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!:
$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