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In Science, How “Assumed Atheism” Harms Religious Students

University of Chicago
Photo: University of Chicago campus, by Leefon at en.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Methodological naturalism is truly today a defining characteristic of science. Given this, are there any good reasons to make a meaningful distinction between methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism, as some still try to do? Since scientists can be religious believers, we are told that adherence to methodological naturalism does not necessarily consign them to the acceptance of metaphysical naturalism. Such scientists can accept the existence of a transcendent reality in their personal lives; they just can’t appeal to that transcendent reality as an explanatory principle in their scientific work. 

While this may be true in theory, some view methodological naturalism as de facto metaphysical naturalism. They ask: By restricting themselves to the search for natural causation in their scientific work, aren’t religious scientists rendering the God they believe in a mere figment of their imagination, a figure who plays no role in the unfolding of the natural world the scientist is studying?

These Are Important Questions

A new book from an unlikely source may shed some interesting light on the issues. The book is The Faithful Scientist: Experiences of Anti-Religious Bias in Scientific Training (2023), by Christopher Scheitle, a sociologist at West Virginia University (who surprisingly, given the subject of his book, identifies as an atheist). Scheitle interviewed over 1,300 graduate science students about their graduate student experience, especially regarding how religion may have been viewed. His informants included both religious and non-religious students. The results are eye-opening.

Scheitle’s most important finding is that religious and non-religious students alike experienced what they termed an “assumed atheism” in their science classes. They felt there was an unstated assumption that anyone studying science must be an atheist. This assumed atheism led to a number of problematic consequences, particularly for religious students. 

First, assumed atheism tends to force religious students to keep quiet about their faith, making it harder for them to connect to other like-minded students. Religious students thus feel isolated in ways that non-religious students don’t. As one non-religious student put it, “It’s kind of an accepted assumption that everyone in the room is not religious” (72). This allows non-religious students to assume that everyone in the room thinks like them, which provides them with a feeling of solidarity. This, of course, leaves the religious students feeling more isolated and alone.

Second, assumed atheism “creates an environment where some non-religious individuals believe it acceptable to be openly hostile or disparaging toward religion” (73). Though some non-religious students felt it would be wrong to openly mock the beliefs of religious students to their faces, the assumption that everyone in the room is an atheist overrides this concern. If there are no religious students in the room, the feeling is that it is okay to mock religious beliefs. As one student put it, “I’ve sat in and I’ve overheard people saying, ‘I don’t want any religious freaks joining my lab’” (74). 

A third problem with assumed atheism involves the quality of work religious students are able to do in science classes. Scheitle considers a study performed by Kimberly Rios demonstrating that there was no difference in performance between Christians and non-Christians on scientific tasks unless Christian students were first exposed to stereotypical statements expressing that Christians were less capable in science. When first exposed to such statements, “Christians actually performed worse on science related tasks. In other words, the internalized doubts and anxieties about being part of the stereotyped group actually harmed the individuals’ performance” (84). And since assumed atheism makes it harder for religious students to reveal their identities, allowing for connection to other religious students, there is little chance of their breaking out of the internalized stereotype and showing that they are as capable in science as the non-religious students. Assumed atheism thus does real harm to religious students who want to contribute to science. 

Methodological and Metaphysical Naturalism

So what does all this have to do with methodological and metaphysical naturalism? The assumed atheism that now seems to pervade the scientific establishment would appear to render any meaningful distinction between methodological and metaphysical naturalism moot. While one might be able to maintain a distinction on theoretical grounds, in practice, science is quickly becoming viewed as a human pursuit not suitable for religious folks. If Scheitle’s informants are at all representative, anti-religious bias plays a big role in science graduate programs. This not only reinforces the requirement to adhere to naturalistic causation in scientific methodology, but it also reinforces the assumption that naturalism (or atheism) represents the sum total of reality — that is, metaphysical naturalism.   

Interestingly, Scheitle notes how the effect of assumed atheism differs among the various scientific disciplines:

In other words, due to the nature of their research, psychologists, sociologists, and biologists tend to view the mind, humans, and society in scientific terms, which limits the role of a supernatural God in these areas. In contrast, physicists’ and chemists’ scientific lens tend to be applied only to looking at rocks, stars, and other objects outside of the human domain. This…provides more room for these scientists to isolate their scientific worldview from their religious beliefs (38).

This suggests that biology is one area ripe for metaphysical naturalism to be smuggled in under the guise of methodological naturalism. If everyone in a graduate biology class assumes that everyone else in the class is an atheist, as Scheitle’s informants attest, then the class is being conducted under a de facto metaphysical naturalism, and any significant distinction between the two types of naturalism essentially disappears. 

Who’s Doing the Smuggling?

Opponents of intelligent design often accuse ID supporters of trying to smuggle God into biology classes under the guise of science. If Scheitle’s informants are at all representative, it looks like it’s the biological establishment that is really doing the smuggling — bringing metaphysical naturalism in under the guise of methodological naturalism, despite protestations to the contrary. For all practical purposes, there seems to be little daylight today between methodological and metaphysical naturalism, at least in graduate science classes.