Alfred North Whitehead wrote almost ninety years ago in his book Science and the Modern World,
“When we consider what religion is for mankind and what science is, it is no exaggeration to say that the future course of history depends upon the decision of this generation as to the relations between them.”
We are far from Whitehead’s generation, but the exhortation still has merit. Therefore, following Whitehead I pose the question: What will this interaction look like in the future?
To determine the future (as I have argued already in this blog), we need to ask emerging adults (age 18-30), because they will increasingly set the agenda for how this question is answer and particularly whether they find an easy détente between the two. The most immediate response is that there are some challenging statistics. According the noted researchers Christian Smith and Kyle Longest, 70% of 18-23 year olds “agree” or “strongly agree” that the statement that the teachings of religion and science conflict. And more than half (57 percent) disagreed with the statement "My views on religion have been strengthened by discoveries of science.”
It would seem that the forces of science and religion are locked in a deadly battle.
Various surveys and my qualitative research, however, suggests something different—namely, that emerging adults are not as personally negative about the compatibility between science and religion, more that they have heard others argue for incompatibility. Perhaps they have heard about the conflict between the two (maybe they watched Bill Nye and Ken Ham on TV or seen some YouTube clips of Richard Dawkins or Ray Comfort), but they themselves are quite interested in finding a response. So, though they know that warfare is in the air, many emerging adults, when asked, generally are not adherents. If anywhere it would seem that the resistance is with religious dogma, which prevents those of faith from engaging with the insights of science. Yet, as Elaine Ecklund has pointed out, religious believers are remarkably interested in science, at about the same percentage as the wider culture. This all makes sense of one of the most consistent responses I received in interviews with students: Travis, after looking at the interaction of science and religion from the perspective of history and philosophical critique, concluded, “I’m really interested to hear from someone who’s thought about these issues.” Though many emerging adults may perceive conflict, they would like to hear thoughtful voices from either side that move beyond warfare. This generation has been fatigued by the culture wars.
But these nuances do not fully exhaust the varieties of responses to the question of how to related religion and science. I will simply mention some briefly now and plan to explicate them more fully explicate them in future posts. I note that there are emerging adults who are turned off by the church’s unwillingness to embrace mainstream science as David Kinnamon’s study, published in You Lost Me, demonstrated. That is one clear analysis of the growth of the “Nones” among 18-30 year olds (those who respond “None” to the question “What religious affiliation are you?”), which currently hovers around 30-35%. And there are remarkable amounts of emerging adults in the United States who pull together religion with “traditional American values.” That seems to be the best way to understand the growing voice of anti-evolutionists who combine that with conservative politics, which is notably contrasted with those who are in the mainline religions, who are more likely to ascribe to the truth of evolutionary theory than the wider public, according to the Pew Report. And there are certainly other voices, such as the students who blend a variety of spiritual insights, certainly not simply Christian, but other religious traditions, such as Buddhism and Wiccan practices, as well.
Ultimately, the future is potentially fraught with less certainty than the past and does not yield a clear winner. Yet, despite whatever problems and/or challenges that lie ahead, the sketch of this variegated interaction of science and religion seems more interesting than any simple caricature. And then, one final question looms: what role will you and I play?