Field of Science

God or science - but not both!

So, one Big Question that remains after the recent research on attitudes to nanotechnology is whether this is a general effect - is there any fundamental obstacle to people holding scientific and religious ideas at one and the same time? Does religion really displace science, and vice versa? Data published today suggest that it does.

This research is about framing - about how setting up people's preconceptions can affect the way they think. What the researchers (Jess Preston of the University of Illinois and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago) did was to get people (OK, students) thinking about 'explanations' in specific ways. They did two experiments.

In the first, they gave their subjects brief passages talking about a couple of 'big ideas' in science - namely the Big Bang theory about the origins of the universe and the Primordial Soup hypothesis about the origins of life. But there were two versions - one weak and one strong. As they put it:
In the Strong Explanation condition, each passage concluded with a statement that ‘‘this was the best scientific theory on the subject to date, and does much to account for the known data and observations.” In the Weak Explanation condition, each passage concluded with a statement that ‘‘this was the best scientific theory on the subject to date, but it does not account for the other data and observations very well, and raises more questions than it answers.”
Then they did a priming experiment, in which they tested how fast their subjects reacted to positive and negative words after being subliminally primed with either the word 'God' or the word 'Science'.

In the second study, the passages used to frame the subjects were related to god:
Participants in the explanation condition were instructed to: ‘‘list SIX things that you think God can explain.” Participants in the control condition were given the instructions: ‘‘list SIX things that you think can explain or influence God.” Existing research demonstrates that this manipulation can influence the subjective value of religious beliefs, with those using God to explain other events reporting that religion is significantly more meaningful and important to them than those identifying events that could explain God’s actions.
Then these subjects did the same priming experiment as the first batch.

So here's the bottom line: if you are put in a frame of mind that says scientific explanations are dodgy or uncertain, or if you are put in a frame of mind that says 'God' is a good explanation, then your subliminal, automatic response to 'God' is made more positive and your response to 'Science' is made more negative. And the reverse happens for the opposite framing.

In other words, positive feelings towards scientific explanations or religious explanations really do seem to be flip sides of the same coin. As one goes up, the other goes down.

The implications of this are really important. What they suggest is that if you put people in an environment in which 'God' is presented as a reliable and useful way to understand the world, then that will turn them off scientific explanations. Not consciously after a period of reasoned deliberation, but their subconscious, gut feelings. Similarly, if you emphasise the uncertainties in scientific explanations, you will bolster positive attitudes to religion. Science and religion really are fundamentally incompatible.

This is a great article for many reasons, not least of which is the introduction on 'Explanation and Belief', which is a wonderfully lucid (and short!) review of just why scientific and religious beliefs are in opposition. The PDF is available here.

Oh, and, as a postscript: Epley was the guy who previously showed how loneliness can make you think religiously.

J PRESTON, N EPLEY (2009). Science and God: An automatic opposition between ultimate explanations Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (1), 238-241 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.07.013


  1. I wonder how Kenneth Miller would fare as a subject in this experiment.

  2. I wonder how much of this is due to cultural tensions between science and religion? Some people are able to integrate beliefs effectively, while some seem to be unable to do these kinds of cognitive gymnastics.

  3. But Big Bang is a cosmogonic mythology, it is the modern religion which differs from old religion only by the fact that it claims experimental verification which is faked.

  4. Overall, this is an interesting experiment, which shows the framing effects described. What it does not show,and what it does not support is any generic conflict between science and religion.
    There is a particular type of religious belief which fits the description given in the paper, and is held, in my experience, by a minority of biblical literalists. These are people, often good people of deep faith, who hold that the biblical accounts of everything are literally correct. I was eight when my teachers first explained to me why this was not a sensible approach to the Bible.
    It is certainly possible for religious people to reject scientific explanations of the universe, and some do. It is equally possible for 'scientific' people to reject religious explanations of the universe, and indeed some do.
    It's not entirely unfair to counterpoise the more wild eyed biblical literalists with the more wild eyed scientific atheists. There are many similarities in he style of argument between the two side as well. (There are, needless to add, practically no similarities in their conclusions).
    Overall this paper adds little of substance to debates about the relationship of science and religion.

  5. This study was done on undergraduate students, presumably psychology undergrads, at mainstream US universities. We don't know what religious beliefs they had, but can reasonably guess that there were few 'fundamentalists'. If anything, I would imagine that they were far more skeptical than the general population.

    The study didn't counterpoise particular beliefs. What it did show was that if you present scientific explanations of 'origins' in a strong and positive light, then subconscious reactions to a subliminal 'god' prompt are more negative.

    In other words, you can worsen these undergrad's gut feelings about god simply by presenting science in a positive way. Equally, if you present science in a weak way, their feelings about god are more positive.

    And the same applies if you represent god in a positive way. It makes gut feelings about science more negative.

    In other words, these intelligent, mainstream people react as though there is a basic, deep conflict between science and religion - at least as far as it extends to discussions about origins.

    The authors of the paper do point out that if you had done something similar but with a discussion about photosynthesis, then you probably would have seen no effect. In other words, it is a cultural effect - a consequence of their particular ideas about what constitutes religious and scientific domains, and where they overlap.

  6. Zeynel, which experiments do you claim to be faked?

    Tom Rees, wouldn't you agree that there indeed is a deep conflict between science and religion whenever they claim to explain the same thing, origins or otherwise?

  7. Has no one noticed the HUGE assumption inherent in this study that science and religion are mutually exclusive? The way in which the study is worded leads one to believe that one must choose either science or religion. All it proves is that a leading question leads the responder to a particular conclusion. As my college physiology professor once said, "You have to know how to ask the question of Mother Nature!" It seems to me all this study does is prove unproductive questions elicit unproductive responses.

  8. Bjørn, I think that science and religion are fundamentally in conflict - they represent totally different world views. I don't see how you can be both scientific and religious (although plenty of people are, of course).

    LastStopForMiles, they didn't as a leading question. What showed was that if you make people think that science is effective, then they automatically think less well of religion. In other words, the link is in people's minds, not in the questions.


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