Science and Religion in the European Union

The interactions of science with religion have featured in a number of opinion polls during the past year or so, largely in connection with the debate on the origins of the universe, and how it should be taught in schools, reignited by the 2009 Charles Darwin anniversary.

More recently, a couple of other aspects of the relationship have been explored in the European Union’s Special Eurobarometer No. 340 on science and technology, conducted as part of wave 73.1 of the main Eurobarometer in 32 countries (including two EU candidate nations and three non-EU members of EFTA).

Fieldwork in the UK was undertaken face-to-face by TNS among a representative sample of 1,311 adults aged 15 and over between 29 January and 15 February 2010. The newly-released summary report for all the countries surveyed will be found at:

http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_340_en.pdf

The first question of relevance to us asked whether respondents considered that too much dependence is placed on science and not enough on faith. Opinion in the UK was split, with 36% agreeing with the statement, 39% disagreeing and 25% uncertain. There is, therefore, a net disagreement of 3%.

At the EU27 level, by contrast, there is a net agreement of 4% (38% agreeing and 34% disagreeing). There are 20 countries where more agree than in the UK and 11 where fewer citizens do so, the range being from 66% agreeing in Cyprus to 20% in Denmark.

There has been some shift in attitude in the UK since 2005, when the EU posed the question previously. Then there was a net 2% agreement in the UK (35% agreeing, 33% disagreeing, 32% uncertain), compared with a net 11% agreement in the EU as a whole.

Even further back, in a Gallup survey in 1996, 50% of Britons thought that religion had not been superseded by science and 40% that it had been. Thus two-fifths of the population held a very pro-science view of the world in both 1996 and 2010.

A second question in the Special Eurobarometer touched on superstition, measured by a belief that certain numbers are especially lucky for some people. In the UK 36% agree with this proposition, 43% disagree, and 21% are uncertain.

The percentage thinking certain numbers are lucky is slightly less in the UK than the European average of 40%. 22 countries record a higher figure in agreement than the UK and just 9 a lower, the spread being from 60% in Latvia to 21% in Finland.  

But UK citizens seem to have become more superstitious since 2005. Then 29% agreed and 49% disagreed that certain numbers are lucky, representing a 7% swing towards the superstitious camp. The European average for those agreeing also rose from 37% to 40% during this quinquennium.

In sum, the religion versus science scales would still appear to be finely balanced in the UK, albeit a growing number are backing science rather than faith. At the same time, the proportion trusting in luck is also increasing. There is probably a considerable overlap between the faith and superstition constituencies.

One thing is for sure, however. Virtually nobody is looking to religious leaders to explain the impact of scientific and technological developments on society. Only 2% in the UK (the same as the EU27 average) place any credence in them in this regard, compared to 62% trusting academic or government scientists, 30% industrial scientists and 32% medical doctors.


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