The Conditions of Legitimacy: Perceptions of Religion Among Elite Scientists in the United Kingdom

Master's Thesis


In keeping with the dominant literature on legitimacy, I find that scientists are interested in preserving the status quo authority relationship between religion and science. Science has enjoyed a comfortable position of authority in the UK for more than 100 years, and scientists are not eager to surrender that position. However, conflict narratives and narratives portraying science and religion as mutually exclusive are not adequate to describe the relationship between religion and science in the UK. Indeed, the status quo that scientists are interested in preserving is not one of conflict between religion and science, but rather one where religion occupies an utterly separate realm from science, does not directly challenge scientific claims, and benefits society in a variety of ways that science cannot. Respondents’ objection to fundamentalist or ‘extreme’ forms of religion stems from their perception of these religions as violating this norm and encroaching upon science.

These findings indicate the ways that shifts in the public presence of religion in a country may also lead to shifts in the boundaries between religion and science. Moreover, they indicate the multi-layered nature of legitimacy, as well as the multi-layered nature of both science and religion. Neither science nor religion can be analyzed as a monolithic whole. Rather, scientists themselves attach different meanings to different types of religious expression, belief, and practice, and legitimacy varies according to these different meanings. Meaning, in this sense, is not flat or static, but multivalent and highly contingent upon the context in which it is embedded. Scientists, rather than objective and removed, are subject to these contextual factors when sorting out the validity and propriety of the social forces at work around them.


Attribute NameValues
  • etd-12092013-123108

Author Katherine Sorrell
Advisor Christian Smith
Contributor Jessica Collett, Committee Member
Contributor Lyn Spillman, Committee Member
Contributor Christian Smith, Committee Chair
Degree Level Master's Thesis
Degree Discipline Sociology
Degree Name Master of Arts
Defense Date
  • 2013-10-04

Submission Date 2013-12-09
  • United States of America

  • science

  • religion

  • secularization

  • United Kingdom

  • University of Notre Dame

  • English

Record Visibility Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

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