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Science and Religion Among College Students?

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.


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