A new scholarly article by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and Furman sociologist Kyle Longest reveals that young adults (aged 18 to 29) don’t see the unbridgeable chasm between science and religion that many older Americans do. The paper is behind the paywall of the scholarly journal Sociological Forum (December 2011). The gist of the paper is to challenge the widely held view that the more religious one is, the more likely one is to believe that science and religion are in conflict. Previous studies have shown that, and it is still broadly true — but some interesting things are going on among 18 to 29 year olds today that undermine the old model. For example, this from the paper:

Most clearly, high religiousness, in the form of importance of faith, frequently reading scriptures, and committing to live one’s life for God, increases the likelihood that emerging adults agree that religion and science are compatible and not in conflict. Counter to the prevailing wisdom on highly religious youth, emerging adults who are more religious are not less but more likely to believe that religion and science can be integrated. Interestingly, attending a Protestant high school, often portrayed as being the training ground for religiously sectarian or militant youth (Peshkin, 1986; Rose, 1990), is one of the strongest predictors of the integration perspective, as these emerging adults are extremely likely to agree that religion and science are compatible and their faith has been strengthened by science, as well as being significantly unlikely to agree that the two are in conflict. This shared context appears to have created a cognitive norm of viewing religion and science as potentially symbiotic, rather than overtly hostile to each other. These emerging adults are able to maintain the authority of religion by finding a harmony between faith and science.

In fact, the authors say evidence suggests that it may be that the cultural hostility from non-religious or mildly religious students towards religion that keeps highly religious college students from going into science — this, and not a principled hostility to science itself. The researchers find that belonging to any religion at all, except for Judaism, makes you more likely to believe that science and religion have some degree of compatibility, than being non-religious. In other words, it is possible that the non-religious may be  effectively discouraging religious believers from choosing a vocation in the sciences, even though the believers see no reason why they can’t be religiously observant and good scientists.

Why the shift in belief among the faithful, toward a more integrative model of the science-and-religion question, as opposed to the strict conflict model? Smith and Longest hypothesize that a change in the way young adults think about religion could have a lot to do with it. In the past, they identified religious fidelity more with doctrinal agreement. Now, though, it’s more the case that they think of religious fidelity as measured by the strength of personal emotional commitment (Moralistic Therapeutic Deism makes the faithful more open to science? Sounds like it). Plus, it is possible that being exposed to non-Western and New Age perspectives have made them more comfortable with a “dialogue” perspective than one in conflict. Interestingly, those emergent adults who profess a belief in astrology and reincarnation are more likely to believe that science and religion conflict, and to believe that their religious views have been strengthened by science.

How can this be? You could say that they have lost the ability to reason, that they’re just going on what feels right, however incompatible. Or you could say, as the researchers suggest, that they have come to define “religion” and “science” in nontraditional ways that allow for the possibility that the two have something useful to say to each other.

Again, don’t fail to notice that the old model is still broadly true, but is breaking down in some really interesting ways among 18 to 29 year olds.