A study published in Public Understanding of Science provides evidence that many nonreligious people stereotype Christians as incompetent in science because they believe that Christianity and science conflict with each other. The study also found that when Christianity and science are described as being compatible, nonreligious individuals tend to have more positive views of Christians.
“There’s a belief in many Western societies that science and religion are in conflict. For example, many prominent atheists such as Steven Pinker and Sam Harris opposed Francis Collins as the head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) because he was an Evangelical Christian,” said study author Cameron Mackey (@CameronDMackey1), a doctoral candidate at Ohio University.
“There have also been countless debates over the teaching of evolution in schools and whether Intelligent Design has a place in the classroom. We were interested in the consequences of this belief in religion-science conflict for nonreligious people’s attitudes toward religious people (in this case, Christians). That is, we wanted to know whether the belief that Christianity and science conflict with each other explains why nonreligious people stereotype Christians as incompetent in science.”
“Furthermore, we wanted to see if changing perceptions about Christianity and science being in conflict (to being more compatible) would lead nonreligious individuals to change their stereotypes of Christians in science to become more positive.”
For their study, the researchers recruited a sample of 365 participants from Prolific. Out of these, 151 identified as Christians and 214 identified as nonreligious. The participants were directly asked: “How incompatible vs. compatible do you personally believe science and Christianity are?” They responded on a seven-point scale.
To assess implicit perceptions of intelligence, the participants then read a generic description of a person named “Kevin,” who was described as intelligent. Kevin attended a top university and used his skills “to help answer some of the world’s most complex problems.” Christians were then asked how likely it was that “Kevin had a PhD” and whether Kevin was a Christian or an atheist.
Finally, participants were asked to explicitly rate different groups (atheists, agnostics, “spiritual but not religious” individuals, Christians, Jews, and Muslims) on different attributes (intelligence, interest in science, competence, competence in science, and scientific ability) on a scale of 0 to 100.
Mackey and his colleagues found that Christian participants were more likely to believe that science was compatible with Christianity than nonreligious participants.
Christian participants saw Kevin as more likely to have a PhD and be a Christian, while nonreligious participants saw Kevin as more likely to have a PhD and be an atheist. Similarly, Christian participants perceived Christians as more intelligent than nonreligious participants, while nonreligious participants perceived atheists as more intelligent than Christian participants.
In addition, Christian participants perceived Christians as more scientific than nonreligious participants, while nonreligious participants perceived atheists as more scientific than Christian participants.
The researchers also found evidence that compatibility beliefs mediated the relationship between religious affiliation and perceptions of Christians’ intelligence and scientific ability. In other words, nonreligious individuals were more likely to believe that Christianity and science incompatible, which in turn was associated with perceiving Christians as less intelligent and scientific.
“Our research demonstrates that perceiving conflict between religion and science can have detrimental effects not only on Christians’ performance and interest in science (as prior research has shown), but also on nonreligious people’s stereotypes about Christians,” Mackey told PsyPost. “That is, because nonreligious individuals are more likely to believe that Christianity and science can’t work together, they are more likely to stereotype Christians as uninterested in or incompetent at science.”
To better understand the causal relationships involved, the researchers conducted an experiment with 799 participants who were recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Out of these, 520 identified as Christians and 279 as nonreligious. They were randomly assigned to read one of two articles. One article portrayed Christianity and science as being compatible, while the other described them as incompatible.
The participants then completed the same implicit and explicit measures as in the previous study. Mackey and his colleagues found that nonreligious participants perceived Christians as more intelligent and scientific when they were presented with information showing that Christianity and science are compatible, compared to nonreligious participants who read about them being incompatible.
The findings indicate that “if people are reminded of how Christianity and science can potentially coexist, people’s perceptions of Christians in science can become more positive,” Mackey said. “Making perceptions of Christians in science more positive is crucial for increasing Christian representation in science and increasing trust between religious and nonreligious individuals in scientific domains.”
“A short narrative about ways Christianity and science could coexist was enough to boost nonreligious individuals’ perceptions of Christians as scientific measured by a composite of interest in science, competence in science, and scientific ability (from a rating of 38.63 out of 100 among those who read about Christianity and science being in conflict, to a rating of 53.35 among those who read about Christianity and science coexisting),” he explained. “This surprised us, given the frequency with which negative stereotypes about Christians in science (and beliefs about the religion-science conflict more generally) are expressed in American society.”
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“One caveat of our research was that it was conducted in the United States, where stereotypes about Christians being unscientific are common (Rios et al., 2015). In other countries, different religions may be perceived as incompatible with science (e.g., Islam in the UK; Ecklund et al., 2019). In the future, it would be interesting to test whether nonreligious individuals in the UK exhibit more positive stereotypes of Muslims in science after reading a passage about how science and Islam can coexist.”
“Furthermore, our manipulation was rather direct; we told individuals that Christianity and science were either capable of coexisting or not. Testing these effects in a different way, such as presenting participants with an example of a Christian scientist (e.g., Francis Collins; Sharp et al., 2021), may be another method to change nonreligious individuals’ perceptions about the relationship between Christianity and science.”
“Our research suggests that nonreligious individuals may be less likely to see Christians as acceptable candidates in scientific positions. More research is needed to understand how scientists in America (where nonreligious people are overrepresented; Ecklund et al., 2019) perceive Christians applying for research assistants or graduate students in their labs, and whether influencing scientists’ perceptions of Christianity and science makes scientists evaluate Christian applicants more positively than they would otherwise.”
The findings also have some practical implications.
“Our findings suggest that reminding individuals that Christianity and science can coexist can help reduce nonreligious individuals’ reliance on negative stereotypes about Christians in science,” Mackey said. “These changing perceptions may help increase Christians’ representation in science. Because nonreligious individuals are overly represented in science (Ecklund et al., 2019), they may unwittingly ‘gatekeep’ science from Christians if they do not believe Christianity and science can coexist. Christians are a large part of the American population so it’s important to increase their representation in science lest we miss out on a lot of potential scientific talent.”
“Furthermore, by changing beliefs about whether Christianity and science can coexist, we can potentially reduce the polarization around attitudes toward science between religious and nonreligious groups,” Mackey continued. “These findings are especially important given how Evangelical Christians were skeptical of the COVID-19 vaccine and have some of the lowest levels of trust in science (Khullar, 2022).”
“Scientists often believe that religious people won’t be interested in listening to them (Scheitle et al., 2018), potentially because they think Christianity and science can’t work together. However, if they do believe Christianity and science can work together, scientists and Christians can engage in more dialogue with each other and potentially increase the trust between these groups.”
The study, “Christianity-science compatibility beliefs increase nonreligious individuals’ perceptions of Christians’ intelligence and scientific ability“, was authored by Cameron D. Mackey, Kimberly Rios, and Zhen Hadassah Cheng.
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