Science and Religion Should Not Be Adversaries

The scientific community is experiencing what feels like unprecedented pressure from political and religious conservatives, both to distort the research agenda and insert non-science into science education programs. It is not really unprecedented, of course, because there has always been some tension between science and those who hold nonscientific beliefs — think about the climate for Galileo’s work, as just one example. However, whether new or not, the current situation is cause for great concern. Although they could simply reflect a natural cycle, the current societal pressures on science could also be the beginning of a trend that will have a long-lasting, chilling effect on both the progress of science and its use for the betterment of humankind. Some have deemed the current climate as a “return to the Dark Ages” or the “twilight for the enlightenment” (Kennedy, 2005), although one hopes these are hyperbolic views.

Debates about stem cells, therapeutic cloning and the beginning of life are probably the most well-known examples where religious or moral conviction is affecting the research agenda. Another alarming incident was the “Toomey Amendment” in the fall of 2003 when, by a vote of 212 to 210, the US House of Representatives fell just short of de-funding four NIH research grants on sexual behavior, HIV-AIDS and drug abuse. Some members of Congress were uncomfortable and felt the studies probed too closely to personal and moral issues.

One very dramatic recent example is the attempt to undermine the teaching of evolution in schools and in public venues like zoos, science museums, IMAX theaters, and theme parks. Proponents of a view of the origin of human beings called Intelligent Design (ID) have attempted to cloak this non-scientific, religious belief in the mantle of science and insert it into science curricula and classrooms as a purported alternative theory to evolution. ID proponents maintain that what we call “evolution” is far too complicated to have occurred without some grand design(er) guiding the process. Its advocates want this notion taught side-by-side with evolution in science classrooms. However, it is not an alternative scientific explanation to evolution. As I have argued elsewhere, ID has no scientific base at all. Moreover, whether or not evolution had a grand designer is not a scientifically-testable question (Leshner, 2005a, 2005b). Intelligent Design does not qualify by any criteria as science, and therefore it should be kept out of the science classroom.

It is vitally important, though, that we not fall into the trap of allowing anyone to pit science against religious beliefs. For most people, science and religion can and do co-exist quite comfortably. Many scientists are religious, and followers of most religions have no major conflicts with modern scientific thought. It is, as always, the zealots at the extremes who cause most of the problems. Some biblical literalists are threatened by the answers being provided by modern science. And there is a group of “evangelical atheists” who believe science can or has disproved the existence of a god. From my perspective, both are equally wrong-headed.

What should we do about this increasing tension between science and at least some religions? First, we must take every opportunity to make clear to the general public that science and religion are not adversaries. They can co-exist comfortably, and both have a place and provide important benefits to society. Second, we must continue to work strenuously to protect the integrity of science and the use of its products. In particular, we must not allow anyone to redefine science for their ideological convenience (Leshner 2005c).

Third, we should mount a campaign to make our points to the public proactively. We cannot just react when ideologies threaten the integrity of our enterprise. Although every survey shows that the majority of citizens believe, in general, that the benefits of science outweigh the risks or costs. It also is very clear that the general public has little sense of what makes something “scientific” or not, and many people believe that things like astrology have a science base (National Science Board, 2004). Moreover, many people do seem to believe that science and religion are incompatible — or at best, competing, alternative explanations of natural phenomena. Since many behavioral science issues are at stake, and since many behavioral scientists have particular expertise in behavior and attitude formation and change, I strongly urge psychologists to help lead in developing and mounting such a campaign. The rest of the scientific community is ready to join in, once we have a clearer sense of what might be an effective specific strategy.


  • Kennedy, D. (2005). Twilight for the enlightenment. Science, 308, 165.
  • Leshner, A.I. (2005a). Limit science classes to science. Philadelphia Inquirer, February 2
  • Leshner, A.I. (2005b). Let fact and faith coexist outside schools. Kansas City Star, May 8.
  • Leshner, A.I. (2005c). Redefining science. Science, 309, 221.
  • National Science Board (2004). Science Indicators, 2004. Arlington, VA.

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