Studying science isn’t what makes students less religious

May 15, 2021
Students walk on the Stanford University campus in Santa Clara, California. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Students walk on the Stanford University campus in Santa Clara, California. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

College majors that focus on inquiry rather than applying knowledge are more likely to secularize students, according to a new study that breaks with the traditional claim that exposure to science leads people away from religion.

The study, published April 29 in Sociology of Religion, found that while 11% of students in inquiry-based majors such as philosophy become more secular, only 8% of students in majors that apply knowledge, such as education, do. This effect holds true even for white, conservative Protestants, who are more likely to secularize if they study an inquiry-based field. Though this is a small difference, sociologists looking at long-term social change say a small effect every year for decades eventually adds up. 

The traditional claim that studying science leads to loss of religiosity stems from the idea that science and religion have different views on the natural world and its development — systems that people claim are incompatible, according to John H. Evans, author of the paper and professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. 

"Therefore," he said, "the idea would be that people who learn biology or physics in college would lose their faith because they're being taught a different set of — a different approach to — claims about the natural world."

This research, Evans said, shows that those assumptions are inaccurate.

Evans utilized longitudinal data produced by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. The institute has been conducting an annual survey of college students since 1966, administered to freshman students who are then given a follow-up survey during their senior year.

The survey collects a large swath of information on the students, including their field of study, religious preferences and the frequency of attending religious service.

Using only complete information from both surveys between 2007 and 2014, Evans's final sample size consisted of 111,969 college students in universities and colleges across the U.S. 

Evans studied this sample by dividing it in several ways. First, he divided the sample into students studying traditional science fields, such as physics, chemistry and biology, and non-science fields, such as those in the humanities and social sciences. Evans observed no difference in secularization among these two groups of students.

Evans also split student responses into "pure" fields, which study the natural, social or cultural world, and "applied" fields, which use taken-for-granted knowledge and apply it. He found that fields of study focused on inquiry into the natural, social or cultural world — those that encourage and teach a student to examine their assumptions — are more likely to secularize students. In contrast, students who majored in fields of studies that apply knowledge, such as nursing and education, were not as likely to secularize students. 

"It's not anything about methods of making claims about the natural world," Evans said. "Rather, it's about learning to question the assumptions of what you've learned to this point in your life."

The college majors with the highest effect on secularization were women's studies, anthropology, physics and philosophy, while the majors with the lowest effect were physical education, nursing, theology and kinesiology. Pre-law studies ranked the absolute lowest. 

Evans said these findings indicate that learning how to question previously held assumptions is the catalyst for secularization, which cuts into the larger, contemporary American debate over science and religion. 

"One thing that I have repeatedly found in numerous research projects," Evans said, "is that any conflict between religion and science in contemporary America is most likely over morals, and not about fact claims about nature. … If you look at contemporary conflicts between religion and science, they are typically more motivated by moral and trust issues than anything having to do with facts about the natural world."

Evans cautioned, though, that college students are a very particular subset of the general population, with a limited age range, stage in the life course and socioeconomic class, among others. Thus, the observation of this social phenomenon between religion, science and inquiry should be treated as suggestive, rather than conclusive, for the larger debate. 

The study "Inquiry, not science, as the source of secularization in higher education," published April 29 in Sociology of Religion, was authored by John H. Evans, University of California, San Diego.

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