God or science? A belief in one weakens positive feelings for the other

Jesse Preston
Illinois psychology professor Jesse Preston led a study that found that attitudes towards God and science can change and yet remain in opposition to one another. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer, U. of I. News Bureau

A person's unconscious attitudes toward science and God may be fundamentally opposed, researchers report, depending on how religion and science are used to answer "ultimate" questions such as how the universe began or the origin of life.

What's more, those views can be manipulated, the researchers found. After using science or God to explain such important questions, most people display a preference for one and a neutral or even negative attitude toward the other. This effect appears to be independent of a person's religious background or views, says University of Illinois psychology professor Jesse Preston, who led the research.

The study appears in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Preston and her colleague, Nicholas Epley, of the University of Chicago, wanted to explore how information about science influences a belief in God, and how religious teaching can also cause people to doubt certain scientific theories.

"As far as I know, no one has looked experimentally at an opposition between belief in science and religion," Preston said.

"It seemed to me that both science and religion as systems were very good at explaining a lot, accounting for a lot of the information that we have in our environment," she said. "But if they are both ultimate explanations, at some point they have to conflict with each another because they can't possibly both explain everything."

The researchers conducted two experiments designed to manipulate how well science or God can be used as explanations. In the first, 129 volunteers read short summaries of the Big Bang theory and the "Primordial Soup Hypothesis," a scientific theory of the origin of life.

Half then read a statement that said that the theories were strong and supported by the data. The other half read that the theories "raised more questions than they answered."

In the second experiment, which involved 27 undergraduate students, half of the study subjects had to "list six things that you think God can explain." The others were asked to "list six things that you think can explain or influence God."

All the subjects were then required to quickly categorize various words as positive or negative on a computer.

"What they didn't realize was that they were being subliminally primed immediately before each word," Preston said. "So right before the word 'awful' came up on the screen, for example, there was a 15-millisecond flash of either 'God' or 'science' or a control word."

A 15-millisecond visual cue is too brief to register in the conscious mind, but the brief word flash did have an effect. Those who had read statements emphasizing the explanatory power of science prior to the test were able to categorize positive words appearing just after the word, "science," more quickly than those who had read statements critical of the scientific theories.

Those who were asked to use God as an ultimate explanation for various phenomena displayed a more positive association with God and a much more negative association with science than those directed to list other things that can explain God, the researchers found.

Similarly, those who read the statement suggesting that the scientific theories were weak were extremely slow to identify negative words that appeared after they were primed with the word "God," Preston said.

"It was like they didn't want to say no to God," she said.

"What is really intriguing is that the larger effect happens on the opposite belief," she said. "When God isn't being used to explain much, people have a positive attitude toward science. But when God is being used to account for many events – especially the things that they list, which are life, the universe, free will, these big questions – then somehow science loses its value."

"On the other hand, people may have a generally positive view of science until it fails to explain the important questions. Then belief in God may be boosted to fill in the gap," she said.

The most obvious implication of the research is that "to be compatible, science and religion need to stick to their own territories, their own explanatory space," Preston said. "However, religion and science have never been able to do that, so to me this suggests that the debate is going to go on. It's never going to be settled."

Source: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Dec 15, 2008
I can settle it. As the Voice of Reason, let me take the test. There is no conufusion. Religion is an amalgam of (ancient) Government, spirituality, and mythology. The concept of faith is LITERALLY the (moronic) idea to believe in something that not only unreasonable, but illogical, irrational, and without any factual basis. The fabrication of such stories as the bible was as 'INDUSTRY' of that time in history. That is a well known fact. The only mystery remaining is why otherwise supposedly civilized modern societies continue to have religious populations as large as they are. This statement is not subjectively bent on bashing religion. It's objective. Any statement that supported the claims of religion would have to be heavily subjective. Religion does good and harm, has positive and negative attributes. But its claims of dieties and miracles are utter nonsense.

Dec 16, 2008
VOR states that faith is "LITERALLY" the belief in the unreasonable. While this is the modern definition of faith to some, it is far from the historical definition. The idea that faith is the antithesis to reason was created by Kant, and that is the underlying cause of this great conflict. Ideas such as test everything, or the reliability of reason are based on Christian philosophy (In the beginning was the logos). So many are hasty to cut the branch they stand on.

Dec 17, 2008
The religion of Jaweh (such as Christianity, Judiasm, and maybe Muslim) was perhaps the most significant source of much of our morality and wisdom. There are some big mistakes though. Murder was called a sin, but warfare was validated. War was a way of life across the centuries the bible was developed. While a military is necessary, we are far too tolerant of violence as a society. More tolerant than even of sexuality. The endurance of Christianity is no doubt responisible for this legacy.

"Realistically nothing can be ruled out until you've proven it's non-existance. " sorry V, that statement is self-invalidating. You cannot prove non-existance. This is another clumsy argument for god, which is not to say there aren't some better ones, (but thats certainly not my thing). I can see how faith could be, or at least could have been, complete without the unreasonable aspect. But I don't see relevance of that in a discussion of modern religion. With due acknowledgement to christian-like religion, I also assert that morality is somewhat self-evident and develops acoss all cultures religious and secular. The 'norms' of societies become morality, which is why we must strive as individuals to not just follow, but set a higher standard. There's a certain undeniable objective importance of certain morals, wether society recognizes it or not. The more that morals in this category are established and followed, the more sucessful and healthy the members are. You dont need an archaic package such as religion to know this, but it still works for many. Religion has other rewards such as fellowship. Unfortunately for those of us that find religion intellectually inaccessable, there's no widely established secular or atheist 'church' even though there are plenty of us that would probably attend. Such groups are too small to be convenient. I've checked in my area.

Jan 05, 2009
Knowledge of the entire reality is obviously inaccessible so such proofs are not possible mr self-proclaimed scientist.

Jan 06, 2009
Lol I always enjoy these bizarre replies you produce when proved wrong.

Jan 07, 2009
sorry V, that statement is self-invalidating. You cannot prove non-existance.
If I have an empty sandbox I can prove that the sand box contains no sand by showing that the box is empty.
Proof of absence by knowledge of the entire system.

Knowledge of the entire reality is obviously inaccessible so such proofs are not possible mr self-proclaimed scientist.


Remember, there were map makers before they discovered the world was round.

Now it's accurate, Isn't it funny how you omitted your failed sandbox argument?

I am afraid your map markers revelation is not having the desired impact on the discussion, perhaps you should consult someone more gifted in the arcane art of logical thinking.

Jan 07, 2009
You state that knowledge of the entire system is unattainable. How is that correct without adding the word "currently"?

Knowledge of the entire reality will of course never be attainable. I find it funny that someone might seriously think otherwise, it is logically impossible for any entity to have knowledge of the entire reality for great many reasons, for example:
1. such knowledge would require infinite storage
2. it would always be outdated due to limits on information propagation
3. there is no way to prove that the reality you have access to is the whole reality, there might always be another universe beyond the horizon.

Now we can continue down this path but I'm sure you won't like it, much like you've bailed out of other discussions we've had when a third party drops in to clarify your own argument for you.

Haha! I've bailed out of our discussions? I find it cute that you've provided those links but I suggest you reread them cause it seems your memory is failing you.
So far I've proved you wrong in every damn case, thats because contrary to you I only argue about the things I know. You argue about everything yet your knowledge is incredibly shallow and superficial, the amount of errors and disinformation that you propagate is appalling.

Jan 09, 2009
You argue about everything yet your knowledge is incredibly shallow and superficial, the amount of errors and disinformation that you propagate is appalling.

Insults are neither a good basis for sharing information in the course of discussion nor are they a good rebuttal to my above comments.

I am only stating facts, if you find reality insulting that's your problem.

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