A perceived conflict between science and religion has led Americans to rank nearly last among industrialized countries in understanding evolution, educators told a major science conference this weekend.
But research suggests that education changes anti-science attitudes among even the most religious of students, while history shows that science can thrive alongside religion, said Kenneth Miller of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
"Evolution is exhibit A on the cutting edge of the anti-science movement in the U.S.," Miller told a symposium of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
He said the United States placed second to last — just before Turkey — in a recent survey in 33 countries of how well people understood evolution.
Widespread rejection in America of climate science, and denial of climate change is linked with the "street fight" over evolution, speakers told an audience of mostly American scientists and educators.
But Miller said the stereotype that "rational science is at war with irrational faith" is wrong.
He said popular American culture and religious speakers promote a literal interpretation of the Bible, as well as the idea that morality would not exist without religion.
Research shows the perception of religion and science by undergraduate college students who take science courses, even among religious fundamentalists, changes over the years.
"As juniors, they see a conflict between religion and science, and take the religious side," said Miller. "By their senior year, 79 percent said they don't see a conflict, but a collaboration model instead."
"These students changed their attitudes and (came to) regard religion and science as being able to exist side by side."
Miller said he tells his students that some of the most significant scientific breakthroughs were made by religious people, including Augustinian friar Gregor Johann Mendel, the Austrian scientist considered the father of genetics, and Catholic Belgian priest and physicist Georges Lemaitre, whose mathematic models are the basis for the "Big Bang" theory of the origin of the universe.
"Effective education can increase the acceptance of science, but not by bashing religion," he added.
The five-day AAAS annual meeting, one of the world's largest scientific gatherings, wraps up Monday in this western Canadian city.