Science vs religion: the effect of education

Wed Jun 01, 2011 9:02 am by Aught3

A new sociological study of UCLA undergraduate students has been getting some play in the sceptical blogosphere. Since it relates to some previous blog posts I have written on the LoR I thought I would go through it. Basically, a UCLA organisation called the Spirituality in Higher Education Project (SHEP)1 surveyed the religious opinions of the first-year population on campus. They then followed up with another survey of juniors to identify opinions influenced by several years of higher eduction. The study in question (Scheitle, 2011) focuses on the students’ perception of the relationship between religion and science.

Students could choose between four options to describe their view on this relationship.

  1. Conflict – I consider myself on the side of religion
  2. Conflict – I consider myself on the side of science
  3. Independence – they refer to different aspects of reality
  4. Collaboration – each can be used to help support the other

Categories three and four were lumped together into a ‘non-conflict’ answer.

Of this sample 83% of the students were religious. Unsurprisingly then, this means that 86% of the respondents went with non-conflict (69%) or sided with religion (17%). That leaves 17% non-religious students, 14% of whom sided exclusively with science. Given the large proportion of Christians in the US and that most are not of the fundamental variety, meaning they will have their science and eat it too, this seems a fairly straight-forward result.

Interestingly by their junior year, 73% of those who had originally sided with religion had come to adopt a non-conflict or pro-science position. This shift perhaps reflects the secularising effect of education. However, 47% of those who had originally picked science had also shifted their position. Not as large of a percentage of those who changed from a pro-religion stand-point but a substantial proportion of students. Even when the researcher looked into the data for only science students, the moderating effect of education was still present. Apparently, learning more about science decreased the view that science and religion were in conflict.

What I would have liked to be able to look at is the detailed data for both the independence and collaboration viewpoints instead of having them lumped together in a single category. If it’s correct that more education promotes a more secular viewpoint I would expect to see the ‘independence’ category increase. Whereas if education was actually supporting religion, I would expect to see a growth in the number of students picking ‘collaboration’. With the data in their current form, it’s impossible to make such judgements.


  1. SHEP is funded by the Templeton foundation; any true sceptics will now hum the Jaws theme.

Scheitle, C. P. (2011) U.S. College Students’ Perception of Religion and Science: Conflict, Collaboration, or Independence? A Research Note. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 50(1), 175-186.

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