The Conflict Between Science and Religion in College Students

Enrolment of Muslim children has increased across primary as well as upper primary classes and government schools enrol the maximum number of SC and ST students, according to latest government data.

The District Information System for Education (DISE), brought out jointly by the National University of Educational Planning & Administration (NUEPA) and the Union Human Resource Development Ministry, reflects a significant increase in enrolment in primary and upper primary classes and notes the “improvement in participation of Muslim minority children in elementary education programmes”.

The data compiled from across 1.3 million recognised schools offering elementary education across 635 districts shows that from 10.49 per cent Muslim enrolment in 2008-09, the figure has risen to 13.48 per cent in 2009-10.

(Courtesy: The Financial Express)

States like J&K and Union Territory Lakshadweep, which have a high Muslim population, reflect a better enrolment rate with the former notching 66.9 per cent while the latter recording 99.38 per cent in 2009-10. Assam, West Bengal, Kerala and Karnataka also show a relatively better enrolment rate in the range of 30-37 per cent while Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh hover in the range of 11 per cent to 4 per cent.
Los Angeles: After years of watching Muslims portrayed as terrorists in mainstream TV and movies, an advocacy group hopes to change that image by grooming a crop of aspiring Muslim screenwriters who can bring their stories — and perspective — to Hollywood.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council is hosting a series of workshops taught by Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated veterans over the next month, an initiative that builds on the group’s outreach for a more representative picture of Muslim-Americans on the screen.

The workshops are the natural evolution of MPAC’s efforts to lobby TV networks and movie studios from the outside, and they fit into a small, but growing, movement to get more Muslim-Americans behind the cameras.

MPAC dubbed its effort the Hollywood Bureau, while Unity Productions Foundation recently started a similar project called Muslims on Screen and Television. Other nonprofit arts foundations, such as the Levantine Cultural Center and Film Independent, have joined forces by planning networking events for Muslim actors and training and mentoring young filmmakers.
“The idea is to really give Muslims an avenue to tell our stories. It’s as simple as that. There’s a curiosity about Islam and a curiosity about who Muslims are — and a lot of the fear that we’re seeing comes from only hearing one story or these constant negative stories,” said Deana Nassar, MPAC’s Hollywood liaison.

At the council’s first screen-writing workshop, three dozen attendees packed into a classroom in downtown Los Angeles to hear Emmy-winning comedy writer Ed Driscoll give tips of the trade, from knowing the audience to making a script outline.

The students reflected a diversity not often seen in Hollywood’s portrayal of Muslim-Americans, from a black woman who grew up in Mississippi to a stay-at-home mom to a defense attorney who dabbles in screenwriting on the side.

Khadijah Rashid, 33, said before class that her Hollywood experience included working behind the scenes on everything from reality TV to the award-winning biopic “Ray.”

But Rashid said she had always felt her own story — growing up Muslim in the Deep South — was the tale she most wanted to tell. She recalled being teased as a child for her unusual last name and choking down chunks of dry cheese for lunch when the school cafeteria served pork, a forbidden food in Islam.

“I don’t think it’s much drama, but it’s my own personal drama,” said Rashid, now a single mother living in Pasadena. “I definitely want to tell my story, but I need to learn how. If I get the tools, I’ll just pour it out.”

With any luck, Hollywood will listen. The industry has taken more interest in telling authentic Muslim stories in recent years, said Ahmos Hassan, a Muslim-American talent manager who has been in the business for more than two decades.

“There’s a demand for Muslim stories, but whether it’s Muslim writers or not depends on the talent they bring to the table,” Hassan, who owns Chariot Management, said during a break in the class. “They need to bring that to the industry … and I think the industry is open to it now, more so than any time before.”

MPAC has had some success working with writers and producers from the outside.

Its Hollywood Bureau was founded after Sept. 11, 2001, with a simple strategy: to make sure the portrayal of Islam on TV screens was accurate, even if it was negative. Since then, the organization has consulted on a parade of hit TV shows, including “24,” “Bones,” “Lie to Me,” “7th Heaven,” “Saving Grace” and “Aliens in America.”

The group also has held meetings with top network executives from ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC, and throws a Muslim-inspired version of a Hollywood awards show each year for productions, both mainstream and independent, that advance understanding of Islam. In 2009, winners included “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Simpsons,” for an episode that featured Bart befriending a Muslim boy named Bashir.

The goal is not to spoon-feed Hollywood Muslim-friendly story lines, but to increase awareness of the diversity of American Muslims and to be a resource for writers and producers, said Nassar, who also attended the workshop and is an entertainment lawyer by training.

That feedback has been an eye-opener and a challenge for some in the industry, where the Muslim-as-terrorist plot line has been an accepted story for years.

“When you’re sitting in the writer’s room, and you’ve got to come up with a plot line and you’ve got to come up with a bad guy, it’s really easy to pull that out and say, ‘OK, Muslim terrorist,’ ” said T.S. Cook, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter who is teaching two of the four sessions. “It’s a lazy man’s way to villainy — and it’s pretty ingrained.”

Writer Roger Wolfson, who worked on the TNT drama “Saving Grace,” said MPAC consultants were invaluable when he was assigned to write a script for an episode that featured a black death-row inmate who was converting to Islam.

In the plot, the inmate Leon had a personal angel, Earl, who had been guiding him. Wolfson’s challenge was to show Leon’s conversion and decide if his angel would change in appearance — or if he would continue to exist for Leon at all.

MPAC’s consultants urged Wolfson to resist making Leon’s character a militant, angry black man and instead suggested that he focus on the beauty and mystery of the moment of conversion. The collaboration paid off, he said.

“Everything was my idea, but I didn’t know a single detail. I didn’t know how you convert; I didn’t know what it means; I didn’t know what an Islamic angel would say, how an Islamic angel would behave,” Wolfson recalled in a phone interview.

In the end, Wolfson showed Leon reciting the Islamic declaration of faith in his prison cell as his angel watches.

When Leon opens his eyes, the angel is still there and greets him with a simple “Us salaamu alaykum,” or “Peace be upon you” in Arabic.

The episode was one of the high points of Wolfson’s career.

“With every writer, you’re always looking for new ways to provide freshness to your characters in abbreviated fashion,” Wolfson said. “You can do that, sometimes, by making somebody a believable Muslim.”

Media-hungry atheist, creationist and religious fundamentalist provocateurs have successfully dominated the science and religion narrative for the past decade or so. In doing so, they have created the false impression of an ongoing unavoidable war between the two camps. A recently published large-scale survey of college students, however, finds that the call to arms has fallen on deaf ears. For the vast majority of American university students, there simply is no conflict between science and religion.

Christopher Scheitle, a Penn State sociologist, analyzed survey data from more than 10,000 students at over 200 colleges and universities across America (Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 50, p. 175). The students were surveyed both as freshman and juniors so that attitudinal change over the course of their university years could be assessed. Among the many items on the survey was one that asked the following: “For me, the relationship between science and religion is one of…” Four possible responses were provided: (1) Conflict — I consider myself to be on the side of science, (2) Conflict — I consider myself to be on the side of religion, (3) Independence – science and religion refer to different aspects of reality and (4) Collaboration — each can be used to support the other. Students were also asked about their religious beliefs and affiliations and their course of study (i.e. major).

Results showed that nearly 70 percent of college freshman saw the science/religion relationship as one of either independence or collaboration. The minority who saw science and religion in conflict were roughly evenly split between those who sided with religion (17 percent) and those who sided with science (14 percent). Even more interesting was the fact that when students changed their opinion over time, the most likely change was moving from a conflict position to one of non-conflict (either independence or collaboration). For example, 70 percent of those who as freshmen said they were on “religion’s side” had changed to a non-conflict position by the time they were juniors. Similarly, 46 percent of freshmen who said they were on “science’s side” had adopted a non-conflict position by the time they were juniors. By contrast, only 13 percent of freshman who took a non-conflict position changed to one of conflict by their junior year (5 percent to religion’s side, 8 percent to the side of science). For most students, more education means less science/religion conflict, not more.

The above results also reflect the fact that the pro-science point of view appears to be more entrenched than the pro-religion point of view. In other words, once someone has adopted “science’s side” in a perceived science and religion conflict, it is harder to move them from this position compared to when someone has adopted “religion’s side.” Exactly how to interpret this is unclear. Are religious people actually less dogmatic on the issue? Maybe. Maybe the evidence more clearly confirms the rightness of the “science” side and this is why fewer people switch. Then again, if the evidence so clearly supports the “science side” then why don’t the majority of people see a conflict to begin with, and why do nearly half of the pro-science folks defect over time?

The apparent greater willingness of “religion side” students to re-examine their stance can also be seen in another interesting finding. Students at religious schools were actually less likely to claim to be on “religion’s side” than students at secular schools. This pattern held true even after the results were adjusted for the students’ degree of religious commitment and religious conservatism. The author suggests that students at religious schools may feel less threatened than equally religious students at a secular school and that the conflict narrative may be more salient at secular schools.

The breakdown of findings by major also showed some interesting trends. Business and education students were most likely to adopt a conflict approach, with nearly 40 percent doing so, most of whom claimed a pro-religion stance. The conflict approach was endorsed by just under 30 percent of natural science, math and engineering, social science, and arts and humanities students. However, while the majority of “conflict” students in natural science, math and engineering sided with science, the majority of arts, humanitie, and social science students sided with religion. While it is important to keep in mind that most students of all majors saw no conflict, this pattern across majors was somewhat troubling to the author:

Learning Science And Religion In College

“The finding that scientists and engineers are among the most likely to have a pro-science conflict perspective could mean that some of the most influential voices in these public debates might be more likely to fuel the debates than attenuate them. Similarly, future educators are among the most likely to hold a pro-religion conflict perspective. Given that classrooms and school boards have been one of the central forums for the struggle over religion and science, this does not bode well for a reduction of those struggles” (p. 185).

A shrill alarm cry naturally attracts attention and the few extreme voices promoting a science and religion conflict have taken full advantage of this. Seeking common ground or respecting distinct domains are not sexy, but this is where the majority of educated people are when it comes to science and religion. As the author of this survey points out, the non-conflict position firmly established among college students is only a reflection of what has already been found for most working scientists.

The majority position is not always the right one. It is not always the wrong one either. But one is justified in being wary of those who promote conflict (whether in science and religion or in politics, society, etc.) when: (a) it not obvious to most people why the conflict is necessary and (b) those promoting it have something to gain by doing so. Crass opportunism could be afoot just as easily as sincere disagreement.


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