Yes – this is going to be about religion – a common source of myths. Specifically the “conflict paradigm,” “conflict hypothesis” or “conflict myth.” Really the myth that there is such a “paradigm”, “hypothesis” or “myth” claiming  religion is and always has been at odds with science.’ If you see what I mean. Think of Russian Matryoshka wooden dolls.

This is a story put about by Christian apologists (“militant Christians”) who would have us believe that there is no conflict between science and religion. That actually Christianity is the mother of science. And any conflicts that do occur are really the work of atheists, or “atheist scientists.” These atheists are the ones putting about a false myth.

I want to unpack the myth advanced by these militants.

Of course there are conflicts between religion and science – inevitable when the epistemology is so different. Whereas religious knowledge is based on revelation and authority, science is based on evidence, reason and testing against reality. But this is a principled difference – it’s not the same as claiming religion is and always has been at odds with science.’

Religious and non-religious scientists work alongside each other with no ideological conflict. And “atheist scientists” are hardly to blame for the very public attacks on science by creationists and intelligent design proponents.

The public view of science

But what about the public? How do they perceive science and religion? Do they only see conflict? Or do they accept the differences. After all, they don’t go to a mechanic when they are ill – so why should they go to a religious leader when they wish to find out about the world and the universe.

I ask this because I am currently reading Elaine Howard Eckland’s book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think.

Eckland’s research for this book appears to be inspired by a belief, or concern, that the US public is suspicious of science. The public is described as highly religious and it is thought to perceive that scientists are mostly atheistic and hostile towards religion.  This could in the future lead to decline in public funding and other support for science. It is imperative that scientists communicate better with the public. That current scientific personalities are perceived as atheist and only fanning the flames of the conflict. And that religious scientists must come forward to speak for science. Particularly to deny any conflict between religion and science. To give a religious veneer to science.

But she doesn’t offer any data in her research to support the concern. No survey or interviews with the non-scientific public. The research (funded by The Templeton Foundation) was solely about the religious attitudes and traditions of scientists. The public attitudes seem to be assumed.

Personally I would like to see some good data

What is the public perception?

Do the public really think scientists are hostile to religion?

Is it based on misinformation from creationists and intelligent design proponents?

Is it really a perception of religious hostility to science rather than vice versa (Creationist/intelligent design hostility to science)?

Is the public still motivated by historical events like the Galileo affair?

Is there anything in the militant Christian claim that the “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Victor Stenger have promoted this myth?

Has there been a huge swing in public perception as a result of best sellers like Dawkins’ “The God Delusion?”

And why should this be, given that the numbers of “new atheist” books are minuscule compared with the numbers of those supporting religion?

Or is it based on expectations that science must be based on the real world, not myths or faith? That such conflicts are therefore inevitable?


Well I have now finished the book.  And on the 4th to last page I find Eckland’s only reference to any quantitative estimate of the public concern with science that she appears to have assumed: “according to a recent national  survey, nearly 25% of the American public think that scientists are hostile to religion.”*

Bloody hell – “nearly 25%”! And for this she is warning that the public may resist future funding and support for science?

This figure is relatively small – considering that over 45% of the US public regularly oppose evolutionary science in surveys. Surely this indicates that despite ideological pet beliefs, which may interfere with public understanding on a few issues, the US public still overwhelmingly respects science. And is not concerned with the fact that some US scientists are non-believers. Over 75% of the US public do not think scientists are hostile to religion. That’s about the same proportion of the New Zealand population that accepts evolutionary science.

My conclusion

The whole issue is full of myths. Just like a Matryoshka doll the Christian militants’ claim that the science-religion conflict is a myth promoted by “atheist scientists,” is itself a myth. As is the story that atheist scientists, and current scientific personalities,  are turning the public away from science and therefore threatening future public funding and support. A myth within a myth.

These are myths within the apologists’ overall myth about the relationship between science and religion.

* This survey was the 2006 “Science and Engineering Indicators” developed by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Science Resources Statistics.  (There is a similar survey for 2010). I have had a brief read through the report and actually can’t find the relevant statistic. Eckland has possibly calculated it from the other data in report though.

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