Religious beliefs and public attitudes toward nanotechnology in Europe and the United States

Article metrics


How do citizens make sense of nanotechnology as more applications reach the market and the mainstream media start to debate the potential risks and benefits of technology1? As with many other political and scientific issues, citizens rely on cognitive shortcuts or heuristics to make sense of issues for which they have low levels of knowledge2. These heuristics can include predispositional factors, such as ideological beliefs or value systems3, and also short-term frames of reference provided by the media or other sources of information4. Recent research suggests that ‘religious filters’ are an important heuristic for scientific issues in general5, and nanotechnology in particular6. A religious filter is more than a simple correlation between religiosity and attitudes toward science: it refers to a link between benefit perceptions and attitudes that varies depending on respondents' levels of religiosity. In surveys, seeing the benefits of nanotechnology is consistently linked to more positive attitudes about nanotechnology among less religious respondents, with this effect being significantly weaker for more religious respondents6. For this study, we have combined public opinion surveys in the United States with Eurobarometer surveys about public attitudes toward nanotechnology in Europe to compare the influence of religious beliefs on attitudes towards nanotechnology in the United States and Europe. Our results show that respondents in the United States were significantly less likely to agree that nanotechnology is morally acceptable than respondents in many European countries. These moral views correlated directly with aggregate levels of religiosity in each country, even after controlling for national research productivity and measures of science performance for high-school students.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Relationship between strength of religious beliefs and moral acceptance of nanotechnology.
Figure 2: Link between views on moral acceptability of nanotechnology and support for regulations.


  1. 1

    Feder, B. J. Technology's future: A look at the dark side. The New York Times, 17 May 2006, E4.

  2. 2

    Scheufele, D. A. Messages and heuristics: How audiences form attitudes about emerging technologies, in Engaging Science: Thoughts, Deeds, Analysis and Action (ed. Turney, J.) 20–25 (The Wellcome Trust, 2006).

  3. 3

    Kahan, D. M. et al. Biased assimilation, polarization and cultural credibility: An experimental study of nanotechnology risk perceptions, in Research Brief No. 3 (Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, 2008).

  4. 4

    Scheufele, D. A. & Lewenstein, B. V. The public and nanotechnology: How citizens make sense of emerging technologies. J. Nanopart. Res. 7, 659–667 (2005).

  5. 5

    Ho, S. S., Brossard, D. & Scheufele, D. A. Effects of value predispositions, mass media use, and knowledge on public attitudes toward embryonic stem cell research. Int. J. Public Opin. Res. 20, 171–192 (2008).

  6. 6

    Brossard, D., Scheufele, D. A., Kim, E. & Lewenstein, B. V. Religiosity as a perceptual filter: Examining processes of opinion formation about nanotechnology. Public Understanding of Science, available online at 〈〉 (2008).

  7. 7

    Scheufele, D. A. et al. Scientists worry about some risks more than the public. Nature Nanotech. 2, 732–734 (2007).

  8. 8

    Miller, J. D., Pardo, R. & Niwa, F. Public Perceptions of Science and Technology: A Comparative Study of the European Union, the United States, Japan and Canada (Chicago Academy of Sciences, 1997).

  9. 9

    Sjöberg, L. & Winroth, E. Risk, moral value of actions and mood. Scandinavian J. Psychol. 27, 191–208 (1986).

  10. 10

    Gaskell, G., Einsiedel, E., Hallman, W., Priest, S. H. & Olsthoorn, J. Social values and the governance of science. Science 310, 1908–1909 (2005).

  11. 11

    Khushf, G. An ethic for enhancing human performance through integrative technologies in Managing Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno Innovations: Converging Technologies in Society (eds Bainbridge, W. S. & Roco, M. C.) 255–278 (Springer, 2006).

  12. 12

    Roco, M. C. & Bainbridge, W. S. Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance (Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003).

  13. 13

    Pearson, T. D. The ethics of nanotechnology: A Lutheran reflection. J. Lutheran Ethics (2006).

  14. 14

    Inglehart, R. F. & Welzel, C. Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy: The Human Development Sequence (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005).

  15. 15

    Kohut, A., Wike, R. & Horowitz, J. M. World publics welcome global trade—but not immigration: 47-nation Pew Global Attitudes Survey. Available at, (2007).

  16. 16

    Inglehart, R. F. & Norris, P. Rising Tide: Gender Equality and Cultural Change around the World (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003).

  17. 17

    Lee, C. J., Scheufele, D. A. & Lewenstein, B. V. Public attitudes toward emerging technologies—examining the interactive effects of cognitions and affect on public attitudes toward nanotechnology. Sci. Commun. 27, 240–267 (2005).

  18. 18

    Brossard, D. & Nisbet, M. C. Deference to scientific authority among a low information public: Understanding US opinion on agricultural biotechnology. Int. J. Public Opin. Res. 19, 24–52 (2007).

  19. 19

    Lee, C. J. & Scheufele, D. A. The influence of knowledge and deference toward scientific authority: A media effects model for public attitudes toward nanotechnology. Journalism Mass Commun. 83, 819–834 (2006).

  20. 20

    Leiserowitz, A. A. American risk perceptions: Is climate change dangerous? Risk Anal. 25, 1433–1442 (2005).

  21. 21

    AAPOR, Standard Definitions: Final Dispositions of Case Codes and Outcome Rates for Surveys (American Association for Public Opinion Research, 2008).

  22. 22

    Hullmann, A. Who is winning the global nanorace? Nature Nanotech. 1, 81–83 (2006).

  23. 23

    Youtie, J., Shapira, P. & Porter, A. Nanotechnology publications and citations by leading countries and blocs. J. Nanopart. Res. 10, 981–986 (2008).

Download references


This material is based upon work supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (grant no. SES-0531194). We gratefully acknowledge E. Hillback, S. Dunwoody and students in the Media and Society Research Group at the University of Wisconsin—Madison for their intellectual contributions to this project.

Author information

D.A.S. and E.A.C. led the study design and data collections and took responsibility for planning and writing the manuscript. D.A.S., E.A.C. and T.S. analysed the data. T.S., K.E.D. and S.S.H. contributed at different stages of data collection, analysis and writing.

Correspondence to Dietram A. Scheufele.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 189 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Further reading