The Challenges Of Being A Religious Scientist In 2023


(OPINION) Given popular portrayals, you would be forgiven for assuming that the type of person who is a scientist is not the type of person who would be religious. Consider the popular television show “The Big Bang Theory,” which is about friends who nearly all have advanced degrees in physics, biology or neuroscience.

The main character, Sheldon – a physicist who is often dismissive of religion – is juxtaposed with his devout Christian mother, who is uninterested in and ignorant about science.

Such stereotypes reinforce the idea that religion and science are not only different from each other, but also locked in combat. Yet social scientists have found that most of the U.S. public does not actually view religion and science as being in conflict. When religion does seem to reduce individuals’ acceptance of scientific ideas, it is typically not because of the facts themselves. Rather, religious individuals’ objections are often grounded in the moral implications of that research, or scientists’ perceived role in policymaking.

And plenty of scientists are religious, undercutting assumptions about faith and science being inherently in conflict. Take Francis Collins, the former director of the National Institutes of Health, who is open about his Christian beliefs.

On the other hand, religious people do face challenges when working in science. These challenges have little to do with internal struggles over stereotypical issues like the origins of human life. Instead, religious scientists more often report navigating hostility from their peers and a professional culture that poses challenges for other life goals, such as building a family.

I came to this conclusion after surveying over 1,300 U.S. graduate students in biology, chemistry, physics, psychology and sociology – one of many sociological studies I’ve done to try to understand the social dynamics of religion and science. Findings from this research are presented in a book I published in October 2023, “The Faithful Scientist: Experiences of Anti-Religious Bias in Scientific Training.”

Assumed atheism

According to my survey, 22% of graduate students in science say that they believe in God and 20% describe themselves as “very” or “moderately” religious. These percentages are similar to what is seen among science faculty, but much less than what is seen in the general U.S. public. According to surveys by the Pew Research Center, around half of Americans say they believe in “God as described in the Bible,” while another third believe in some kind of higher power. Gallup has found that 3 in 4 Americans say religion is very or fairly important in their lives.

The relatively nonreligious composition of their peers and faculty can create challenges for religious graduate students. Many of the religious students I spoke with described a culture that assumed everyone in a lab or classroom was atheist and permitted comments that were openly hostile toward religion or religious people. One Christian graduate student in biology told me, “I was actually really shocked when I started graduate school … at the lack of respect of my fellow students as well as professors. I still feel like I need to hide that part of my life. … I don’t feel willing to open up.”

Indeed, around two-thirds of the students who identified as very religious or moderately religious agreed with the statement that “people in my discipline have a negative attitude toward religion,” according to a survey I created and examined in my book. Around 40% of those students also agreed that they “conceal or camouflage” their views or identity around people in their program.

Family and career

Religious graduate students in science face more subtle cultural conflicts as well.

Social science has highlighted the many challenges academic scientists face in establishing and maintaining their family life. For one, graduate school and pre-tenure positions are demanding, leading many academic scientists to delay having children and have fewer children than they would have liked.

The highly competitive nature of academic jobs also means that scientists rarely have much say in where they live, which makes it difficult to rely on the support of grandparents and other extended family when raising a family. All of these dynamics become even more difficult if a scientist is partnered with another scientist – what is often called the “two-body problem.”

These challenges are particularly salient for religious graduate students. Many scholars’ studies have shown that religion influences individuals’ attitudes and behaviors when it comes to things like how many children they would like to have.

Indeed, my book’s survey found that 23% of science graduate students who identify as very religious have at least one child already. This compares to 12% among the moderately religious, 7% among the slightly religious and 6% among those who say they are not religious. More religious students also indicated a greater desire to have additional children in the future.

These patterns have implications for career paths. My survey asked respondents to rate the importance of career, partnership and parenthood on a four-point scale. On average, religious students did not place less importance on career than their less religious peers, but they did place more importance on their family lives. This importance placed on family, in turn, is associated with a lower intent to pursue research-focused tenure-track positions. All else being equal, students who say that family goals are “very important” to them are 12% less likely to say they intend to pursue such a position, compared to students who say such family goals are “not important” to them.

Benefits of religious diversity

Many people may dismiss these challenges, as religion is not typically part of the conversation about supporting and increasing diversity in science.

At the very least, however, making derogatory comments or showing other forms of hostility toward an individual’s religion – as many of my respondents said they experienced – could violate anti-discrimination and harassment laws.

What’s more, dimensions of diversity are not isolated from each other. The data collected for my book finds that female and Black graduate students in science are significantly more likely to identify as religious than male and white students. Twenty-three percent of Black students I surveyed identify as “very religious,” for example, compared with 7.3% of white students. Ignoring religion as a dimension of diversity has the potential to undermine efforts to support other forms of diversity in science.

I would argue that religious diversity could bring other benefits to the scientific community, as well. Given the heightened salience of work-family issues among scientists who are religious, these individuals could be important agents in changing norms and policies that improve work-life balance for all scientists.

Similarly, scientists who are religious could also serve as ambassadors, or what sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund calls “bridge-builders,” between scientific and religious communities.

In the short term, graduate programs in science might consider how they approach and talk about religion, keeping in mind that about 1 in 5 of their students are likely religious.

This piece was republished with permission from The Conversation.

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