Science and religion. Oil and water. Conventional wisdom says they just don't mix.

Whether in the classroom, the boardroom or the courtroom, the quest to keep science and religion mutually exclusive has a long and laborious history in the 20th century.Yet in academia, matters of faith are being resurrected from the intellectual scrap pile of the 1960s. As a social scientist at Brigham Young University, Marie Cornwall has watched religion not only survive societal scrutiny, but emerge as a stronger component of civilization than many of her older colleagues thought it could.

"Most of them saw religion as not surviving in the modern world. The dominant theme in the social sciences, particularly in the '60s, was that religion was becoming outmoded in society and that science would replace it. Obviously that hasn't happened. If anything, religion has become more important."

And as it has, sociologists have begun to dissect how society has developed around - rather than apart from - religious beliefs. As an executive officer of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR), Cornwall has done her share of dissecting - particularly in regard to her own Mormon faith.

After earning her master's degree, Cornwall went to work for the LDS Church in the Research and Evaluation Division, where she studied why members are active or not and at what time of life people are most likely to lose interest in the church.

Such research is done "to help churches become more effective. It helps people in different groups understand one another better. A lot of what we do is trying to understand the source of religious conflict, and why different cultures clash so strongly on religious issues."

Cornwall said not many people realize that LDS the LDS Church "actually has a fairly good number of social scientists who do research for the leadership on a variety of issues. For example, why people drop out of religion and why they return. They have people who study congregations - what makes some effective and others less effective, some who want to understand why conservative churches seem to be doing better at keeping their members than the liberal Protestants."

The issues are a reflection of research now being done by a number of social scientists on a variety of religions. "During the '60s and '70s, the most dominant theme was studying new religious movements and cults. In the '90s, the most dominant issues are more like the effectiveness of different religious congregations - even within the same denomination. The community that the congregation exists in has an important influence on how the congregation is doing in that area.

Gender and religion

"There's also a lot of interest in the global spread of particularly conservative religions - Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists and the strength of the Southern Baptist movement. Another area of increased interest comes in terms of gender and religion and the place of women in religious organizations."

During the past 20 years, "gradually many Protestant denominations have been granting women the priesthood. There is a lot of interest in watching what happens to these women and what contributes to the growth of women who want to be ordained as ministers and priests."

Cornwall's interest in the issue of gender and religion came into focus early in her career. "I was working for the (LDS) Church during that critical period in late '70s and early '80s and saw the strain created during the debate about the Equal Rights Amendment. I was interested in trying to understand the strains women were going through in trying to figure out their place in Mormonism."

After earning a Ph.D at the University of Minnesota, Cornwall joined the department of sociology at Brigham Young University, where she became director of the Women's Research Institute and was involved in early efforts to publish proceedings of the annual BYU Women's Conference.

Her research efforts have included work on the institutional role of Mormon women, examining how their impact on the church's hierarchy has changed since the early days of the church. One such study was included in a 1994 book, "Contemporary Mormonism: Social Science Perspectives," that she edited with two other sociologists. That book grew out of the 1989 annual meeting of the SSSR, which was held in Salt Lake City and included several sessions on the LDS Church and its people, organized by Cornwall.

Women's contribution

Her research, included in the book, concludes that "Women's contribution to the day-to-day activities of the church is fundamental to the vitality of Mormonism, but the hierarchical structure and emphasis on distinct gender roles restricts women's contribution, assigns them to a particular sphere and adds to their silence and invisibility."

Cornwall's current teaching at BYU involves the sociology of gender, "how it operates not only in religious traditions, but in corporations, bureaucracies and in the home. Many times we assume that gender arises primarily out of religious tradition and belief, but the more you look at it, you begin to see that the whole society is founded on gender distinction. Whether it arises from religious or corporate ideology, it's there."

Her focus on gender issues got a boost in 1993-94, when she filled the Belle S. Spafford chair at the University of Utah. There she expanded the scope of her written work to include what became an award-winning film documentary project, "Utah Women Considered: Changing Lives, Changing Times," of which she was project editor. The film examined four generations of women from three different families, each with diverse religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Religion was one component of a broad range of issues that has changed for Utah women during the past century.

Differing faiths, common issues

Such examinations, as well as her affiliation with SSSR, have helped Cornwall "to see that in most of our religious traditions, there's some type of strain that's operating there." While LDS women, particularly in heavily Mormon Utah, may tend to view gender issues from what they believe is a unique religious perspective, women of other faiths deal with similar issues, Cornwall said.

"In Catholicism, issues about priesthood and birth control and abortion have parallels to issues in Mormonism around those very same things. Studies of Protestants - even though many of those denominations are now ordaining women - that doesn't mean there's no longer a problem with gender-related issues. Women pastors are beginning to experience their own problems still revolving around gender. I like seeing how these issues become framed differently depending on religious tradition you're dealing with."

Having a wide grasp of the intricacies of Mormon tradition, the strains inherent over gender issues in her own and other religions, as well as a strong personal commitment to her faith makes Cornwall an anomaly, by her own admission.

"I am an oddity. The people at SSSR aren't any more likely to understand who I am than are my neighbors. It's an interesting experience personally, because there are times when - in certain contexts - I find myself 100 percent Mormon. When I'm at Sunday School, they've given me the 15-year-olds to teach. When I'm there, I'm 100 percent Mormon. The issue is spirituality and sacredness and communion with God and being part of a religious community.

"Yet when I meet with members of the SSSR, I guess I'd have to say I'm 75 percent social scientist. That's not to say I can ever get away from my Mormon experience. I'm very much aware that I'm LDS and that I'm different because of that. They (fellow scientists) expect me to be different in some odd little ways.

Between two different worlds

"It's like I go between a couple of very different worlds. Working at BYU, it's a very interesting experience to be teaching and attempting to talk about society and religions from a very objective perspective. Some of my students sometimes think I'm not LDS, probably because I use the words of sociology when I talk about these dynamics, rather than our Mormon language."

Yet it is Cornwall's ability to bridge both cultures, and to apply the principles she has researched, that she hopes can help steer social discourse as well as political decisionmaking in Utah. She is a founding member of Women for the 21st Century, formed locally two years ago to provide "a more moderate (political and social) voice - one that speaks across different traditions within Utah, so that we could deal with the social problems facing us in the 21st century."

The group - which includes Board of Regents member Aileen Clyde, Salt Lake County Children's Justice Center chairwoman Grethe Peterson and former Salt Lake City Councilwoman Mary Mark - is interdenominational and bipartisan. Members came together, Cornwall said, "knowing we were going to disagree on some things - but where there are things we can agree on, let's see what we can do."

Apparently the group is already having an impact. The group has taken formal steps to encourage more women to run for public office and was instrumental in organizing a Women's Summit meet-ing, held last year to cull ideas from groups that represent women and form an action plan to get legislation enacted that deals with women's issues.

Most recently, group members teamed with Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, during the recent legislative session to help push through HB83, which creates a task force to review and make recommendations regarding child care in Utah.