Religiosity and Confidence in Science

research post


In response to a question posed on Twitter recently asking why people from the U.K. seemed to show a great deal more interest in applying cognitive science to education than their U.S. counterparts, I suggested, linking to this article, that the differences in the religiosity of the two countries might play a role.

Princeton economist Roland Bénabou led a study, for instance, which found that religiosity and scientific innovation were negatively correlated. Across the world, regions with higher levels of religiosity also had lower levels of scientific and technical innovation—a finding which held even when controlling for income, population, and education. Bénabou commented in this article:

Much comes down to the political power of the religious population in a given location. If it is large enough, it can wield its strength to block new insights. “Disruptive new ideas and practices emanating from science, technical progress or social change are then met with greater resistance and diffuse more slowly,” comments BĂ©nabou, citing everything from attempts to control science textbook content to efforts to cut public funding of certain kinds of research (for instance involving embryonic stem cells or cloned human embryos). In secular places, by contrast, “discoveries and innovations occur faster, and some of this new knowledge inevitably erodes beliefs in any fixed dogma.”


The study’s analysis also includes a comparison of U.S. States, which showed a similar negative correlation, as shown at the left.

Importantly, this kind of analysis has nothing to say about the effects of one’s personal religious beliefs on one’s innovativeness or acceptance of science. This song is not about you. It is a sociological analysis which suggests that the religiosity of the culture one finds oneself in (regardless of income and education levels) can have an effect on one’s exposure to scientific innovation.

Religiosity can have this effect at the political and cultural levels while simultaneously having a quite different effect (or no similar effect) at the personal level.

But About That Personal Level

Perhaps more apropos of the original question, researchers have found that individual religiosity is not significantly correlated with interest in science, nor with knowledge of science—but it is significantly negatively correlated with one’s confidence in scientific findings.

More religious individuals report the same interest levels and knowledge of science as less religious people, but they report significantly lower levels of confidence in science. This means that their lack of confidence is not a product of interest or ignorance but represents some unique uneasiness with science. . . .

Going a little further, the researchers provide this quote in the conclusion, which is as perfect an echo of educators’ qualms with education research (that I’ve heard) as can likely be found in literature discussing a completely different topic (emphases mine):

Religious individuals may be fully aware of the potential for material and physical gains through biotechnology, neuroscience, and other scientific advancements. Despite their knowledge of and interest in this potential, they may also hold deep reservations about the moral and spiritual costs involved . . . Religious individuals may interpret [questions about future harms and benefits from science] as involving spiritual and moral harms and benefits. Concerns about these harms and gains are probably moderated by a perception, not entirely unfounded given the relatively secular nature of many in the academic scientific community (Ecklund and Scheitle 2007; Ecklund 2010), that the scientific community does not share the same religious values and therefore may not approach issues such as biotechnology in the same manner as a religious respondent.

It may be, then, that educators surrounded by cultures with higher religiosity—and regardless of their own personal religious orientations—will simply have greater exposure to concerns about moral and spiritual harm that can be wrought by science, in addition to the benefits it can bring. Consistent with my own thinking about the subject, these concerns would be amplified in situations, like education, where science looks to produce effects on human behavior and cognition, especially children’s behavior and cognition.
Johnson, D., Scheitle, C., & Ecklund, E. (2015). Individual Religiosity and Orientation towards Science: Reformulating Relationships Sociological Science, 2, 106-124 DOI: 10.15195/v2.a7

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Josh Fisher

Instructional designer and editor for K-12 mathematics. My research interests center mostly around mathematics education.

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