Faith & Science Icon Faith & Science

No, Really? Scientists Find Anti-Christian Prejudice in the Science World

David Klinghoffer

I suppose there’s some value in demonstrating the obvious. Writing in the journal PLOS ONE, four academics from Arizona State University ask, “Are scientists biased against Christians?” I could have told them in a word: Yes! Clearly, there is significant, overt prejudice against Christians in the science world. Aggressive atheist biologists like Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, and P.Z. Myers (pictured above) may not be typical of their profession in how much time they have spent in their writing attacking religious believers, Christians in particular, but neither do they seem to have experienced much criticism for it from colleagues.

Three Studies

To be specific, the bias is not directed, for the most part, at mainline Protestants or Catholics, but rather at Evangelicals. And that is just what M. Elizabeth Barnes, who studies Biology and Society, and her colleagues from the Biology Education Research Lab at ASU confirmed. They conducted three separate studies: 

In the first study, we found that college science students report a perceived bias against Christians in science and that evangelical Christians perceive greater bias than Catholic and non-Christian students. Then in two studies, biology professors evaluated Ph.D. program applicants and we examined whether the professors rated a student less favorably when the student revealed a Christian religious identity. We found no statistically significant differences in how biology professors rated a student who was President of the Christian Association compared to a student who was President of the Atheist Association or a student who was President of the Activities Association. However, in Study 3, biology professors did rate a Christian student who went on a mission trip with Campus Crusade for Christ as less hireable, less competent, and less likeable than a student who did not reveal a Christian identity. Taken together, these studies indicate that perceived bias against Christians in science may contribute to underrepresentation of Christians but actual bias against Christians in science may be restricted to a specific type of Christianity that scientists call fundamentalist and/or evangelical. [Emphasis added.]

What’s in a Word

The statement that “scientists call” this group “fundamentalist and/or evangelical” makes it sounds as if that is an objective, scientific label. After all, scientists are our culture’s preeminent objective truth tellers, are they not? Not quite. If you Google the phrase “fundamentalist Christian” to see how it’s used in the media, you will not find many Christians affixing it to themselves. The word has a history, but “fundamentalist” today functions mostly as a term of mockery or reproach. I’m not a Christian of any kind, but I’ve known enough Evangelical Christians, a very diverse group, to know that “fundamentalists” exist more in the imagination of those who loath them than in the real world. (Discovery Institute has frequently and falsely been tarred with the word.) In fact, on the website of Campus Crusade for Christ (or “Cru”) itself, I find only two uses of the word “fundamentalist,” both applied to “Muslim theocracy.” The authors of the journal article seem to recognize this discrepancy:

Most frequently, scientists say they only have negative attitudes towards religions that are “fundamentalist evangelical” in nature, partly because of the perception that this type of religion tries to encroach on the authority of science [19]. While most scholars of religion would consider “fundamentalism” and “evangelicalism” distinct groups [23], scientists themselves tend to use these terms interchangeably [19]. Scientists tend to describe fundamentalism/evangelicalism as religion that is rigid and unchanging in the light of new information, based on moral command rather than moral principle, has a uniform belief structure that discourages diversity of viewpoints, and often tries to intrude on the domain of science [19]. Therefore, bias against Christians in science may be restricted to evangelical Christians, or may be stronger against evangelical Christians than Christians who do not identify as evangelical.

In other words, they found that “most frequently,” scientists, unlike “scholars of religion,” freely and contemptuously use a term intended to denigrate a large swath of Christians, dismissing them as “rigid and unchanging in the light of new information,” “discourag[ing] diversity of viewpoints,” and “intrud[ing] on the domain of science.” If that is not gross prejudice, what is?

Add It Up

I mentioned that there is value in confirming the obvious. But how much value? The four authors note at the end, “This project was supported by the National Science Foundation,” followed by three grant numbers. The grants, which I assume went to other things besides the studies reported here, are in the amounts of $9,800,382, $292,767, and $423,003. That’s right, a total of more than $10.5 million dollars from the Federal Government. Apparently, documenting what everybody already knows pays pretty well. I think I’m in the wrong business!

Photo: P.Z. Myers, by Mark Schierbecker [CC BY-SA].