Views on Genetic Modification of Food Influenced by Religious Beliefs, Not Just Science

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Although the debate over genetic engineering of food and animals has focused mainly on relative benefits and risks, many Americans also have ethical or religious views that significantly affect the way they think about this new technology, according to a Zogby International poll released today by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.

When asked specifically about their own religious or moral views in regards to agricultural biotechnology, a majority of Christians (Protestants, born-again Christians and Catholics) and a plurality of Muslims say they are opposed to moving genes from one species or organism to put into another, the poll found. Jews were the only religious group polled that had a majority that supported this technology.

Overall, 57 percent of Protestants (62 percent of Evangelicals) oppose the technology based on their religious or ethical views while 37 percent are in favor; Catholics followed closely behind with 52 percent opposed and 42 percent in favor. Among Muslims, 46 percent said they are opposed, with 32 percent in favor. Jews were the most favorable of the technology, with 55 percent in favor and 35 percent opposed.

However, a majority in all religious groups believes that humans should use their knowledge to improve the life of other humans. When probed on the question of whether man has been empowered by God to use science to improve life or whether man is “playing God,” a majority of all those polled felt humans have been empowered by God to improve life. Jews and Muslims agreed the most strongly with the statement on empowerment (62 percent and 61 percent agreed, respectively), followed by Catholics (55 percent) and Protestants (54 percent).

In addition, most of those polled, regardless of religion, felt it is important to improve the world or strike a balance between improving and preserving it. Jewish adults feel most strongly that humans have an obligation to improve the world (60 percent). Protestants are more likely than other religious groups to say that humans should strike a balance (43 percent), with nearly half of born-again Christians (48 percent) saying humans should strike a balance.

The poll was released as part of a panel discussion hosted by the Initiative titled “Genetically Modifying Food: Playing God or Doing God's Work?” Margaret Warner, senior correspondent for the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, moderated the panel, which explored the religious, moral and ethical considerations that play into the debate over agricultural biotechnology. Speakers included: Jaydee Hanson, General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church; Dr. Robert Gronski, National Catholic Rural Life Conference; Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner, Baltimore Hebrew University; and Prof. David Magnus of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

“The debate over this technology has largely centered on the science issues, but there is clearly an ethical side to it as well that is shaping American hearts and minds,” said Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Initiative. “This survey shows that while Americans have concerns about moving genes between different species, they also support the idea that we have been empowered by God to understand nature and use science and technology to improve the human condition.”

The poll, part of a nationwide survey of 1,117 adults 18 and older, was conducted by Zogby International from July 16-20, 2001. The margin of error is +/- 5 percent for Protestants, +/- 5.7 percent for Catholics, +/- 7 percent for Jewish, and +/- 9 percent for the Muslims.

Go to more survey findings, Genetic Modification of Food Influenced by Religious Beliefs.