Why Students Become More Acccommodationist

What do college students think about science vs. religion?   Sociologist Christopher Scheitle looked at survey data of 10,810 US students (here), and found that 69% see no conflict in their freshman year.  Interestingly enough, the remainder tend to move toward a no-conflict perspective over time.  Here's the critical data --

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The table reads down, so it says that of all freshman who think religion and science conflict and side with religion,  27.4% still have that view by their junior year while an amazing 70.8% think there is no conflict--science and religion are either independent or collaborative.  Freshman who start off thinking science and religion conflict, and side with science, change their minds too, but less often.  53.2% still have that view by the time they are juniors, and 45.9% think there is no conflict.

What happens in college to shift students from the conflict view to a no-conflict view?  Why is there change in both groups, pro-religion and pro-science, but less change in the latter?  Interesting question.  The author doesn't try to explain, but thinks the data suggests college does not have a secularizing effect--
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.
Odd--because my first inclination is to think just the opposite.  No, the "conflict-I side with religion" students don't move all the way to the other extreme--"conflict-I side with science."  But why are they moving at all?  I should think the most likely explanation is that college has (precisely!) a secularizing effect.  The religious students are changing their minds about either the content of religion or the nature of religious truth.  Where at first they thought religion make straightforward claims like "God created the world in 6 days" (clearly in conflict with science), by their junior year they might think that's a metaphor, or that God is goodness, or that they have faith without dogma...or some such. As a result, religion no longer seems so clearly in conflict with science.  

The shift in attitudes among those who start with "conflict-I side with science" might be explained similarly.  Their stereotype of religion, as freshman, gradually changes as they encounter religions students with less literal, more nebulous beliefs.  Why, then, do they shift to the "no conflict" view in smaller numbers?  Because for some, religion means the old time religion.  They don't have the same motivation to allow their understanding of religion to evolve--since it's something they happily reject.

Yes, it's all speculative--and just based on my discussions with students about religion over the years, but I think this makes more sense than Scheitle's reading--that no "secularizing" is revealed by the data.  An even more implausible story is told by Matt Rossano, in this HuffPo editorial.  He thinks the greater amount of change among the "conflict-I side with religion" students shows they are less dogmatic on the whole issue of science-religion conflict.  But no--if the religious students are more in flux about religion, it stands to reason that they're going to be more in flux about science-religion conflict.

Scheitle's survey data must reveal whether I'm right or wrong--we would just need to compare the 27% of students who stick with "conflict - I side with religion" to the 70% who shift.  Do they differ in their religious beliefs? My bet is they do--but of course it's just a bet.  More speculation: possibly another factor is all the stress on interdisciplinariness and "ways of knowing" on college campus.  There's also all the diversity training.  The "no conflict" view has lots of interpersonal advantages.  In any case, the data is surprising and interesting.


Aeolus said...

Apparently there's no conflict between the Jesus story (religion) and motorcycles (science):

What does this video indicate? Does it tell us that the religious impulse will always reinvent itself, or is it doing what the New Atheists can only dream of: draining religion of all meaning?

"But in the cultural sense
I just speak in future tense..."
44 million views and counting.

s. wallerstein said...

I haven't looked at the data, but often, people at freshman age, 18, see things in black and white, us and them, our team or their team, terms. Between 18 and 22 there is a very rapid intellectual maduration and kids at 21 or 22 begin to see nuances, for example, that there are religons and religions, ranging from fundamentalist Islam to Zen Buddhism and Reform Judaism, etc.

At age 18 I for one saw the world in terms of radical opposites and I would have had my intellectual adversities shot by a firing squad. By age 22 I simply would have exiled them to Siberia.

Most of my classmates went through the same process.

Faust said...

@Aeolus: Golden calf.

Vanity of vanities. All is Vanity.