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When Science and Religion Mix Just Fine

Most scientists agree that religion and science can live in harmony. Why can't society follow suit?

We've been brought up to think that science and religion are incompatible. We see it in discussions of global warming, evolution, sex, and gay rights. But a new study from researchers at Rice University finds that most scientists have a more nuanced view of the conflict—namely, that it doesn't always exist.

The study found that only 15 percent of the scientists surveyed view religion and science as always in conflict, and the same number said the two are never in conflict. That means that the majority of scientists—70 percent—believe it depends on the circumstances. Half of the scientists surveyed classified themselves as religious. "The kind of narrow research available on religion and science seems to ask if they are in conflict or not, when it should really ask the conditions under which they are in conflict," Elaine Howard Ecklund, the Rice sociologist who conducted the study, said in a press release. In other words, a lot of religious people and scientists aren't dogmatic ideologues, and you shouldn't be, either.

Claiming that religion and science are enemies only strengthens the forces that keep people of faith from accepting science in the first place. Religious scientists like Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian who worked on the Human Genome Project leads the National Institutes of Health, may help religious people think more broadly. For instance, if a Christian takes Genesis literally, she's going to reject the principles of evolution, and a dogmatic scientist wouldn't argue with her. But if she sees evolution in the context of God's plan, or if she separates them completely, she needs intellectual and scientific role models to support both sides of the equation. For centuries, we have been rationalizing aspects of religion to fit scientific principles and vice versa: Galileo, Isaac Newton and Gregor Mendel were all pious guys. Yet the reigning narrative is still that the two are mutually exclusive.

Bottom line: People believe what they want to believe. According to a 2006 Time magazine poll, 64 percent of Americans would hold onto a cherished religious belief even if science had disproved it (the 40 percent of Americans who reject evolution come to mind). But if we thought of religion and science as separate, rather than at odds, we'd have a much better chance of arriving at a middle ground, and religious folks would have less of an impulse to reject accepted scientific theory.

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