Thursday, 1 March 2012

Science Vs Religion

Right-wing U.S politician and Republican presidential aspirant Rick Santorum has sparked another round of media debate on Science Vs Religion with his recent comments on the campaign trail. In one instance, he openly argued against the separation of the Church from the State and, in another, he questioned the science of global warming. For the popular media, this was another opportunity to line up a prize-fight between science and religion.

Politicians, of course, are known to cater to their constituencies. And there are many gullible people who fall for their rhetoric. But is the general public divided along science and religion lines as the popular media often suggests? Or is the divide only between religious fanatics and science absolutists?

In a forthcoming article (now available online) in Public Understanding of Science, Joseph O. Baker of East Tennessee State University reports on a national survey conducted in the U.S which shows that only 17 % of the respondents felt that science and religion are incompatible, with a paltry 6 % saying that they “strongly agreed” with such incompatibility. On the other hand, as many as 69 % of the respondents believed that the two could be compatible.

The study entitled “Public perceptions of incompatibility between “science and religion” begins with a quote from the critical realist Ian Barbour: “Today the popular image of the “warfare between science and religion” is perpetuated by the media, for whom a controversy is more dramatic than the more subtle and discriminating positions between the extremes of scientific materialism and biblical literalism.” Baker’s study supports Barbour’s typology in revealing two distinct groups of people asserting incompatibility between science and religion: “Those privileging science and those privileging religion.” Significantly, the study concludes that competing efforts to wield power—the “struggles for influence, status, and the right to define and perform authoritative societal roles”—is central to the rhetoric of conflict between science and religion.

Clearly, large segments of the population, not just in the U.S. but elsewhere as well, are positioned between what Barbour calls “the extremes of scientific materialism and biblical literalism.” As Baker’s study shows, more empirical studies of public perceptions of science and religion could potentially be a big step towards greater understanding.

Yet, will this focus on science and religion allow us to recognize what Amartya Sen describes in his book Identity and Violence as our “inescapably plural identities” – identities outside of those shaped by faith in a religion or, for that matter, in science?

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