The Sciences

Most College Undergrads Question Science-Religion Conflict

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJun 10, 2011 6:06 PM


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I've just been made aware of this intriguing study by Christopher P. Scheitle, in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Looking at a survey of the religious and spiritual views of a very large sample of university students, Sheitle finds, surprisingly, that science-religion-conflict views (whether pro-science or pro-religion) are not predominant. Rather, they're a minority (31 % overall), with science religion "independence" or "collaboration" views more prominent (69 % overall). However, the conflict perspective was strongest in two areas. Among those studying natural sciences, engineering, or mathematics, the "conflict: I side with science" perspective was above 20 percent. Among those studying education, meanwhile, the "conflict: I side with religion" perspective was over 35 percent (!). Here is the conclusion of the study:

The predominant narrative surrounding the religion and science relationship has been driven by the assumption that these institutions are engaged in an unavoidable conflict resulting from their contradictory claims to truth (Evans and Evans 2008). However, the analysis conducted above found that most undergraduates, regardless of their area of study or even their religiosity, do not hold a conflict perspective. Furthermore, many more students move away from a conflict perspective to an independence/collaboration perspective than vice versa. This finding might be especially surprising since many people, especially religious families, assume that higher education has a secularizing influence on students (Smith and Snell 2009:248), which might be expected to increase perceptions of a conflict. Despite its seeming predominance, the conflict model of understanding religion and science issues does not seem to have much support within the undergraduate population. Ecklund and Park (2009) made a similar conclusion in their analysis of the views of academic scientists. Still, some of the patterns seen in the analysis above might be disconcerting for those looking to move beyond the public battles for power between religion and science. The finding that scientists and engineers are among the most likely to have a pro-science conflict perspective could mean that some of the most influential voices in these public debates might be more likely to fuel the debates than attenuate them. Similarly, future educators are among the most likely to hold a pro-religion conflict perspective. Given that classrooms and school boards have been one of the central forums for the struggle over religion and science, this does not bode well for a reduction of those struggles.

Full study here. I am sometimes asked why there aren't more young people who are interested in freethought, skepticism, and so forth--especially since millennials, we know, are highly secular. But insofar as the skeptic/freethinker/atheist movements are wedded to "conflict," I think this study may suggest part of the answer.

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