Cosmologist Rocky Kolb began a public lecture last month with a slide amusingly titled "The View of Cosmology 1,000 Years Ago (and In Present-Day Kansas)". The joke, a reference to recent battles over teaching evolution in the state of Kansas, was telling. Many scientists today feel that they are confronted with an ever more religious and irrational public in the United States that reflexively rejects the views of scientists. But scientists tend to underestimate both the public receptivity to science and the battles that religious concerns may prompt in the years ahead.

It is true, of course, that the US population is far more religious than that of, say, western Europe, and this has created significant resistance to the acceptance of evolution in particular. Yet although a remarkably high percentage of Americans do not believe that humans evolved from earlier life forms — polls generally place the number at 40–50% — the figure has held relatively steady for at least a quarter of a century. Moreover, those statistics mask a number of attitudes that are far more favourable to science. For example, a 2006 poll conducted for a science organization asked who the respondents would be "interested in hearing from" about evolution, creationism and intelligent design. The two categories that ranked highest were scientists (77%) and science teachers (76%). Clergy ranked high, but 15 percentage points lower than scientists; and only half as many people were "very interested" in hearing from clergy compared with scientists.

Even the nature of the intelligent-design crusade reflects the high stature of scientists. Intelligent-design advocates try to sell their wares as science rather than religion partly as a legal gambit; the Supreme Court has ruled that religion cannot be taught in US public schools. But intelligent design is also framed as science because its purveyors know that science and scientists are held in high esteem and epitomize modern, forward-looking, hopeful aspects of US society.

More generally, the United States is probably becoming less religious, not more so. A new study by the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life found that 16% of Americans say that they are not part of any organized faith — a record high, although the study noted that the number includes many individuals who believe in God or are agnostic. Also, most Americans do not belong to religions that have any doctrinal quarrel with evolution. Some opposition to evolution is due as much to religious ignorance as scientific; most surveys find that Americans are not especially adept at answering specific questions about the Bible or theology.

The point here is not that there's nothing for scientists to worry about or that they should cease their efforts to teach evolution. But it is important for scientists to understand that they do not face a public inherently hostile to science (even among the relatively small percentage who are fundamentalists), and that public attitudes towards both science and religion are complicated and often contradictory. It's not even clear what most people mean when they say they don't believe that humans have evolved. Is this detail a matter of some concern to them, or is this just a casual way to say that they viscerally reject the notion of a random Universe? Evolution is largely a symbolic issue to the public, and may be a poor measure of how religious attitudes affect the reception of science more generally.

Recognizing the complexity of public attitudes, a number of scientists and other scholars are trying to develop language to discuss evolution in ways that might build bridges to the religious. These efforts were the subject of a well-attended panel I moderated at last month's annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, Massachusetts. Some panellists, in effect, advocated co-opting the language of religion. For example, Kenneth Miller of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, the author of a leading textbook on evolution and a practising Catholic, talked about embracing the notion of life having a design, but explaining it as the result and embodiment of evolution. Others, such as Matthew Nisbet, a communications scholar at American University in Washington DC who organized the panel, suggested moving the discussion away from scientific theory and talking about the medical and other benefits that have resulted from understanding evolution.

No doubt all these approaches are worth trying, and the general message of the panel — that scientists should address the public with respect rather than contempt — is well taken. But the panel failed to grapple with two important facets of the way science and religious attitudes intersect.

First, battles over science in general, and evolution in particular, tend not to reflect concerns about science, but about society more generally. Ever since Darwin there has been a small corps of people interested in attacking evolution, but noteworthy public crusades arise only periodically. They erupt most intensely at times when the culture is changing in ways that many find confusing and disconcerting — the Roaring '20s, the 1960s and today. Scientists must continue to carry out their educational mission, but evolution will disappear from the headlines only when the whole constellation of social issues that animate the religious right recedes from public concern.

Second, the panellists tiptoed around the fact that scientific discovery can genuinely undermine religious beliefs. The focus of the panel was on teaching evolution, but discoveries in genetics and neuroscience are likely to be far more problematic in the long run. The two fields are verging on drawing the ultimate materialist picture of human nature — humans as nothing more than proteins and electrical impulses, all machine and no ghost, to play off Descartes' formulation. This view will challenge not only fundamentalist views about the soul, but more widely held notions about what it means to be a person. That will further complicate age-old questions about the nature of individual responsibility and morality.

Responding to these issues will be difficult for scientists and non-scientists alike. New discoveries about the human genome and neuroscience will no doubt be clearly linked to potential medical advances, but they may also raise new questions about what kinds of interventions are appropriate. The conundrums may leave even atheists longing for some theological guidance on how to decide what is moral. And wandering about this uncharted territory may make the well-rehearsed battles over evolution seem like the good old days.