Conflict or Not? (RJS)

Matt J. Rossano posted a column recently at the Huffington Post: The (Lack Of) Conflict Between Science and Religion in College Students. This was later reposted at BioLogos. Dr. Rossano is a professor of psychology at Southeastern Louisiana University specializing in evolutionary psychology, especially religion and science and the evolution of religion. He has published both a general textbook on Evolutionary Psychology and a monograph on the evolution of religion (link here).

Dr. Rossano points to a study by Christopher Scheitle from Penn State reported in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 50, p. 175 (2011) U.S. College Students’ Perception of Religion and Science: Conflict, Collaboration, or Independence? A Research Note. From Dr. Rossano’s summary:

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).

Nearly 70% of college freshman saw no conflict, by the junior year 80% saw no conflict. Dr. Rossano cites this as evidence that the science and religion conflict is a relatively minor issue for the younger generations. “For the vast majority of American university students, there simply is no conflict between science and religion.”

What do you think? Does this match your experience?

There are two other interesting points that come out of Dr.  Scheitle’s analysis.

First – there are significant differences across majors – as freshman only 58.5% of education majors and 61.1% of business majors saw no conflict; that is 41.5% of education majors and 38.9% of business majors saw science and religion in conflict with the majority of them siding with religion against science. In all other majors the majority of those seeing a conflict sided with science against religion.

By the junior year education majors had moved to an average position in line with most other majors – 82.2% saw no conflict. Science and religion were viewed as independent of each other or in collaboration with each other. Of those seeing conflict, the majority still sided with religion.

The change is much smaller among business majors. By the junior year the number seeing no conflict had only risen to 68.3%.

Second – religious institutions appear to do a better job of educating students on the nature of the interaction of science and religion than secular institutions. From Dr. Scheitle’s article (emphasis added):

Interestingly, students at a religiously affiliated institution are less likely to hold a pro-religion conflict perspective. This is after controlling for religious commitment and religious conservatism, both of which are positively associated with attending a religious institution. This means that students at religious institutions are less likely to hold a pro-religion conflict perspective than students with similar levels of religious commitment and conservatism at a secular school. It is possible that religious students at a secular school may feel more threatened or under attack by science and therefore are more likely to take on a defensive, pro-religion conflict perspective. Alternatively, it is possible that students at religious institutions are exposed more to the independence or collaboration perspective, while those at secular schools may be more exposed to the conflict perspective, which then becomes reflected in their views.

This, I think, may have important implications for campus ministries at secular institutions. The impression of being under attack can heighten the sense of conflict. This doesn’t allow students to develop a healthy way of dealing with the issues of science and religion. Campus ministries, both churches and parachurch ministries, could help to reduce the conflict, but it has to be intentional. I expect that it also has to enlist the participation of Christians in the sciences. Christian students are exposed to Christians who are professional scientists when at religious institutions, but generally are not exposed to professional Christian scientists when at secular institutions.

Is there a conflict between science and religion?

Do you think this study is accurate? If not, why not?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

You can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

The full survey information and the instruments can be found here: Methodology – Spirituality in Higher Education.

The specific question, copied from the freshman survey, is shown to the right.

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  • Rick


    Since you are on the front lines, does this surprise you?

  • Watchman

    This certainly comes as a surprise. Perhaps much of the conflict is self-induced by our own fundamentalist Christians. After all, there are some Christians who do not see a reconciliation between science and religion; intentionally maintaining a clear division between the two. There are also a good many who see their faith challenged when science rears its head. I have always maintained the belief that science compliments creation. And perhaps many young people today are also seeing this as a new paradigm rather than a paradox.

  • It is interesting that those less likely to be trained in the hard sciences are more likely to default to the conflict position. Is this perhaps, because they are more likely to rely on popular culture for their exposure to the issue?

  • rjs


    It doesn’t really surprise me, but there are many interesting questions it raises. There are places where the conflict motif is more prevalent, and many of us as moderately conservative evangelicals or conservative evangelicals see a stronger culture of conflict than the population at large sees.

    I find it encouraging that most students don’t start off with this conflict mentality, and I think it is important that those who are interested in reaching non-Christian college students work at maintaining this attitude of no conflict.

    Personally I think that science complements the Christian faith. They are not independent or in conflict. But some of our interpretation of scripture and our understanding of some aspects of Christian teaching has to adjust and adapt to what we learn about the world around us.

  • EC

    Thinking back to my YEC days, if I were in college then and had been asked something along the lines of science and religion being in conflict, I would have responded they are not.

    My response would not necessarily been out of deep reflection (at that point I hadn’t deeply reflected on this issue), but I would have thought that the problem isn’t science vs. religion, the problem is over good vs. bad science. That is, evolution is perceived as bad science and YEC science positions are conceived of as good science. Thus, science (in the good sense) isn’t in conflict with religion at all. (It’s a battle of what constitutes good science.)

    I’m not sure how the surveys were worded and I’m not sure if this has any relevance to how any of the respondents actually responded. But I thought I’d throw it out as what USED to be my perspective. I think it’s possible that some might still have this perspective.

  • DRT

    There is no conflict between religion and science, just between some religious leaders and science. Ignorance has a real cost to it.

  • DRT

    EC#5, thanks for that. Is that how others view a YEC position? that they think it is good science? I never thought of that.

  • Jason Lee

    But do the religious beliefs of people change as they come to say there’s no conflict? For example, do people move away conservative theologies as they come increasingly to say there’s no conflict? Do people attend church less as they come to increasingly to affirm no conflict?

  • David Himes

    DRT #6 — I’d simply add that there are also scientists who contribute to the conflict. The conflict is not all one-sided in its origins.

  • JES

    My experience is the same as EC’s. YECs see no conflict with science. They see a conflict with evolution, which they feel is a anti-religious notion being foisted as science.

  • Rick

    RJS #4-


    Jason Lee #8-

    “Do people attend church less as they come to increasingly to affirm no conflict?”

    Interesting way to phrase that question. I am thinking that people would be more likely to attend church.

  • John W Frye

    Maybe young people are aware of the “chastened epistemology” that has challenged the arrogant “certainty” in both science and theology. Back when categories were frozen in absolute (modern) categories of “truth,” then the war raged on. Hopefully, a genuine humility resides in scientists and in theologians to the point where their common pursuit of matters of origin can be more dialogical than debate-driven.

  • EC

    DRT #7 – My experience has been that way.

    Some would tend to suggest that good science is being kept out of mainstream science. The reasons why this is the case might be political, atheistic, or some sort of conspiracy, but good science (YEC science) is not in the mainstream. Others suggest that mainstream is just wrong.

    Bottom line is many think they’re doing good science and those who hold to evolution are not. Again, that’s been my experience – I can’t claim all are this way.

  • EC, you’re experience concurs with my own, as a teenager being handed books explaining why evolution was “wrong” for apparently scientific reasons, before launching into the alternative “truth” that was set up to be YECreationism, which was then followed by a final “you need jesus” conclusion.

    Of course, there was a time (as a high-school student) when I thought they were right too, that mainstream science was actually ignoring critical “facts” such as dinosaur and human footprints colocated, or sedimentary processes that had actually occurred much faster than most paleo-geologists would admit. turn out these “facts” often weren’t facts at all, but I guess if you really thought humans and dinosaurs walked on the same sedimentary layers then you really would think mainstream science is wrong about origins, and you’d think the REAL science supported you.

  • Kenneth McIntosh

    This does surprise me. I teach comparative religions at a public college and my informal observation would be that my students tend to see science & religion as opposed to one another. Could it be that freshmen who choose a religions course are more biased in some way?

  • EC

    phil_style #14 – That was me too. I went to a Bible College that supports a YEC position and was taught similarly. If you believe that dinosaurs and humans did walk on the earth at the same time (for supposed scientific reasons) then you would have to conclude that the theory of evolution is wrong (and scientists often admit that if they found that the theory would be wrong). The problem then is authority. Which “scientist” do you believe and why? It’s very difficult as a teenager or right into a Bible college to be able to determine which “science” to believe.

  • EC

    JES #10 – I agree. You’re right to point out that the conflict is really only with evolution. In addition that leads to skepticism about dating methods (the earth can’t be that old) – which is traditionally geology. But it is important to note that in the YEC camp there isn’t a good science vs. bad science question about something like gravity.

  • megan

    Raised in a YEC church. I’ll third (fourth? I’ve lost count) the observation that many hardcore YEC’ers wouldn’t say that science and religion are in conflict. They’d say that religion and evolution are in conflict, but they consider evolution bad science.

    Whether it was sponsoring a trip to some AIG-type conference or having a scientist from our ranks teach a Sunday School class on YEC, they were quite eager to demonstrate that in fact science and religion are happy bedfellows so long as one rejects the “erroneous assumptions” underlying evolution.

    It’s an interesting survey, but I’m not sure what it proves.

  • rjs


    This is a large scale survey of college students. Roughly 44% identify as protestant, 30% identify as Catholic, 17% attend religiously affiliated schools. Those who hold to a YEC position are almost certainly a small minority – even of those from religiously affiliated institutions.

    I would think the survey would have more significance when considering the general population of college students. This is of relevance for outreach.

    I don’t think the science/faith discussion is passe or unnecessary. But it is most important inside the church not outside the church.

  • pds

    I think this says more about how different people define “science” and “religion.” Both terms have a broad semantic range. Defining the terms is part of one’s philosophy of science and philosophy of religion. Christians should be encouraged to wrestle with the interesting questions in these areas.

  • pds

    I am not sure “independence” or “collaboration” describes my position at all. I would probably say “none of the above.”

    It also does not allow a person to mark “conflict” without choosing sides. I don’t think it is a very well worded question.

  • rjs


    The question measures something quite specific – and it is not exactly what the title of Dr. Rossano’s article seems to suggest. I added the question and the link to the entire method at the end of my post because unless we have an idea of what was asked it is hard to interpret the results in any meaningful fashion at all.

  • DRT

    Further proof that engineers are inflexible, they have the least change. My wife would definitely agree with that, though I think I am quite flexible………yes I do….

    It is appropriate that those choosing education are educated the most…the most change. I suppose you could also interpret that as they had the worst misconceptions, and that is scary.

    Thanks to all the former YECcers for illuminating me to the actual position you held. You educated me and changed my mind…

  • But, the big question… independence or collaboration? If the former, that is a big problem IMO. Are we talking deism? Maybe Christian Smith’s Therapeutic Moralistic Deism?

  • DRT

    Have you seen the new Yale play?

    The Profit of Creation, featuring music by Tim Rosser, with book and lyrics by Charlie Sohne, will be directed by Evan Yionoulis, and music directed by Chris Fenwick. The musical concerns a liberal scientist who takes a bribe from a right-wing organization to head up the “Creation Museum” in Kentucky. The cast will include Danny Binstock, Allison Fischer, Manu Narayan, Blake Segal, Christopher Shyer, and Sally Wilfert.

    Low hanging fruit.

  • Joe Canner

    JES #10 et al.: In my experience conservative Christians have problems with science not just in the area of evolution, but also with things like global warming, vaccines, and HIV (to varying degrees and in varying combinations). Evolution is the only problem area with a direct spiritual component, but the distrust of science in that area seems to have leaked out into these other areas.

  • Fish

    Joe #26, I second that. I don’t know if the distrust has leaked out from the evolution debate or if it is due to (perhaps) a fundamental suspicion of the scientific agenda and how it directly shapes our daily lives. Science, rather than God, is in control and telling them what to do, and that bothers people.

  • R Hampton

    It’s not a problem for students in Catholic schools:

    ”[The church affirms] an understanding of evolution that is open to the full truth about the human person and about the world. Assured that scientific truth and religious truth cannot be in conflict, Catholic schools should continue teaching evolution as a scientific theory backed by convincing evidence. At the same time, Catholic parents whose children are in public schools should ensure that their children are also receiving appropriate catechesis at home and in the parish on God as Creator. Students should be able to leave their biology classes, and their courses in religious instruction, with an integrated understanding of the means God chose to make us who we are.”
    —Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo (Richmond, VA) chair of the Committee on Science & Human Values of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops

    “it’s basically not controversial at all. The only time it’s controversial is when you’ve got parents who are very opposed. But it’s certainly not a pressing issue in my life.”
    —Dominican Sr. Glenn Anne McPhee, secretary for education

    “Catholic high schools have never really had a problem with the teaching of evolution because of the Catholic tradition of taking more of a contextual approach to scripture.”
    —Mark Wilkins, religion teacher at St. Xavier High School (Cincinnati, OH), head of the Committee on Religious Education (representing teachers) for the Jesuit Secondary Education Association.

  • DRT

    Fish#27 – “…a fundamental suspicion of the scientific agenda and how it directly shapes our daily lives.”

    Sounds to me like we need to send those people back to school to understand what scientists do. Scientists are intensely curious people who want to figure out how and why things work the way they do. Their agenda is to figure out or explain something that no one else has figured out or explained, or, to engage in the science because it instills in a sense of wonder, or even numinous feelings, by getting closer to that which is.

    The people who are suspicious of the scientific agenda are only afraid of what they don’t understand.

    However, there are clearly unscrupulous people everywhere and many of them end up managing companies that use scientists. Companies like oil companies who employ lots of scientists and they are some of the most dangerous companies on the planet. But I don’t think it is the scientific agenda that is driving the severe hardship and harm caused by them.

  • rjs

    Steve (#24),

    I agree – there is a big question on the difference between independence and collaboration. Independence isn’t quite right, it doesn’t really mesh with the action of a personal God in relationship with his creation.

    Collaboration has its own set of problems and subdivisions as comments here have indicated.

    All that this paper really discusses is the impression of conflict or not, it doesn’t really get to the important questions.