys, they did not uniformly or consistently use religious language, arguments, or reasons. In terms of religion as a cultural “toolkit,” respondents rarely reached for “religious” tools, even when they were clearly available for use. Instead, they almost always reached for the same tools that non-religious respondents used, such as arguments about “progress” and “moral exemption.” Even when religious respondents did use religious language, arguments, and reasons, it was as likely to be in support of science as it was to justify limits or constraints on scientific research. With the exception of genuine fundamentalist Protestants (again, a tiny minority in America), religious and non-religious persons in the sample are mostly indistinguishable with regard to their use of cultural resources to support science.

Perhaps the strong concurrence between religious and non-religious persons on support for science should not be surprising. Religious and non-religious persons alike inhabit a common cultural environment that instills support for science, especially as achievement and progress, among all American citizens. The notion of science as necessary for survival and progress (both individual and social) permeates many public institutions in America. For example, most respondents indicated that their scientific education, and their knowledge of scientific controversies, took place in American public school systems. Since the launch of Sputnik there has been a concerted effort by scientists and educators, through such curricular programs as the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study and the Physical Science Study Committee, to inculcate American students with the idea that science and progress are inextricably linked, and that scientists are important leaders in society (Rudolph 2002). “Scientific citizenship” (Irwin 2001) is a key part of American identity.

This concurrence also seems to support recent findings in multiple disciplines suggesting that the deployment of distinctively religious “tools” to make sense out of science and technology issues is heavily mediated by a variety of institutions, such as mass media (including religious media), politics, and legal and educational systems (e.g. Hoover 1998, Nisbet 2005, Binder 2007, Liu and Priest 2009, Superfine 2009, Evans and Evans 2010, Ho, Scheufele, and Corley 2010). However, the general disinclination of respondents to use such “tools” at all raises the possibility that such institutions might actually constitute, rather than mediate, the relationship between religious characteristics and the use of religious “tools” to make sense out of science and technology issues. It may well be, as Evans and Evans (2008:100) claim, that “only a few issues, constructed as important by activists with resources” actually support claims about religious “worldviews” and “value predispositions.” At a minimum, future research should not depend on shared religious characteristics as an explanation for objections to science and technology, but rather should treat such characteristics as a starting point for further investigation into how and when religion actually matters (or not).

The findings in this study also suggest that public control of science might be more difficult than previously imagined. Certainly scholars have made great strides in recent years in moving beyond the “deficit” model of public support for science to questions of authority, trust, and deliberation (see Priest 2001, Sturgis and Allum 2004, Gauchat 2010). But the mobility of reasons displayed by respondents in this study suggests an additional challenge. Even informed and careful objections might well be insufficient in the face of strong commitment to ongoing scientific research. Support for science may be robust precisely because it builds on a web of overlapping reasons and arguments that draw widely from such diverse sources as religious values, belief in progress, personal experience, economic concerns, and political commitments. In short, there is no clear path to limiting science, but there are many possible paths for supporting it.

This suggests a final implication for science communication. Obviously objections and challenges to science remain, some of which are rooted in religion. For example, moral concerns about Darwinism continue to motivate creationist challenges to evolution (Evans and Evans 2010). However, such objections are rare and unusual. As this study shows, both religious and non-religious persons alike tend to draw from the same set of cultural tools, most of which favor ongoing support for science. When faced with challenges to science, emphasizing these common cultural resources through science communication may be more fruitful than responding to apparently religious opposition.


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[i]I sometimes used the term “ban” rather than “moratorium” for the sake of those respondents who were unfamiliar with the term “moratorium.” However, I made clear that the “ban” would be time-limited, which would technically be a moratorium.

[ii]Note that fundamentalist Protestants are distinct from the broader category of evangelical Protestants, in which they are often counted because of the conventional emphasis on denominational membership rather than theological commitments. See the Association of Religion Data Archives at http://www.thearda.com for a wide range of estimates.

© Michael S. Evans 2008-2019