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Religious Belief and College Attendance PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Christina Stephens   

Recently I read here that a study [1] had been conducted which looks at the trends between the study of certain subjects in college and religious observance. The study concluded that very religious high school students are more likely than less religious high school students to attend college.

This may surprise the skeptical world. I've heard many times that people with high levels of religiosity tend to be less educated and less intelligent whereas people with low religiosity tend to be more educated and more intelligent. Typically people cite an article published in nature as evidence for this phenomenon [2], if they cite an article at all. So why is this study saying that people who are more religious are more likely to attend college?

The authors first rightfully point out that there is a pressure in the United States toward being religious, yet despite this pressure (especially from families), religiosity is remaining more or less steady and even swinging downward as the years go by. One common culprit blamed on this is college, given that college tends to be the first time people are separated from their families for an extended period of time.

The goal of the study was to look at how contents of college curriculum affect student values and to distinguish these effects from patterns of selection based on already-held values. The study hypothesizes that college students are confronted (in varying degrees) to three streams of thought in college that have certain negative attitudes toward religion, and that these streams of thought may have an effect on religiosity. Those streams of thought are:

Science - consisting of a commitment to truth, the scientific method and open-mindedness toward evidence. Natural science fields have a strong scientist content.

Developmentalism - consisting of a commitment to freedom and progress. Economics and business have a strong developmentalist content.

Postmodernism - consisting of a commitment to relativism of truth and morality and the idea that truth and morality are determined by those who are most powerful. The humanities and social sciences have a strong postmodernist content.

The article delves much deeper into exactly what these three streams of thought are and how they come into conflict with religiosity (in a refreshingly impartial manner), but for the purposes of this article I will leave them simply defined. If one accepts that different majors are tied to different streams of thought, it is possible to test whether any of these three streams of thought contribute to reduced religiosity by looking at initial choices of major and changes of major over time in concordance with any changes in religiosity. They specifically examined the changes in religiosity from high school and into college, using a sample size of literally thousands of students in Michigan from high school and through college.

Here are some of their findings:

-compared to business majors, social sciences and humanities have a statistically significant negative effect on both attendance of religious services and the rating of the importance of religion.

-education majors were more religious than other majors and their religiosity increased over time.

-religiosity increases over time for business majors

-religious attendance decreased for students who are undecided about college major.

-religious attendance decreased for respondents who did not go to college.

-students in science and engineering have less trust in god than people who have not gone to college or business majors (as measured by asking the respondents, "if we just leave things to god, they will turn out for the best [disagree, mostly disagree, neither agree nor disagree, mostly agree, agree]").

-students who were social science, humanities or engineering tended to think religious organizations should have less of an effect on society, whereas subjects who had not gone to college thought religious organizations should have more influence on society.

The study was fairly well-designed, so I was quite surprised to find that students who were more religious were more likely to attend college, given that it seems to contradict other studies (such as the one reported on in Michael Shermer'sHow We Believe: Science, Skepticism and the Search for God [3]) which indicate that atheism increases with education level.  Religiosity was rated on a 1-4 scale ("how often to you attend religious services? [1=never, 2=rarely 3=once or twice a month 4=about once a week or more]"), and each point on the scale corresponded with a 14% increases in the likelihood of going to college. A change in the rated importance of religion by one point amounted to an 8% increase in the likelihood of going to college.

I think that a weakness in the study lies in the fact that they did not take into account the different denominations of college attendees, and rather used "religious attendance" and "importance of religion" as their measures of religiosity. As such, the study ignored the positive or negative impacts of particular denominations or religious schools of thought, especially Sectarianism (the belief that religious rewards will be given exclusively to the adherents of a particular faith) and fundamentalism (finding value in sacred texts, especially the belief in the inerrancy of biblical texts). Studies have shown that sectarianism and fundamentalism in particular has a negative impact on educational attainment [4], and especially the educational attainment of women [5]. Sectarian and fundamentalist individuals are also more likely to choose a religious college.

One other interesting thing to note is that the reported amount of time people spend at religious services does not seem to correlate with actual religious service attendance - studies show the actual number is about half of what people report - suggesting that many people overestimate (or lie about?) how often they attend [6]. The best this study can say with regard to religious service attendance is that the people who likely overestimate how often they attend are more likely to go to college.

1. Kimball MS, Mitchell CM, Thornton AD, Young-

2. Larson EJ, Witham L. Leading scientists still reject god. Nature 1998:394;313

3.Shermer, M. How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God. New York: William H Freeman. 1999:76-79. ISBN 071673561X.

4.Sherkat DE. Religion and higher education: the good, the bad, and the ugly. 2007: Online at http://religion.ssrc.org/reforum/Sherkat.pdf

5. Sherkat, DE, Darnell A. The Effect of Parents' Fundamentalism on Children's

Educational Attainment: Examining Differences by Gender and Children's Fundamentalism Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 1999:38;23-35.

6. Hadaway CK,Marler L,Chaves M. what the polls don't show: a closer look at U.S. church attendance. American Sociological Review 1993:58;741-752

Christina Stephens, OTD/s, blogs at www.ziztur.com

 

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Hate to be that guy since I know my blog is still littered with fat fingers but I'd want to know:
written by Jake, August 02, 2009
"if on accepts that different majors are tied to different streams of thought..." should be "if ONE accepts that different majors are tied to different streams of thought..."

Aside, this is an excellent article and a thought provoking study.

EDITED BY JeffWagg: thanks, all typo corrections are appreciated. smilies/smiley.gif
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written by Bruno, August 02, 2009
Although the overall result looks counterintuitive based on the simplified notion that "study equals critical thought" it is quite logical to expect the actual study subject to be a strong factor. "Business" for instance, is hardly a science. Virtually no controlled studies are done to determine what are successful and unsuccessful management techniques. Instead, people simply copy those who fared well, that is, they follow anecdotal evidence. Thus, business training is little more than bombarding students with stuff to remember without telling them how to think critically.
That social sciences have a stronger negative effect on religiosity than physical science is also no surprise, since being told religion is bad is more efficient than being told to work it out for yourself.
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written by MadScientist, August 02, 2009
I think lumping all religions together is a huge mistake; the "religious vs. not religious" in that study is not a very useful distinction and I believe that some statements are misleading statements of correlation at best, for example the conclusion:

"very religious high school students are more likely than less religious high school students to attend college."

Damn the distinction between causation and correlation.

This claim, if true, is worrisome:

"education majors were more religious than other majors and their religiosity increased over time."
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written by Killer Rabbit, August 02, 2009
written by Bruno, August 02, 2009
That social sciences have a stronger negative effect on religiosity than physical science is also no surprise, since being told religion is bad is more efficient than being told to work it out for yourself.

Does social science really tell people religion is bad? I thought it was science; good/bad is not a scientific distinction but a moral judgment. What I rather suspect is that telling people that it is a social construct is what makes them reconsider its validity.
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written by Otara, August 02, 2009
I guess the question here is whats really being measured.

If religiosity is measured by regularity of attendance, then maybe whats really being measured here is the relationship between studiousness or consistency and academic achievement, rather than religiosity as such? Regular attendance could also be an indirect measure of life stability in general.

Overall Id be hesitant to conclude much without a fair bit research into other variables that may be confounding the results.



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written by Mark P, August 02, 2009
This claim, if true, is worrisome:

"education majors were more religious than other majors and their religiosity increased over time."


This appears to be true in New Zealand. I found that more of my fellow teacher trainees were religious than most Kiwis (which, admittedly, isn't saying much).

But why worrisome? How much do you think the religiousness of teachers affects students? If anything, the fact that a teacher does something has a tendency to make it uncool.

I wear a tie and business shirt to work every day. Do you think that my kids will do the same, in imitation? smilies/cheesy.gif

If you want kids to become less reflexively religious, then what matters is the football players crossing themselves and pointing to the heavens. Or Hollywood actors' statements of religion. Or Hannah Montana. Teachers are so far down the list in teenagers' regard that their influence on social patterns is trivial.
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@killer rabbit
written by Bruno, August 02, 2009
With reference to the linked article. Social "sciences" have a cultural relativistic (postmodern in the terms of this study) take which indeed tells students that all culture is constructed, and is antagonistic to religion. I should add that they are also antagonistic to science because it too is considered dogmatic and yet another cultural narrative. Studying social sciences may provide an impulse for leaving organized religion, but for the wrong reasons.
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written by MadScientist, August 03, 2009
@Mark P: I would guess that you're not familiar with US cultures in general. Religious teachers is a very bad thing. In Texas the creationists and revisionists of history are trying to push nonsense into the classrooms and recently a law was passed which essentially leaves the door open for teachers in Texas to foist creationist garbage upon the students in the guise of "intelligent design" and also to give students the deceitful impression that creationism is an accepted scientific theory which is as credible as evolution. Many other states such as Oklahoma and Minnesota are also being threatened by the march of ignorance.
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missed something:
written by MadScientist, August 03, 2009
@Mark P: Many teachers are religious but have the sense to leave religion out of the public schools. However, generally people who rank themselves as being very religious in general try to push their religion whenever and wherever they think they can; the Bill of Rights essentially prohibits such action within the public schools and any government agency but the fundamentalists are doing their best to undermine the laws of the land.
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written by Amos M., August 03, 2009
@Killer Rabbit and Bruno
Based on my (admittedly limited) experience with social sciences, I don't think it's necessarily accurate to say that they are antagonistic to religion, or that they consider hard science to be dogmatic. A belief that religion is a cultural construct is a fairly accurate description, but I don't see how that's in any way a "wrong" reason to leave organized religion.

As for being antagonistic towards science, I think the attitude is more along the lines of putting aside any and all cultural beliefs when attempting to study a foreign culture. This does not mean that objectivity goes out the window, but simply that it is best to view things from a completely neutral standpoint in such a case. Analyzing the scientific validity of the beliefs of foreign cultures is not something they are against, it's just not something that is part of their job. If you don't temporarily remove scientific beliefs, it may be hard to, for instance, objectively and accurately document a "magical" ritual without throwing in the word "bullshit" every other sentence. This doesn't mean you believe in the ritual, but just that you do not mention in a paper that it's a load of crap. It also may help to avoid knee-jerk rejection of overtly woo-woo things that could yield up a grain of truth upon closer inspection.

Obviously there is going to be variation between individual professionals, as well as disciplines, so some social scientists probably are of the opinion that science and voodoo should have equal weight, but saying that this is the viewpoint of social scientists as a group is not quite fair.

@ Otara
I think you're on the right track with figuring out why religious people might be more likely to attend college: American society encourages both religious attendance and education, generally. Some people are more concerned with what society thinks of them, and therefore might be more likely to do both. Similar factors are at work with the correlation between eating disorders and being a well-educated middle/upper class white female.
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Loaded question, isn't it?
written by dmitrybrant, August 03, 2009
if we just leave things to god, they will turn out for the best [disagree, mostly disagree, neither agree nor disagree, mostly agree, agree]
Stopped beating your wife yet?
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@Amos M
written by Bruno, August 03, 2009
The reason why I see "religion, like anything else, is a social construct" as the wrong reason is because it basically tells you that you can believe anything you want. The right reason "is lack of evidence".
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Social Science
written by GusGus, August 03, 2009

Just because something has the word "science" in its name doesn't mean that it's a science. Just think about Creation Science. There are too many "sciences" floating around: Social Science, Political Science, etc., that are not really sciences.

As far as I'm concerned the only fields that can be considered sciences are those within the large categories Mathematics, Physical Sciences (Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy, Geology, etc.), and Biology (including Medicine, but not including Psychology - which is so "soft" a science as to not be one at all).
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written by Paul Murray, August 03, 2009
I commented on this elsewhere that this study needs to be controlled for social isolation, that is: it's possible that the increase in college attendance is owing towards more religious young people having a better support network. Sadly, college attendance is often simply a matter of money. Perhaps all this study really tells us is that religion and the religious have an entrenched position.
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written by Paul Murray, August 03, 2009
"The reason why I see "religion, like anything else, is a social construct" as the wrong reason is because it basically tells you that you can believe anything you want."

I'd put a finer point on it than that. People - in fact - *do* believe "whatever they want". Including you and me. Therefore, it's a good idea to examine our beliefs and where they came from, and not to privilege our own ideas. The goal, as Descartes put it, is to doubt everything and therefore arrive as some certainty. Or a livable approximation thereof.

To put it another way: "why do we trust science" is a real question, and having an answer to it is terribly important. The current resurgence of woo is not because people don't *know* science, but because they have been persuaded not to *trust* it.
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@mark p, Lowly rated comment [Show]
Psychology as a Science
written by Rustylizard, August 03, 2009
@GusGus

I agree, there are too many things described as science that are not. However, I would not put psychology into that category. It uses double blind studies and statistics to determine many of its behavioral findings, and it uses the self correcting factors of evidence and repeatablity to arrive at its conclusions (note - I exclude “pop-psychologists” and “armchair psychologists” from this discipline altogether).

You would be amazed at how this science has progressed in the past fifty years. To keep up on its progress, I took a couple of courses through The Teaching Company entitled Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality, and Understanding the Brain. Behavioral study is becoming more and more intertwined with “harder” disciplines such as biochemistry, genetics, physiology, and more. New tools have become available to psychology, and its findings are fascinating. I understand where you are coming from, but study it in a little more detail. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.
smilies/smiley.gif
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written by bosshog, August 03, 2009
Otara:
I was thinking much the same. Religion is by definition a "discipline" (if taken at all seriously). The religious life involves introspection, self-study and ongoing growth and development. Religion is something of an "education" in itself.
Also there is a strong component of adherence to societal norms in Christianity and education is highly valued in America.
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Religiousity or conformity?
written by sailor, August 03, 2009
That very religious high school students are more likely to go to college is not surprising in the USA. It would be very surprising in Sweden.
One possibility is that this is an indication of conformity. Obedient students that do what their parents tell them, and work hard at school, go to college.
It seems to me that since religion is mainly passed from parents to kids, this study is missing a vital link - the religious attitudes of the parents.
Neither does this contradict that better educated people are less religious. It happens later when they get to learn and question.
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written by sailor, August 03, 2009
"You would be amazed at how this science has progressed in the past fifty years. To keep up on its progress, I took a couple of courses through The Teaching Company entitled Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality, and Understanding the Brain. Behavioral study is becoming more and more intertwined with “harder” disciplines such as biochemistry, genetics, physiology, and more. New tools have become available to psychology, and its findings are fascinating. I understand where you are coming from, but study it in a little more detail. I think you will be pleasantly surprised."

@ GUSGUS That was a great course. I was amazed at how much had been learned in this field since I as in college. But I also did one on psychology, a subject which I studied back int he 60's. I was amazed at how little knowledge in that field seemed to have changed in the same time!
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@rustylizard
written by Bruno, August 03, 2009
Indeed. A lot of psychological research these days is conducted as a proper science and achieves a very high standard of experimental design. Too sad so few practicing therapists are aware of what their research peers are doing.
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written by Rustylizard, August 03, 2009
@sailor
Thanks for your last post. I think you meant to address it to me instead of GusGus. We studied in the same era. I wavered about taking the Great Ideas in Psychology course, but it seemed to be a cursory and largely historical review of the entire field, and your assessment seems to confirm that. Understanding the Brain, however, gives insight to people who ask themselves questions like: “Who am I? What am I? How do I work?” It certainly provides a challenge to ancient mythical concepts. smilies/smiley.gif
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written by sailor, August 03, 2009
Rustilizard, yes that post was for you.
Psychology has been a science, and has always used proper experimental techniques at least since I studied it back in the 60s. For whatever reasons it just does not seem to have progressed in a big way, at least not compared to the biological approach. Ideas about psychology being a result of evolution were already around.
The concept of memes were not, but apart from the conception, that really has not made much progress yet.
The only entirely significant bit of new research that I could see was in the field of embedding memories, and I found that interesting.
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Some other factors to consider
written by MissKitt, August 03, 2009
Reading the article, I immediately thought: Did they ever check denomination? Certain religious/social subgroups highly emphasize education and professional careers--for example, Jewish culture (regardless of actual belief). Similarly, overall Asian-americans put a higher emphasis on education.

Also, when defining "college", what criteria did they use? Or did the subjects self-identify college? I ask this because a number of religious colleges offer 'degrees' that are not necessarily nationally accreditted. They also offer generous assistance to applicants of the right background, ie, already believers/attendees of their source denomination. "Northwest Bible College" for example is not a place one goes to get a Bachelor of Science in Astrophysics, but it would undoubtedly be identified as 'going to college' by a high school student.

Finally, I see conflict between religious families being more likely to send their kids to school, and higher levels of education correlating with lower levels of belief. Many religions advocate focussing on one's family and community; discourage such money-wasting vices as gambling, excessive drinking, and using drugs; and discourage divorce / encourage marriage. All of those would make it more likely a child is in a stable and economically viable home, which is a good platform for success in school. Once the kid is off to school, the broadening of the world and especially the practice of learning to *think* in the college experience may lead to questioning what one was taught as a child.

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**ERRATUM**
written by MissKitt, August 03, 2009
First sentence of last paragraph should begin, "Finally, I see no conflict..." apologies for not proofing before posting. MK
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Religious colleges shouldn't be included in poll.
written by monstrmac1, August 03, 2009
If this study included religious colleges then the findings were known from the start. Religion is a criteria for entry to some colleges which tells me they'll accept students with less intelligence or merit than a secular college. I think the poll should cut out attendees who plan to go into ministry despite the affiliation of the college.
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@GusGus and Psychology as a science
written by stevekelner, August 03, 2009
As a research psychologist with a Ph.D in the subject -- and as neither a therapist nor clinician -- I can speak with some authority when I say that psychology damn well is a science, by any reasonable definition. Furthermore, you appear to be making the common mistake of confusing content with process. The scientific method is a process, which can be applied in any field. The challenge in the social sciences is that the foundation content is far more complex than most of the ones you cite and harder to nail down, in part because of a fundamental difficulty of studying your brain with your brain, so to speak. Furthermore, unlike most other academic fields, psychology lends itself to poor and sensationalistic reporting in the media, more than anything save medical discoveries around diet and weight!
For those who haven't seen anything change in psychology since the 1960s, I respectfully suggest you aren't looking in the right places. The Association for Psychological Science (which split off from the more clinician-friendly APA in the late 1980s) publishes four journals, all of which are pretty hard-core. I would say what has changed the most is the ability to trace psychological phenomena to a neurological substrate, either through things like fMRI or neurochemistry. (I was working in psychoneuroimmunology -- personality linked to neurochemistry affecting the immune system -- back in the late 80s and early 90s. It was new then; there are a number of journals about it now.)
Increasingly we are seeing concepts that had been painfully worked out through indirect methods -- measures of personality and intelligence, for example, which are in my field -- becoming identified more directly with particular neurological pathways and chemistry. We are mere infants in this realm, but the process is science nonetheless.
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Ooops - about the article
written by stevekelner, August 03, 2009
And I agree with those who have criticized this study is insufficiently detailed. Not separating out religious universities, for example, is a critical error, and identifying specific religious sects more so. Judaism, for example, encourages advanced education and critical thought; fundamentalist Bible colleges certainly do not.
I would also wonder what would happen if you measured people five years after college. Could be religious going in, and irreligious going out.
And as a social scientist, I can see why social science might be associated with a reduction in religiosity in some people. It has been said that Darwin, Einstein, and Freud destroyed the ego of humanity. Darwin because we were just another animal; Einstein because we were a small part of a large universe; and Freud because we didn't even know most of our own minds.
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not very contradictory
written by BMN, August 03, 2009
I was quite surprised to find that students who were more religious were more likely to attend college, given that it seems to contradict other studies which indicate that atheism increases with education level.

They don't seem inherently contradictory to me. Measuring those who "attend college" is measuring those who enter the university. Measuring those who've attained a particular education level is measuring those who've already finished all or some of their university education. And it's the process of becoming educated which creates the correlation with atheism.

In short, they can go in believers and come out nonbelievers and this isn't a contradiction.
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re: ooops @ stevekeiner
written by StarTrekLivz, August 03, 2009
Thanks for your second posting! I myself attended a liberal arts college affiliated with the Congregational Church, United Church of Christ (don't ask, my family's religious affiliations are a tangled mess), which is a normally liberal denomination (with some fascinating exceptions).

Even in retrospect, I can see we got a good, solid education in social sciences and hard sciences without religious bias; and although a minimum number of courses in religion were required, the Bible courses were taught as historical-critical examinations of the texts rather than indoctrination to a particular theological point of view, and the Church History class did nothing to gloss over either the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, the American colonies' religious conformance laws (and what a bad idea that was) etc.
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written by Mark P, August 03, 2009
Mad Scientist: I know that in the US religious teachers may try and foist ridiculous anti-science concepts. You are right to make that illegal. ID and the like should never be in the curriculum.

But my point is that teachers struggle to persuade students on social issues. If it isn't in the curriculum, they don't care what we think. I bet almost all teachers are anti-drug, yet how effective has that been? There are many more powerful forces to influence teenagers than teachers.

So long as the curriculum is pro-science and teachers are made to teach to it, the actual beliefs of the teachers is largely irrelevant. Science teachers who try to teach ID or the like should be sacked, just as Maths teachers who taught incorrect geometry would be sacked. But when a History teacher tries to influence students by giving dodgy views on science in their class, they are just ignored ("What would a history teacher know about Science?" they reckon.)
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written by GeekGoddess, August 03, 2009
I'm not surprised. I attended church through early college, and the basis of my social circle was the kids from my church group. Thinking back on the dozen or so that I hung with most of the time, everyone of them went to college, and only one went into anything that would be a 'religious' career, with a music major that emphasized choral music. When I arrived at college, I had friends from many different disciplines rather than just my own degree plan - many of them the girlfriends/husband/wives of my engineering classmates.

The bible colleges do offer science classes - I worked with a lab researcher who got her chemistry degree at Houston Baptist. We never spoke about biology, however. smilies/grin.gif
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written by Skeptigirl, August 03, 2009
written by GusGus, August 03, 2009
Just because something has the word "science" in its name doesn't mean that it's a science. Just think about Creation Science. There are too many "sciences" floating around: Social Science, Political Science, etc., that are not really sciences.
Your definition of science is lacking.

While Creation science isn't science, dismissing what you have labeled as "soft science" reflects your lack of knowledge about how we do research in those fields. I recommend you peruse some professional journals in those fields to discover the methodology one uses to study complex multi-variable human behaviors. It might surprise you to see just how scientific even political science is.

Check out the work of Dr David Domke, one of my favorite political science professors:
http://faculty.washington.edu/domke/research.html He's one of the few openly theist scientists I have tremendous respect for.
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written by Otara, August 03, 2009
As someone who is also a psychologist, Im quite cheerfully willing to say that theres plenty of junk science within the discipline, particularly on the counselling/therapy end of things.

But I wouldnt want to see the baby thrown out with the bathwater.
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@otara
written by Bruno, August 04, 2009
Precisely. The chasm between the research end and the practicing end is quite remarkable. I haven't seen anything like that elsewhere, except perhaps in audio engineering.
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Personal characteristics
written by jrherbaugh, August 04, 2009
High school seniors who attend church instead of sleeping-in are likely to be people who obey their parents and/or self-motivated. It shouldn't be surprising that they at least make an attempt at college.
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@ Bruno
written by pxatkins, August 06, 2009
Saw your movie, dude. smilies/shocked.gif
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