Pew: Messages Americans Receive at Church About Science
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
When I was invited by the Pew team earlier this year to make suggestions about items and questions to measure in their recently released survey on science and the public, I suggested that Pew ask a variation of a question that they have used in the past that queries respondents on the types of messages and information relative to politics they might receive in church. Given their expertise in the area, they were probably already well ahead of me in thinking along similar lines.
I was interested in the potential results based in part on a study I co-authored at the journal Political Behavior that examined the church-based context as an important mobilizer of citizens in the stem cell debate and relative to other research that I have published on the church as an important context for political participation generally.
What's interesting from the Pew findings--excerpted below-- is that contrary to conventional wisdom, Americans report receiving generally neutral or favorable information from clergy about "science or scientific findings" at church. As I wrote in an article at The Scientist back in 2007 and more recently at the journal Environment, churches and religious leaders are an untapped resource for engaging Americans on issues related to science, especially on topics such as climate change, biomedical research, and evolution.
Some scientists view the church context as foreign and even hostile to discussions about science and society, yet in doing so they overlook a central setting where public engagement can take place.
About four-in-ten (42%) of those who attend religious services at least once a month say the clergy at their place of worship have spoken about science or scientific findings; more than half (56%) say the topic has not been raised.
Among all Protestants who attend services regularly, 46% say the clergy occasionally speak about science. That includes 48% of white evangelicals, 44% of white mainline Protestants and 40% of black Protestants. A smaller share of Catholics (35%) say science has been raised at church.
Of those who say their clergy occasionally speak about science or scientific findings, three-in-ten (30%) say the clergy at their church are usually supportive of science, while 11% say they are critical of science. A majority (52%) say the clergy's references to science are neither positive nor negative.
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