The Inter-relationship of Science and Religion: A Typology of Engagement

Author(s): Pam Hanley, Judith Bennett, and Mary Radcliffe

Source: Hanley, Pam, Judith Bennett, and Mary Radcliffe. 2014. “The Inter-relationship of Science and Religion: A Typology of Engagement.” International Journal of Science 36:1210-1229.


Examining science education in three different secondary school contexts in the UK, researchers consider student background and curriculum regarding the origins of the universe and life, creating a student typology of engagement and comparing it with teacher perceptions of students. Teachers at the Christian faith-based school and those at a non-faith school with a high majority of Muslim students were more sensitive to the interface between science and religion than secular schools with diverse student bodies.

About the Study
Hanley, Bennett and Ratcliffe investigated whether the religious background of students influenced their opinions and engagement with science education in four different schools and three school contexts (Christian faith-based, non-faith based with a large religious population, and two non-faith based schools). The study was conducted in the UK, where the issue is becoming more contentious, particularly with the rising proportions of Muslims and evangelical Christians in the population. While debate exists regarding the objective of teaching evolutionary theory—be it for gaining knowledge and understanding as opposed to personal acceptance—the majority view supports student understanding. The topic can create tension, particularly as the scientific content can overlap with student religious belief, something that is not generally a part of the science classroom. The article aims to understand student opinions about religious and scientific explanations of the origin of life and how students reconcile personal beliefs with what they encounter at school. The study included questionnaires and focus groups from over 200 secondary school students. Additional information was gathered through teacher interviews.

Student Typology 
Using grounded qualitative theory, the authors created a typology categorizing student background, belief, and engagement with the science content. Not surprisingly, students’ religious background influenced how they explained the origins of life, with Muslim students crediting God as the sole creator and the diverse group of Christian students crediting a combination of scientific and divine elements. The researchers determined four typologies of students, cautioning that these are fluid rather than static categories: (1) resistors, students who value belief-systems over fact-systems; (2) confused, students who see science and religion in competition without resolution; (3) reconciled, students who have come to a compromise between their thoughts on science and religion; and (4) explorers, students willing to question and try to fit both science and religion together. In addition, some students chose not to engage with the question, either due to lack of interest or perceived relevance. These students were not included in the typology.

School Context Differences
Interviews and focus groups were also conducted with science teachers at each of the four schools. Teachers at the faith-based school were more sensitive to the potential conflict between science and religion in the classroom. At the high proportion Muslim school, although not a faith-based school, teachers acknowledged the need for considering student context in presenting evolutionary theory. Teachers in the secular schools did not take student background into consideration, assuming that there was no conflict between the two. The authors suggest that this stance is problematic as teachers may risk alienating students and decreasing student engagement in science when they do not acknowledge that the content may be troubling or disconcerting to some students. While a very small study, the authors suggest that school context was in part responsible for how teachers handled the content and that students’ considered their personal views on the topic independent from the teacher’s personal perspective.

Implications for Practice
With the diversity of belief regarding the origins of life evident in student responses, the authors argue for “sensitive handling” of the interplay between faith and science particularly as it relates to evolutionary theory. Teachers should consider the context of their students and classes in order to best engage and support student understanding without alienating particular groups of students. Further study related to teacher practice would provide additional information as to how to best approach this often complicated and fraught topic. Religious schools have the potential to more closely and sensitively bring the subjects together in the spirit of dialogue, which may allow for a stronger bridge between home and school contexts. Engaging with differing ideas, beliefs, and systems of thought provides students with the opportunity to develop critical thinking skills and empowers them to consider multiple approaches to an issue, to ask important questions, and to determine how the ideas fit or do not fit together in their personal worldview. In acknowledging differences between belief and science, students have the potential to gain more from the science curriculum than just a basic understanding of concepts.

Keywords: science, religion, secondary education, evolutionary theory

Sector: Catholic,  Evangelical Protestant,  Muslim,  Other Protestant,  Public

Outcomes: Academic,  Cultural Impact,  Religious and Spiritual

Date Posted: 2014-06-18