Most College Undergrads Question Science-Religion Conflict

By Chris Mooney | June 10, 2011 2:06 pm

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Religion

Comments (15)

  1. This is just a natural difference between first-generation and second-generation atheists. Just like feminists, or LGBT activists, or civil rights activists… the first generation has to fight aggressively in order to change the world in a way in which the second generation can be more relaxed about it. The first generation paves the way, and the only way to do that is by being very vocal, confrontational and aggressive. The next generation can then take some of the changes as given, and move forward in a more ‘gentle’ manner.

  2. Vebyast

    My guess, personally, is that the study didn’t differentiate between religious belief and religious organizations. I (and most of my friends) have no problem with religious belief, but (as some of the blogs here point out on a regular basis) religious organizations often have issues with science.

  3. Much as a figure such as 35% see no conflict might lead one to think “Oh no – 35% think that psuedo-science is real” – I imagine many people just see science and religion are such completely different subjects there isn’t enough similarity to create a conflict. The scientists I know who also believe in God see their belief as something they choose for their spiritual life because they can’t prove God exists and they can’t prove God doesn’t exist, so there is no conflict in their scientific work and their spiritual life. One can believe in a higher power without believing the dogma that plagues all organized religions.

    As for the religious stories about “Creation” and all that, most people I know – and hopefully most of the 35% would know – trying to scientifically prove a metaphor from a religious text is about as productive as scientifically trying to prove Aesop’s Fables or Grimm’s Fairy Tales as scientific reality. I still hold out hope that Creationists are by far the minority – albeit an annoyingly loud minority.

  4. Anthony


    I agree with your first paragraph completly, it describing my feelings on the subject very well.

    Your second paragraph, I beleive, starts down slippery slope. Stating which parts of religious text are false vs accurate history seems just as folly as pitting science against religion. One cannot possibly prove the reality of themselves to the other.

  5. Science only applies to religion, NOT religion to science.

  6. 1985

    The major conclusion from this study is that if only 20% of the natural science students answer “Conflict: I side with science”, then the system has miserably failed at educating the other 80% :(

  7. Re: the secularizing effects of higher education, I suspect they’re there, but they’re mostly seen when students come in with science-incompatible versions of religion. If you’re a fundamentalist and you go to a college other than one that’s designed to promote the fundamentalist point of view (e.g. Liberty University), you probably learn that your views are untenable. I’ve seen some students who became atheists as a result. On the other hand, if you come in with a liberal religious tradition, you’re not going to find that you have to reject it in order to make sense of everything you’re learning, so your religion doesn’t really need to be modified that much.

  8. James

    Well my wife is both a teacher and an atheist. But then I live in the UK, where science is considered to be far more important, than religious beliefs.

    Over here, evolution is just recognised fact.

  9. TB

    Re: secularizing effects. According to the study, Those who see conflict – whether religion or science – are most likely to change to the independent or collaborative opinion by the time they’re a junior. (Page 8). I wonder how much the desire and teachings to avoid conflict weigh on that?

  10. TB

    And when I say “most likely”, I mean if they change, they are most likely to change to …

  11. Ian

    @2, Quite true, but I would also emphasize that not all religious organisations have a problem with science. Indeed the history of science reveals a connection between some types of religious thought (and philosophy) and the success of science.

  12. sciencelover

    It’s not a problem whether someone is an atheist or a believer. It is a problem when someone does not support science (including evolution, of course).

    The problem is that many atheists use (often distorting) science as an indoctrinating tool for their atheism. Then, they are shocked when science loses support. Richard Dawkins is an example.

    You see it here in Discover. For example, the (very bright) Razib Khan has an (amazing) blog about evolutionary science but he usually speaks about atheism or links one of her old entries about atheism.

    This is good and dandy but it would be better for him to have a blog about atheism, instead of including his ideology in a web about science.

    Then, people are amazed that science can be such a divisive issue.

  13. 1985

    @ sciencelover @ 12:

    Proper scientific reasoning inevitably leads to atheism because faith is absolutely epistemologically incompatible with science. That’s a fact and nobody who tells you that “science and religion are compatible because there are X number of practicing scientists who are religious” is actually addressing that – the practicing scientists in question are simply not applying scientific reasoning to their religious beliefs, that’s why they somehow manage to keep them (which also happens to mean that those are some very poor scientists who shouldn’t be calling themselves so, but that’s a different conversation).

    There is nothing wrong with pointing this out. It may be a bad strategy in the short run because of flawed legislation (while it is true that it has been used to keep creationism out of schools, in reality the First Amendment is no friend to the cause, because it also prevents any serious attempt to relegate religion to its rightful place in society where it will have no influence on anything that matters; unfortunately few people realize that or dare to go there), but in the long terms it is an even worse strategy to deny it.

  14. TB

    “Proper scientific reasoning inevitably leads to atheism because faith is absolutely epistemologically incompatible with science.”
    Sorry, can you show me the peer-reviewed scientific papers that prove this? Or are you citing the “say it enough times and it’ll be true” camp?

  15. 1985

    Do you need peer-reviewed scientific papers to show that 2+2 != 5?


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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