Are Scientists Biased Against Christians?

Are Scientists Biased Against Christians?
Tom Stromme /The Bismarck Tribune via AP
Are Scientists Biased Against Christians?
Tom Stromme /The Bismarck Tribune via AP
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Approximately 75% of Americans are Christians, yet only 30% of academic scientists in America identify as Christian. What can explain this disproportionality? Maybe science and religion are fundamentally at odds, making it difficult to embrace both faith and empiricism. Or perhaps Christian ideals prompt believers to prefer other career paths. Alternatively, what if anti-Christian bias in higher education discourages students from pursuing academic careers in science?

The latter question was recently studied by researchers at Arizona State University. M. Elizabeth Barnes, Jasmine M. Truong, Daniel Z. Grunspan, and Sara E. Brownell described their findings in the journal PLoS ONE.

The quartet conducted three experiments. First, they surveyed 664 undergraduate biology students taking upper level biology courses at a large research university in the Southwest United States about perceived bias against Christians.

"More than half of all students surveyed indicated that discrimination against Christians is a problem in science and thirty-five percent of students indicated that discrimination against Christians in science was not rare," the researchers summarized. "When we disaggregated by religious affiliation, we found that both religious and non-religious students perceived bias against Christians in science."

Of course, perceived bias is not necessarily evidence for actual bias, so the researchers conducted a second experiment, exploring whether tenure-track faculty members of biology departments at major universities would discriminate against a Christian student applying for a Ph.D program. Four hundred ninety-four professors took part, 60% of whom declared no religious affiliation:

"All participants received the same materials: one application randomly assigned to a specific condition and a survey that asked participants to rate the student’s competence, hirability, and likability. The applications given to participants were almost identical; the student’s GPA, GRE scores, awards and honors, years of research experience, and the letters of recommendation from research mentors were the same. Gender and race/ethnicity were also controlled across conditions, as all conditions had an applicant who was a White female student... We created three identical applications that varied only by the three experimental conditions: (a) A student who was President of the Christian Association, (b) A student who was President of the Atheist Association, and (c) A student who was President of the Activities Association... One-hundred and forty-three participants completed the application for the Atheist condition, while 135 participants completed the application for the Christian condition, and 216 faculty completed the application for the Activities condition."

As a whole, the professors rated the student similarly for all measures. The only statistically significant finding from the experiment was that atheist professors rated the atheist applicant as slightly more competent and likable than the Christian applicant. Overall, there was no clear bias against the Christian student.

Analysis of variance revealed no significant differences in faculty perceptions by condition (p > .44). Scales ranged from 1 to 7, with higher numbers indicating a more favorable rating of the student. Error bars represent the 95% confidence intervals.

Finally, the researchers were curious whether university biology faculty would show bias against an Evangelical Christian student. So they repeated their second experiment with a new set of 261 biology professors, however this time the hypothetical student only differed by listing "either a mission trip for an evangelical organization, Campus Crusade for Christ, or a service trip for the non-religiously affiliated United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) as part of their volunteer work."

This time, there was clear evidence of bias. Professors rated the Campus Crusade for Christ student significantly lower on hirability, competence, and likability. Strikingly, atheist faculty rated the Campus Crusade for Christ student an average of 1.42 points lower than the UNICEF student.

All differences are significant (p < 0.007). Scales ranged from 1 to 7, with higher numbers indicating a more favorable rating of the student.

Overall, the study shows that there is a perception of bias against Christians in academic science, but that bias only seems to manifest against sects of Christianity seen as more dogmatic and fundamentalist.

"If we are to improve biology education for Christian undergraduate science students as well as increase positive perceptions of scientists, we recommend that scientists work to mitigate perceived bias against Christians in science," the researchers recommend.

Source: Barnes ME, Truong JM, Grunspan DZ, Brownell SE (2020) "Are scientists biased against Christians? Exploring real and perceived bias against Christians in academic biology." PLoS ONE 15(1): e0226826. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0226826


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