Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins have dramatically different roles when it comes to science. One is a science popularizer and extremely anti-religious while one runs the $30 billion National Institute of Health and is a religious believer, but also writes popular science editorials and uses Twitter.

Which one would you guess most people can name?

A team of sociologists wanted to see which of those two did more to sway the public about the nature of science and religion and which was better known. They found what you might expect, that if they were inclined to say religion must be anti-science, Dawkins did not change any minds. But knowing that Collins was a religious person changed minds about  a collaborative view of religion and science. In either case, Dawkins, more famous as an atheist than as a scientists, was much better known than the person guiding health studies for the world leader in science output.

Elaine Howard Ecklund, the Herbert S. Autrey Professor of Sociology at Rice University and director of Rice's Religion and Public Life Program, said that the findings might be explained by what is likely a "significant difference in the perceived credibility of Dawkins and Collins." 

Collins helps religion by not making religion an issue while Dawkins seems less scientific because he talks about religion too much. 

"Dawkins has been a very vocal and aggressive supporter of the idea that religion inherently clashes with science and that science inherently undermines religion," Ecklund and colleagues write in a new paper. "On the other hand, Collins has presented himself as evidence that religion and science can not only coexist but that they can even enlighten each other's claims." Each has published best-selling books, given many interviews and participated in debates on their respective views of the science-religion relationship.

"While Dawkins and Collins might both be perceived as having the credentials to make them an expert, research has shown that the U.S. public is generally distrustful of atheists and views them more negatively than most other ethnic, religious and minority groups," said Christopher Scheitle, an assistant professor of sociology at West Virginia University and the paper’s lead author. "On the other hand, religious individuals are often perceived as more trustworthy, especially as viewed by other religious individuals."

The team used a survey of over 10,000 Americans. Part of the survey asked individuals if they had previously heard of either Dawkins or Collins. The survey revealed that Dawkins was more widely known among the 10,000 survey participants than Collins (21.4 percent recognition versus 4.3 percent recognition).

Some of the participants who said they were unfamiliar with Collins were provided a biographical description highlighting his views on the religion-science relationship. This group of survey respondents was 15 percent more likely to agree that religion and science can coexist after reading about Collins. In contrast, participants who said they were unfamiliar with Dawkins and read about his life and views appeared to be completely unaffected and reported no change in their individual viewpoints.

Ecklund noted that previous research shows that people are more likely to listen and accept what a public figure is saying if they see themselves as similar to that figure.

"Given that there are more people in the U.S. population (and hence in our data) who would identify as a Christian than atheist, Collins is likely to have more impact with that audience," Ecklund said.

 "The Influence of Science Popularizers on the Public's View of Religion and Science: An Experimental Assessment" upcoming in Public Understanding of Science.