God or science – but not both!

God or science – but not both! December 15, 2008

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

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