Mar 16, 2015 | By

Reflections on “Perceptions” – the AAAS Conference on Science and Religion

On March 13, 2015, the AAAS held a national conference in Washington D.D. on “Perceptions: Science and Religious Communities”.  The AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) is one of the largest member organizations in the world (some 10 million scientists) with a weekly readership for Science Magazine of more than 1 million.

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Investigating perceptions to build understanding between scientific and religious communities.

The conference was the culmination of a three-year program of research and communications designed to identify the varying and potentially conflicting perceptions of scientific and religious communities in the US and to search for common ground for further dialogue.[1] The day included six panels and two plenary sessions, a working lunch and a celebratory reception. Several hundred representatives of religious, educational and scientific organizations attended.

The research presentation reported the results from a broad national survey and detailed follow-up interviews. The common view in society suggests that:

  • Religious people view science as an enemy.
  • Religious people are not interested in science.
  • You can’t be religious and scientific at the same time.

The research indicated that this is not the case! More than 80% of self-identified religious people (including Evangelicals) are supportive of science. While 29% agree that there are conflicts, 21% believe religion and science are do not conflict as they deal with different issues, and 48% find religion and science support each other. Indeed, the divide between religion and science seems to be predominately due to two small minorities: religious fundamentalists who promote a literal reading of scripture (sometimes self-referred to as “New Earth Creationists”), and anti-religious scientists advocating radical atheism (including the “Four Horsemen” – Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens). This is very helpful information as we reflect on the science-religion debate (as this Forum has done frequently).

How did we get here? The panel focused on public media included representatives of both established and new media outlets, and the open and extensive exchange highlighted what could be considered two key factors. Good reporting on topical issues like science and religion in traditional media (USA Today; NPR) involves identifying and interviewing the best spokespeople for the alternative views — as a consequence, there is a natural tendency for polarization. While this may help sell news, it tends to leave out the consensual, or at least non-conflictual, middle ground. In the new social media environment, with the all-inclusive open internet space and unfiltered blogging and commenting, a different problem arises — readers can, and do, tend to read only those things which supports their own pre-conceived ideas. This results in a different kind of polarization. Active and passionate social media voices, many of whom represent extreme positions, will be the loudest, and will attract those who tend towards that position. Again, the more passive middle ground gets drowned out or drops out (sometimes hounded out by internet trolls).

William D. Phillips (Nobel Prize in Physics 1997) provided some deep insights in his concluding remarks. It is clear that perceptions are wrong – and the only way to change that is through conversations, the best of which are person-to-person and face-to-face. Significantly, religious people and scientists are both committed to the same thing: searching for the truth, and using that knowledge to make things better. For social issues such as poverty or climate change, given that science seems to be good at providing information, and religion excels at providing inspiration, the opportunities for fruitful collaboration are very significant.

With such incredibly congruent goals, why is there so much tension? According to Phillips, it is because of fear.   Religious individuals and groups feel threatened by challenges to their fundamental beliefs and sacred scriptures — Scientists feel a threat to their identify and their work. Significantly, disrespect from either side erodes trust – the very thing we need to overcome fear. Dr. Phillips ended by reflecting on the perspective that will be most important to all of us when we are looking back at the end of life. Whatever we may have thought will be trivial. How we treated other human beings will be paramount.

[1] The Perceptions program is one of several sponsored by the AAAS under its DoSER (Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion) Initiative: http://www.aaas.org/DoSER.

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