I’m a secular scientist. Why do I need to think about religion?

Do you ever talk with someone in line at the grocery store, or maybe at a school function for your child? There’s a high likelihood that anyone you talk with is religious, so it’s worth looking at how to engage with people of faith in a constructive way.

Almost ¾ of U.S. adults claim a religious affiliation1. Even if you know that someone is religious, though, you shouldn’t assume that you know what they believe. Members of the same faith tradition can have different opinions on scientific topics, even on topics like evolution2 or reproductive health3. Faith is important for a lot of people4, and if you belittle or disparage a core element of someone’s identity, even accidentally, it can turn people off to what you have to say.

When you talk with someone about science, you’re engaging in science communication. Helpfully, there is a science of science communication to help you engage respectfully and constructively, and this applies to engaging with people of faith as well.

Studies suggest that effective approaches to science engagement involve making authentic connections with people and engaging with their emotions rather than focusing on giving them information5,6,7,8,9. When you talk with someone, approach them with genuine humility—respectfully listen and seek to understand what they believe and why, and see if you can genuinely relate by sharing your own perspectives. Feelings of curiosity, awe, and wonder are very human and very relatable. Keep in mind that you should try to meet people where they are—you should not be trying to win a debate! You don’t have to agree about everything, but people respond best to others who share their values, so finding common ground is a good starting point10­. That common ground can be wonder at the natural world around us….or it can be completely unrelated to science, e.g., being a parent, a shared hobby, a favorite sports team, etc!

If religion comes up when you’re talking with someone...showing respect for different worldviews can provide a powerful counter to that perception of conflict.

Faith can play a large role in shaping people’s opinions on many scientific topics—gene editing, public health, and education are a few examples. Many people in the U.S., including people of faith, share the broad cultural perception that science and religion are in conflict11. If religion comes up when you’re talking with someone, acknowledging it without hostility or dismissal and showing respect for different worldviews can provide a powerful counter to that perception of conflict.

If you’re not sure how to begin with this kind of engagement, we’ve got some great resources for you. In fact, we have an entire project devoted to it! The Engaging Scientists in the Science and Religion Dialogue Project works to help scientists engage with people of faith more intentionally and constructively. We have many videos of scientists talking about their engagement efforts that are focused on or inclusive of faith communities.

We also have a series of profiles on individual scientists and their efforts to engage with faith communities. The scientists are of diverse backgrounds, races, and fields, and include secular scientists as well as scientists of faith. Their engagement activities involve African American churches in Alabama, traditional communities in Nigeria, Indigenous communities in Alaska and the Midwest, and even people on Reddit and Twitter. If you’re curious about what good science engagement with faith communities can look like, check out the profiles!

Notes:

  1. https://www.pewforum.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2019/10/Detailed-Tables-v1-FOR-WEB.pdf from https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/
  2. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/02/06/how-highly-religious-americans-view-evolution-depends-on-how-theyre-asked-about-it/
  3. https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/views-about-abortion
  4. https://www.pewforum.org/2015/11/03/chapter-1-importance-of-religion-and-religious-beliefs/
  5. Barnes, M. Elizabeth, James Elser, and Sara E. Brownell. “Impact of a short evolution module on students’ perceived conflict between religion and evolution.” The American Biology Teacher 79.2 (2017): 104-111.
  6. Goldberg, Matthew H., et al. “Discussing global warming leads to greater acceptance of climate science.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116.30 (2019): 14804-14805.
  7. Jensen, Eric, and Nicola Buckley. “Why people attend science festivals: Interests, motivations and self-reported benefits of public engagement with research.” Public Understanding of Science 23.5 (2014): 557-573.
  8. Rose, Kathleen M., et al. “Engaging the public at a science festival: findings from a panel on human gene editing.” Science Communication 39.2 (2017): 250-277.
  9. Suldovsky, Brianne. “In science communication, why does the idea of the public deficit always return? Exploring key influences.” Public Understanding of Science 25.4 (2016): 415-426.
  10. https://www.nature.com/news/why-we-are-poles-apart-on-climate-change-1.11166
  11. https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2015/10/22/science-and-religion/

Dive deeper!

Profiles Spotlight Researchers Engaging with Religious Communities
  • Article
  • 4 minute read

Profiles Spotlight Researchers Engaging with Religious Communities

  • Adam D. Cohen

AAAS has launched a new series profiling scientists who have forged meaningful relationships with religious communities.

AAAS Recognizes Engagement Projects Connecting Scientific and Religious Communities
  • Article
  • 6 minute read

AAAS Recognizes Engagement Projects Connecting Scientific and Religious Communities

  • Andrea Korte

In 2019, DoSER gave eighteen $1000 awards for ongoing or prospective science engagement efforts that focused on, or were inclusive…

Other Common Questions