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Since 2012, the research agency Ipsos/ MORI has been conducting surveys into, what they have dubbed, the perils of perception. This explores the difference between people’s perception of something and its reality. For example, people in the UK overestimate prison population, knife crime, and unemployment but underestimate the impact of climate change and the level of sexual harassment.

Ipsos/ MORI does not ask about people’s perception of science and religion, in part because there is no ‘reality’ figure, such as official measures of unemployment or prison population, to compare it against. Nevertheless, the data in this report suggest that this topic does suffer from the peril of misperception. More people think that there is a general antagonism between science and religion than feeling strongly about it themselves…

The local conflict between evolution and creationism [in the USA] becomes emblematic of the historical battle between science and religion, which then gets caught up in all-encompassing culture war.

In reality, that historical battle has been nothing of the kind. Academic research since the mid-1980s has thoroughly undermined the all-dominant narrative of science-religion warfare. Thanks to the pioneering work of John Hedley Brooke, Ronald Numbers, Peter Harrison, and others, the true complexity of the relationship between science and religion throughout history is now firmly established in the academy, and ‘warfare’ is recognised as a metaphor manufactured in the later 19th century for almost entirely local, circumstantial reasons. Skirmishes and sabre-rattling there has been aplenty, and battles sometimes, but all out war, no.

This revision has not travelled far from the corridors and seminar rooms of the academy. A recent volume of essays exploring the origins and consequences of the ‘conflict’ narrative remarks that “notwithstanding all the outstanding work by a generation of historians dismantling the ‘conflict model’, their revisionist accounts have scarcely made a dent on leading public intellectuals.”…

This report has given an overview of the last ten years of public opinion research into science and religion in the UK…The first thing that should be observed of the state of public opinion polling on science and religion in the UK is that there is not much of it….

This (inadvertently) underlines a second point, which is about how much of the work that has been done is on evolution and creation rather than on science and religion. Indeed, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that questions of evolution, creationism, and religion have served as a cipher for science and religion, sometimes simply by implication, and sometimes more directly and egregiously…

This example leads to a third point, namely the assumption in so much research that there is a conflict between science and religion. This can come out in a number of ways. Sometimes, it is in the very nature of the question asked. Thus, questions about relying on science or relying on faith force the two into a kind of competitive zero-sum game, compelling respondents to choose either one or the other. Sometimes it is through extreme ambiguity and vagueness in the phrasing of questions…

All that duly noted, it is certainly not the case that the data show no conflict between religion and science in public perception, or no religious antagonism toward science. In particular, evolution is an issue for certain religious believers, disproportionally independent (evangelical) Christians, Pentecostals and Muslims…

When one looks more closely at these issues, however, it seems like, to a large degree, what is at stake is less a question of God and more a question of human nature. Certainly, there are believers (and, oddly, some non-believers) who reject the scientifically established age of the earth or the mechanism of evolution for the origin of species, but those numbers almost always increase when questions of human development, and in particular human uniqueness, consciousness and dignity, come into question….

What seems to matter is what evolution says about human nature and, in particular, whether it implies or states that its understanding of human nature excludes any other, such as might incorporate the soul, purpose, significance, or uniqueness.

This reading is obliquely supported by the data on non/ religious attitudes to science and technology. Here, the data show that although the religious are slightly more positive in their associations with scientists than the non-religious, they are more anxious about the speed, capacity and potential for science and have greatest reservations with issues such as synthetic biology, stem cell research and GM crops, which involve modifying life in some way…

In short, while we should not underplay the extent to which there is a perceived conflict in some quarters, between science and religion, nor should we overplay it, exaggerating it into a full-scale war between vast and irreconcilably opposed armies. Rather, we should seek to understand it in its complexity and respond, not with disparagement or contempt, but with intelligent and reasoned dialogue.


Excerpts from the executive summary

The percentage of people who agree or strongly agree that science and religion are incompatible (27%), compared to the 39% who disagree/ strongly.

This is around half the percentage that thinks that “many people in this country” think they are incompatible (50%).

The level of evolution rejection in the UK, according to the most reliable surveys, stands at around 10%.

Overall, the majority of people felt that it was possible to believe in God and in evolution by natural selection.

Conflict is driven not by creationists but by atheists. Thus, for example, of the 19% of Britons who perceived some conflict between God and evolution, only 24% were classed as upholding ‘creationist’ beliefs, compared to 54% who were classed ‘atheistic evolutionists’.

More people object to the idea of evolution of humans, than evolution in general.

The vast majority of people reject the idea that evolution tells us there is no purpose to human life or that humans are just another species with no unique value or significance. Religious people are especially likely to reject this view, although even among atheists its remains a minority position.

Religious people are slightly more positive in their associations with scientists than the non-religious.

Although religious respondents felt they were only slightly less well informed than non-religious ones, their actual levels of knowledge were measurably less.


Excerpts from Nick Spencer, “Science and Religion”: the perils of misperception, Theos, July 2019. Reproduced here by permission of the author. For the full report (and executive summary), go to (click ‘Download Report’ link on right hand side for pdf)