Faith vs. Science in the Pews?

Earlier this week the news-cycle and various social media outlets like Twitter were abuzz concerning the debate between Bill Nye (the science guy) and Ken Ham, the founder of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky (video of the debate can be found here).

Many billed the debate as a representation of the oppositional nature of two worldviews, science and faith. Others however, like sociologist Jonathan Hill, have pointed out that not only is there a significant amount of diversity within the science and faith camps concerning the origin of the universe, many individuals are quite unsure about what they believe and do not believe these beliefs are particularly important.

Are most worshipers in the United States firmly on one side or the other? Are all religious individuals young-earth creationists like Ken Ham? Using the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, we can investigate how the people in the pews approach the issue of science vs. faith.

Two questions on the 2008/2009 US CLS pertain to the science vs. faith discussion. The first asks how often the conflict of faith and science has caused doubts about their religious faith. In Figure 1 we see that very few worshipers report that the conflict often causes doubts (6%) while a third say it sometimes does (36%) with a majority saying it never causes doubts (58%). It seems that for most worshipers, there is no perceived conflict and even for those who perceive one, it only sometimes influences them.


The second question asks if worshipers’ believe the universe was created 6,000 years ago (as many young-earth creationists accept). In Figure 2 we see that only 14 percent of worshipers believe it to be true, while 4 in 10 do not believe the universe was created 6,000 years ago and 46 percent are unsure. Here we find that a majority of worshipers do not hold young-earth creationist views, with many of those people unsure what they believe.

These data suggest that most worshipers in the United States are not firmly on one side or the other concerning the creation debate, and any sort of perceived conflict between science and faith does not influence their religion.

Nevertheless, are certain types of worshipers more likely to doubt or believe the universe was created 6,000 years ago? The following figures display some of the categories of worshipers that differ statistically from one another concerning these two questions.

Chart2 Faith

Conservative Protestants are more likely than Mainline Protestants and Catholics to report the conflict of science and faith never causes them to doubt. They are also more likely to believe that the universe was created 6,000 years ago (23%).

Chart3Unsurprisingly, worshipers who identify as biblical literalists, those who believe the Bible should be taken literally word for word, are more likely to never have doubts as well as much more likely to believe that the universe was created 6,000 years ago (26%). It is important to notice, however, that even among biblical literalists there is significant variation. Close to half (45%) are unsure about the age of the universe and slightly more actually do not believe in young-earth creationism (29%).

What keeps worshipers from experiencing doubt concerning the conflict between science and faith? It appears that having more friends in the same congregation helps, as well as spending either a lot or no time in private devotional acts.


Worshipers who report having little contact with others in the congregation are much more likely to say the conflict of science and religion often causes doubt. Those with most of their closest friends in their congregation are much less likely to often doubt. Perhaps worshipers with most of their friends in their same congregation are faced with very few chances where their beliefs about science and faith are challenged.

Interestingly, there appears to be a slight curvilinear effect concerning devotional activity and experiencing doubt. Those worshipers who never spend time in private devotions or who daily spend time in devotional activity are most likely to never doubt. Those worshipers who occasionally spend time in devotions, once a week or so, are least likely tonever doubt. In fact, it is the occasional devotion crowd that reports the highest levels ofsometimes doubting, while those who spend time every day in devotions and those whonever spend time in devotions are least likely to sometimes doubt.

Finally, we see that educational attainment and gender are both significantly associated with whether or not worshipers believe the universe was created 6,000 years ago.


Male worshipers are more likely to believe young-earth creationist views are not true.Women are more likely to be unsure if the universe was created 6,000 years ago.

Unsurprisingly, increasing levels of education are associated with greater likelihood of rejecting young-earth creationist views. Also, as worshipers’ education levels decrease, the likelihood of being unsure of when the universe was created increase.

Debates necessarily highlight two opposing viewpoints. However, as others have pointed out and as data from the U.S. Congregational Life Survey make clear, the two viewpoints represented in the Bill Nye and Ken Ham debate are not the only two viewpoints that exist. Worshipers in the United States vary significantly in how they view science and religion, and in their beliefs about how the universe was created. It is impossible to place the people in the pews in one camp or the other.