Can Scientists and Evangelical Leaders Work Together?
Image: AAAS/Christine A. Scheller

In February, more than 7 million people tuned in to watch a debate between Bill Nye “the science guy” and Creation Museum founder Ken Ham. In September, more than 300,000 people—including representatives of evangelical faith groups—marched through the streets of New York City to bring attention to the dangers of climate change. In October, a Slate science writer asked if it should be worrisome that so many of the doctors treating Ebola in Africa are missionaries. The intersection of science and religion clearly has the power to capture the public’s attention, but collisions can happen at that intersection. Is there a way for scientific and religious communities to work together more productively?

Answering this question is a primary goal of the Perceptions Project, a three-year endeavor spearheaded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER). (AAAS is the largest general scientific membership society in the world and publisher of the Science family of journals. Its mission is to “advance science, engineering, and innovation for the benefit of all people.”)

Based on data gleaned from a nationwide survey and subsequent focus groups, the Perceptions Project brings together scientists and religious leaders (especially evangelicals) for conversation about how members of these influential communities view one another and how relations between them can be improved.

To date, more than 100 research scientists, pastors, denominational, and faith-based non-government agency leaders have met for up to two days of off-the-record conversation. These talks spanned three regional areas—Pasadena, Denver, and Atlanta—and were organized in collaboration with project partners Public Agenda (a nonprofit, non-partisan opinion research and public engagement organization) and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). At each workshop, attendees and organizers discovered how quickly warm, cordial relationships could form and how much respect could accompany discussion even around areas of conflict.

Investigating Perceptions

Four religious groups are involved in the Perceptions Project—Catholics, Mainline Protestants, Jews, and Evangelicals. But the project focuses primarily on the evangelical community. Not only do evangelicals constitute as much as 30 percent of the U.S. population; many surveys suggest that they are the most wary about science.

A joint survey of 10,000 adults conducted by AAAS and sociologists at Rice University in Houston, Texas, found that although evangelicals show nearly as much interest in new scientific discoveries (21%) as the general public (32%), they are more than twice as likely as other respondents to look to a religious leader for answers to a scientific question (10% v. 4%) rather than to a scientific source. Evangelicals are also more than twice as likely as other respondents (29% v. 14%) to say that science and religion are in conflict and that they are on the side of religion. Still, nearly 50 percent of evangelicals view the relationship between science and religion as one of collaboration.

Deb Shepherd, an astronomer who worked at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory for 14 years is one such collaborator. Shepherd left her science career to study in Fuller Theological Seminary’s M.Div. program and is co-founder the school’s Faith and Science student group. Her dream is to return to Africa, where she had previously worked, to build science and mathematics schools with the United Methodist Church.

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Can Scientists and Evangelical Leaders Work Together?