My experiences are leading me to worry that strident attitudes against religion are harming efforts to diversify our scientific communities.
Over the past twenty years, I’ve brought down about 120 undergraduates to work with me to the Costa Rican rainforest for some fieldwork. Some for a few weeks, some for a few months, a few for half of a year. As you can imagine, not every single student worked out so well. I’d like to think that the vast majority worked out as great successes. But with that many, even with a low failure rate, you would expect some to not work out. You’d expect some students would leave the field station thinking, “I don’t fit in to this community.”
I’ve learned a lot about the recruitment process over the years and I’ve worked to avoid conflicts that can jeopardize the success – and of course the safety – of a field season. When things don’t work out, I recognize that it’s my responsibility. It’s also my job to understand why conflicts emerge so that I can do what I can to fix them and avoid them in the future.
Some ungood things have happened*. Several students just haven’t fit into the life of the station. They just don’t fit in, or don’t feel like they want to make the effort to engage in the role to which they had agreed.
The place where we work is relatively welcoming to outsiders (and as cushy as rainforest fieldwork tends to get). Over the course of a few weeks, many of my students have built strong and lasting friendships with people from all over the world. I have more students who had a great time, are excited about research, but learned that they’re not going to become tropical field biologists. Then I have a smaller fraction that just can’t wait to get home and are just fed up with the place and the people. They’re turned off not just from the site or from field biology, but from research in general. But there are some students who just don’t gel with the people on station. They tend to start out well, but over time get more isolated and grow unsettled.
I’ve been straining my brain trying to see if there’s anything in common among the small proportion of students that don’t work out. It’s not a gender thing, or an ethnicity thing, or a rural/urban thing, or an experience with travel thing, it’s not related to academic performance, or how close they are to family, or if they come from a particularly wealthy or low-income background. It’s not like I can use demographics to sort out students who will have problems getting along with folks in the rainforest.
But then something occurred to me. One thing that nearly all of these students had in common is that they were religious. They were religious enough that I was aware of it, by wearing a cross or just having it come up in conversation.
I haven’t systematically kept track of religiosity in my students — I think it would be pretty creepy if I wasn’t doing some kind of IRB-approved study. Nonetheless, I do realize that for most of the students who didn’t work out, I was aware that they were actively religious, whereas I tend not to be aware about that kind of thing for most of my students. I’m not inclined to try to run a Fisher’s Exact Test, but ratio that I’m mentally tallying at the moment is strong enough to make me suspect there is an actual relationship.
At this writing, if you asked me what minority would feel most out of place in my discipline, I’d have to say it’s people who are religious. (I’m well open to having my mind changed on this matter.) Because most of the students that I work with are already members of groups ethnically underrepresented in science in the US, not fitting in because of religion is a big double whammy.
I’ve had this in mind the past couple years as I’ve observed interactions among students. It’s not like religion comes up as a topic all of the time. At the field station, folks are far more likely to talk about bot flies, snakes, whether any of the Costa Rican beers actually taste different from one another, the critters we saw out in the forest that day, and I imagine this year, the hideous dumpster fire that is the US election.
But in the context of this all, among friends, a remark that could be interpreted as anti-religious does slip out once in a while. Before I was watching for it, I might have been as culpable as anybody else. When you’re in a group of like-minded people, it’s easy to assume that a broad set of priorities and beliefs go hand in hand. Among scientists, at least the ones I interact with on a regular basis, it’s a very good bet that few are devoutly religious.
What’s a good bet? Not as extreme as betting against Leicester winning the premiership at a 2000-to-1 odds. Among the research students and scientists my students interact with, I’d guess (and this is a vague guess) that one person in five, or ten, or a score, is religious. I’m only able to make this guess based on how people respond when the topic of religion tends to come up.
I’m not just thinking of the anti-religious zealotry of people like Richard Dawkins and his disciples. These “New Atheists” are a huge problem as the face of science, but I don’t think they’re the ones that are making science inhospitable to religious students on a daily basis. It’s the run-of-the-mill folks who bear a mild disregard for religion and might happen to share this once in a while.
I’m thinking of the gently condescending attitude, or the slight offhand remarks that one might make without even realizing it. Sitting around and talking about having to spend holiday with extended family, or dealing with preachy uncle Charlie who goes to church every week. Or that person in the college dorm who who insisted on saying grace at before each meal.
I’ve had some smart, motivated and promising students end up not liking scientific research, and my guess is that, in part, it’s because they didn’t feel welcome among us because of differences in attitude towards religion. I’m not wholly convinced this is what’s happening, but then again, it wouldn’t surprise me either. Regardless of whether this is true or not, then would it harm any of us to be more inclusive?
[I’d like to note that when this comes out, I will already be on my way to a few days off of the grid. At least, I hope where I’m headed is off the grid. That will explain why I’m not responding or moderating or interacting.]
*What are some examples from over the years? One student feigned a muscle injury to avoid fieldwork, but then didn’t even hold up their end in the lab either. Another made a huge error while deploying an experiment, lied to cover it up, and then went to the beach for the weekend without telling me (where something bad happened to them because they were not following basic safety rules). Another intentionally provoked arguments using hateful statements about social issues that created serious unrest. Another one broke cardinal safety rules, and as a result got lost in the forest. Another complained about field conditions so much, and worked so little, that nobody wanted to partner with them. These are all situations which I would categorize as “that student didn’t work out.” And there are all situations for which I am ultimately responsible.