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Religion doesn’t necessarily influence Americans’ attitudes about science, but there are two big exceptions

A blood red moon lights up the sky during a total lunar eclipse on April 4, 2015, in Auckland, New Zealand. (Phil Walter/Getty Images)
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Attitudes toward different scientific issues like climate change and space exploration are usually driven by politics, race and other factors, not necessarily religion, a new analysis from the Pew Research Center finds.

The study’s findings show only a few areas where people’s religious beliefs and practices have a strong connection to their views about science-related issues. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two big exceptions to the rule would be human evolution and the creation of the universe. What is surprising, however, is that Pew finds there is little connection between science and religion in other scientific debates.

There are multiple topics where people’s religious differences do not play a central role in explaining their beliefs, including climate change, experimental drug and medical treatments, artificial organs for human transplant, the safety of genetically modified foods, space exploration and long-term payoffs from government investment in science.

Earlier this year, Pope Francis issued a major church document urging a focus on issues related to the environment, including pollution, climate change and global inequality, raising the discussion about the connection between the environment and faith.

Those who don’t identify with a religious tradition are particularly likely to say the Earth is warming because of human activity. Hispanic Catholics, like other Hispanics, are more likely to say the same thing while white evangelical Protestants are least likely to share the same view.

But after taking politics and demographics into account, religious affiliations and practices have little connection to most attitudes toward the environment, Pew finds.

Pew’s finding contrasts with an earlier report from Yale’s Dan Kahan, who found a modest correlation between religiosity and less worry about climate change.

In a paper earlier this year, David Konisky of Georgetown University and Matthew Arbuckle of the University of Cincinnati found that faith was an important factor in shaping environmental stances. And Josh Rosenau, an evolutionary biologist who works for the National Center for Science Education, created a chart comparing U.S. faiths and denominations based on their members’ views on human evolution and how much they favor “stricter environmental laws and regulations,” finding the two topics overlapping quite a bit.

But Pew’s analysis finds that attitudes on issues like climate change are heavily driven by political partisanship and there is no independent effect of religious affiliation or frequency of church attendance on public attitudes. Political party identification and race and ethnicity are stronger predictors of views about climate change beliefs than religious identity or observance, the study finds.

“People expect to see more difference between religious groups on these science topics,” said Cary Funk, associate director for the research on science at Pew. ”Maybe there are not as many areas where there’s as large a religious difference as people were assuming.”

Attitudes about science are influenced by faith when it comes to human evolution. About 40 percent of those who attend worship weekly “do not generally agree” humans evolved over time, while 98 percent of scientists in a 2014 Pew survey said humans have evolved over time.

And faith appears to influence attitudes about a scientific consensus on the creation of the universe. About 60 percent of religiously unaffiliated adults say scientists generally believe the universe was created in a single, violent event, while 69 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 62 percent of Hispanic Catholics believe scientists are divided about the creation of the universe.

Many Americans see an overall conflict between religion and science but most see no conflict with science and their own faith, the analysis finds. A majority of the public (59 percent) says science and religion often conflict, but when asked about their own faith, just 30 percent of Americans say their personal religious beliefs conflict with science.

“People are thinking about other people more so than themselves,” Funk said. “That puzzle of who is more likely to see it a certain way is an interesting one.”

The belief that there is a conflict between science and religion tends to come from Americans who do not attend worship services very often. About 70 percent of adults who seldom or never attend religious services say science and religion are often in conflict. In contrast, just half of adults who attend religious services at least weekly say science and religion are often in conflict.

Americans are divided about whether churches and other houses of worship should play a role in scientific policy debates. Half of adults say churches should express their views on policy decisions about scientific issues, while 46 percent say churches should keep out of such matters.

The analysis relied on a survey conducted Aug. 15-25, 2014, that included a sample of 2,002 U.S. adults.

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