American Sociological Association

One Nation, United? Science, Religion, and American Public Opinion


October 5, 2016

Debates about science and religion—whether they conflict and how they factor into public opinion, policies, and politics—are of longstanding interest to social scientists. Research in this area often examines how elites use science and religion to justify competing claims. But, how do members of the public more generally incorporate science and religion into their worldviews? The assumption that science and religion inherently conflict with one another has come under increasing scrutiny and recent studies reveal that science and religion are more compatible than previously assumed. Some argue that science and religion lead to conflicting opinions only when enlisted in controversies that relate directly to science or religion such as genetically modified organisms and stem cell research. 

In our research, we asked whether public perspectives on science and religion also relate to issues where science and religion are not directly implicated. Based on a survey of adults in the United States, we found that views on science and religion can be categorized into three groups: a “modern” worldview that is most favorable towards science and least religious, a “traditional” worldview that is religiously devout and least oriented toward science, and a “post-secular” worldview, which blends science and religion. We found widespread differences in the social and political attitudes of moderns and traditionals: moderns tended to hold more liberal or progressive opinions about race, civil liberties, sexuality, gender, and families, while traditionals tended to be more conservative or orthodox on all of these issues. Overall, moderns and traditionals each account for about 40 percent of U.S. adults and they reflect the usual conservative/liberal divide. However, post-seculars stood apart from each other group. For example, post-seculars were the most conservative segment of the U.S. public when it came to gender and sexuality but they were relatively progressive when it came to criminal justice and civil liberties. In other words, science and religion map onto people’s socio-political attitudes in far-reaching yet often unexpected ways. 

Importantly, the post-secular worldview, shared by 20 percent of adults in the United States, may play a disproportionately large role in electoral politics and policy debates. However, while post-seculars have leaned Republican in the past, their unique opinions about many of the most pressing social and political issues in the current political landscape suggests that they may be an especially important bloc of voters. With this year's unconventional race for the White House, they are certainly the group to watch. 

This summary is based on: Noy, Shiri and Timothy L. O'Brien. 2016. "A Nation Divided: Science, Religion, and Public Opinion in the United States." Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World (2): 1-15.

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