Another study supposedly proving science/faith harmony

May 29, 2011 • 6:10 am

Well, all it really does is show that a lot of students think that science and faith are compatible, but since this paper, by Christopher P. Scheitle of Penn State, is being touted as evidence for accommodationism, we’d best have a quick look.

You may remember Scheitle: he collaborated with Elaine Ecklund on the Templeton-funded study supposedly showing that scientists were surprisingly religious; the two of them published a preliminary paper on this work in 2007. Now Scheitle has struck out on his own, banging the same old accommodationist drum—and on the same old dime.

Briefly, Scheitle analyzes data collected from 112,232 entering students at 236 American colleges.  These students were surveyed for their views on religion and spirituality.  The sample was whittled down to 10, 810 students in nine fields of study, ranging from business to biology. These students were asked various questions, but Scheitle concentrates on one:

The SHEP survey instrument included over 160 items measuring students’ views and behaviors concerning religion and spirituality. Among these was an item that asked, “for me, the relationship between science and religion is one of . . .” Possible responses were 1) conflict . . . I consider myself to be on the side of religion; 2) conflict . . . I consider myself to be on the side of science; 3) independence . . . they refer to different aspects of reality; or 4) collaboration . . . each can be used to help support the other. This question was asked of students in both waves of the survey, providing the opportunity to not only assess their view of this relationship and factors associated with that view, but also if and how their views changed during their college years.

Although 3) and 4) (“independence” and “collaboration” respectively) are different views, for reasons best known to himself Scheitle lumps them together as a single statistic: “independence or collaboration.”  I see no valid reason to conflate these views, for they represented separate items on the survey.  My guess is that this enabled the author to combine them as accommodationist views, allowing this larger statistic to be opposed to “conflict/side with religion” or “conflict/side with faith.”

There are only a few salient results:

  • Of the entering freshmen, 17% fell  into the “conflict/side with religion” category, 14% in the “conflict/side with science” category, and 69% in the “independence or collaboration” category. (Again, it seems sleazy not to separate these out.)
  • Among fields of study, students in business and education had the strongest view of conflict in general (38.9% and 41.5% respectively).  Both of these sided with religion: 23.4% of the business people and, surprisingly 35.6% of the education people, so that only 5.9% of education majors fell into the “conflict/side with science” class.  Everyone else hovered around 25-30% for the “conflict” view, though among the 29.7% of natural science majors seeing conflict, fully 20.3% sided with science.  Unsurprisingly, then, natural science students were the friendliest to science, but were about average in seeing a conflict.
  • Students at schools affiliated with a religion were, surprisingly, “less likely to hold a pro-religion conflict perspective.”  Scheitle does not add, though, that they’re no more likely to hold a pro-science conflict perspective. He offers several explanations, including the fact that religious students at secular schools feel “more threatened or under attack by science and are therefore are more likely to take on a defensive, pro-religion conflict explanation” (I call this The Mooney Hypothesis).  An alternative is that students at religious schools may be exposed more often to the “independence or collaboration” perspective.
  • Finally, the survey looked at the view of the same students during their junior year, two years later.  Some of their views changed, and how they changed is shown in the table below (click to enlarge):

You read each of the three columns (corresponding to each of the three views held by freshmen) down, so that, for example, the first column represents all those who held a “conflict/side with religion” view in their freshman year.  Of these, only 27.4% retained that view as juniors, 1.8% moved to the “conflict/side with science” class, and fully 70.8% had moved into the “independence or collaboration” category. In other words, they’d moved from being “religionists” to being “accommodationists”—if you consider that last category to represent accommodationism.  Of those initially siding with science in the conflict view, less than 1% moved over to the “conflict/side with religion” view, but nearly 46% became accommodationists.  And among freshman accommodationists, 87% remained so as juniors.

What does Scheitle conclude?  That the “conflict narrative” between science and faith isn’t borne out by the survey:

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.

He does, however, find it “disconcerting” that science students still retain a “conflict/side with science” perspective while educators often hold a “conflict/side with religion” perspective.  He concludes: “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.”

Indeed.  This survey is not egregious on the face of it, though I can’t understand why Scheitle didn’t separate the “independence” answers from the “collaboration” answers. Would that have somehow made the data look less congenial?  It’s hard to know.  My main reaction is not one of surprise: of course many people see science and faith as not in conflict—particularly if they’re religious or faitheist, and don’t want to be seen as Luddites.  And I’m not sure why so many students became accommodationists in their first two years in college.

But I’m not moved by these data to conclude that science and faith are not in conflict.  Surveys of people’s opinions don’t change the fundamental philosophical and methodological conflict between faith and science.

But this survey wasn’t designed to settle that issue. Nevertheless, we will see people using it to push accommodationism.  One of them has already crept from the woodwork: Matt Rossano, a psychology professor at Southeastern Louisiana University.  (We previously encountered Rossano’s fuzzy-minded accommodationism when he tried to show that science and Jesus’s resurrection were compatible). Now, at PuffHo, Rossano touts Scheitle’s results as a triumph for those seeking common ground between science and faith.

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.

Rossano has it completely wrong here.  Those of us who favor the “conflict” scenario have little to gain, personally, from taking this stand.  It’s certainly not “crass opportunism.”  I want to keep my science pure and unpolluted by woo, and to help purge the world of the evils of faith.  On the other side, religious people who promote the “conflict scenario” do so because they see science as a threat to important personal beliefs.  What they have to “gain” is simply peace of mind—misguided though they may be.  But I sympathize more with these folks than with Rossano, whose sympathy with faith has led him to take some remarkably stupid stands.

Oh, and did you guess who funded Scheitle’s work?  It’s hardly a surprise.  Here’s part of the acknowledgments:

The UCLA project, which is housed at UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, is supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this article of those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.

And here’s the dosh: a lot!:

Spirituality in Higher Education: a National Study of College Students’ Search for Meaning and Purpose“.

$2,121,775.  Start Date: December 2002; End Date:  February 2006

This is a different grant from the one that supported Ecklund and Scheitle’s earlier work. Templeton’s sticky fingers are everywhere.


Scheitle, C. P.  2011.  U. S. College Students’ perception of religion and science: Conflict, collaboration, or independence? A research note.  J. Scientific Study of Religion 50:175-186. DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2010.01558.x

35 thoughts on “Another study supposedly proving science/faith harmony

  1. Ask for a copy of the raw data (names removed if neccessary) and the survey design. I’m sure that many people (including me) would be willing to re-analyse the data.

    Of course they may find some excuse to refuse access – so we can then draw our own conclusions.

    It would be interesting to repeat the data collection and analysis in other countries…

  2. Wait. I’m confused.

    Yes, it’s important to understand what’s going on in the minds of students. Very important.

    But to turn it around and cite these barely-legal teens as philosophical authorities?

    Um…bourbon ballroom dancing from two hemispheres?

    What’s next — a survey of preschoolers on the true nature of the post-transubstantiated cookies-and-grapejuice snack based on their own analysis of their dirty diapers?

    And of what importance is public opinion on the matter, anyway? Would Templeton fund (and expect us to not ridicule) a survey to determine the compatibility of the Standard Model and a Higgs mass above 1.4 TeV? What about the compatibility of Marxism with free enterprise? Serialism and aleatoricism?



    1. Indeed. I wonder what other questions of fact can be settled by conducting surveys of people whose opinions are not sullied by education or experience.

      Credit where credit is due. This is a definite step up from asking grade school children about scientific theories, Kent Hovind’s favored means of determining truth. So, you know, there’s that.

      1. Thinking back, I recall being very pro-Veronica as a Freshman, but changed to pro-Betty as a Junior.

        Although, I was pro-Mary Ann throughout my college years I would have accommodated Ginger in a pinch on, say, a desert island.

  3. “The (Lack Of) Conflict Between Science and Religion in College Students”

    Well who gives a damn? We don’t measure truth by polling college students, do we? Public perception is the most common type of evidence available cited by accommodationists.

    Reminds me of that skit by Dara O’Briain:

    “Zombie are at an all-time low level, but the FEAR of zombies could be incredibly high!”

  4. The conflation of ‘independence’ and ‘collaboration’ into one single answer is typical of Templeton surveys. It means that, for instance, someone with Steven Jay Gould’s views (a supporter or NOMA would be mixed in with someone like Michael Behe (someone who claims that science supports his religious views).
    The author really pushes for the idea that the ideal situation is one of zero conflict. If, however, you look at their results the implications are clear and none too pleasant for the future of US science education – if you want to minimize the level of conflict between religion and science then you should move towards the religious college model.
    Turn all current colleges of higher eduction into versions of Liberty University!

  5. Er… IIRC, the same sort of poll in the US would also prove the existence of an immaterial soul and a meddling deity. We as a species believe all sorts of weird and wonderful things. Thankfully, what we believe has no bearing on what’s actually true.

  6. All this shows is that many people will gravitate towards a perceived middle position rather than a perceived extreme position.

    1. That’s what I thought also: college students are being exposed to a wider range of opinions, and shifting towards the center.

      Dawkins’s Law of Adversarial Debate: When two incompatible beliefs are advocated with equal intensity, the truth does not necessarily lie half way between them. Sometimes one side is wrong.

      The absurd cultural prohibition against criticizing anyone’s ‘path of faith’ is probably behind it as well — as is the position that everyone has their “own truths” and its not for us to judge.

      1. “When two incompatible beliefs are advocated with equal intensity, the truth does not necessarily lie half way between them. Sometimes one side is wrong.”

        I refuse to give Dawkins credit for that.

        the fallacy of the golden mean was around long before Dawkins.

  7. “Both of these sided with religion: 23.4% of the business people and, surprisingly 35.6% of the education people…”

    I wouldn’t be too surprised about the education people. The fundy strategy has always been (since I was in secondary education in the 70s) to take over the education system from the ground up, as opposed to the top down (which they’ve also been trying to do, but have been failing miserably at).

    When I was certifying to teach secondary science (USC Pueblo CO, 1987) a full 50% of my class of ~120 in the education classes they make you take were full-on creationists (as revealed by a show of hands before and after a structured debate). No one switched sides because of the argumentation. This wasn’t fuzzy accomodationism/NOMA or nuanced intelligent design argumentation, but full-on boneheaded creationism… 50%. Very few claimed not to know whom to side with. (there were no science majors in the dipshit camp, BTW).

    Given that creationists and IDers (same diff) have expressed their desire to take over the school system, and given that actually MAJORING in education is one of the easiest, breeziest ways (like Communication and Business) to get out of college with a diploma, I am actually pleasantly surprised that ONLY 35% are full-on religiots.

  8. How the hell can Matt Rossano claim that non-accommodationism is motivated by personal gain when the fucking Templeton Foundation is handing out money left and right to anyone willing to make accommodationist claims?! It boggles the mind! Clearly, all sides have their own self-respect to gain (or hold on to, rather) by arguing for the positions they sincerely believe. But only accommodationism, so far as I know, is actually paid for by others.

    And I have to say, the numbers of educators siding with religion is quite scary.

    1. Rossano’s view that accomodationists are not motivated by personal gain probably has something to do with the popular assumption that religious moderates are spiritually evolved and thus unlikely to be motivated by personal gain.

      There will soon be a Templeton-funded study attempting to test this hypothesis by surveying religious moderates and seeing what they report.

  9. “Surveys of people’s opinions don’t change the fundamental philosophical and methodological conflict between faith and science.”


    Rossano: “Crass opportunism could be afoot just as easily as sincere disagreement.”

    It’s not difficult to pick out the opportunist, especially when we know Scheitle’s the recipient of Templeton’s $2,121,775.

  10. How well does a survey of “conflict” between Astronomy and Astrology do?

    I have confidence that most people cannot imagine the fundamental relationship between gravity, mass, and the distance between objects, to know that that glass of water at bedside has more “gravitational” effect on you than the position of Jupiter. Yet banter about astrological “life” continues in newspaper charts and personal conversations.

    These types of studies are only valuable in demonstrating how answers can be created by a certain technique of asking the question, and by the background context (i.e., a sit-down essay, or a clipboard survey of passing students).

  11. I’m still trying to figure out why a questionnaire on what students think is evidence for anything other than what students think.

    Students, however smart many of them are, are often through no fault of their own inexperienced and naive. Their opinions are just that, and moreover are quite likely to change perhaps even quite dramatically in the next 10 years of their lives.

    Also, the fact that some of them appear to have learned to make accommodationist-sounding noises at college is not evidence that this is either a desirable outcome, let alone something that ought to be actively promoted.

    Still, if someone offered me two million dollars, who knows what I what write?

  12. When you said “among the 29.7% of natural science majors seeing conflict, fully 20.3% sided with science”, could you really have meant “among the 29.7% of natural science majors seeing conflict, fully 68% (20.3/29.7) sided with science” ?

  13. Slightly OT for this post, but on-topic for WEIT, and I just have to share.

    I stumbled on this news report from SBC (Aus) about a schism in the John Frum Movement on Vanuatu. (Hope this link works.)

    Just ignore the ethnocentric bemusement of the reporters. Tanna in Vanuatu is currently experiencing schisms and violence over the question of whether John Frum is literally a US Naval Officer who will reward them with cargo if they preserve kastom, or if John Frum is best understand as a pure spirit being who is the ground of all kastom, and whose worship is perfectly compatible with growing knowledge of the world outside Vanuatu.

    The parallels are uncanny, if not surprising.

    1. If that link doesn’t work the first time, try refreshing. I think all the links in Australia are upside-down.

  14. Jerry Coyne would be just the guy to design a study that would settle the matter once and for all.

    Bottom line for me is that no matter what the evidence shows, I will NEVER be a softie fatheist when it comes to religion.

  15. This is like a course I took once called, “How to Lie With Statistics,” and to use students only makes it a non sequitur.

  16. funny, all I got out of this paper was that most college students haven’t really bothered to think much about conflicting epistemologies before, because they didn’t have any reason to.

    That would have been me, answering those survey questions the same way when I was a college student.

    now if they had asked me those same questions when I was a GRAD student…

    1. bottom line:

      people go to college to learn things. You don’t learn about epistemology conflicts in fucking high school, so college students are as ignorant about these issues, by and large, as most of the general public.

      The only interesting question that even could be addressed by this study would be:

      Is there any significant difference in understanding of religion vs science between college students and non college students.

      there might even be some difference, but I doubt it would reach significance.

      Like I say, ask a college student who actually has a degree in science, or even one that has completed a religious history degree, or even a degree in philosophy, for that matter.

      1. There have been other studies which showed that students tend to become more accepting of some woo and faith. I know that I was exposed to some weirdo stuff in University which I’d never encountered before but I just didn’t have the time to really investigate it or think it through. Religion was definitely one of those things.

      2. Ichthyc said:
        “The only interesting question that even could be addressed by this study would be:

        Is there any significant difference in understanding of religion vs science between college students and non college students.”

        The study covered in the “Exhibit B” post did a comparison between college students and the general public (they looked at a slightly different question but I think their answer is informative here also).
        The answer they got was that the general university population is similar to the population at large. The natural science students, however, react to science in a different way.
        I suspect it is all down to experience – the natural science students know their stuff and so are not so easily swayed by someone who claims to be a scientist (the general population, however ARE swayed when someone like Michael Behe is presented as a professor of science.)

  17. And I’m not sure why so many students became accommodationists in their first two years in college.

    because, if experience means anything, most college students when I was there were interested in avoiding conflict, and taking the accomodationist position is the best way to do so. It doesn’t resolve any issues, but neither does it raise them with most other students.

    Resolving actual logical conflicts with these issues tends to wait until one is established OUTSIDE of college.

  18. In re. that last quoted segment from Huff re. justification of being wary of the polar views 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.

    Of course the creationaries have all to lose in not promoting their idiocy, but are these clowns actually insinuating that Jerry et al have something to gain in promoting evolution?

    The ONLY reason WEIT exists is because of the Hams and Behes of the world, and I have little doubt that the Jerry’s return (sliced either straight or on effort) pales in comparison to the $2.12M from the Vichy water contract.

  19. Okay, so, it’s good that they were able to track how specific students views changed from freshman to junior year, and it was somewhat enlightening to see that… but what I cannot find in the paper is simply the raw number for how the students’ views break down in their junior year. The reason I think this is important is that, given the time in these students’ lives we are talking about, we can figure that a high proportion of the change is just “churn”, i.e. it doesn’t really mean that much. Students’ views just fluctuate. There will surely be some trends, but… how did it shake out in the end?

    Well, I did the math to reconstruct it, and here’s what I came up with for the juniors:

    Conflict/side with religion: 9.6% (was 17%)
    Conflict/side with science: 13.1% (was 14%)
    Cheap-o lumped two brands of accomodation together category: 78.4% (was 69%)

    What is clear here — and what the presentation of the data in the paper obscured — is that while individual students’ views shuffled around a bit, the number holding the “conflict/science” view stayed approximately constant. The increase in accomodationist views was purely due to a shift from the “conflict/religion” view.

    There’s a fairly obvious explanation for this: Students who see a conflict are able to maintain that view as they become more educated only if they side with science. Another way of putting it: A couple years of university education teaches 90% of students that if religion and science conflict, religion will lose.

    In light of that, as well as demographic numbers on religiosity in the US, one could even go out on a limb a little bit and say this shows that the primary motivation for adopting the accomodationist position is a realization that science is the only effective way of discerning the truth.

  20. Actually, didn’t I read somewhere that undergraduates also have a shocking tendency towards “well that’s just your opinion”-ism that most lecturers are desperate to kick out of them? It’s almost like Templeton selected a population that would guarantee a positive result but I mean, no one would be that underhanded would they?

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