When I was invited by the Pew team earlier this year to make suggestions about items and questions to measure in their recently released survey on science and the public, I suggested that Pew ask a variation of a question that they have used in the past that queries respondents on the types of messages and information relative to politics they might receive in church. Given their expertise in the area, they were probably already well ahead of me in thinking along similar lines.
I was interested in the potential results based in part on a study I co-authored at the journal Political Behavior that examined the church-based context as an important mobilizer of citizens in the stem cell debate and relative to other research that I have published on the church as an important context for political participation generally.
What's interesting from the Pew findings--excerpted below-- is that contrary to conventional wisdom, Americans report receiving generally neutral or favorable information from clergy about "science or scientific findings" at church. As I wrote in an article at The Scientist back in 2007 and more recently at the journal Environment, churches and religious leaders are an untapped resource for engaging Americans on issues related to science, especially on topics such as climate change, biomedical research, and evolution.
Some scientists view the church context as foreign and even hostile to discussions about science and society, yet in doing so they overlook a central setting where public engagement can take place.
About four-in-ten (42%) of those who attend religious services at least once a month say the clergy at their place of worship have spoken about science or scientific findings; more than half (56%) say the topic has not been raised.
Among all Protestants who attend services regularly, 46% say the clergy occasionally speak about science. That includes 48% of white evangelicals, 44% of white mainline Protestants and 40% of black Protestants. A smaller share of Catholics (35%) say science has been raised at church.
Of those who say their clergy occasionally speak about science or scientific findings, three-in-ten (30%) say the clergy at their church are usually supportive of science, while 11% say they are critical of science. A majority (52%) say the clergy's references to science are neither positive nor negative.
Hard to know what to make of these results. What does "critical of science" mean? Is it "The latest claims to human cloning are DEEPLY troubling to me, based on my reading of the bible" or is it "EVOLUTION IS A LIE AND IF YOUR KIDS LEARN IT THEY WILL GO TO GAY LIBERAL HELL BLAAAAAAGH!!1!!!1!"
To me, this doesn't seem all that surprising. I was raised Catholic, and while Official Church Policy coming from the Vatican was well-known, individual officials (priests, nuns, deacons, etc.) often followed their hearts rather than the Pope.
This meant that, for example, while the church was adamantly anti-gay, my youth ministers asked me, as an openly gay student, to have a talk with the confirmation classes about it as part of their "justice and service" discussions.
I'd have to assume that, aside from the media-minded "heads" of various religious groups, many officials from many religions probably "soften the blow" or downright abandon those aspects of Official Policy that they think are wrong.
I'm with ABM. All we know is that there is some respect for the name of science in the abstract, but what do they actually mean when it comes down to the details?
Those who denied the carcinogenic effects of smoking claimed to support science. Climate change denialists claim to have science on their side, as do intelligent design advocates and other creationists. Hell, Deepak Chopra claims that quantum mechanics proves all kinds of woo.
Do the positive statements in churches speak positively of the scientific consensus? Do they show any respect for its skepticism and empiricism or do they want the results by some entirely different method?
These are all the right questions to ask. It will be interesting to run some analysis with the raw data when released.