By Sarah Geis and Maria Thompson

Originally Published in October, 2019

According to a recent study, there is an extremely high correlation between interest in Christian Science, self-admitted violation of Principia Community Standards, and attitudes toward opening enrollment to non-Christian Scientists.

More specifically, those who say they love Christian Science, and who are committed to Christian Science practices, are highly likely to oppose opening enrollment to non-Christian Scientists. In contrast, those who say they do not agree with the Community Standards and Grounds for Formal Discipline, and those who admit that they do not follow the Community Standards, are highly likely to be in favor of opening enrollment to non-Christian Scientists.

This survey was done as a project for a political science class taught by Principia College professor John Williams. We attempted to conduct a survey of all students, faculty, and Christian Science staff, with the intent of assessing the College community’s attitudes towards the prospect of opening enrollment to non-Christian Scientists. Our study also included focus groups and an additional survey administered to non-Christian Science staff, but these results have not yet been fully examined and are not published here.

We sent an email, containing a link to a GoogleForm, to a total of 623 individuals and received a total of 327 valid responses (a 52.5 percent response rate). This included 46.7 percent of possible student responses, 63.6 percent of possible faculty responses, and 48.5 percent of possible Christian Science staff responses.

Graph by Sarah Geis

Survey respondents were asked if Principia should change its regulations to allow individuals who openly identify as non-Christian Scientists to apply and enroll at Principia College. The plurality of respondents, 47.6 percent, said that it depended on the circumstances.

Respondents were also asked about their interest in Christian Science. An overwhelming majority said that they love or like Christian Science and identify as a Christian Scientist. However, their professed practices of Christian Science were varied.

Only 35.6 percent of all survey respondents supported the Principia Community Standards and Grounds for Formal Discipline, even though a majority of student respondents did not engage in alcohol consumption or recreational drug use. However, 64.2 percent of student respondents said that they engaged in sexual activity.

Even though most of the survey respondents were hesitant to say “yes” or “no” to the question of opening enrollment to non-Christian Scientists, 71.9 percent of respondents felt that the Principia Purpose (to “… serve the cause of Christian Science”) could be maintained if enrollment were opened. The majority of respondents felt strongly about keeping the Purpose; 86.9 percent of participants felt that the Purpose should not be changed, no matter the circumstances of enrollment.

Graphic by Sarah Geis

Williams noted that the margin was over 6:1 in support of keeping the Purpose of Principia. “That’s a pretty hefty margin,” he commented. But, “You can’t claim that Christian Scientists are not interested in change,” he said, because “… you have nearly half [of the respondents] saying ‘it depends.’” Those people are saying that they believe it’s possible “to have some change and still maintain the Purpose.” Over 70 percent believe Principia’s Purpose could be maintained while opening enrollment.

Graph by Sarah Geis

The authors and Professor Williams also found that those who self-identified as Christian Scientists and expressed love for Christian Science were highly likely to exhibit behaviors consistent with the Principia moral code. We also found that those who claim not to profess interest in Christian Science, and who don’t express interest in attending church services, reading the Bible Lesson, or praying daily, are highly likely to behave contrary to Principia’s standards. “There are two distinct groups; the data [coalesces] around these two,” said Williams.

What is this relationship? Does abstaining from drinking, drug use, and sex make us good Christian Scientists, or does this abstinence flow from Christian Science practice? “[W]e have to do more sophisticated work,” to find the direction of a causal relationship.

Before the Principia Board of Trustees announced a new pilot admissions program in a Watercooler message, there was limited discussion in the community of opening Principia’s enrollment to non-Christian Scientists. Some felt that the administration had been unclear with their intentions in regards to “widening the embrace,” a term widely used in addressing this topic. After the August announcement, there was less ambiguity.

“Widening the embrace” became “enlarging the tent” in the announcement of the pilot program for both Principia College and Principia School. This announcement stated: “Principia’s Board of Trustees has authorized Principia’s leadership to conduct a limited pilot program enrolling a small number of students — no more than 15 on each campus — who fall outside our regular admissions guidelines. We will be looking for students who desire a Principia education and wish to further their own moral and spiritual growth by joining an educational community that models and encourages viewing and living life through the lens of Christian Science.” Our survey was conducted before this announcement.

Graph by Sarah Geis

In considering these results, it is clear that there are a significant number of people at Principia College that are here because of their interest in Christian Science, regardless of their individual views on what defines a Christian Scientist and Christian Science practice. According to this data, people at Principia College are not opposed to some change, but “We better be careful about changing the identity of the institution,” said Williams.

In assessing the quality of our research, Williams said he was “impressed that [we — the two researchers — ] have very different ‘political positions’ on the subject.” He appreciated the fact that we both acknowledged this and figured out a way to work together, adding authenticity and integrity to our research.

“I think you were transparent, and you had integrity of reporting the strengths and shortcomings of the research, and that’s what a professional wants to see,” said Williams. “I feel comfortable as the professor overseeing your work, that you followed professional standards” of social science research.

These survey results were shared prior to publication to a small handful of students on campus. Each shared their reactions and interpretations of the results.

Graph by Sarah Geis

One student, who asked for his name to be withheld, said that it was “reassuring” to see that fewer people were in favor of opening enrollment than he thought. “I was under the impression that most of the campus was in favor of opening enrollment to non-Christian Scientists,” he said. “Some of the senior faculty members, including [Westerhof ], at times have stated that student input is really important to them, and the decisions they make, about topics like this.” This student is of the opinion that the school should not have enrollment opened to non-Christian Scientists. Knowing that a sizable amount of the campus was either against or not quite fully in favor of opening enrollment, this student felt that these decisions from the administration regarding enrollment “might not be an accurate reflection of having student input in those decisions.”

Other students interpreted the results differently. Elise Doyle, a junior, felt that these results were indicative of the “different varieties” of Christian Science practice on campus. “We can see that a lot of the students aren’t a big fan of the standards…[and there are people I know] who are rock-solid in their faith, and break these standards,” she said. “Maybe these aren’t the standards that we should be labeling Christian Scientists as [upholding]…is that really all there is to Christian Science? Are we really defining a metaphysical religion by physical boundaries?”

What junior Tara Adhikari found interesting about the results was the amount of people who felt that opening enrollment would not affect Principia’s ability to pursue and advance the cause of Christian Science. “The majority said it wouldn’t hinder us from doing that, but that is a broad statement; I think [it should be] a conditional statement,” Adhikari said. “It can’t be yes or no; it depends on how the program is run, how it’s operated, [and] whether or not those who come in [will] sign their names to the standards and have that level of respect [for the community standards and Christian Science]. I don’t know enough about how it would look.”

“I’m surprised that this survey actually got done,” said sophomore Jake Smith. “I do feel like there would have been some kind of backlash or… concerns with the survey being done in the first place.” Smith expressed gratitude that it was completed and that the data seems thorough and reliable, allowing “conclusions” to be readily drawn from this data.

“…As you kind of see in the data, there are large portions of those surveyed who don’t directly conform to some of those rules or standards that Principia has, namely premarital sex or alcohol consumption…[which indicated] to me that a good portion of campus knowingly was disobeying rules,” Smith said.

For Smith, it indicated a disconnect between administrative authority and the student body. While he found this to be expected, the levels at which this is occurring “certainly were higher” than he anticipated. Thinking about these results in the context of the new pilot admissions program, he shared that he is “interested to see what happens.”

Given that this survey was conducted before the new pilot program, when “enlarging the tent” was not yet a reality, these results might be different — perhaps less ambivalent — if conducted today

Image courtesy of Nathan Brantingham