Students' Views on the Relationship between Religion and Science: Analyses of Results from a Comparative Survey. *

Article excerpt

ACADEMIC AND PUBLIC INTEREST in exploring the relationship between religion and science has been growing steadily in recent years, as evidenced by such initiatives as the John M. Templeton Foundation's Religion and Science Course Program (see Wertheim, 1995) and by the publication of numerous popular and scholarly works (see Barbour, 1997; 2000; Davies, 2000; Dembski, 2002; Kurtz, 2003; Padgett, 2003; Peacocke, 2001; Peters and Bennett, 2003; Polkinghorne, 1998; 2002; Pollack, 2000; Richardson and Slack, 2001; Schroeder, 2004; Stahl, Campbell, Petty and Diver, 2002; Stenger, 2002). At least a partial explanation for this increased interest might be that people consider religion and science, and some common element between these two, to be important to them as they go about their daily lives. However, as William Stahl and his collaborators (2002: 2) point out, discussions of the relationship between religion and science have been characterized primarily by theoretical conjecture on scientific matters such as cosmology and evolutionary biology by theologians, and on theological issues such as proving the existence of God by biologists and physicists. Sorely lacking have been an adequate number of empirical studies and reflections by social scientists that could help us to characterize the role that religion and science and the relationship between these two play in the everyday lives of people. The principal objective of this article is to contribute to this goal through the analysis of results from a brief survey conducted among young adults attending two distinctly different Canadian post-secondary educational institutions. I begin with a brief exploration of the theoretical framework of the religion and science debate and a review of some of the empirical studies that have been carried out thus far.

Conceptual and Theoretical Perspectives

A number of models have been suggested to describe the relationship between religion and science, with the most influential being that of Ian Barbour (1997: 77-105), who indicates that the various historical and contemporary perspectives on this issue can be grouped into four distinct, but not necessarily exclusive, categories: conflict, independence, dialogue and integration. The conflict view is associated with scientific materialists like Richard Dawkins (1987) and the proponents of the so-called "new skepticism" (see Kurtz, 2003). As is the case with many items that are considered newsworthy (see Tannen, 1998), media coverage of religion and science tends to focus on controversies between opposing factions on such issues as cloning (see Evans, 2002) and the teaching of evolution in schools (see George, 2001), thus helping to sustain the impression of the dominance of the conflict perspective.

Barbour explains that the notion of the independence of religion and science is related to their distinctive methods of inquiry and their very different use of language, suggesting that there is no adequate basis for discussion between the two. Thus, for example, in 1985, the U.S. National Academy of Science passed a resolution that "religion and science are separate and mutually exclusive realms of human thought whose presentation in the same context leads to misunderstanding of both scientific theory and religious belief" (cited in Sperry, 1991: 241). On the other hand, the dialogue perspective assumes that some amount of common ground can be found as a basis for discussion. In support of this view, Barbour mentions how religion and science are both concerned with providing answers to ultimate questions of meaning and existence.

Finally, Barbour's integration approach is characterized by attempts to treat religion and science together, as in the case of New Age syncretism (see Hanegraaff, 1996). At the base of this approach is some version of the design argument for the existence of God, whereby the intricacy and complexity of nature, as continuously uncovered by science, are seen to point to the existence of an ultimate designer, namely, God. …