Inquiry, Not Science, as the Source of Secularization in Higher Education


The traditional claim in the literature on religion and science is that exposure to science leads to secularity because the claims about the natural world in the two systems are incompatible. More recently, research has narrowed this claim and shown that conflict over knowledge in the USA is primarily limited to one religion—conservative Protestantism—and only to a few fact claims. In this paper, I test this claim using longitudinal data from matched surveys taken in students’ first and fourth year of university. I find no evidence that the science is more secularizing than nonscience. I then turn to a distinction in university majors long used by sociologists of education—between majors focused on inquiry versus those focused on applying knowledge—and find that majors focused on inquiry are more likely to secularize than those focused on application. I interpret this to mean that learning to inquire secularizes.

(There’s a paywall on the full article, which can be gotten around by accessing it via Google Scholar , which generates a one-off ‘token’ that lets you through the paywall.)


@Tim , thanks for this! I read through the paper and it’s really quite informative.As someone who was trained (undergrad, grad, postdoc) at secular institutions but who now works in a “conservative Protestant” university context I find it particularly interesting. I appreciate the authors discussing the limitations of the study (for instance, using Seventh Day Adventist and Southern Baptists as representing “conservative Protestants” as whole). I too find that the “systemic knowledge conflict” model doesn’t quite match my experience. I see the “propositional conflict” in sciences and “moral conflict” in social sciences much more. However, this inquiry dimension is really interesting and really could be pretty useful.

As a science educator at a Christian university it does seem like we have some level of tension between secularization and inquiry. Secularization is generally considered a negative thing (i.e. we would like students to have deeper/stronger faith as a result of being here) On the other hand, we value inquiry and the liberal arts tradition of exposure to diverse ideas (i.e. we are intentionally not into indoctrination). I think this research could really help inform Christian higher ed folks as they try to navigate that tension.


Perhaps inquiry leads to secularity by way of exposing us to ernest adherents of views with which we disagree, adherents we want to make space for even if we maintain our disagreements.

Secularity presents a model for society in the midst of disagreement, a model to which I am attracted. There are not many competing models for society in disagreement period, if we are disinclined to all out conflict and excercising of power.

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