Spirituality, not religiosity, linked to lesser faith in science

May 27, 2021
A vaccination site in Los Angeles was shut down while protesters blocked the entrance. Vaccine hesitancy, driven by scientific skepticism, is one of the world’s top health threats. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

A vaccination site in Los Angeles was shut down while protesters blocked the entrance. Vaccine hesitancy, driven by scientific skepticism, is one of the world’s top health threats. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

An examination into the underpinnings of science skepticism across 24 countries reveals that spirituality is associated with a lesser general faith in science, more so than religiosity — an effect stronger among Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic, or WEIRD, nations, according to new research.

In a study published April 28 in Social Psychology and Personality Science, researchers investigated science skepticism across a range of subjects, finding that the causes of science skepticism are not necessarily the same across different issues and are caused by varying beliefs and ideologies. This research fills the gap of academic literature on science skepticism among multiple countries, as most prior research in this field has focused solely on the United States and the Netherlands; it's also among the first to produce a systematic cross-national investigation of the various predictors of science skepticism across subjects. 

Science skepticism, or the "systematic and unwarranted rejection of science," has become a prominent issue in recent years, and two of the World Health Organization's top 10 health threats in 2019 included issues often associated with the rejection of science: climate change and vaccine hesitancy. Vaccine hesitancy is a particularly salient issue, not only because it's been the cause of previous viral outbreaks due to insufficient vaccinations — such as the 2019 U.S. measles outbreak, which saw the most cases of measles since 1992 — but also for COVID-19 vaccination rates today and beyond.

"Healthy skepticism, I think, is a good thing, and every scientist should be skeptical," Bastiaan Rutjens, the lead author of the paper and assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam, told The Academic Times. "But what we mean is the more unhealthy aspect of this — science rejection, science denial — where people, without any good reason, just reject science generally or the domain of scientific inquiry."

Scholars and scientists alike have highlighted COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy as a major issue, saying that hesitancy might "obstruct the probability of success of future public vaccination campaigns against COVID-19," according to the study. In light of these concerns, understanding the root causes of science skepticism across countries and cultures is a quintessential first step in combating science rejection around the globe. 

The present study examined 24 countries, with an average of 249 people surveyed in each country. The final sample size was 5,973 people across all continents except Antarctica, with the researchers taking steps to optimize the sample's makeup for age, gender, education level and region.

Among the sampled countries were WEIRD nations, such as the U.S., U.K. and Canada, in addition to Latin American countries like Venezuela and Brazil. The sample also included European countries such as the Netherlands, France, Sweden and Germany, as well as Middle Eastern and North African nations such as Egypt, Morocco, Israel and Turkey. 

The researchers examined the effects of political conservatism, religiosity, spirituality and scientific literacy on science skepticism across a range of issues, including general faith in science, vaccine skepticism, genetic modification skepticism, evolution skepticism and climate change skepticism.

Religiosity was captured by simply asking participants if they considered themselves religious, and religious orthodoxy was captured by asking participants if they agree or disagree with two items: "Religion is the one thing that gives meaning to life in all its aspects," and "God has been defined for once and for all and therefore is immutable." Spirituality was measured by asking respondents if they considered themselves to be spiritual and if others considered them, the participant, to be a spiritual person.

Rutjens told The Academic Times that spirituality differs from both religiosity and religious orthodoxy in that spirituality is about a very individualized belief system that may contain different types of inputs from traditional religions, like Christianity, but oftentimes there's more input from Eastern spirituality, beliefs and philosophies, like Buddhism. Rutjens said that spirituality is an umbrella term that might include things like New Age beliefs, anthroposophical beliefs and neopaganism.

Consistent across almost all countries in the study, the most prominent finding was that higher spirituality was associated with lower faith in science; this negative relationship was significant in 20 countries, though the effect was stronger in WEIRD countries than non-WEIRD countries. Egypt, Morocco and Venezuela were the only countries where this effect was not observed.  

Additionally, vaccine skepticism was predicted by spirituality but not by religious orthodoxy. Religious orthodoxy, in turn, was significantly associated with evolution skepticism in almost all countries and negatively associated with faith in science in nine countries, including the U.K., Egypt, Morocco and the Netherlands. 

Climate change skepticism was predicted by political conservatism, and this effect was strongest in the United States and Canada. Increased scientific literacy was associated with less skepticism of genetic modification and vaccines, but not with decreased skepticism of climate change or evolution. 

Rutjens and his colleagues suggest these results indicate that spirituality, more so than religiosity, may be "the enemy of science acceptance." And while a lack of scientific literacy and knowledge may play a role in skepticism, it doesn't paint the full picture of science rejection, based on the data. 

"If you think about ways of making people a bit less skeptical about science," Rutjens said, "It is important to think about what type of science we're talking about — which domain [of] science we're talking about. And that it's not always the best idea to just pump people with more information. I mean, sometimes it helps. But in many cases, it's not going to cut it to give people more information."

Instead, identity-related concerns, ideology, worldview and moral beliefs play a role in why people reject certain types of science, which is not necessarily "something that we should blame people for," Rutjens said. 

"I think what we should try to do is to find a way in which we can communicate the science better to people with certain beliefs and worldviews," he said.

Rather than just increasing the amount of scientific information available, Rutjens said science skepticism should be combated by working with people and their worldviews, rather than against them, in order to reduce potential incompatibility between science and personal views, showing people that they can embrace science without having to give up their worldviews. 

"It's important to really carefully think about how to convey information to people, how to approach people with scientific information," he said. "Keeping in mind that you should, I think, try to work with people's ideology, ideological concerns or worldviews rather than going against it, because that's just going to backfire."

The study "Science skepticism across 24 countries," published April 28 in Social Psychology and Personality Science, was co-authored by Bastiaan T. Rutjens, University of Amsterdam; Nikhil Sengupta and Robbie M. Sutton, University of Kent; Romy van der Lee, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam; Guido M. van Koningsbruggen, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile; Jason P. Martens, Capilano University; and André Rabelo, Universidade de Brasília. 

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