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On the Intersection of Science and Religion

The relationship between science and religion is often viewed in a Western context and through a Christian perspective. We turned to Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists for a different view

February 9, 2021 By: Courtney Johnson, Cary Lynne Thigpen & Cary Funk Read time:

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On the Intersection of Science and Religion

Over the centuries, the relationship between science and religion has ranged from conflict and hostility to harmony and collaboration, while various thinkers have argued that the two concepts are inherently at odds and entirely separate.

Pew Research Center surveys have documented those trends over more than a decade in the United States. We found that 56% of Americans say there generally is conflict between science and religion but that this sense of tension is more common among the religiously unaffiliated— those who describe their religion as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.” The survey showed that just 16% of Christians in the U.S. say their religious beliefs “often” conflict with science; another 3 in 10 say such conflict sometimes occurs.

We’ve also examined views on a range of issues in which science and religion might be flashpoints. On evolution, for example, we found that a majority of Catholics believe humans evolved over time, as do a similar number of White mainline Protestants, but far fewer Black Protestants and White evangelicals hold this view. 

Our research and much like it from other sources has taken place in a Western context, primarily through a Christian lens.  More recently, we sought to better understand the ways in which science relates to religion around the world and engaged a small group of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists in Southeast Asia to talk about their perspectives.

The discussions reinforced the conclusion that there is no single, universally held view of the relationship between science and religion among the three religious groups, but they also identified common patterns and themes within each one. For example, many Muslims expressed the view that Islam and science are basically compatible, though they acknowledged some areas of friction, such as the theory of evolution conflicting with religious beliefs about the origins and development of human life on Earth.

Hindu interviewees generally took a different tack, describing science and religion as overlapping spheres. Many Hindus maintained that their religion contains elements of science, and that Hinduism long ago identified concepts that were later illuminated by science. Buddhist interviewees generally described religion and science as two separate and unrelated spheres. Several talked about their religion as offering guidance on how to live a moral life while describing science as observable phenomena. Often, they could not name any areas of scientific research that concerned them for religious reasons.

Some members of all three religious groups, however, did express religious concerns when asked to consider specific kinds of biotechnology research, such as gene editing to change a baby’s genetic characteristics and efforts to clone animals. For example, Muslim interviewees said cloning would tamper with the power of God, and some Hindus and Buddhists voiced concern that these scientific developments might interfere with karma or reincarnation.

These are some of the key findings from a qualitative analysis of 72 individual interviews with Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists conducted in Malaysia and Singapore—two nations that have made sizable investments in scientific research and development in recent years and are home to religiously diverse populations—between June 17 and Aug. 8, 2019. The study included 24 people in each of the three religious groups, with an equal number in each country. All interviewees said their religion was “very” or “somewhat” important to their lives, but they otherwise varied in terms of age, gender, profession, and education level.

These interviews are not representative of religious groups either in their country or globally, but they do provide insight into how individuals describe their beliefs, in their own words, and the connections they see (or don’t see) with science. We coded the responses into themes to avoid putting too much weight on any single individual’s comments.

Muslims frequently described science and their religion as related rather than separate concepts and often said the Quran contains many elements of science. One 24-year-old Muslim man in Malaysia said both science and his religion explain the same things, just from different perspectives: “I think there is not any conflict between them. … I still believe that it happens because of God, just that the science will help to explain the details about why it is happening.”

Still others described the relationship as conflicted. “I feel like sometimes, or most of the time, they are against each other. … Science is about experimenting, researching, finding new things, or exploring different possibilities. But then, religion is very fixed, to me,” said a 20-year-old Muslim woman in Singapore.

When asked, many of the Muslims who were interviewed identified specific areas of scientific research that bothered them on religious grounds. Multiple interviewees mentioned research that uses non-halal substances (such as marijuana, alcohol, or pigs), some pregnancy technologies that they considered unnatural (such as procedures that use genetic material not taken from a husband and wife), or cloning.

Representative surveys of Muslims in countries around the world also have found variation in the share of Muslims who see any conflict between science and religion, although this share is less than half in most countries surveyed.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2011 and 2012 that examined the views of Muslims found that, in most regions, half or more said there was no conflict between religion and science, including 54% in Malaysia. (Muslims in Singapore were not surveyed.)

The predominant view among Hindus who were interviewed is that science and Hinduism are related and compatible. Many of them offered—without prompting—the assertion that their religion contains many ancient insights that have been upheld by modern science, such as the use of turmeric in cleansing solutions, or the use of copper in drinking mugs. They said that Hindus have known for thousands of years that these materials provide health benefits but that scientists have confirmed only relatively recently that it’s because turmeric and copper have antimicrobial properties. When you question certain rituals or rites in Hinduism, there’s also a relatively scientific explanation to it,” said a 29-year-old Hindu woman in Singapore.

Still, many Hindu interviewees said science and religion are separate realms. “Religion doesn’t really govern science, and it shouldn’t. Science should just be science,” said a 42-year-old Hindu man in Singapore.

Asked what scientific research might raise concerns or should not be pursued for religious reasons, Hindu interviewees generally came up blank.

The sense that Hindus generally see little conflict with science aligns with survey findings. In three of the four countries in the 2018 Wellcome Global Monitor with large enough samples of Hindus for analysis, majorities said science had “never disagreed” with the teachings of their religion, including two-thirds of Hindus in India, which is home to the vast majority of the world’s Hindus.

Members of all three religious groups, however, did express religious concerns when asked to consider specific kinds of biotechnology research, such as gene editing,

Buddhist interviewees described science and religion in distinctly different ways from Muslims or Hindus. For the most part, they said science and religion are unrelated. Some have long held that Buddhism and its practice are aligned with the empirically driven observations in the scientific method; connections between Buddhism and science have been bolstered by neuroscience research into the effects of Buddhist meditation at the core of the mindfulness movement.

One 39-year-old Buddhist woman in Malaysia said science is something that relates to “facts and figures,” while religion helps her live a good and moral life. A 26-year-old Singaporean Buddhist woman explained: “Science to me is statistics, numbers, texts—something you can see, you can touch, you can hear. Religion is more of something you cannot see, you cannot touch, you cannot hear.”

To many of the Buddhist interviewees, this means that science and religion cannot be in conflict and have a compatible relationship.

Even when prompted to think about potential areas of scientific research that could raise religious concerns, relatively few Buddhists mentioned any. Among those who did, a common response involved animal testing, with the interviewees talking about the importance of not killing living things in the practice of their religion. The tenor of these comments is consistent with survey findings from the 2018 Wellcome Global Monitor. Majorities of Buddhists in all 10 countries with large enough samples for analysis said science has “never disagreed” with the teachings of their religion.

In the interviews, we asked about a number of subjects that have sometimes been seen as in conflict for some people in other religions. These included evolution, reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization, gene editing, and cloning.

Evolution raised areas of disagreement for many Muslim interviewees, who often said it is incompatible with the Islamic tenet that humans were created by Allah.

 “This is one of the conflicts between religion and Western theory. Based on Western theory, they said we came from monkeys. For me, if we evolved from monkeys, where could we get the stories of [the prophet] Nabi? Was Nabi Muhammad like a monkey in the past? For me, he was human. Allah had created perfect humans, not from monkey to human,” said a 21-year-old Muslim man in Malaysia.

Data Points

56% of Americans say there is a conflict between science and religion, but that this sense of tension is more common among the religiously unaffiliated.

Data Points

This survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center, also found that just 16% of Christians in the U.S. say their religious beliefs “often” conflict with science.

Data Points

Half or more of Muslims, in most regions, said there was no conflict between religion and science, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2011 and 2012. TWEET

Data Points

86% of Buddhists and 80% of Hindus in the U.S. said humans and other living things have evolved over time, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study. TWEET

A Pew Research Center survey of Muslims worldwide conducted in 2011 and 2012 found that a 22-public median of 53% said they believed humans and other living things evolved over time. However, levels of acceptance of evolution varied by region and country, with Muslims in South and Southeast Asian countries reporting lower levels of belief in evolution by this measure than Muslims in other regions. In Malaysia, for instance, 37% of Muslim adults said they believed humans and other living things evolved over time. Evolution posed no conflict for the Hindus interviewed, who said the concept of evolution was encompassed in their religious teachings. “In Hinduism we have something like this as well, that tells us we originated from different species, which is why we also believe in reincarnation, and how certain deities take different forms. This is why certain animals are seen as sacred animals, because it’s one of the forms that this particular deity had taken,” said a 29-year-old Hindu woman in Singapore.

The Buddhists interviewed also tended to say that there was no conflict between their religion and evolution and that they personally believed in the theory. Some added that they didn’t think their religion addressed humans’ origins at all.

There is limited global survey data on this issue. However, the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study found that 86% of Buddhists and 80% of Hindus in the U.S. said humans and other living things have evolved over time, with majorities also saying this was due to natural processes.

In discussing scientific research using gene editing, cloning, and reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist interviewees raised the idea that such practices may go against the natural order or interfere with nature. As one 64-year-old Buddhist man in Singapore put it: “If you have anything that interferes with the law of nature, you will have conflict. If you leave nature alone, you will have no conflict.” Similarly, a 20-year-old Muslim woman in Singapore said “anything that disrupts or changes the natural state” goes against religious beliefs.

Interviewees were asked to talk about their awareness and views of three specific research areas in biotechnology: new technologies to help women get pregnant, gene editing for babies, and animal cloning. People had generally positive views of pregnancy technology such as in vitro fertilization, although Muslim interviewees pointed out potential objections depending on how these techniques are used. Views of gene editing and cloning were more wide-ranging, with no particular patterns associated with the religious affiliation of the interviewees.

Individuals from all three religions generally approved of pregnancy technology and in vitro fertilization.

Some Muslim interviewees emphasized that they would be OK with these technologies only if certain criteria were met—specifically, if the technologies were used by married couples, and with the couples’ own genetic material.

Some Hindus and Buddhists noted that they were comfortable with pregnancy technologies themselves. “I feel it is fine. It’s still trying to get the balance of being a believer of a religion versus overly superstitious or believing too much in that religion that you forgo the reality of life going on,” said a 37-year-old Buddhist man in Singapore.

A common thread in these conversations pointed to the importance of nature and respect for living things.

Interviewees, regardless of their religion, said the idea of curing a baby of disease before birth or preventing a disease that a child could develop later in life would be a helpful, acceptable use of gene editing. But they often viewed gene editing for cosmetic reasons much more negatively.

Several interviewees brought up the idea of not agreeing with gene editing out of fear that people might want to Westernize their children. For example, some expressed the concern that gene editing would be used to create babies with blond hair and blue eyes.

Views of cloning were similarly conditional. Individuals from all three religions spoke of their disapproval of cloning for humans, with Muslims saying that cloning could interfere with the power of God, who should be the only one to create. But interviewees generally found animal cloning to be more acceptable. Many people interviewed envisioned useful outcomes for society from animal cloning, such as providing meat to feed more people, or helping to preserve nearly extinct animals.

When Hindus and Buddhists did express religious concerns pertaining to gene editing and cloning, it was because these scientific methods might interfere with karma or reincarnation. “Sometimes the person is born with sufferings, and it is because maybe previously he had been doing some evil things,” said a 45-year-old Buddhist woman in Singapore.

Pew Research Center surveys in the U.S. find a strong relationship between levels of religious commitment and views on biotechnology developments, including gene editing. In a 2018 survey, majorities of U.S. Christians, including white evangelicals and other Protestants as well as Catholics, said that if the development of gene editing for babies entailed embryonic testing, it would be taking the technology too far. A common finding in Center surveys of Americans on emerging biotechnology issues such as gene editing for babies and animal genetic engineering is that public opinion depends on the use and effects of emergent technologies for society.

Conversations with Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists enrich our understanding of the intersection of religion and science. Some Muslims saw evolutionary theory as being at odds with their beliefs about how Allah created human life, but Hindus and Buddhists saw no such tension with their religious beliefs. No area of scientific research was universally seen as off-limits, and most interviewees saw potential benefits from emerging developments in biotechnology such as gene editing and animal cloning. But a common thread in these conversations pointed to the importance of nature and respect for living things. People in all three religions raised concerns about scientific developments that could be seen as altering natural processes or used in ways that violate moral principles of their religion.

The Takeaway

There is no single, universal perspective on the relationship between science and religion. Science is often embraced by Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, though some raise concerns over how scientific developments could be used.

Courtney Johnson is a research associate, Cary Lynne Thigpen is a research assistant, and Cary Funk directs science research at the Pew Research Center.

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