Ryan J. Pemberton, a writer and editor living in Seattle, works for the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.

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Where Did the Science and Religion Rift Come From?

by Ryan J. Pemberton 08-02-2022
An interview with Francis Collins and Deborah Haarsma on bridging the perceived divide. 
An illustration of a cross in the center of an atom.

Illustrations by Alex William

ON A RECENT morning run, I saw a yard sign that began, “We believe ...” and included a list of creedal-like commitments. One stood out: “Science is real.”

Science? I thought. Does belief in science really need front-yard creedal affirmation?

One trend of the recent divisions in our nation is a heightened distrust in science among evangelicals and the Religious Right. This pattern has been acute during the COVID-19 pandemic, when research by epidemiologists and other members of the scientific community has been increasingly called into question by conservative pundits, political officials, and religious leaders. The costs of this rhetoric and its effects have grown far beyond alarming.

Where did this science and religion rift come from? And how can we speak into the fear and mistrust in the work of science that has taken root in recent years in a way that cultivates trust and encourages mutual concern?

The origins of this rift are not easy to trace, fed as they are by a variety of sources. Thomas Dixon, in the book Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction, attributes the science-religion conflict narrative to three sources: Enlightenment rationalists in the late 1700s, Victorian “free-thinkers” in the mid-1800s, and modern-day scientific atheists at the end of the 1900s to the present. “Few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion,” wrote Sam Harris, a prominent atheist, in The New York Times in 2009.

Great numbers of contemporary Christians have arrived at the opinion that their faith tenets and the work of science are in conflict, though this is far from a homogenous view. According to Pew Research Center analysis of data from the Wellcome Global Monitor, there is a wide variation in views among global Christians on the relationship between science and religion. Christians in the U.S., for example, far exceed Christians in other parts of the world in reporting that science has conflicted with their religion’s teachings: 61 percent of U.S. Christians reported such conflict, compared to 22 percent in Singapore, 18 percent in Sweden, and 12 percent in the Czech Republic. According to the National Association of Evangelicals, evangelicals in the U.S. are more than twice as likely as the general public (29 percent vs. 14 percent) to hold the view that science and religion are in conflict.

At the same time, for many other Christians science represents a path toward God, not away. “Doing science to me is a search for God,” George Coyne, a Jesuit priest, astronomer, and former director of the Vatican observatory told On Being podcast host Krista Tippett. “And I’ll never have the final answers, because the universe participates in the mystery of God.”

The growing distrust in science among some people of faith has become a matter of life and death during the COVID-19 pandemic. White evangelical Christians represent the highest rates of vaccination hesitancy among religious groups in the United States. How, then, are we to engage our neighbors, aunts, brothers, or parents in a way that counters misinformation and rebuilds trust?

Why Martin Sheen Returned to Catholicism

by Ryan J. Pemberton 06-23-2021

Image via Sony Pictures Classics

The actor and activist talks with Sojourners about faith, service, and his new film ‘12 Mighty Orphans.’

Never Good Enough

by Ryan J. Pemberton 03-22-2019
The shame of being poor can linger long after poverty is left behind.

I WAS FILLING my coffee mug at a church lunch when I was greeted by a woman with a smile I couldn’t miss nor soon forget. Her short blond hair was pulled back under a red hat. She wore an oversized black T-shirt as a dress. A few lonely teeth protruded from her lower gums when she grinned.

Speaking fast, as though we might get cut off at any moment, she reminded me that we’d met when I’d first arrived in Berkeley, several years before. She asked if I would pray for her.

“Sorry if that’s presumptuous,” she apologized.

“Not at all,” I said. “I’m sorry, but would you remind me of your name?”

“Kim. And yours?”


“What’s your last name, Ryan?”


“Oh, a very WASP name!”

“That’s not me,” I told her abruptly. “I’m no WASP.”

What began as a prayer request soon devolved into a debate about Jesus’ divinity. In the back and forth, Kim referred to me as a WASP several more times.

“That’s not me,” I corrected her each time. “We’re not all as we look, you know.”

Driving home, my mind was stuck on my frustration with Kim and, specifically, my rejection of the label “WASP.” I am white and of Anglo-Saxon descent—mostly English. I am Protestant, even. But WASP still carries connotations of wealth—especially inherited wealth—that do not fit me.

Yet for much of my life, I would have been reassured if someone thought I was a person of means and status. Why was it urgent to me now to reveal the very thing I had spent the past three decades hiding?

Living in shame

As the oldest child in a single-parent family in the far Pacific Northwest, in a small town where dairy cows outnumber people 10-to-1 and the lone, blinking stoplight is more of a luxury than a necessity, I did my best to hide our family’s poverty.

Just off the driveway was a shed where we stored our garbage. Trash collection was another expense. Maggots tumbled out from black plastic bags when I opened the door just wide enough to heave another trash bag atop the pile. We never spoke of it.

In elementary school, I waited anxiously in line for the woman who took money for “hot lunch”—Mrs. Price, aptly named. I faked surprise when she told me, in a voice loud enough for my classmates to hear, that I had already charged too many lunches.


“How long are we going to have to use food stamps?” I asked on a drive home from the grocery store one afternoon. The look I received assured me I would not ask this question again.

College for me, as it is for most people, was a revelation of my identity. I was preparing for a developmental psychology lecture when I read that Head Start is a school-readiness program for children from low-income families. I had always assumed everyone went to Head Start.

My face turned red. I turned the page quickly, hoping not to be found out.