Friday, September 04, 2015

Emerging Adults, Christian Faith, and Science : Problems and Strategies

In this post, I offer a brief sketch of the analysis provided by the white paper currently in process from the planning grant, Science for Students & Emerging, Young Adults (SEYA).

      Here's the main question? What's the best way to engage emerging adults (approximately age 18-30) in the integration of science and faith? (By faith we mean both the content of faith or theology and the practice of Christian faith, or Christian life. When faith is used here, it is intended to mean Christian faith. Sometimes the authors quoted will use religion, which for the purposes of this section, is essentially equivalent)
      The method used for this analysis of emerging adults’ attitudes on faith and science is fourfold: we first reviewed the influential literature in the field (e.g., Jeffrey Arnett, Jonathan Hill, David Kinnaman, Christian Smith, Robert Wuthnow—see references at the end). Second, our SEYA team members talked about the integration of science and faith in various venues with approximately 300 emerging adults in targeted contexts, during which we engaged in informal conversations with the participants. Third, we surveyed targeted focus groups to gather statistical data and analysis on these emerging adults’ attitudes on faith and science. Fourth, Greg Cootsona filled out this research with in-depth, one-hour qualitative interviews with eighteen emerging adults. (And a note on style: This post will use “we” when referring the SEYA team will employ “I” when it reflects the particular views of none other than Greg Cootsona.) In what follows, we excerpt (and abbreviate) two key sections from the SEYA white paper: the analysis of problems and the strategy for addressing these problems.
      There are at least four main problems (or sets of problems) facing the integration of science and faith for emerging adults.
      Perception of conflict: Young adults perceive that Christian faith is in conflict with science (and vice versa, to some degree). They may not actually believe in this conflict themselves, but they hear about it through various media. According Smith and Longest, 70% of 18-23 year olds “agree” or “strongly agree” that the statement that the teachings of religion and science conflict (Longest and Smith 2011, 846-69, especially 854). In addition, the discussion on the Internet is largely critical and hostile toward religious faith. E.g., as one post stated: “The Internet will kill religion.” And another opined: “Jesus will soon go the way of Zeus and Osiris.” Another key problem here is that emerging adults don’t seem to be aware of the key voices for integration, such as Francis Collins or Alister McGrath.
      A great deal of this discussion centers around the epistemologies of these two ways of knowing: in the polemics, science deals with facts and evidence; religion with inner feelings, but nothing that can be tested. Important to add here is that this is often more a perception of conflict based on an older, positivist view of science. Contemporary philosophy of science often builds on nuanced sources, two of the most persuasive are Imre Lakatos’s model or “research programmes” (Lakatos 1970, 91-106) and Peter Lipton’s “inference to the best explanation” (Lipton 2004). In addition, Jonathan Hill in BigQuestions online (Hill 2015) has demonstrated that some perceive conflict because some they see religion and science in different domains that shouldn’t overlap, or for various specific domains and not issues of general epistemological conflict, and only about one-third of this “conflict” group, because they side with either religion or with science and see no ultimate integration. In sum, although a conflict may be perceived—which is certainly a challenge for integration—there are various reasons.           
      Disconnection from lived experience: The topic of science and religion seems disconnected from pressing life issues and therefore appears heady, perhaps taking too much effort. When asked about science and religion, there’s often a sense of “How does this relate to my life?” Or “That’s a topic for thinkers, not for me.” The American context places an enormous weight on how we feel and what we’ve experienced. In some ways, this is a part of our marketing-advertising culture. In another, it’s a legacy of religious revivalism, which privileged “heart” (emotions) over “head” (thinking). It is also evidenced today in the “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” noted by Smith in Souls in Transition (Smith 2009, 154-6 and here when commenting on teens). “Science,” as a topic is often perceived as more abstract than technology (e.g., smart phones, social media).
      Ancient faith, modern problems: Speaking specifically of relating Christian faith and science, the Bible seems outdated and unscientific. This problem partly stems from emerging adults’ decreasing engagement with books generally and any ancient text specifically. More importantly, ancient religious texts seem outdated and unscientific because religious knowledge seems to always look back and therefore stagnates. In contrast, scientific knowledge and technology looks forward; they advance and improve. Any beta-tested software pales in comparison to version 2.0 or beyond.
      Pluralism and decisions: Today’s emerging adults encounter a dizzying array of voices. This makes it difficult to make decisions. One such decision is where to look to integrate faith and science. This changes the locus for the discussion. Many emerging adults would rather do a Google search than go than go to a congregation in pursuing of answers about science and religion. With the panoply of options on the Internet and the contemporary world, there are so many decisions for emerging adults that they become “choice phobic” (according to SEYA’s panel of experts in the field) and are unable to make a decision about how to integrate science and faith. Similarly, it’s hard to decide on one form of faith in light of all the possibilities even for Christian spirituality and theology, which makes it difficult to know what form of faith to bring to science. This fact is partly the simple problem of pluralism, which has become exacerbated by the explosion of knowledge on the Internet. But it is also a broadening cultural pluralism that also affects the Church.

We recommended the following strategy for addressing these problems.
  1. Significant Interest: The good news, and the central opportunity, for emerging adults’ integrating faith and science is that there is interest. The work that has been done with Scientists in Congregations (SinC) and with SEYA indicates that there are real opportunities for this integration. In qualitative interviews, we’ve found remarkable curiosity in how to bring these together. Put another way, positivistic science has not entirely won the day, and few people adhere to such a position. (Jonathan Hill, in a personal conversation, estimates this constituency at around one-sixth.) In addition, In the first set of study data collected in spring 2015, a total p-value of .001 was given to a greater appreciate for the integration of science and religion based on an intervention of listening to speakers and engaging intellectually rich content on science and religion.
  2. Pressing life issues will have to be a part of this dialogue because emerging adults today tend toward pragmatism over theoretical speculation. This fact may speak to a focus on technology and ethics over issues of pure science. E.g., does being “wired in” to my smart phone bring anxiety? More speculative and theoretical is this:  “Does quantum physics offers a place for divine action? In addition, one implication is that we will have to broaden the discussion. As important as “evolution and creation” has been, is, and will continue to be, we need to expand the conversation to include, for example, the love for the natural world that Christian faith gives us (e.g., Psalm 19, 104; Romans 1:1920), which is the basis for the scientific endeavor. Most scientists have enjoyed some life-changing encounter with the natural world that led them into their vocation. Belief in the God who creates the natural world leads Christians to observe and enjoy nature. (Incidentally, other topics of relevance include neuroscience and the soul, global climate change and sustainability more broadly, and the calling of Christians in the sciences.)
  3. A more robust biblical hermeneutic: In order to respond to the issue of ancient texts and their contemporary relevance, a great deal depends on how one looks at the Bible. To paraphrase a popular creationist ministry, what “answers” are in Genesis? John Calvin commented in his Institutes 2.2.15, “If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.” One reason for teaching on science and its relation to Christian faith is that we need to learn natural science and follow it. For this reason, a creation in six twenty-four hour days is untenable if Christians want to take on mainstream science. Indeed and paradoxically, it probably requires a conviction that science is not the sole arbiter of truth, and that our biblical interpretation is about learning to live within the narrative of the Scripture, to let God’s story become our story, as it were. We don’t memorize the Bible as we do the Periodic Table, but “by steeping ourselves in its tone and temper and so learning its overall message” (Lewis 1958, 112).
  4. Relationships and group identity make the interaction about religion and science possible. As a collaborator on this project once told me, “We engage people with arguments, not arguments in abstraction.” Setting up programs, like SinC, that bring scientists who are part of a community in contact with emerging adults is critical. Here I return to Jonathan Hill’s work, who noted that friends and family (and pastors for Christians) are critical for opening oneself to explore mainstream science. The importance of trust (which arose during the April 2015 Fuller Convening of SEYA emerging adult thought leaders) also highlights the need for “the endorser”: a trusted voice in one’s key group that affirms the need and promise for integrating religion and science. This is related to finding skilled communicators below, but may not be the skilled communicators themselves. For example, endorsement of science by a senior pastor’s or a trusted scientist’s positive comments on integrating science with Christian faith can have an extremely positive effect. They may make the integration of Christian faith with evolution a viable endeavor. One related problem, however, is that emerging adults do not have many ready-made structures that can be found with other demographics, such as youth. So it will take effort to locate these trusted voices.
  5. Cultivate more high-quality and high-impact resources: Books are not entirely dead, but online video and an engaging website are essential. The emerging adult culture, nurtured on rich video content, needs visual media for communication. In addition, the importance of scaling any work done in this context so that any resources can be expanded and well-utilized. This ability to scale will naturally involve the best minds and practices that have worked in similar arenas. Accordingly—and as a complement to the importance of trusted Christian leaders—we recommend the continued development of a robust website for faith and science (e.g., BioLogos) that will speak to emerging adults, which is maintained regularly and which is marketed through social media channels.
  6. Finds ways to resource religious communities—and particularly skilled communicators—whether in congregations or parachurch organizations, who are effective in reaching 18-30 year olds and who are interested in bringing science to faith and who know both theology and science.  Find locations where these their effects will multiply such as key churches and/or campus ministries, academic or cultural centers. Ideally, this would mean that we could find communicators that possessed degrees in science, or were even themselves, working scientist. This ideal, however is not the reality. Most of those who lead emerging adult ministries will be learning science as an avocation and as a component of their wider ministry skills. Here we follow Andrew Root and Erik Leafblad’s “Teaching at the Intersection of Faith and Science” (Root and Leafblad 2015): First of all, become knowledgeable about the ways that science creates emerging adults’ reality. Second, get to know local scientists—in this case, at local universities. Finally, realize, that some answers lie beyond the reach of science. At some point, this integration with science may lead to a realization that there are limits to scientific insight and discovery and faith and wonder in the God beyond the natural world is the only reasonable conclusion.

References and Selected Bibliography
Arnett, Jeffrey. 2000. “Emerging Adulthood: A Theory of Development From the Late Teens Through the Twenties.” American Psychologist 55: 469-480.
Hill, Jonathan. 2014. “National Study of Religion & Human Origins.” Retrieved August 1, 2015, from
___. 2015a. Emerging Adulthood and Faith. Grand Rapids: Calvin College Press.
___. 2015b. “Do Americans Believe Science and Religion Are in Conflict?”
Kinnaman, David with Aly Hawkins. 2011. You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church… and Rethinking Faith. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.
Lewis, Clive Staples. 1958. Reflections on the Psalms. London: Geoffrey Bles.
Lipton, Peter. 2004. Inference to the Best Explanation. International Library of Philosophy. New York: Routledge.
Longest, Kyle and Christian Smith. 2011. “Conflicting or Compatible: Beliefs About Religion and Science Among Emerging Adults in the United States.” Sociological Forum 26: 846-69.
Root, Andrew and Erik Leafblad. 2015. “Teaching at the Intersection of Faith and Science.” Retrieved August 24, 2015 from, July 1, 2015.
Setran, David P. and Chris A. Kiesling. 2013. Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood: A Practical Theology for College and Young Adult Ministry. Grand Rapids: Baker.
Smith, Christian with Patricia Snell. 2009. Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. Oxford: Oxford University.
Smith, Christian, Kari Christoffersen, and Hillary Davidson. 2011. Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. Oxford: Oxford University.
Wuthnow, Robert. 2007. After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University.

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