Science in Christian Perspective



Sociology and the Christian Student: 
A Statement of the Problem1
Richard Perkins 

Houghton College 
Houghton, New York 14744

From: JASA 32 (June1980): 114-118.

It appears to be self-evident that a certain amount of antipathy exists between evangelical and fundamentalistic forms of Christianity on the one hand, and the behavioral sciences on the other. Moreover, sociology in particular seems to attract more than its share of attention when this antipathy is recognized and debated publicly. A friend recently attended a Southern Baptist church in Florida and returned with this account of the message: the minister emphatically agrued that college education can-and often does-create real problems for the Christian student. He therefore recommended that parents in the congregation send their sons and daughters to (preferably local) "Bible-believing" colleges. Beyond this, he maintained that under no circumstances should they permit their children-whether they be at a local Christian college or not to- enroll in sociology courses. For, should higher education in general not prove fatal to their faith, sociology surely would.

As a college professor, a sociologist, and as one who would classify himself (should the need arise) as an evangelical Christian, I believe the minister has a point. Of course, I do not think that intellectually capable students should stay out of college or that they should avoid sociology: at the very least, my vested interests in both would urge me to reject that stance. But I do believe that Christian faith and sociology do not easily mix --that is, they do not lend themselves as readily to intellectual synthesis as biology (or, better yet, physics) and Christianity.

Of course, this is not the first time a more general version of this issue has been raised. The question of the incompatability of science and religion is, obviously, one which has received the atten tion of many scholars.2 The central question in these essays revolves around the real or apparent intellectual antipathy between faith and reason as the basis for one's world view. While there need be no necessary logical inconsistency between these two perspectives, we find that they are often held to be alternative, rather than merely different, orientations used in making sense out of the world. The apparent 'winner' in this on-going struggle has been science whereas the Bible claims that the "just shall live by faith," the typical citizen of modern society increasingly seems to prefer living by empirical observation. From the outcome of the famous Scopes trial to the local pastor who now consults psychology texts in order to formulate his moral pronouncements on the effects of TV viewing, science has steadily made inroads into areas previously defined as the exclusive domain of religion.3

In addition to the issues arising from science posed as an alternative Weltanschauung, the argument has also extended to the more specific subject of the behavioral sciences. Here again there is no shortage of analytical literature. It is when religion (as an individual's belief system or as a bureaucratic organization) becomes the dependent variable in psychological, anthropological, or sociological theories that the otherwise implicit conflict between social science and religious commitment becomes explicit. Here the student is confronted with empirical evidence-not someone's opinion, mind you-demonstrating that religiosity vanes with such non-supernatural factors as income, sex, occupational status, education, authoritarianism, anomie, tolerance for ambiguity, peer group pressures, and various forms of psychological complexes. Moreover, the churches which parishioners form in their collective pursuit of organized religion typically turn out to be very similar to non-religious bureaucratic organizations in their financial manipulations, promotional schemes, career motivations, and so forth. In other words, behavioral science has shown religion to be a very human (i.e.. "secular") activity indeed, and while this may not provide Christian students with a rationale for pitching their faith, it probably causes many of them to look at religion in a very different (and henceforth critical) light.

The Sociology- Christianity Debate

When we focus more specifically on the role of sociology in this on-going debate, we find that very little has been written-especially when the object is to analyze the effect that the study of sociology has on the religious commitment of the evangelical Christian student.4

Rather than attempt a full-scale analysis of all the 'trouble spots.' I briefly discuss two issues in contemporary sociology which pose potential problems for Christian faith-particularly the faith of Christian students studying sociology for the first time. One of these issues deals with the results of empirical studies in the sociology of religion and the other arises from sociological theory as applied to the interpretation of one's daily existence.

Empirical Findings and Faith

There exists within sociology a strong, yet often implicit, theme which Peter Berger and others refer to as the "debunking motif:"

"The sociological frame of reference, with its built-in procedure of looking for levels of reality other than those given in the official definitions of society, carries with it the logical imperative to unmask the pretensions and the propaganda by which men cloak their actions with each other."5

In some cases this unmasking effort is deliberate and therefore obvious. For example, sociologists point out that things are not always as them seem: that the operations of bureaucratic organizations are influenced by informal social controls which are not included on the official tables of organizational authority or that people "fall in love" for many reasons which are not recognized (or, at least not acknowledged publicly) by the lovers themselves. In other words, sociologists often find through their studies of social behavior that there is a lot more going on than what the people say is going on. Moreover, these "unofficial" levels of reality uncovered by sociological analysis involve insights which to many seem threatening. For example, lovers tend to become somewhat disenchanted when it is pointed out to them that many of the factors which play a part in shaping their relationship have absolutely nothing to do with Cupid's arrows.6

More to the point, sociology has contributed alternative perspectives on religious interaction which many persons find uncomfortable- -perhaps even outrageous. For example, it was the sociologist Max Weber, following the suggested (if somewhat less sophisticated) lead of Karl Marx, who undertook the first fullscale empirical investigation of religious styles and social location, showing that religious world views vary in systematic and consistent ways from one social class to another. More recently, H. Richard Niebuhr has given us a detailed sociohistorical analysis of denominational growth and the political and economic forces which, at least in part, generated them.7

Empirical studies in the sociology of religion have frequently revealed findings which debunk the image many Christian students have of the church. Liston Pope's analysis of Gastonia, North Carolina, for example, uncovered the blatant ideological functions of local Protestant churches and the role that sermons played in thwarting the union effort in the textile industry.8 Festinger's study of a millenarian sect reveals that the underlying dynamic in binding a congregation together is based upon social and psychological factors having little, if anything, to do with acknowledged religious goals.9

Other studies have also shown that vigorous orthodox commitments often come from persons who represent anything but those who have been profoundly "touched by the love of God." For the most part, these studies have shown that religious orthodoxy and religious commitment are strongest in those persons who are most authoritarian and dogniatic,10 illiberal and closeminded,11 so cially isolated,12 ethnocentric,13 and anti-democratic.14 Findings such as these are hardly likely to make the Christian student wish to renew his or her commitment to the family of professed believers.15

An addition to pointing out that God's people possess feet of clay, (or even perhaps that their feet are dirtier than most), sociological analysis also rests upon the observation that values are relative to the group which endorses them: that is to say, one's perception of the world is more realistically described as an interpretation and one's interpretation varies according to the group in which one is socially located. Thus, the student of sociology inevitably discovers that values are relative. Yet, at the same time, the Christian is, by definition, committed to a set of absolute values -conceptions of how the world ought to operate which are said not to be subject to historical, geographic, or social factors. Even though the value-relativism of the social scientists belongs in the category of empirical claims while the absolute values of the Christian respresent a non-empirical judgment, the possibility of intellectual tension between the two nonetheless exists. For many Christian students, a "belief in" one necessitates rethinking one's "belief in" the other.

There is at least one more reason to suspect that the findings from sociological research tend 10 run counter to the world-view shared by most Christian students. Most of these students subscribe to the common sense notion that attitudes have causal primacy over behavior. Even though this "attitudes first" thesis is widely held in American culture in general, there is good reason to suspect that evangelical Christians have an even greater attachment to this style of thinking. The basic goal of evangelical Christians is to expand the influence of Christ on earth. The means to this end is some variation of "soul-winning." Here the mind of the non-believer is the basic focus rather than the non-believer's behavior. In other words, the emphasis is on the "heart" rasher than superficial externalities of behavior. To express this in biblical terms, the Epistle of James, while not forgotten, takes a back seat to the Epistle of Hebrews: faith is placed first -and changes in behavior follow.

The point here is not to debate the theological issue at hand, but to point out that this sort of reasoning is likely to have an effect on the way in which one generally interprets the world. It is at this point that the student discovers (and, it is my experience that this discovery is accompanied by some degree of discomfort) that conclusions from research studies run counter to this assertion. Although the attitudes-behavior relationship is at least in part reciprocal, the emphasis appears so he on behavior changing attitudes, rather than on the other way around. Thomas Pettigrew puts the matter succinctly: "behaving differently more often precedes thinking differently."16

What is at issue here is not merely a matter of revising one's thoughts about a rather abstract relationship. Rather, this intellectual shift has the potential to shift one's theology as well, and it is this shift which brings out the real threat. Is must occur to at least some of these students that one's religious commitment is a function of one's typical behavior (as a factor of one's social location, reference groups, etc.). Peter Berger, whose Invitation To Sociology is assigned reading in many introductory courses, says as much in the following quote: "Rules carry with them both certain actions and the emotions and attitudes that belong to these actions.

... The preacher finds himself believing what he preaches ... In other words, one becomes (a believer) by engaging in activities which presuppose belief."17 Many students find this notion upsetting not simply because it contradicts the speculations of common sense, but because it threatens to undermine the validity of their spiritual commitment.

Sociological Theory and Religious Faith

As is indicated in the preceding paragraph, underlying all theoretical work in sociology-from functiunalistic stratification models to labeling theories of social deviance-is the proposition that reality is socially constructed. This enterprise in reality construction initially takes place as human beings collectively project meanings unto objects and events which confront them. Thus, instead of confronting a chaotic and therefore terrifying world, the average member of society can rest assured that Normal people are going about their Normal affairs.

The crucial point in all this- -and one which often goes unnoticed unless sociologists are around to point it out -is that this socially constructed reality is stabilized by the inevitable process of reification, whereby these meanings take on an ontological status they otherwise do not deserve. It is one thing for persons to declare that "little girls are not aggressive," thereby creasing (assuming this is a new idea) a predictable and therefore meaningful social world in which to operate: it is quite another thing to assume that little girls must be unaggressive. The motive for the first statement is usually nothing more than sheer convenience: the behavior of little girls ought to be at least somewhat predictable; if it were not, social order would be less tenable than it already is. Here it is implied that normal little girls can be anything humanly imaginable and that unaggrcssivcness is the role we somehow happened to settle on. But the second statement more accurately characterizes the social world in which most of us live most of the time; the issue of normality in little-girl behavior is not ordinarily open for serious debate. Once established as Normal behavior, our roles as traditionally defined tend to become fixed and immutable; in other words, the meanings symbolized by these roles become reified.

Of course, all of these ideas are common to any introductory sociology course.18 It is my experience that ideas such as these tend to transform the consciousness of students; what was previously seen as ordinary (and rather dull) everyday social behavior now becomes a fascinating if not consciously-planned conspiracy to maintain an artificial, socially imposed set of meanings. But the Christian student is likely to react with shock when he or she learns of the part which religion has historically played in this conspiracy.

This is neither the time nor the place to go into a detailed empirical account of how religious movements have involved themselves in reality-maintenance enterprises throughout history.19 More to the point of this paper, it should be emphatically underscored that this sort of intellectual revelation can, and often does, have a profound effect upon Christian students. Quite often these students have previously been encouraged to think of religion as a purely personal affair-not in the sense that it is "private," but in the sense that religion has not been perceived as a collective social enterprise subject to the same institutional factors as are other spheres of collective action. When seen as just one more institutionalized activity, religious faith can become (to use Max Weber's famous concept) disenchanted: i.e., it can lose its distinctive character. When the realm of the sacred falls within the analytical purview of the social scientist, the phenomenon itself must inevitably be transformed from a unique aspect of human experience into just another mundane human activity. The point here is to acknowledge that the Christian student of social behavior is likely so find him or herself in a difficult position: the detached sardonic observer is a tough role to integrate with that of committed believer. The result is quite often either anxiety and tension or an alteration of one or both of the roles, so that they can be played without enduring the cognitive dissonance involved. When the second option is exercised, the result will be a poor grasp of sociology's analytical purpose, the loss of some measure of religious commitment, or perhaps an alteration of the original religious world view.

Closely related to this problem is the collectivistic orientation of sociology and the typically individualistic nature of contemporary Christian faith. One of the distinct traits of Christianity-Protestantism in particular, and its evangelical wings even more so-is its individualistic character. Christ may indeed have "died for the sins of the world" but evangelicals stress that the atonement must take on a distinctly personal significance for the individual believer. Throughout the conversation of the typical Christian one notes an orientation focused on the individual and not the corporate nature of social life: for example, the concept of sin is normally thought of in individualistic terms. As God commands us to love our neighbor, so those who hate are sinning-and are doing it individually. Similarly, the sinner is seen as reconciled to God through Christ as an individual and not in any corporate sense. (The "old dispensation" may have stressed the social covenant, but the "new dispensation" does not). As a result, the idea that the church represents something more than the total number of individual saints is certainly an uncommon notion for evangelical Christians today. Yet this "something more" thesis lies at the heart of what is known as the "sociological perspective." Society represents something over and above the sum total of all the individuals -a social force not reducible to its component parts. This "some-thing more" is, of course, its institutionalized system of interaction which operates as an independent variable in its own right.

Arthur Holmes, philosopher and evangelical Christian, claims that "Christians believe that the source of evil is ultimately within a man, not without" and that "the nature of man undergirds his behavior and his institutions,"20 But the sociological theories on criminal behavior, suicide, marital instability, economic inequality, prejudice, and so on all stress causal variables which lie outside the individual. The image of the individual given in such "Durkheimian" theories is of a leaf before the wind-unaware of the causes of his behavior and therefore not responsible for them. Thus, it is the social institutions which shape the "nature of man" and not, as Holmes would have us believe, the other way around. This is the message which sociology is likely to leave with the Christian student.

The basic pedagogical purpose behind every sociology course is to clarify the analytical connection between the students' individual biography and the social system of which he or she is a member. It is therefore apparent that insofar as the professor succeeds in doing just this, he or she threatens the epistemological foundations of evangelical Christianity.21 What, for example, is to be the conclusion of the student of sociology who discovers that American racism represents something more than merely the sum total of prejudiced individuals: that racism represents an institutionalized system distributing the economic surplus unequally according to skin color-a system which continues to operate despite our "best" intentions and equalitarian laws? The student is either forced to compartmentalize his or her thoughts into "sociological" and "Christian" areas, refuse to internalize the findings of sociology, or reformulate his or her religious faith--often with far-reaching and rather unsettling consequences.22

Summary and Conclusion

Before any argument can provide an adequate explanation, the component parts of that argument must be fully explicated. While there have been numerous previous attempts to explicate a "Christian sociology" or (more modestly) to demonstrate how Christianity and sociology can be intellectually integrated, there have been few, if any, attempts to outline the specific areas in which Christianity and sociology contribute to the construction of mutually antagonistic world views.

As we have noted, at least part of this incompatibility is due to the status of sociology vis-a-vis the scientific method of inquiry. Other problems are due to sociological issues which arise from both its empirical findings and from its general theoretical approach. Both of these areas are introduced in most basic sociology courses and it is here where we typically see the most apparent (as well as the first) evidence of the. sociology-Christianity debate.

Several points must be carefully noted before this discussion is closed. First, the intensity of this "debate" will vary, depending upon the nature of both the students' faith and the presentation of sociology by the course instructor. For the student whose faith has been closely examined, or who is enrolled in a sociology course in which the unique sociological perspective is not clearly presented in an integrated manner, this encounter is not likely to be traumatic. But for the student whose Christian faith is naive, and who encounters a rigorous and well-integrated sociology course, this encounter can sometimes reach crisis proportions.

Furthermore, the encounter-should it occur-is not likely to be a public event. More typically, the Christian student's struggle is a private affair: he or she engages in the debate as a solitary combatant without the immediate aid of sympathetic peers. Furthermore, the private nature of this situation undoubtedly accentuates the conflict: not only does the responsibility for an adequate apologetic fall squarely on his or her (normally unprepared) shoulders, but the social situation of the classroom typically exacerbates the tension: everyone else seems to unmoved by all this apparent contradiction. Thus the issue of deviance and intellectual abnormality is sometimes added to the pressure already felt. To be troubled when everyone else is troubled is one thing: to be the only troubled soul within a sea of complacency is quite another. Finally, the teacher may turn out to be quite unsympathetic to any student's question if it appears to be based upon any epistemological foundation other than relativistic empiricism.

This scenario, of course, can be easily worked into a defense of Christian education. But the intent of those who participate in and defend the purpose of Christian higher education mutt not be to simply remove the cause of all the anxiety. A deliberately sociology-less Christian educational curriculum is deficient and pays no respect to either Christianity or education. Furthermore, constructing a sociology program around faculty who evidently lack the sociological imagination-regardless of the purity and vigor of their faith contributes nothing towards the goal of liberal education which most Christian colleges claim to support. In the words of Arthur Holmes, Christian higher education ". . . shuns tacked-on moralizing and applications, stale and superficial approaches that fail to penetrate the real intellectual issues."23 Our task as Christians involved in higher education is to seek a synthesis of faith and knowledge. But this task cannot he successfully undertaken as long as "the real intellectual issues" remain improperly outlined and misunderstood.


1I would like to thank Gerry Fuller and Dale Hess of Westminster College for their assistance in reading the first draft of this paper.
20f the empirical studies, perhaps the best known is Charles Y. Glock and Rodney Stark's in Religion and Society in Tension (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1965); cf. Chapter 14, "On the incompatability of religion and science." While the Glock and Stark essay is useful in observing the effects of the religion-science clash it does not provide us with very many insights into why this clash develops. Nor does the essay take a peculiar position vis-a-vis theology; their measurement of "religion" remains rather general throughout. The purpose of this essay will be to examine probable causes of the antipathy and to consider evangelical Christian presuppositions in particular. This is a task which has not as yet received very much attention.
3Even if we take into consideration the current meditation fad, the presumed growth of "Consciousness III," and the formation of Americanized eastern cults, the same general conclusion has to be drawn for our society taken as a whole.
4See, for example, David Lyon's Christians and Sociology (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1976); Jack Balswiek and Dawn Ward, "The nature of man and scientific models of society," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, 28 (1976), 181185. Most essays such as these center on the "nature of man" issue-a "heavy" philosophical problem which does (and should) concern intellectuals, but one which does not concern very many undergraduate students (except in superficial ways) at least at the introductory level, where most students come in contact with sociology. Therefore, the distinction between the essays cited above and the one in hand is that this one is attempting to center on a few prominent issues which inevitably crop up in most introductory sociology courses- ones which are likely to pose problems to the uninitiated Christian student. Since few of these students are expected to read this essay, it is being directed at sociologists who teach at Christian colleges where an integration of faith and learning is desired and expected. As such, it constitutes a warning to undergraduate teachers of sociology of potential problems between Christian faith and sociology rather than an attempted integration of the two.
5 Peter Berger, Invitation to Sociology (Garden City, New York: Anchor, 1965), p. 38.
6Peter Berger, ibid., p. 35.
7Cf. The Social Sources of Denominationalism. Of course, Niebuhr acknowledged (as did Max Weher) that the causal schema runs both ways: that religious faith influences, as well as is influenced by, one's social location and social structure in general. See Neibuhr's Kingdom of God in America, and Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
To a certain extent, this mode of analysis coincides with common sense; even the most fanatical advocate of religious determinism would have to concede that "religion" per se had very little to do with the original nineteenth century separation of southern and northern brands of Methodists, Presbyterians, or Baptists. Why would one nineteenth century Baptist group have asserted with full sincerity that slavery was ordained by God while another, equally sincere and emphatic, maintained that slavery represented an absolute evil? It does not take a particularly sophisticated observer to conclude that in a ease such as this we must overlook all the pious rhetoric and investigate certain prominent economic and political forces-forces that neither group of true believers in the above example would wish to acknowledge as pertinent.
8 Millhands and Preachers, (New Haven: Yale University Press, l942.
9Festinger, et al., When Prophecy Fails (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1956).
10J D. Photiadis and A. Johnson, "Orthodoxy, church participation, and authoritarianism," American Journal of Sociology, 69 (1963), 111-128.
11Milton Rokeaeh, The Open and Closed Mind (New York: Basic Books. 1960).
12R. Stark and Charles Y. Gloek, American Piety: The Nature of Religious Commitment (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968); Glock, Ringer, and Babbie, To Comfort and Challenge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).
13Gordon Ailport, The Nature of Prejudice (Garden City: Doubleday and Co., 1954); R. L. Gorsuch and D. Aleshire, "Christian faith and prejudice: a review of research," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 13 (September, 1974), 281-300.
14E. L. Struening, "Antidemocratic attitudes in a midwestern University," in Antidemocratic Attitudes in American Schools, edited by H. H. Remmers (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1963).
15The point here is that findings such as those reported in the previously mentioned studies are those which the student is likely to confront in a sociology class: the point is not that these studies represent all there is to say on the matter, or that they are free from any methodological defect.
16Thomas Pettigrew, Racially Separate or Together? McGrawHill (1971), p. 279,
17Peter Berger, op. cit., p. 96.
18Every sociology course, that is, which is worthy of the designation. It is recognized that some "sociologists" lack what Mills called the "sociological imagination" and whose courses, as a result, constitute nothing more theoretically rigorous than lectures on current events or "problems of democracy," and whose discussions rarely go beyond what one could otherwise find on the six o'clock news. In addition, I have the sneaking suspicion that such nonsoeiologieal sociologists have a way of finding their way into the faculties of Christian colleges at a rate which exceeds what would exist were recruitment due solely to chance. In other words, Christian sociologists--when taken as a group -appear to be less oriented towards theoretical sociology than others in that their courses tend to substitute a discussion of otherwise unrelated concrete events for abstract systems theory, as well as typically substituting a normative for an impsrieal basis of discussion.
I readily admit that these conclusions are based on nothing more substantial than impressionistic observations. I would be greatly relieved to find out that they are, in fact, untrue.
19The interested but intellectually uninitiated reader would do well to read Peter Berger's The Sacred Canopy (Garden City, New York: 1969), especially Chapter 2, "Religion and world maintenance."
20 The Idea of a Christian College (Grand Rapids, Michigan: E. Erdman's, 1975), p. 47 and p. 52. The word "ultimately" in the sentence quoted obscures the issue somewhat. Even so, there is a tension between the "interior" causes proposed by conservative theology and the "exterior" causes proposed by the social sciences, especially sociology.
21I say this knowing that Christian behavioral and social scientists are dedicated to the task of integrating the scientific perspective with that of Christianity (or vice versa). But the question we are addressing here concerns the tensions inherent between sociology and Christianity, and not how successful Christian behavioral scientists are in handling this tension in the classroom. This pedagogical issue is, of course, quite important and hopefully this and other essays on the subject will sponsor some comment in future publications on how various members of A.S.A. deal with this problem in the classroom.
22There is, of course, one additional reason which typically creates tension between Christian students and sociology relating neither to research nor theory. Sociologists are, as a group, more politically liberal and radical than any other group of their academic colleagues. It is very likely that elements of this worldview become evident to their students, who come to college with political views considerably to the right of those they meet in introductory sociology. Whether these liberal political values are somehow inherent to sociology itself is a debatable point, but one which will not be taken up here. We are concerned in this paper with less subtle sources of tension between Christianity and sociology.
On the political liberality of sociologists, cf. Seymour Lipset and Everett Ladd, Jr., "The Polities of American Sociologists." American Journal of Sociology, 78 (1972), pp. 67-104. On the inherent liberal (and, simultaneously, conservative) political bias in sociology, cf. Peter Berger, "Freedom and Sociology", The American Sociologist, 6 (1971). pp. I-S.
23Arthur Holmes, op. p. 17.