“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay from 1841, Self-Reliance. Apparently, many Americans hold true to this thought. About one in every five adults, a new study finds, knows a lot about science and supports practical uses of technology, while rejecting a few specific scientific explanations, notably the big bang theory and the theory of evolution.

"Virtually all United States adults turn to either science, religion, or both to understand the world," Dr. Timothy L. O'Brien, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Evansville, told Medical Daily in an email.

For the study, O’Brien and his co-author Dr. Shiri Noy, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wyoming, explored data from three waves of the General Social Survey. One aim of this academic survey is to monitor and explain trends and constants in attitudes, behaviors, and attributes of Americans. O’Brien and Noy examined the attitudes of people who self-identified as Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or other faiths as well as people who did not identify with any religious group. Then, the research duo developed new categories to represent each person’s actual perspective on science and religion.

According to the researchers, each adult fell into one of three groups. The largest group, 43 percent, hold a traditional perspective, which favors religion over science. A little more than a third of all people, 36 percent, hold a modern perspective, which favors science over religion. Finally, the smallest group, 21 percent, hold a post-secular perspective, which values both science and religion, yet rejects science in favor of religion on highly specific topics. The three world views, the researchers found, are held across religious groups, political parties, and social classes.

O'Brien told Medical Daily he and his co-author "don't mean to suggest that post seculars' rejection of evolution and the big bang is a good or bad thing. Rather, our point is that post seculars' rejection of certain scientific theories is not based on ignorance or lack of understanding of science but instead on a preference to interpret some aspects of the world in a religious light." As the first study of the U.S. public that examines perspectives on science and religion in tandem, O’Brien said, his work "uncovers a previously unidentified group of well-informed people who are appreciative of science and technology's social uses, but who are deeply religious and who reject certain scientific theories in favor of religious ones."

Big Bang?

At one time, the sun revolved around the earth, scientists said, and at another time, leeches could cure your headache. "Indeed, the history of science and medicine is full of examples of scientific theories falling by the wayside," O'Brien told Medical Daily, "But these historically discarded theories weren't replaced by religious ideas, they were replaced by newer scientific theories." He added that "scientific and medical knowledge should always be looked at through a critical lens."

Among the post-seculars, more than 90 percent agree with contemporary scientific theories about geology, radioactivity, and planetary motion, but only six percent believe that the universe began with a huge explosion. Even fewer — just three percent — agree that humans evolved from earlier animals. In addition, 48 percent of post-seculars believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, compared to 46 percent of traditionals, and three percent of moderns. Post-seculars also report the greatest strength of religious affiliation as compared to traditionals and moderns. Meanwhile, “a majority of the U.S. public believes in miracles, just as they did throughout the twentieth century,” note the authors.

Clearly, people are cherry-picking from both science and religion, believing whatever they please! ("Insist on yourself; never imitate," Emerson said.)

In their concluding remarks, the research team state "neither the post-secular nor the traditional perspectives can be easily dismissed as anti-scientific." However, O'Brien told Medical Daily, he still thinks "there is a great deal of space between the three groups. ... For example, moderns' attitudes about science are relatively much more favorable than traditionals', even though traditionals see some value in science." In the end, he says, "I think it is still fair to say that U.S. adults have widely different views of science and religion."

Seems inconsistency, doubt, and self-reliance in matters of the mind may simply be in the DNA of some Americans. “Society acquires new arts, and loses old instincts,” Emerson wrote.

Source: O’Brien T, Noy S. Traditional, Modern, and Post-Secular Perspectives on Science and Religion in the United States. American Sociological Review. 2015.