Another “Third Way” to cut the cake

I was interested to see this piece of sociological research last week, which is well worth downloading and studying in detail. As you’ll see, the study uncovers a hitherto apparently invisible group, comprising 21% of the US population, which they call “post-secularists”. I don’t want to waste space doing a full summary, as the one in the Huffington Post seems to cover the bases laid down in the paper succinctly and pretty fairly.

I do want to highlight a couple of points, though. One is to note the researchers’ findings that this new social grouping – which is, in my view, a highly significant one – cuts quite significantly across the observation I’ve made in the past about the US (from the outside) – that one can pretty well predict someone’s views on science and religion from their political leanings, and similarly predict their politics from their religion and so on. The study shows that on certain questions these “post-secular” people are highly conservative, whereas on others they are “liberal”. In most respects they are as supportive of science as they are knowledgable, but they have reservations in specific areas, including the areas of ethics and origins. They seem to be breaking across the usual boundaries.

Education, of course, is the area where the Huff Post article expresses most surprise about them. The conventional equation of Fundamentalist hicks with poor education and suspicion of science, contrasted with of well-educated, science savvy people with secular views, is blown apart. To my mind the existence of the group casts light on the regular ruminations that surface over the meaning of the YouGov surveys on views about evolution. It would appear, looking at the figures, that this quite distinctive category nevertheless includes people with various views on origins, the common factor being commitment to traditional faith and high educational attainment (perhaps on average slightly lower than the “modern” category, yet actually getting marginally higher scores on some science questions).

This heterogeneous picture is shown from the (rather too limited) questions encompassing origins, bearing in mind the general agreement between “moderns” and “post-secularists” on all the other science questions. For example, 80% of post-secularists believe in continental drift over millions of years, compared to 98% of moderns and only 67% of traditionalists. This would suggest most believe in an old earth, but 20% in a young earth. On human evolution (not evolution generally, note) 70% do not believe we evolved from animals (which is interestingly almost the same figure as traditionalists). I judge that would include a high level of belief in human exceptionalism amongst that 70%, rather than necessarily rejection of evolution overall; remember the Catholic Church is open to evolution, but officially insistent on special human creation, at least of the soul.

More surprising is the post-secularists’ surprising rejection of the Big Bang (at 5.8%, less than a third of the figure even of the traditionalists). Since, as far as I know, very few religious believers other than some YEC literalists reject the Big Bang, which is, after all, one of the most creation-friendly theories of mainstream science, I can’t help feeling this must be an anomaly – or even a misplaced decimal point. My conclusion overall is that this new division comprises a mixture of YEC, OEC, ID and, in all probability, theistic evolutionists.

And with that in mind I’m a little dubious about the appelation “post-secularists” to these people. Yes, I’m amused by the conceit that, only a couple of decades after we were led to believe the world is “post-Christian,” irreligion should now be losing ground, with secularists finding faith again in droves. But I doubt that that’s the case, for the most part, yet. I don’t think this category is actually a new one, but rather a newly recognised one, since it matches my own personal experience in the UK. Here there are many educated Christians, inside and outside the science professions but well-taught in science, who hold a variety of well-considered views on the interface between their Christian doctrine and their science. If this country is anything to go by, they are the class of believers who do their best to submit not just science, but every area of life, to the gospel. So politically, there are among them those with more conservative and more liberal views – and often with both, having, perhaps, a socialist approach to economics but a traditional view of sexual or medical ethics. Such people, defying categorisation, also challenge their culture by defying its tribal identities.

In other words, I suspect that “post-secularists” are actually primarily “thinking believers”, and since such people existed in the US long ago (consider, in the evolutionary field, B B Warfield and Asa Gray, for example), I doubt they’re restricted to the eastern shore of the Atlantic now. After all, somebody must be reading all those excellent books by Alvin Plantinga, Ron Numbers and so on.

The surprising aspect is, of course, that this kind of person, whose existence was, hitherto, unknown to sociologists, comprises as much as 21% of the US population, compared to 36% “moderns” and 46% “traditionalists”. One in five people were invisible until this study came out. It changes how one views the nation: by very crudely combining the groups, one could say that 57% of people are well-educated in science (Ms + PSs), and that 67% have traditional views on religion (Ts + PSs). And also that, of those with good science education (Ms + PSs), 37% also have traditional faith. It’ll be interesting to see, now post-secularists have been recognised, how the figures change in future, and what further study will reveal about them.

But lastly, there is a lesson here about the nature of scientific research itself, of a piece with Hump themes in recent months. Post-secularists did not suddenly materialise at the moment this study was done. And neither were they actually invisible or secret – they were hidden in plain sight in every city. They were not identified simply because social scientists were not asking the questions that could reveal their existence. There’s nothing mysterious about that – philosophers of science have long held that science does not progress by a progressive self-revelation of nature (or in this case, of culture). Rather, it progresses in the direction in which it is taken by the questions being asked by scientists, and those questions are in turn largely dictated by the society from which scientists come. That is as true, I suggest, of the natural sciences as the social sciences.

And that’s one reason it’s vital to see science as every bit as encultured as religious views, lest it be absolutized and universalized beyond what is warranted. We should be quizzical about everything stemming from our own particular culture, and that’s not easy – especially when our society regards science as its universal truth. Nature will not be judged by history, but we can be pretty sure the kind of questions we ask of it will be.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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