Ideological Approaches to Science and Religion in a National Survey of Lutheran High School Science Teachers
While everyone has their own personal understanding of the relationship between science and religion, for science teachers in Lutheran high schools the issue is an important part of their everyday life and ministry. This article will review data gathered in a nationwide survey of 179 Lutheran high school teachers conducted in early 2009. Among the issues investigated by the survey is the attempt to examine the teachers’ ideological understanding of how empirical knowledge and revealed beliefs interact. The conceptual model that led to the framing of the ideology questions is explained followed by a description of the mixed quantitative and qualitative design and review of survey data. The resulting approaches to science and religion among science teachers in Lutheran high schools are summarized.
Lutheran High School science teachers are at ground zero in the creation-evolution debate. They are uniquely situated in an educational setting that allows open expression of their faith as they teach science to their students. They have more cause than most to think about and examine their own personal approach to understanding the relationship between science and religion. As a professor of physics at Concordia University, Nebraska, I have had a long professional interest in the area of Science and Religion (S&R). My principal focus has been in understanding the various ideological approaches taken to this subject by various Christians, which lead toward identification with various points of view on the creation and evolution debate in our society. This article describes a research project that attempted to characterize S&R approaches taken by Lutheran high school teachers.
The Survey and Respondents
A total of 179 Lutheran High School science teachers completed a survey in early 2009. The survey was delivered via the web at surveymonkey.com. The names of the teachers were provided by principals at Lutheran high schools in the United States, as listed in the Directory of Lutheran High Schools maintained by Valparaiso University. The individuals indicated the denominational affiliation of their high school, with 76.8% saying they were from a high school affiliated with the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), 15.5% Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, (WELS), 1.2% , Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and 6.0% with multiple affiliations. Questions on the survey asked about the teachers’ religious beliefs, their approach to teaching the nature of science, their ideological approach to science and religion, and demographic questions. Biology teachers also completed some separate questions about how they teach evolution. The respondents were 68.2% male and identified their age cohort as follows: 27.5% were 21-30, 15.8% were 31-40, 25.7% were 41-50, 23.4% were 51-60 and 7.6% were 61 or older. A total of 59.1% of respondents graduated from a Concordia University System (LCMS) college or university and 60.4% of them hold the Lutheran Teacher Diploma (LTD). They showed a high degree of religious belief, with 96.1% of them saying that they were “absolutely certain” that there is a God, and religion was “very important” in the lives of 93.9% of them.
Conceptual S&R Model and Survey Questions
The need to ask meaningful questions about the teachers’ S&R approach, necessitated the creation of a taxonomy to identify various approaches. The intent of this was to use several groups that typify the ideological approaches Christians take when relating scientific and revealed knowledge. An individual’s ideological approach is defined by how they respond to questions about how these two types of information relate to each other. For example, when “doing science,” should one gather data only with one’s senses, or include scriptural revelations in the data set? When formulating scientific explanations, should one restrict oneself to only natural mechanisms, or be open to any explanation that matches one’s data, including intelligent causes or the supernatural? Christian believers answer these questions in different ways, and it has long been my belief that these philosophical presuppositions lead to a particular way of thinking about issues such as the age of the Earth, rather than the opposite. Of course these presuppositions may or may not be recognized by a particular individual and identifying ideological propositions that lead to concrete points of view is a messy business at best, but typological identification is at least a good device to facilitate conversation. Many thoughtful typological models have been proposed, and one of the best was formulated by Richard H. Bube, in his book Putting it all Together: Seven Patterns for Relating Science and the Christian Faith (1995). It would be impractical, however, to use Bube’s seven categories, as some of them are fairly obscure, and do not necessarily match current factions in the creation/evolution debate. The four categories ultimately chosen for the survey are Young-Earth Creationists, Intelligent Designers, Compartmentalists, and Complementarists. While the first two of these four categories make explicit reference to creation/evolution positions, I believed that I could relate them to ideological attitudes according to the conceptual model illustrated in Figure 1. Figure 1: Conceptual model situating the four S&R approaches. MN = Methodological Naturalism, ID = Intelligent Design, YEC = Young Earth Creationism. Figure 1 first distinguishes between believers and nonbelievers. While nonbelievers may hold fairly nuanced positions regarding the philosophy of science and its relationship to belief systems, we as Christian believers are particularly interested in the philosophical approaches of those who, like us, recognize the legitimacy of revealed, as well as empirical, knowledge. In this conceptual model, the two main categories that separate Christians in their S&R approach are Methodological Naturalism (MN) and Non-MN. Although a variety of definitions are used for MN, it most commonly means that these Christians think that science needs to be pursued without reference to any sort of supernatural data or explanations. They believe that although God is the creator and sustainer of the physical universe, science needs to be conducted as much as possible with data gathered from the senses, and that even if these natural observations may seem to point toward some sort of supernatural cause, these explanations would be illegitimate within the scientific realm. In the Methodological Naturalism (MN) camp two approaches are generally recognized. A compartmentalist argues for a radical separation between science and religion, strictly respecting the differences in the two ways of knowing and allowing complete independence and authority within each realm. A complementarist emphasizes that both types of truth describe a single world, each contributing incomplete but complementary information, and seeks consilience between the two. Within the Non-MN category there are also two groups. Both agree that supernatural explanations are legitimate and in fact necessary when scientists read God’s book of nature through empirical means, but proponents of Theistic Science recognize the prime authority of scripture by incorporating God’s word into their scientific models. This position generally leads them toward a Young Earth Creationist (YEC) point of view. The Open Philosophy approach agrees with MN in that it rejects revealed information as unscientific while insisting that science must be allowed to formulate supernatural explanations when led in that direction by empirical data. This approach, as exemplified by Intelligent Design (ID), is a theologically minimalist approach. ID proponents often make the point that their theories don’t point toward any particular “designer,” the role of which could even have perhaps been filled by some sort of alien intelligence. Whenever people are asked to choose a category that represents their particular point of view, it is possible that some respondents will feel that they don’t fit into a category, either because their own perspective is not described, or they agree with more than one. After teaching these four categories in my conceptual model for many years, I have found them sufficient to identify most approaches that are taken by Christians when discussing S&R perspectives and at least provide a helpful taxonomy for understanding the variety of approaches that exist in the Christian community. (One source that makes use of these particular four categories is the book Science & Christianity: Four Views, edited by Richard F. Carlson ). In order to help differentiate the four philosophical categories, the respondents also answered a question as to whether they identified more with a MN point of view, or one of theistic science. Knowing that these categories could be unfamiliar to the science teachers, I wrote brief definitions for each in order to familiarize them with the terminology and help them to choose the category with which most closely agreed. It is important to pay attention to these definitions when interpreting the results of this survey, since the respondents chose their categories based on these particular descriptions. The text of the two S&R ideology questions follows. Survey Question 11: When dealing with issues related to science and their faith, Christians use a variety of approaches that relate the two. Please tell us whether your approach tends more toward Methodological Naturalism or Theistic Science.
- A Christian who is a Methodological Naturalist tries to approach science as an entirely empirical enterprise, acquiring scientific knowledge through data that comes only from sensory input, and not incorporating any scriptural truths into their scientific theories.
- A Christian who is a Theistic Scientist integrates empirical data with beliefs that come through Biblical revelation, creating scientific theories that include not only empirical knowledge, but also information revealed to us by God in the Bible.
Please choose the viewpoint you most agree with:
- Methodological Naturalism
- Theistic Science
Please share any further thoughts (optional) Survey Question 12: When dealing with creation and evolution, Christian believers generally fall into one of four categories:
- Young-Earth Creationists, who think that natural evidence leads to the conclusion that the Earth is quite young, on the order of 10,000 years old, and who integrate Biblical revelations into their origins model.
- Intelligent Designers, who generally think that scientific evidence points toward an Earth that is quite old, but that natural causes alone are insufficient to explain biological diversity, and that empirical evidence leads to the necessity of an intelligent designer.
- Compartmentalists, who think that the religious and scientific ways of knowing are so different that it is virtually impossible for the two types of knowledge to interact or combine, so they should remain strictly separated and independent.
- Complementarists, who agree with compartmentalists that the mixing of scientific knowledge and beliefs should be avoided, but who consider the two views of the world to be complementary, each providing separately valid views of the world that should be able to communicate and reinforce each other.
Please choose the viewpoint you most agree with:
- Young-Earth Creationism
- Intelligent Design
Please share any further thoughts (optional) The point can certainly be made that it is inappropriate to identify the ID category as an old-Earth point of view, since the basic point of the IDers is that empirical evidence points toward a designer, which doesn’t address the age question. Several of the respondents made this point in their comments. However, there are hardly any ID researchers with a Young-Earth perspective, and I thought it was necessary to designate the ID category as such in order to prevent overlap.
On the MN question, 31.3% of the respondents identified with MN and 68.7% with Theistic Science. These results will mostly be interesting when cross-tabulated with the four S&R categories. Answers to the Four Categories question are summarized in Table 1. Table 1: Responses to the Four Categories question, with cross-tabulations by school’s denomination and LTD status. The comparison between schools is only made between LCMS and WELS schools since the number of respondents for all others was very small. The cross-tabulations for CUS vs. Non-CUS graduates are almost identical to the LTD data. Differences between sexes and among teachers in different courses are fairly insignificant.
The single most interesting piece of data from this survey is probably the percent of respondents who placed themselves in the Young-Earth Creationist (YEC) category. Before conducting the survey I knew that this number was likely to be of interest to many as a “conservatism snapshot,” and I knew that whatever the number happened to be that there would be some who would be disappointed that it was too high and some who would be displeased that it was too low. In discussions since the numbers were tabulated, I have encountered both reactions in response to finding out that about 60% of our Lutheran High School teachers identify themselves as YECs. Among the 20% identifying themselves as ID it should be noted that a few of the respondents’ written comments make it clear that they also think that the Earth is young. For those who chose Compartmentalism or Complementarity, it is notable how rarely the former viewpoint was selected. The percentage is higher among the WELS teachers but since the sample size was so small the total number who chose Compartmentalism was only four. The small Compartmentalist percentage is consistent with the views of some writers in the S&R field who are dismissive of the unresolved paradoxes at the heart of the Compartmentalist view, but I am not aware of any other research that has been done to measure the percentages in any given population. It would, of course, be quite interesting to compare these results with a similar survey of a group of scientists who identify themselves as Christians. An interesting pattern is evident when the category responses are cross-tabulated with years of teaching experience, as displayed in a scatter plot in Figure 2. Figure 2: S&R Approach displayed for each experience cohort for number of years teaching as a scatter plot. Cohort 1 = 0-2 years (N = 19), Cohort 2 = 3-5 years (N = 24), Cohort 3 = 6-10 years (N = 27), Cohort 4 = 11-20 years (N = 28), Cohort 5 = More than 20 years (N = 67). One can discern a clear trend in which the ID point of view is more common among the least experienced teachers. Perhaps this is not surprising, since ID did not exist as a distinct movement during the formative years of the older teachers. Perhaps the most interesting cross-tabulation is seen when we compare the four category responses with how the individual answered the question choosing MN or Theistic Science. This analysis is presented in Figure 3. Figure 3: S&R Approach cross-tabulated with respondents’ identification with a MN or Theistic point of view. In the context of the conceptual model in Figure 1, I expected respondents who agreed with the theistic view of science to choose the YEC or ID categories. This is somewhat true, with a clear majority of Theistic respondents choosing YEC or MN and a clear majority of MN respondents choosing Compartmentalism or Complementarity. However, those who went against type in the two questions are certainly common enough to prevent me from concluding that these philosophical types provide a foolproof ideological sorting mechanism.
Before I began this project, I considered seriously whether or not publishing measurements of this sort could be harmful to Lutheran education. Some could perhaps argue that it is best to not reveal the nature and quantity of approaches to S&R that exist in Lutheran high school science departments, since one side or another in the creation/evolution “wars” could use the data as a means to attack the other. In the conversations I’ve had with fellow Lutherans regarding this debate, many have urged caution. But a great majority of those I spoke to emphasized the need for us to speak openly with each other about these issues, regardless of differences that may exist, and encouraged the publication of this article. I believe that productive conversations are possible as long as those with differing viewpoints are able to “go meta,” to rise above their own point of view and make some effort to view our disagreements in a descriptive way, in order to distill our differences into their ideological essentials. Each ideological approach provides a reasonable and coherent point of view for those who subscribe to it, and it is often difficult or impossible to determine why a particular individual’s point of view has been adopted. The creation/evolution wars are fought on a complicated battlefield, a cognitive terrain that includes elements of empirical observation, theoretical knowledge, and a large number of philosophical assumptions. For instance, how can two people argue about evolutionary theory unless they share a common understanding of what a scientific theory is? I think that the two most important questions that divide Christians into different S&R perspectives are these:
- When doing science, should you gather data only with your senses, or include scriptural revelations in the theories you build?
- When formulating scientific explanations, should you restrict yourself to only natural mechanisms, or be open to any explanations that explain your data, including supernatural ones?
Reasonable Christians will continue to disagree about the correct answers to these questions, and we are unlikely to reach consensus about them in the LCMS this side of heaven. By characterizing our S&R disagreements as ideological rather than doctrinal, we enhance our ability to discuss them in a less acrimonious way, which allows us to focus on our most important task, ministering to our students. LEJ References Bube, Richard H. Putting it all Together: Seven Patterns for Relating Science and the Christian Faith. University Press of America, 1995. Carlson, Richard F. (editor). Science & Christianity: Four Views. Intervarsity Press, 2000.
 Editor’s note: The Lutheran Teacher Diploma is granted in conjunction with the appropriate baccalaureate degree from universities in the Concordia University System (LCMS) and accords the status of “commissioned minister” to the recipient. Those so designated are academically prepared in and subsequently responsible for representing the church body’s doctrinal positions appropriately in their classrooms.
Brent Royuk, Ph.D. is a Professor of Physics at Concordia University, Nebraska. He began his teaching ministry as a Lutheran High School science teacher at Metro-East Lutheran High in Edwardsville, IL for seven years before accepting a Call to CUNE. He teaches physics and science education courses at CUNE and is an avid bass guitar player. Dr. Royuk may be contacted at Brent.Royuk@cune.edu.