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The (Lack Of) Conflict Between Science and Religion in College Students

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Media-hungry atheist, creationist and religious fundamentalist provocateurs have successfully dominated the science and religion narrative for the past decade or so. In doing so, they have created the false impression of an ongoing unavoidable war between the two camps. A recently published large-scale survey of college students, however, finds that the call to arms has fallen on deaf ears. For the vast majority of American university students, there simply is no conflict between science and religion.

Christopher Scheitle, a Penn State sociologist, analyzed survey data from more than 10,000 students at over 200 colleges and universities across America (Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 50, p. 175). The students were surveyed both as freshman and juniors so that attitudinal change over the course of their university years could be assessed. Among the many items on the survey was one that asked the following: "For me, the relationship between science and religion is one of..." Four possible responses were provided: (1) Conflict -- I consider myself to be on the side of science, (2) Conflict -- I consider myself to be on the side of religion, (3) Independence - science and religion refer to different aspects of reality and (4) Collaboration -- each can be used to support the other. Students were also asked about their religious beliefs and affiliations and their course of study (i.e. major).

Results showed that nearly 70 percent of college freshman saw the science/religion relationship as one of either independence or collaboration. The minority who saw science and religion in conflict were roughly evenly split between those who sided with religion (17 percent) and those who sided with science (14 percent). Even more interesting was the fact that when students changed their opinion over time, the most likely change was moving from a conflict position to one of non-conflict (either independence or collaboration). For example, 70 percent of those who as freshmen said they were on "religion's side" had changed to a non-conflict position by the time they were juniors. Similarly, 46 percent of freshmen who said they were on "science's side" had adopted a non-conflict position by the time they were juniors. By contrast, only 13 percent of freshman who took a non-conflict position changed to one of conflict by their junior year (5 percent to religion's side, 8 percent to the side of science). For most students, more education means less science/religion conflict, not more.

The above results also reflect the fact that the pro-science point of view appears to be more entrenched than the pro-religion point of view. In other words, once someone has adopted "science's side" in a perceived science and religion conflict, it is harder to move them from this position compared to when someone has adopted "religion's side." Exactly how to interpret this is unclear. Are religious people actually less dogmatic on the issue? Maybe. Maybe the evidence more clearly confirms the rightness of the "science" side and this is why fewer people switch. Then again, if the evidence so clearly supports the "science side" then why don't the majority of people see a conflict to begin with, and why do nearly half of the pro-science folks defect over time?

The apparent greater willingness of "religion side" students to re-examine their stance can also be seen in another interesting finding. Students at religious schools were actually less likely to claim to be on "religion's side" than students at secular schools. This pattern held true even after the results were adjusted for the students' degree of religious commitment and religious conservatism. The author suggests that students at religious schools may feel less threatened than equally religious students at a secular school and that the conflict narrative may be more salient at secular schools.

The breakdown of findings by major also showed some interesting trends. Business and education students were most likely to adopt a conflict approach, with nearly 40 percent doing so, most of whom claimed a pro-religion stance. The conflict approach was endorsed by just under 30 percent of natural science, math and engineering, social science, and arts and humanities students. However, while the majority of "conflict" students in natural science, math and engineering sided with science, the majority of arts, humanitie, and social science students sided with religion. While it is important to keep in mind that most students of all majors saw no conflict, this pattern across majors was somewhat troubling to the author:

"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" (p. 185).

A shrill alarm cry naturally attracts attention and the few extreme voices promoting a science and religion conflict have taken full advantage of this. Seeking common ground or respecting distinct domains are not sexy, but this is where the majority of educated people are when it comes to science and religion. As the author of this survey points out, the non-conflict position firmly established among college students is only a reflection of what has already been found for most working scientists.

The majority position is not always the right one. It is not always the wrong one either. But one is justified in being wary of those who promote conflict (whether in science and religion or in politics, society, etc.) when: (a) it not obvious to most people why the conflict is necessary and (b) those promoting it have something to gain by doing so. Crass opportunism could be afoot just as easily as sincere disagreement.

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