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Science and religion have come into conflict repeatedly throughout history, and one simple reason for this is the two offer competing explanations for many of the same phenomena. We present evidence that the conflict between these two concepts can occur automatically, such that increasing the perceived value of one decreases the automatic evaluation of the other. In Experiment 1, scientific theories described as poor explanations decreased automatic evaluations of science, but simultaneously increased automatic evaluations of God. In Experiment 2, using God as an explanation increased automatic evaluations of God, but decreased automatic evaluations of science. Religion and science both have the potential to be ultimate explanations, and these findings suggest that this competition for explanatory space can create an automatic opposition in evaluations.
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Science and God: An automatic opposition between ultimate explanations
Jesse Preston
, Nicholas Epley
Department of Psychology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 603 E Daniel St. Champaign, IL 61820, USA
University of Chicago, 5807 South Woodlawn Avenue Chicago, IL 60637-1610, USA
article info
Article history:
Received 14 May 2008
Revised 8 July 2008
Available online 22 August 2008
Causal explanation
Science and religion have come into conflict repeatedly throughout history, and one simple reason for
this is the two offer competing explanations for many of the same phenomena. We present evidence that
the conflict between these two concepts can occur automatically, such that increasing the perceived
value of one decreases the automatic evaluation of the other. In Experiment 1, scientific theories
described as poor explanations decreased automatic evaluations of science, but simultaneously increased
automatic evaluations of God. In Experiment 2, using God as an explanation increased automatic evalu-
ations of God, but decreased automatic evaluations of science. Religion and science both have the poten-
tial to be ultimate explanations, and these findings suggest that this competition for explanatory space
can create an automatic opposition in evaluations.
Ó2008 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Recent debates over intelligent design theory in science educa-
tion have brought long-standing conflicts between science and
religion back into public attention. On the surface, religion and sci-
ence may seem to be very different domains: science is directed to-
ward the understanding of physical systems, and religion is
concerned with more intangible spiritual and moral issues (Gould,
1999). Some scientists suggest that science and religion can be rec-
onciled as compatible belief systems (Collins, 2006). Others, mean-
while, are more skeptical and argue that the two ideologies are
inherently opposed, and that belief in one necessarily undermines
belief in the other (Dawkins, 2006; Zukav, 2001).
Although science and religion do not always conflict, a frequent
source of tension concerns the competition for explanatory space.
Religion and science offer different explanations for a wide array of
phenomena, including some of the most fundamental human is-
sues (e.g. intelligent design vs. natural selection). This direct oppo-
sition may cause the value of religion and science to become
inversely related when these explanations are brought into mind.
In the present research we investigate whether the evaluation of
science and religion may be automatically opposed, such that
increasing the perceived value of one as an explanatory system
diminished automatic positive evaluations of the other.
Explanation and belief
Causal explanations enable people to understand and predict
the world around them. Unexpected or unusual events automati-
cally prompt a search for causes (Weiner, 1985), and causal infer-
ences can be generated spontaneously with little effort by the
thinker (Hassin, Bargh, & Uleman, 2002). All explanations are not
created equal, however, and people prefer those that appear most
simple and coherent (Lombrozo, 2007). Explanations gain cogni-
tive support and psychological value as they appear to explain
more observations with fewer causes (Keil, 2006; Preston & Epley,
2005), especially those that explain diverse effects that are
branched far apart on a causal tree (Kim & Keil, 2003). In contrast,
alternate explanations for the same effects may possess a negative
association between them (Thagard, 2006), such that the perceived
validity of one can impact the perceived validity of the other (Slo-
man, 1994). Just as it is impossible to believe a single proposition
to be both true and false simultaneously (Gilbert, 1991), it may
be impossible to hold two competing explanations as both true
(or both false) simultaneously. As a result, the availability of one
plausible explanation may therefore diminish the perceived value
of another (Morris & Larrick, 1995).
As broad explanatory systems, religion and science each pro-
vide answers to a wide array of fundamental questions and con-
cerns, and so each have strong explanatory value. However,
these belief systems often provide different explanations for
the same phenomena, and this competition for explanatory
space can trigger conflict. Instances of this recurring conflict
can be found throughout history. Advances in scientific theories
that contradict religious explanations can threaten these beliefs
and are often met with resistance. Conversely, when scientific
explanations are poor, the value of religious explanations may
be enhanced. The central argument of intelligent design theory
is to point out gaps or failings in scientific explanations, thereby
enabling explanations based on other (generally divine) causes.
This is sometimes called the God of the Gaps argument (Lupfer,
0022-1031/$ - see front matter Ó2008 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
* Corresponding author. Fax: +1 217 244 5876.
E-mail addresses:, (J. Preston).
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45 (2009) 238–241
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Tolliver, and Jackson (1996))—where science cannot explain, God
is invoked as a cause.
Compounding this conflict, both religion and science can be used
as ultimate explanations—primary causes that account for all events,
but rely on no further underlying mechanisms. Most modern day
religions depict God as the ‘‘unmoved First Mover” that is the ulti-
mate cause of everything but itself has no cause. Science theoreti-
cally promises a method for understanding all of one’s natural
observations, with the principal goal to uncover the mechanisms
that underlie all known phenomena. The search for the theory of
everything, a single equation that would be able to describe all as-
pects of matter and physics without appealing to any deeper explan-
atory base, has been dubbed the holy grail of physics (Barrow, 1992)
in a nod to the anticipated meaning that such an equation would pro-
vide. Conflict between science and religion over this prime explana-
tory space may create a negative association between the two, such
that the value of one may be inversely related to the automatic eval-
uations of the other. Enhancing the apparent explanatory power of
scientific explanations may automatically decrease positive evalua-
tions of religion, and vice versa. Likewise, apparent weakness in sci-
entific explanations may increase positive evaluations of religion,
and vice versa. This research investigated whether people’s auto-
matic evaluation of concepts related to science and religion would
indeed show evidence of such automatic opposition.
The present research
We manipulated, in two experiments, the perceived value of
either science or God as an ultimate explanation, and then mea-
sured automatic attitudes toward science and religion using a
semantic priming procedure with a categorization task. (Fazio &
Olson, 2003). Explicitly reported attitudes toward science and reli-
gion may be well-formed and resistant to change, but previous re-
search demonstrates that causal discounting does not require
explicit evaluation of alternatives and can occur outside of con-
scious awareness (Oppenheimer, 2004). Before one has the oppor-
tunity to consciously consider whether the two are logically
opposed or engage in effortful reconciliation we predicted that
automatic evaluations of science and religion would diverge
Experiment 1 investigated the use of scientific theories as ulti-
mate explanations. We were interested in questions of origin that
might be explained by a creator, specifically the origin of the uni-
verse and the origin of life on Earth. We predicted that better the-
ories would increase automatic positive evaluations of science,
whereas weaker theories would decrease these evaluations. More
important, we predicted that evaluations of God should be inver-
sely related to the explanatory power of these scientific theories.
Experiment 2 investigated whether manipulating the perceived va-
lue of a religious explanation would produce the opposite interac-
tion, increasing positive automatic evaluations related to religion
but decreasing those related to science.
Experiment 1: Scientific origins
One hundred twenty-nine six volunteers from The University of
Chicago, The University of Western Ontario, and Harvard University
agreed to participate in exchange for $5 or for partial course credit.
Participants were seated in a private lab room in front of a com-
puter. All instructions were given on the computer. Participants
read two passages that briefly described the Big Bang Theory and
the Primordial Soup Hypothesis. In the Strong Explanation condi-
tion, each passage concluded with a statement that ‘‘this was the
best scientific theory on the subject to date, and does much to ac-
count for the known data and observations.” In the Weak Explana-
tion condition, each passage concluded with a statement that ‘‘this
was the best scientific theory on the subject to date, but it does not
account for the other data and observations very well, and raises
more questions than it answers.” Participants were asked, for each
passage, to choose the best title from two options.
Evaluation task
Participants completed a semantic priming paradigm with a
categorization task (Fazio & Olson, 2003). Positive (e.g. ‘‘EXCEL-
LENT”) or negative (e.g. AWFUL) target words appeared on the
computer screen. Participants were asked to classify the words as
positive or negative as quickly as possible by pressing a computer
key. Each trial included a 250 ms premask (XXXXXX), a 15 ms pre-
sentation of a prime word (either ‘‘God” or ‘‘Science”, or a control
prime ‘‘Hat”/‘‘Window”), and a 50 ms post-mask (XXXXXX). After
the post-mask disappeared, the target word appeared and re-
mained until participants classified it as positive or negative. The
procedure included 120 randomly ordered trials: 20 for each prime
type and target value.
Reaction times were submitted to a 2 (Prime: God/Science) 2
(Target Valence: Positive/Negative) 2 (Explanatory Power of Sci-
ence: Weak/Strong) ANOVA with repeated measures on the first
two variables. The predicted three-way interaction was significant,
F(1,127) = 17.93, p< .001. We simplified this three-way interaction
by subtracting the mean reaction time to positive targets from
mean reaction time to negative targets for each specific prime
word to create an automatic attitude index toward Science vs.
God. Thus, greater numbers of this scale denote more positive eval-
uations of the targets (see Fig. 1). In the Strong Explanation condi-
tion automatic evaluations of science were more positive than
evaluations of God, F(1, 127) = 9.56, p< .001. The reverse relation-
ship was found in the Weak explanation condition, associations
with God were significantly more positive than associations with
science, F(1,127) = 8.37, p< .001.
Fig. 1. Automatic evaluations of Science and God by explanatory power of Science,
Experiment 1.
J. Preston, N. Epley / Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45 (2009) 238–241 239
Author's personal copy
Experiment 2: Divine origins
A similar automatic opposition between religious and scientific
beliefs should be observed by altering the perceived value of reli-
gious explanations (Preston & Epley, 2005). For example, a person
who actively uses religious explanations in daily life may not find
science particularly useful. But, if one begins to feel doubt or loses
meaning for God, belief in science may be bolstered as a result.
Experiment 2 examined whether using God as an ultimate expla-
nations could create an automatic opposition between Science
and God.
Twenty-seven undergraduates from Harvard University volun-
teered to participate for partial course credit.
Participants were seated in a private laboratory room in front of
a computer. Participants in the explanation condition were in-
structed to: ‘‘list SIX things that you think God can explain.” Partic-
ipants in the control condition were given the instructions: ‘‘list
SIX things that you think can explain or influence God.” Existing re-
search demonstrates that this manipulation can influence the sub-
jective value of religious beliefs, with those using God to explain
other events reporting that religion is significantly more meaning-
ful and important to them than those identifying events that could
explain God’s actions (Preston & Epley, 2005). All responses were
typed into the computer. Participants then completed the semantic
categorization task, as in Experiment 1.
Reaction times were submitted to a 2 (Prime: God/Science) 2
(Target word: Positive/Negative) 2 (Religious explanation:
Weak/Strong) ANOVA with repeated measures on the first two fac-
tors. The predicted three-way interaction was significant,
F(1,25) = 6.65, p< .02. Reaction times were converted into an auto-
matic attitude index as in Experiment 1 (see Fig. 2). In the control
condition, evaluations of God and Science did not differ signifi-
cantly, F(1,25) = 1.32, ns. But when God was used as explanation,
automatic evaluations of God were more positive than evaluations
of Science, F(1,27) = 6.16, p< .05.
General discussion
Religion and science offer inclusive systems of beliefs that help
to organize people’s understanding of the world they live in. When
these different beliefs compete with each other for explanatory
space, they also compete for their value. Here were report an auto-
matic opposition between evaluations of Science and God accord-
ing to their utility as ultimate explanations. In Experiment 1,
exposure to apparently poor scientific explanations for the origins
of the Universe and life on Earth enhanced positive automatic eval-
uations of God relative to Science, whereas apparently strong sci-
entific explanations resulted in more positive evaluations of
Science relative to God. In Experiment 2, a reciprocal relationship
was found when God was used as a strong explanation. When peo-
ple actively used God as an explanation for a variety of phenomena,
automatic evaluations of science were diminished as evaluations of
God were enhanced. These data suggest that using scientific theo-
ries as ultimate explanation can serve as an automatic threat to
religious beliefs, and vice versa. Perhaps more important, these
findings also indicate that explanatory weakness in one belief sys-
tem can bolster automatic evaluations of the other. These auto-
matic oppositions emerged despite making no explicit mention
of the potentially opposing belief system or to the possible conflict
between science and religion.
The implications of these findings are considerable, but some
questions remain. The first concerns the mechanism underlying
of the automatic opposition: whether these results stem from an
automatic causal discounting as we have suggested, or reflect an
awareness of the opposition publicized in the popular culture. If
these effects do represent an explanatory opposition, then they
should only arise where the alternative belief system seems appro-
priate. For example, scientific explanations of more mundane top-
ics (e.g. photosynthesis) would not be expected to impact
evaluations of God, where religious explanations do not apply. If
these results represent a cultural knowledge of opposition, then
we may not see these effects at all in societies where religion
and science are viewed as compatible. In either case, there are sig-
nificant implications of these findings. A second question concerns
the interplay between automatic opposition and explicit attitudes.
We expect this relationship to be complex, and impacted by many
other social factors like religious background, education, and cul-
ture. Attitudes toward science and religion are often deeply held
convictions and so may be resistant to change to by brief exposure
to explanatory information. However, continued use of one system
as ultimate explanation over time may result in an opposition of
these explicit beliefs as well. Indeed, whereas 85–95% of the gen-
eral US population reliably report belief in God (Gallup, 2005), this
is only 40% among those with a B.Sc., and only 7% among members
of the National Academy of Science (Larson & Witham, 1998).
Automatic attitudes and evaluations of the kind we have demon-
strated often serve as initial ‘‘gut” reactions that guide subsequent
cognitive processing, and may be reflected in an experience of
threat if one’s explicitly preferred explanatory system is called into
question. Such threat experiences may activate subsequent moti-
vated reasoning to defend one’s belief system among strong believ-
ers (Haidt, 2002), but may sow the initial seeds of doubt among
weaker believers. How the automatic opposition impacts explicit
beliefs, or how explicit beliefs impact the consequences of the
automatic associations we have documented, is an important ques-
tion for further research.
This is not to suggest that science and religion must always con-
flict, nor that one system of belief must necessarily be chosen over
the other. But it may be that such reconciliations are only possible
following mental effort exerted to overcome this initial opposition.
How the automatic opposition impacts explicit beliefs, or how ex-
Fig. 2. Automatic evaluations of Science and God by explanatory power of God,
Experiment 2.
240 J. Preston, N. Epley / Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45 (2009) 238–241
Author's personal copy
plicit beliefs impact the consequences of the automatic associa-
tions we have documented, is an important question for further re-
search. In any case, conflict between science and religion is not an
issue that is likely to go away any time soon. These experiments
suggest is that the frequent competition between science and reli-
gion as ultimate explanations is likely to create an intuitive and
automatic opposition that may present a permanent challenge
for both systems of belief.
We thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council
of Canada and the National Science Foundation for financial sup-
port; Leanne Gaffney, Belinda Hammound, Megan Kolasinski, Jas-
mine Kwong, Christine Mathieson, Aram Seo for assistance with
data collection; and Bertram Gawronski, Melissa Ferguson, Justin
Kruger, Tania Lombrozo, Ara Norenzayan, and James Olson for
comments on a previous version of this manuscript.
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Pseudo-profound bullshit receptivity is the tendency to perceive meaning in important-sounding, nonsense statements. To understand how bullshit receptivity differs across domains, we develop a scale to measure scientific bullshit receptivity — the tendency to perceive truthfulness in nonsensical scientific statements. Across three studies (total N = 1,948), scientific bullshit receptivity was positively correlated with pseudo-profound bullshit receptivity. Both types of bullshit receptivity were positively correlated with belief in science, conservative political beliefs, and faith in intuition. However, compared to pseudo-profound bullshit receptivity, scientific bullshit receptivity was more strongly correlated with belief in science, and less strongly correlated with conservative political beliefs and faith in intuition. Finally, scientific literacy moderated the relationship the two types of bullshit receptivity; the correlation between the two types of receptivity was weaker for individuals scoring high in scientific literacy.
... All of these challenges stem not from a contradiction between science and religion or science and religious education, as was found in previous research, which focused mainly on other religions (Edis, 2008;Preston and Epley, 2009). Instead, they arise from the contradiction between a science education and career, and a Jewish religious way of life, which is more restrictive for women than men. ...
This paper aims to extend the discussion on intersectionality by focusing on the intersection between gender and religiosity while addressing the main challenges which face young religious Jewish women in Israel who have chosen the STEM path. The paper is based on a qualitative narrative analysis of in-depth interviews with 45 participants (female Jewish religious students, their mothers, and secondary school science teachers). The findings revealed six structural challenges faced by young religious women in the STEM path: 1) difficulties in managing a healthy balance between family and career; 2) alienation; 3) disapprobative environmental reaction in the religious community; 4) lack of female religious role models; 5) Jewish religious traditions as a limiting factor when competing with secular counterparts; and 6) the paradox of the supportive environment in all-female religious secondary schools. According to the women's narratives, the religiosity component in some challenges is more salient and pronounced than gender.
... With the benefit of hindsight, we now notice the easy fit of the latter three questions with the polarisation with which we have become concerned. We would express these in different ways now, resisting the draw of the simple and coherent (Lombrozo, 2007) and the notion of an either/or explanatory space (Preston & Epley, 2009). Nevertheless, our initial expression is perhaps a symptom of the ubiquity of polarisation, and/or a habit nurtured by our own school education. ...
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This article draws on an empirical research project in which we explore the roles and understandings of knowledge in Religious Education (RE). Plural understandings of knowledge in schools (and society) lead us to concerns about the relationships between knowledge and social justice. We define epistemic literacy as the capability to recognise, and critically use, different types of knowledge. We also clarify that one’s own relationship with knowledge(s) is significant and is, therefore, important for students and teachers to develop to respond to the epistemically plural RE curriculum and classroom. Drawing on literacy frameworks to identify the need for non-hierarchical conceptualisations of knowledge that include the expert and everyday (Hannam et al., 2020; Shaw, 2019, Vernon 2020), we acknowledge the need for a particular disposition when approaching knowledge about religion and worldviews. Building on the analysis of our empirical study and subsequent developments of epistemic literacy, we revisit the notion of epistemic justice (Fricker, 2007) and present a theoretical justification for the experiential preparation of teachers that draws on Biesta’s (2002) reformed Bildung of encounter and Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” (Rawls, 2005). What emerges from these reflections on the future of Bildung is, therefore, an image of a learning society conceived as a society in which the real encounters with who and what is other are a constant and continuous possibility. (Biesta, 2002, p. 350)
... Can nonreligious beliefs such as belief in science harness the same explanatory power? Several studies by Jesse Preston and colleagues suggest that as an existential explanatory framework, science only works inasmuch as it is considered sufficiently strong: when scientific explanations (of the origins of life and the universe, or of conscious will and romantic love, respectively) fail to be sufficiently explanatory, people appear to turn to religion to fill in the gaps, as evidenced by increased positive evaluations of God and stronger beliefs in souls, respectively (Preston & Epley, 2009;Preston, Ritter, & Hepler, 2013). ...
Science today is often seen as providing the definitive frame of reference for understanding what goes on in nature. Furthermore, the history of science has frequently been portrayed as the story of steady progress in overturning religious explanation in favour of scientific truth. This narrative has been challenged by those who – like the author of this book – recognise that a naturalistic way of looking at the world, which lies at the heart of modern science, has a far richer relationship to religion than many have allowed. Peter Jordan now takes this recognition in fresh and exciting directions. Focusing on key thinkers in early modern England, who located causality within a divine and providential view of the cosmos, he shows how they were able to integrate ideas which today might be dichotomised as 'scientific' and 'religious'. His book makes a compelling contribution to current science and religion debates and their history.
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The question of whether lay attributors are biased in their discounting of 1 cause given an alternative cause has not been resolved by decades of research, largely due to the lack of a clear standard for the rational amount of discounting. The authors propose a normative model in which the attributor's causal schemas and discounting inferences are represented in terms of subjective probability. The analysis examines Kelley's (1972b) proposed causal schemas and then other schemas for multiple causes (varying in assumptions about prior probability, sufficiency, correlation, and number of causes) to determine when discounting is rational. It reveals that discounting is implied from most, but not all, possible causal schemas, albeit at varying amounts. Hence, certain patterns of discounting previously interpreted as biases may, in fact, reflect coherent inferences from causal schemas. Results of 2 studies, which measured causal assumptions and inferences, support this interpretation (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
This experiment extends the growing literature aimed at identifying the conditions that impel people to make religious attributions. A total of 177 subjects were presented a series of 16 vignettes after each of which they provided an attributional analysis. The event depicted in each vignette was either (a) an action or occurrence having (b) a positive or negative outcome that was (c) life-altering or non-life-altering. Subjects selected their attributions from a menu that included religious causal agents (God, Satan), several naturalistic causes (e.g., the protagonist's characteristics, other actors), and nonreligious-supernaturalistic causes (fate, luck). As predicted, attributions to God were most commonly made when the event was a life-altering occurrence having positive consequences. Attributions to Satan, rarely made, were prompted by life-altering events having negative consequences. As for whether subjects exhibited a "God-of-the-gaps" pattern of causal reasoning, the evidence was mixed but tended to support the conclusion that they did not.
This book is a Czech translation from English "Theories of Everything. The quest for ultimate explanation", published in 1991 (see 53.003.086).
Several years ago, a teen at the church I attend was surprised that I was a physician. “How can you be a doctor and believe in God at the same time?” he asked me. I, in turn, was surprised by his question but forgot about it until a few months later, when I was examining an infant exposed to HIV who was in the care of a foster parent. As the parent prayed aloud that I would not find anything seriously wrong with the child, she stopped suddenly and said, “Oh, I’m sorry.” Confused, I asked, “For what?” She smiled, “Here I am talking to God around someone who doesn't believe.” “Oh, I definitely believe in God,” I smiled in return. “Gee,” she replied, “I thought all you people—you doctors—were atheists.”
Although the suggestion eighty years ago that four in ten scientists did not believe in God or an afterlife was astounding to contemporaries, the fact that so many scientists believe in God today is equally surprising.
Is there a difference between believing and merely understanding an idea? R. Descartes (e.g., 1641 [1984]) thought so. He considered the acceptance and rejection of an idea to be alternative outcomes of an effortful assessment process that occurs subsequent to the automatic comprehension of that idea. This article examined B. Spinoza's (1982) alternative suggestion that (1) the acceptance of an idea is part of the automatic comprehension of that idea and (2) the rejection of an idea occurs subsequent to, and more effortfully than, its acceptance. In this view, the mental representation of abstract ideas is quite similar to the mental representation of physical objects: People believe in the ideas they comprehend, as quickly and automatically as they believe in the objects they see. Research in social and cognitive psychology suggests that Spinoza's model may be a more accurate account of human belief than is that of Descartes. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)