Controversy over religion and science is nothing new. That’s certainly true in the world of education. Indeed, a recent commentary in the Washington Post lamented 60 examples of what the author called “anti-science education legislation” that could affect what American students are taught regarding the evolution-creation debate and global warming. We may even see the odd flare-up of such conflict in Canada. So, it’s not surprising that public scepticism abounds regarding the ability of religious schools – evangelical Christian schools in particular – to teach science. However, new research by the Cardus Religious Schools Initiative (CRSI) at the University of Notre Dame offers evidence that such scepticism is ill founded.
In their newly released paper, Blinded by Religion? Religious School Graduates and Perceptions of Science in Young Adulthood , researchers Jonathan Schwartz and David Sikkink examined religious school graduates’ orientations toward science. Using the latest Cardus Education Survey data from Canada and the United States, they analyzed graduates’ views on a range of subjects, including science, creation vs. evolution, and the number of science courses taken. They found that graduates of religious schools do sometimes hold distinct views on science as compared to public school graduates. But these distinctions aren’t uniform across the board. Neither are they the kinds of distinctions that would inspire popular caricatures of religious school grads as simpletons who believe in a flat Earth.
In fact, when it comes to taking science courses, you’d be hard-pressed to find much difference between Canadian religious and public school graduates. Controlling for family background and parental education, Schwartz and Sikkink found that “students at private religious schools enrol in science classes at a similar rate to public school peers in Canada.” The distinction in the United States, meanwhile, is that only homeschoolers (religious and non-religious) were the least likely of all students to have taken courses in biology, chemistry, or physics, or to have had at least three science courses throughout high school. There was little to distinguish American graduates of private Christian schools from their public school counterparts in that regard.
What about attitudes toward scientists? You might expect some animosity towards them from religious grads, but you wouldn’t find it in Canada.
“Generally speaking, Canadians hold scientists in similar esteem regardless of their high school educational context,” say the researchers.
It’s a slightly different picture in the United States. There, graduates of evangelical Protestant schools tend to be less trusting of scientists and assign a lower value to their social contributions than public school grads do. That’s a difference to be sure, but hardly a unique or problematic one from a social point of view.
The battle over whether to teach creationist critiques of evolutionary theory is certainly sharper in the United States than in Canada. And that seems to emerge in the research as well. “In Canada, school sector does not on its own increase an individual’s belief in literal versions of creationism, but the U.S. case differs,” write Schwartz and Sikkink. American grads of evangelical Protestant high schools were found to be “more likely to adhere to a literal version of creation than their public high school peers.” What they couldn’t determine, though, was whether this was the result of teaching in science class, or an indirect result of the students’ religious and social lives. In short, it will take more research to draw conclusions about whether these schools actually make much difference in graduates’ creationist views.
What about perceived conflicts between religious beliefs and science? On this question, both in Canada and in the U.S., there is little evidence to show that the type of school a student attended affects their likelihood to sense a science-religion conflict. However, the researchers did find that the more high school science courses Canadian students take, the more likely they are to perceive a conflict between science and religion. Notably, though, that holds regardless of which type of school they attended. So, this could be the result of a cultural difference between Canadians and Americans.
While the science-religion conflict does not come up in a big way in this research, that’s not to say that perceptions of conflict don’t exist. Some educators are taking steps to equip themselves to handle such issues in the classroom, as evidenced by the creation of the FAST (Faith and Science Teaching) Curriculum developed by the Kuyers Institute and the Colossian Forum. The curriculum aims to help teachers lead their students into studying the intersection of faith and science, possibly reducing perceptions of conflict in the process.
Meanwhile, William T. Cavanaugh, DePaul University theology professor, and James K. A. Smith, editor-in-chief of Cardus’s public theology journal Comment , have co-edited a new book that tackles related issues from a different angle. Evolution and the Fall examines the implications for a Christian understanding of creation and the entry of sin into the world if the widely accepted view of humanity’s evolutionary origins are true. Its provocative premise lays bare issues that Christians will inevitably have to deal with.
All in all, we do see some differences between graduates of private Christians schools and public school graduates. But they aren’t all that stark or as shocking. If anything, this latest piece of CRSI research is perhaps our strongest indicator yet that Christian schools in Canada and the United States don’t have as troubled a relationship with science as many would expect. What’s more, there are efforts within the wider Christian community to bridge what perceived gaps do exist between faith and science. In time, the research and bridge-building efforts may increase understanding and support for the vital place that religious schools hold in the education systems of both Canada and the U.S.
Beth Green is program director for Cardus Education.
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