Religious scientists as a component of STEM diversity


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.

30 thoughts on “Religious scientists as a component of STEM diversity

  1. I’m a religious scientist in the ecology/evolution world. This bias certainly exists. Most people aren’t outright and confrontational in their bias (some are, I’ve had experiences with both faculty and fellow graduate students telling me I’m an idiot and an incapable scientist because of my faith). However, many people tend to hold a (subconscious?) bias against people of faith. I’ve had employers discussing the poor quality of religious scientists and field biologists in front of me repeatedly. While I don’t claim to be a phenom, I’m of at least average capabilities. Inevitably when I ask how I compare as a religious scientist, I’m met with stutters and excuses.

    The bias is bad enough in academia that I intentionally don’t bring it up first, and I would never discuss my faith on a job interview–though it should never come up in that case.

    Odd to think about really, some of our most celebrated scientists and natural historians were deeply religious.

  2. Hi Terry,
    I agree, and have become more aware of this myself as I’ve tried to expand my network beyond the US / EU cohort of scientists. Of course I’m well aware of the need to protect Muslim students from the rising levels of anti-Muslim sentiment and like many educators am making an effort to include photos of women wearing a hijab in my outreach efforts. However, I’ve also found that strong Christian beliefs are very common in the plant scientists I am trying to reach out to, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, which has made me even more aware of the need to show care in all communications.
    Religious faith and religious practices are not necessarily incompatible with science. Furthermore, most of the Christians in science that I have spoken to are not creationists and have no skepticism about evolution. One of my best former undergraduate researchers who is now a VP at a biotech company attends church weekly and says that it provides her with an opportunity for self-reflection and that “always feels better afterwards” – hard to argue with that.
    Like any bias, anti-religious biases are harmful. Sometimes we don’t realize that we have and are expressing those biases until someone explicitly points them out to us, so thanks for writing this.

  3. I totally agree with you and have experienced many of the same things throughout my undergrad and grad careers and it certainly does not feel welcoming at all. Especially if you’ve been raised within a religious community (not even necessarily one that is all the same religion) encountering people who tell you, without any reason that ‘those who believe in any religion are unfit to be scientists because they cannot be trusted to judge what is a fact’ is really really jarring.

    Those experiences are certainly not happening with every non-religious person I encounter but they have happened enough that I am often hesitant to bring up my faith in any context and I avoid those who have said such things.

  4. In a way the p-value doesn’t matter, but I still appreciate you asking the question about religious bias affecting scientists. I’m something of a closeted religious scientist who takes their faith very seriously and doesn’t feel the need to reconcile for a third party why my faith (Catholicism) and science are not at odds. The number of times I’ve effectively been told to stay quiet on social media, at conference, in meetings, etc. is huge.

    Beyond conversations, another frustration is that many science-based opportunities span weekends. I get this is hard for field work since it’s a once a year thing that often occurs in a remote setting. If an event goes over a weekend, do religious students (Muslims-Friday, Jews-Saturday, Christians-Sunday) have an opportunity to attend services without feeling like they are missing out? I suspect many of your students are Hispanic with a Catholic or Evangelical background. I would be unlikely to allow my children to participate in activities that kept them from attending Mass on a Saturday afternoon or Sunday and hope that as adults they would take this seriously as adults at college. Similarly, more an more conferences are held over weekends and may pack Saturday and Sunday mornings with sessions. Both example leave people in an awkward situation of having to decide between professional development and their faith. A junior person or underrepresented minority will feel the stronger conflict. I chose to skip those conferences and activities because I’m more senior and can afford to.

    My point is that it’s not just conversations or blatant anti-religious sentiment, but the bias can often be more structural and implicit.

  5. Thank you so much for this thoughtful piece. I have definitely felt judged and am still not fully honest with anyone in my lab about my religious beliefs, though I’m trying to be more courageous.

  6. It bothers me that you seem to be conflating “religious” with “American Christian”, which probably doesn’t help practicing religious (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, etc.) students feel more accepted.

  7. Completely agree the bias exists in science, though for the US at least, one thing to bring up is that STEM is one of the few places where it’s accepted to be an open atheist (and no, not one of the “new atheists” that think religion is a scourge to be eliminated, just someone that is not religious- I’m one of those quieter atheists that thinks if religion works for you, then great, go for it, it’s just not for me).

    Atheists do not have a good reputation in the United States, it’s hard to get elected to office regardless of party if you do not profess some faith (read: Christian). Christians have almost everywhere else to feel safe and comfortable in the US (and even w/in science, as commenters are pointing out a lot of scientists are religious even if they’re mostly quiet about it).

    The Director of the NIH is a devout Christian, so it may be worthwhile pointing out to students that while there may be those in STEM that make condescending comments re: religion, there are plenty of people of faith as well. Are people of faith as numerous in STEM as outside it? No, but they are there.

    Of course, this doesn’t cover other faiths, like Islam, etc., and making an effort of being more inclusive there really would make a difference, I think.

    This may also be a case of religion not appearing accepted in science because it doesn’t come up that much…we don’t use faith to measure the natural world, we use tools, observation, etc. Religion doesn’t come up because it can’t- science is agnostic on the point of whether there’s a God or not, literally not a testable hypothesis and so we ignore it while we’re working- as you are out in the field most of the time.

    Another point that’s quirky in modern times: faith/religion has come to mean certainty in some circles (the extreme is “the Earth was created 6,000 years ago by God in 6 days and science is wrong despite the evidence it says it has for an ancient origin of life, the Young Earth is 100% certain article of faith”)…while in science, we deal with the uncertain all the time. We’re never 100% sure of anything and we question things all the time, including our assumptions about the world. It’s not many ideas in science that make it to theory (in the scientific sense of the word) status. So it may be that some of your religious students may feel like they’re in a new environment where everything is up for questioning, and that makes them uncomfortable because they feel like their faith is under a test too.

  8. re certainty/uncertainty and other diffs between some religious modes and some science modes of thought.. (i.e. if u meet a God on the road, ‘wow lets science the shit out of that, how curious)

    i wonder if u can tease out how much these students r feeling pressure from others and how much they r deciding for themselves that there r too many conflicts?

    for instance iv had experiences with people in various settings (math tutoring, general acquaintances etc..) where they realize how my inquisitive doubting testing mode of thought works and they say… oh man thats too much work for me or too unsettling and back off.

    i mean, maybe its ok for diff people to have different approaches to the world.

  9. Thought provoking post! We all have biases that affect our interpretation of data and the kinds of questions that we ask and the framework that we embed our theory. The two biggies are of course religion and politics but also gender, ethnicity, geographic location, temporal location, and many many others. So one could just as easily substitute “conservative” or “liberal” for religious here and the message would be the same. Yet when was the last time I heard a colleague call for increased sensitivity to a conservative world-view so that we create a more inclusive environment for conservative students? I do agree that any environment with constant belittle-ing from one side of a spectrum is corrosive and it is very easy to slip into. So I have to continually remind myself to attack the message and not the messenger. So, for example, many aspects of a liberal way of thinking (natural is good, corporations are bad) lead to poor frameworks for science (are “incompatible with science”) but this doesn’t mean that some of the best scientists aren’t liberal! (said, with a smile since I’m politically liberal on most issues).

  10. As a graduate student, I felt completely on the outside of the cultural circles among my peers. The tribal identity of our cohort bordered on militant atheism… and it nearly pushed me out of science entirely.

    A number of things helped me stay in science:
    – Learning about the Templeton Foundation and its activities
    – Finding myself in a department (Princeton/EEB) with a relatively large fraction of religious-supportive faculty
    – Finding colleagues who were happy to talk about faith and science without it being an argument
    – Taking a job at a school (Providence College) where religion and science are both seen as non-competing paths to truth. We have Dominican priests on campus who teach the dogma of molecular biology and do research on microbial evolution with greater passion and intellect than most secular scientists I’ve met.

  11. To provide a bit of contrast to the comments above, I should say that I am a religious scientist and have encountered almost no negativity based on my religion. Some of my colleagues have asked me questions about my faith, and for the most part I’ve enjoyed those conversations. I completely believe that many religious scientists might feel unwelcome or experience negativity around their religion, but I wanted to point out that this is not a ubiquitous experience.

    Having said that — I think some of the readers here might find this article (“Negative Stereotypes Cause Christians to Underperform in and Disidentify With Science”) of interest:

  12. As a scientist of faith, I certainly experienced many “microaggressions” during grad school – essentially all of them by people who were unaware of my beliefs. I think it is entirely plausible that some bright and capable people could be turned away from the research community, though my own stubbornness and confidence may have protected me from those effects. I’m just glad I’m not politically conservative, or that double whammy would have really knocked me out of academia. For all our intelligence and self-awareness, it’s amazing how ignorant academics can be of how much they’ve created a culture that is an echo chamber for a certain set of beliefs, and can’t fathom how people could think otherwise (even on issues that are not matters of fact but of values – as though research had demonstrated their values to be superior).

  13. As noted by a number of other commenters here, most of the crap that came my way for my spirituality was during graduate school. That was odd to a great extent because I rarely discussed it with anyone and was certainly not a proselytizer (never have been one). Some of the grad students closer to me knew that I attended religious services, but that was it.

    My most jarring moment was being called to a prominent ecologist’s office. I was slated to TA for their course in the coming semester, and this was late in my Ph.D. studies. The whole reason that I was called in, it turned out, was for them to conduct a bit of an Inquisition into my biological orthodoxy. I passed, of course, never having been a creationist in my life previously (and, in fact, spending inordinate amounts time during my grad studies rebutting creationist and intelligent design arguments on, back when that was a thing). But the whole thing made me think back to my previous years of study to other experiences that I had (mainly with co-students) where I had definitely been excluded from both academic and social situations.

    Thankfully, not all (not even most) of my co-students or professors were like that. Two professors specifically – one who was Jewish and the other who described themselves as a “lapsed Unitarian” – were always gracious and willing to talk to me on related subjects.

    Fast forward to today, where I now am a faculty member. I still am battling creationism and ID, but my experiences in graduate school have tempered my approach when dealing with questioning students. I’m still “ready to rumble” when a charlatan comes to campus to promote nonsense. But students aren’t charlatans. They are, in fact, victims of those snake-oil salesmen. And I have often had non-religious colleagues send students struggling with their beliefs to me. So my experiences, I guess, were useful.

  14. Oh, and one more thing (I am the “Anonymous” who just posted re: the professor’s “Inquisition” during grad school):

    Some of the most effective communicators who I know who take the time to squish charlatans and to gently encourage deeper though in students regarding evolution/origins/etc. are people of faith who are also evolutionists. Your average student who has been taking flack for years about their faith is not likely to suddenly have an epiphany when Dawkins or others like him attempt to belittle their ideas. They’ve been hit enough, and they know how to deflect those blows by simply tuning out.

    On the other hand they might – and often do – listen to someone who has made the journey and come out the other end with an intact faith. When I talk to students struggling with their faith as it interacts with science, I have a lot more success with recommending reading from communicators like Francis Collins or some of the folks at BioLogos than I ever would by immediately dropping The Blind Watchmaker on them. Not to say that I’d never challenge them with the latter, but if that’s the first thing that comes out in the discussion, you might as well just send them out of your office and shut the door.

    Evolutionists who also maintain a level of spirituality/faith are more apt to apply an empathetic ear and are able to speak the language of the listener. So, yes, we need to maintain diversity in this area as well.

  15. Weeellll…. I don’t agree.
    If you are a died-in-the-wool creationist you simply ARE NOT fit for STEM. You’ll have to either change your belief into sthg like “it’s only metaphorical” or leave science. How could you be an astronomer or geologist or physicist and really believe the world is only 6000 years old? Or be a biologist and really, really believe that evolution is untrue because god created everything in literally 6 days. It just doesn’t work.

    Now, this process of leading people gently to some way of reconciling their faith with the known facts should start much earlier – eg. in high school – and I feel sorry for people who grew up 100% believing in creationism and then having to either change their belief in a very short time once they enter university or feeling unwelcome but come on. Over here, if you’ve never had latin in high school you can’t study medicine or law, so if you come from a high school track that didn’t offer it and still want to go into one of these subjects you have to take (quite hard) catch-up courses. Well, though luck. Nobody will argue that “ohhh, these poor ppl who didn’t have latin, let’s not make it so hard for them and give them a free pass”. So why should a creationist get a free pass when their belief really is a roadblock to understanding?

    This does not mean that you should constantly nag the girl with the headscarf or the person with the cross on the necklace or whatever if they don’t get on your nerves being preachy and if their faith is not in the way of their science. Iow if they are not creationists or believe other ridiculous things (“salt water and fresh water don’t mix” comes to mind). If they practice their religion just as a form of cultural tradition that doesn’t hurt anybody then it’s not my business to lecture them or nag them. Eg. if a religious person finds some comfort in imagining that their beloved grandparent/friend/pet who just died went to heaven one should not upset them by telling them that “real scientists don’t believe in heaven”. That’s basic decency.

    On the other hand, I don’t see why religion should have such a special status over other real-world things. Eg. if I train for a marathon and some work event is over the weekend then I’ll probably have to skip some training sessions (and typically, people have their long runs on the weekend). So, why should someone who gives religion as a reason for not being able to attend a weekend event be given a free pass? Marathons and training are at least definitely, provably real – shouldn’t provably real endeavours have more priority over ones that are not? Why should it be reverse in this case? If I told you that I had signed up for eg. the Ironman Hawaii – which is really hard to get into and very expensive and that I really, really needed that day to train you’d laugh at me. But if I claim that I want to attend a service to pray to a god which is unprovable and which might not even be the same religion as yours I get an “ohh, that’s understandable”? Especially when you take into account that most religions explicitly allow for exemptions in special circumstances. Eg. muslims do not have to follow the rules of Ramadan if they are kids, old, sick, pregnant, or during travel (+ some other reasons).

    Unless your religion is a very extreme cult it’s usually perfectly possible to skip attending your service once in a while to attend some work event instead. Just like I’d have to skip my training session. Which I probably need more urgently than you need your religious service – you could take a couple minutes longer during your night prayer to apologize to god for skipping service because special circumstances. That’s not possible when your planned training session was eg. a 100mile bike ride. You can’t make up for that by taking a short 5mile run after the conference dinner. I find it a basic matter of fairness that religious people should not demand uber-special treatment. If I have to be flexible enough to plan my training sessions around my work and make allowances then so should the religious person. Otherwise it’s actually discrimination against atheists.

    And bitching about having to spend the holidays with preachy uncle Mr. Creationist? Well, what about those people who bitch about having to spend the weekend with Mr. Health Nut? That’s life, deal with it and don’t come crying discrimination because it’s not. I’m not supposed to feel offended when you bitch about Mr. Health Nut either and it’s not discrimination either. Note that I come from a STEM field where fitness is not seen as a value, in my field you’re supposed to be anti-fitness to prove your true geekiness. So what! I just think “well, go ahead and have diabetes in your 40s, idiots” and that’s that.

    With food it’s again simple fairness. If it’s respected to offer a vegan option for people who want to eat vegan for moral reasons then it should be as respected to offer something pork-free and kosher for the religious. Even as an atheistic omnivore I profit – more food choices are yummy!

    tl;dr: Extremely religious ppl ARE unfit for science. Doesn’t make it alright to constantly nag moderate believers. Which doesn’t make it alright to expect uber-special treatment/allowances just because religion either.

    • Anon2, of course creationists don’t have a place in science because creationism is unscientific. This is about religious people, not unscientific people. If you don’t get how religious people can be great scientists, you might want to read the preceding comments with an open mind. Without leaps of faith in your part about what it means to be religious.

  16. Interesting discussion. It also reminds me that I live in a (generally) more secular country (Canada).

    An anecdote: about 30 years ago, a grad school friend visited me in Vancouver when he was on holiday from his post-doc at OSU in Corvallis, Oregon. We soon got into a discussion of cross-border cultural differences, both in and out of academia. My friend said that his strongest culture shock came from the amount of overt religiosity that he encountered on his campus, and he was referring to everything from conversation among his peers, to more public forms of discourse. This came as a surprise to me – as an outsider, I had the impression that Oregon was one of the more liberal parts of the U.S. Perhaps there is a degree of regional diversity that isn’t obvious from a distance.

    In 14 years of teaching in a small Canadian public university, I can only recall two students in my classes or grad student group who were “out” about their religious adherence. Both were excellent students, and quite enjoyable to work this. I honestly don’t know where they sat on the creation / evolution spectrum, because I’m not a biologist, and this topic was quite distant from what we worked on. Although I would have been curious to probe them a bit on how they decided which parts of the Bible to believe, this seemed out-of-bounds given the power imbalance between professor and student, so I never went there.

    I guess my operating principle has always been that regardless of political ideology or religion, people generally tend to behave about the same, so social harmony is best served by not getting too distracted by professed belief systems.

  17. I haven’t noticed much anti-religious sentiment among colleagues. To be sure, most scientists are not religious, but I don’t think that many are strongly against it either. When I think back on undergrad, I do remember other students who were very publicly antagonistic toward religion, but by the time I reached postdoc I never really encountered people like that anymore. I guess it’s a maturity thing, so maybe it’s more an issue at the undergrad level?

    Now, if a person’s religion strongly influences their political views, then that may be a different situation – a Christian for example may be more likely to have political views that many scientists would find abhorrent, and that person may feel that vigorous debate over a political issue is equivalent to an attack on his/her beliefs because they are linked. Maybe young students don’t have the maturity to tease those things apart. Overall, though, I think most sane adults with careers and families just don’t have time to waste ridiculing other people for their personal choices.

  18. Maybe I should add that I’m in biomed not EEB. Maybe people get more touchy about it in EEB because it’s perceived as being closer to home for them due to the false idea that creationism and religion are inextricably connected. Certainly, most biomed scientists accept the facts of evolution too, but I guess our careers don’t depend on those facts. It’s more of an interesting aside for us.

  19. “of course creationists don’t have a place in science because creationism is unscientific. This is about religious people, not unscientific people.”

    It’s unclear then what exactly makes religious non-creationist people feel out of place. Are there some concrete examples of what can happen?

    I don’t think there are people who would mock someone for just having a religious affiliation. In places where I’ve been (or heard of) there is some number of religious students and they don’t have this kind of problems.

    The only scenario that comes to mind is when occasionally people would discuss/denounce/deride the advance of creationism in a public mind or how the church tries to push creationism into school programs or how it tries to influence science policies. In this case the creationist fraction of religious people can get offended if they are present at or participate in this kind of discussion.

  20. Actually, creationism can be a problem even for talented students in some cases – if it was instilled in them by their community or school. I guess it can happen quite often in the US but occurs in many other places as well.

    I’ve heard of two accounts (Michigan, USA and Geneva, Switzerland) when a student came to a professor some time after a lecture and was crying or very upset because evolution contradicts their orthodox christian views. Although, I guess they ended being non-creationists.

    This case is essentially equal to other underrepresented backgrounds when people were unable to get good education so something should be done to amend it rather than to dismiss these people.

  21. @Terry: no, that’s not the point I’m making. I’m not saying every religious person is automatically a creationist. Even though in the US a lot of them must be, considering how many people claim to believe in creationism in polls. Ok, under the assumption that there are no non-religious creationists but I think that’s reasonable to assume or at least that the number of non-religious creationists is negligible.

    I was using creationism as one example of when you’re so extremely religious as to be unfit for science. Another example would be the belief that the soul enters the embryo at conception. If you believe that you simply can not do stem cell research, period. And there’s just no way stem cell research could be changed to accomodate you. I’m sure there are many other examples where taking your scripture too literally will be in the way of your doing science – and where it’s neither desirable nor even possible to change the science to accomodate you.

    I would argue this already starts at the point when you have too much of a belief mindset. In science, the ideal is to not accept things automatically based on authority but rather to question it. In religion, it’s the other way around. Belief is the highest virtue. The pope said so, the imam said so, the buddha said so, scripture says so and you’re not to question it. If you can’t compartmentalize these two modes of thinking in your head then you ARE unfit to do science. And it would be detrimental to science to change in a way to accomodate “believing” instead of rational analysis and questioning. Yes, I’m aware that science does not live up to it’s ideal sometimes but making “just believe because X said so” a central theme of science would simply NOT work. It wouldn’t be science anymore.

    The other thing is expecting to be accomodated way over and above what is granted to everybody else. If you take your religion so seriously that you can’t miss a religious service even occasionally then that’s a problem. Everybody else is expected to be flexible enough to reschedule their secular activities and plans every now and then and is laughed at when they don’t. Why should a religious event be a stronger argument? Why should religion have so much privilege over everything else?

    See the person in the comments above who said they would not attend conferences on the weekend. I’d get it if ALL conferences were scheduled so that you’d NEVER get to attend your religious service (or have to miss it often) but if you make a big fuss out of skipping it occasionally? Sorry, but that’s the religious person’s problem who doesn’t want to give up their privilege. Yes, privilege because that’s what it is. If I don’t get to complain for having to skip my secular activities every now and then, then so don’t they.

    It’s still wrong to mock religious people just for fun. But at the same time it’s not discrimination if you simply don’t grant the religious more privilege than everybody else.

  22. Thank you, Anon2. I’ve been an avowed atheist since 10th grade, and have received more discrimination for that than for being female. A very tall order, since I’ve mostly worked in male dominated industries.

    I hear what you are saying, Terry, but as a non-Christian in the US, every day I hear micro-aggressions: God bless you, in God we trust, Merry Christmas, etc. If someone wants to attend a religious service during a conference, then go ahead. No one is stopping you (or at least shouldn’t be).

    No one should be mocked for their religious beliefs. But on the other hand, it shouldn’t a special privilege either. I rarely find a vegetarian option, but that’s ok. I’m outside of the norm, in this case. But I have enough grit, that I know I’m not purposely being discriminated against.

    You can never make all the people happy all the time.

  23. This is a very important topic Terry. As an academic scientist and weekly church goer, I notice this all the time. It’s really pretty extreme. I’m tenured and on the whole very privileged. So it pretty much rolls off my back, but I often worry how it affects people who are not in my position.

    I recall vividly sitting in a lunch seminar of 20 people where the conversation veered into a discussion where people (like Anon2 above) immediately equated spiritual or religious with creationist (such an equation is a profound form of ignorance). I looked across the room at a graduate student who goes to my church and gave her a wink, but we both decided it wasn’t worth taking this on. Its pretty common and systemic.

    My church, being in a college town, has a fair number of faculty and graduate students (who are still a very tiny minority on campus). And more than once we’ve wandered into conversations about exactly how hostile the academic environment is to any form of religiousness. This same church by the way is where I led a 4 week series on religion and science, and not a single person saw the slightest conflict between the two (none of us are creationist or biblical literalists). Instead it was a profoundly interesting discussion that increased my understanding of myself as a scientist and as a spiritual being.

    For anybody who wants to see some positive views of how people actually see their religion and science as mutually reinforcing check out ( (and I hasten to add that if it doesn’t work that way for you and you are atheist or agnostic more power to you – its all about what helps you live your own life best).

    I’m a little disturbed by a few people who responded to your post by saying “as an atheist I am discriminated against in most of society” (almost certainly true). This doesn’t make discriminating against religious people in a subculture OK.

    Academics need to educate themselves that there is a great diversity of religious practices, many (most?) of which are fully compatible with science. Stereotypes about or monolithic views of religious people are just as offensive and unacceptable as stereotypes about race, etc.

  24. Late to this, but this is a great conversation that I think needs to happen. As a late-season graduate student, I can say confidently that this bias is indeed real and can be quite strong, in my experience. Starting out the graduate adventure is a difficult enough process without snide comments and derision. It’s refreshing to hear so many religious people chiming in, as we are not as minuscule a portion of academia as some think.

    Personally, I have found graduate students to be much less conscious of their bias than faculty, although I distinctly remember conversations in Evolutionary Ecology where religion was equated to creationism and laughed off by the professor. This despite a large and growing movement of intellectual Christians pursuing evolution and working to reconcile conflicting theological interpretations (e.g., historical Adam and Eve). There are serious scientists doing serious work that struggle with their faith, and how to reconcile it with the latest scientific knowledge. Laughing them off as ridiculous is not only unhelpful, but steers the most impressionable of us off of the science track (as Terry mentions, probably disproportionately affecting groups already under-represented in science).

    When religious people find out that I am a scientist, they almost always have a flood of questions. What do you think about evolution? Are all your professors atheist? How old do you think the earth is? What’s this snake that my cousin’s wife found at their cabin (even though I just said I’m a plant ecologist)? These questions can lead to productive dialogue to dispel myths about science/religion conflict (no, not all professors are liberal atheists, survival of the fittest doesn’t mean survival of the strongest, etc.) and to increase scientific understanding (this huge body of evidence points to an ancient earth, human evolution, etc.). These conversations simply would not happen without religious scientists.

    Along those lines, here is a link to an old article that some might find interesting (I’m sorry, not sure on the paywall status of this one): (
    Basically, a sizable chunk of academics at elite institutions in the US are actually religious, even though the proportion is smaller than that in the average population. Religious scientists are crucial to communicate effectively to a largely religious general population; especially in regards to scientific literacy. It would be helpful if we encouraged the religious minority in academia to do this important outreach, instead of bullying them into being quiet for their ‘silly’ beliefs.

  25. I really appreciate the honesty in this piece and the willingness to think about how different people might be affected – it’s rare but great. If more people were willing to think like this for all kinds of issues (religious affiliation, political affiliation, socioeconomic status, weight, etc.), I think our profession would be a more welcoming and enjoyable place.

    My faith is important to me, and I’ve certainly noticed how this issue affects other people of faith, particularly in grad school. I had the benefit of a supportive faith group, a congenial department, and few screechy opponents (see a couple examples above), so anti-religious bias never threatened to derail my studies. But it does for some people, and I’m truly grateful that you mentioned it. I think it may also be that, by trying to check anti-religious bias in academia, we can also make it more welcoming for other under-represented minorities.

    Finally, there’s a certain logic that a belief in something unscientific makes one unfit for science – for example, creationists don’t have a place here because they believe something unscientific. I’m not a young earth creationist, but I will say I’ve seen young earth creationists who do high quality science. They exist. It’s not terribly surprising, though, because science is full of people with unscientific beliefs, but ones that are usually much more culturally acceptable in academia. Buddhism, karma, and paganism are generally much more welcome because it’s assumed they share the dominant left-leaning political attitudes on campus, and that’s what decides who is acceptable (spoken as a left-leaning academic). I don’t mean to pick a fight, but even young earth creationists make contributions to science, just as pagans do. Some of the most luminous minds in science refused to believe things that are now taken for granted. We all contain contradictions, and we’re all good at making them coexist in our beliefs.

  26. It’s humbling listening to the viewpoints of religious scientists, but I think too it’s important to not lose sight of why undergraduate and graduate students might be so vocal in their criticism of religion.

    We must keep in mind that atheists are consistently regarded as one of the least trustworthy and most disliked groups of people in this country. The majority of Americans say they would not vote for an otherwise qualified Atheist to be president of the United States. Such low regard for any other set of religious beliefs would be seen as wholly unacceptable (with the possible exception of Islam).

    Moreover, conservative Christian churches for decades have been strident in rejecting the scientific consensus (on evolution, fetal development, climate change, etc.) and have pushed hard to wed Christian beliefs with Republican politics. I would argue that (some) Christian churches have gone to war against Science with much more vehemence than scientists have gone to war against Religion (e.g. most academics regard Dawkins as rather obnoxious).

    Obviously not all Christians have agreed with these developments, but they have not made their voices sufficiently loud in arguing against the anti-intellectual, tribalistic, and homophobic voices of their conservative brethren. As a result, fairly or unfairly, the words “Christian” and “religious” read to quite a few Americans as “conservative, Evangelical, Bible thumpers”.

    Students are members of our culture as much as anyone else and have therefore received these messages quite clearly. Students are therefore often surprised to learn that their skeptical/atheistic beliefs are not an aberration among their peers, but are instead fairly typical. These beliefs can form the basis of a sense of solidarity in opposition to the anti-Science, conservative Christian narrative that is a defining feature of American culture.

    The expression of this sense of solidarity can, unfortunately, be expressed in a very crude, obtuse, and alienating manner. One would hope that as students progress through graduate school, and move on further in academia, they would develop a sense of professionalism that obviates the need to bash religion as a form of group bonding. In other words, the headiness of finding like-minded individuals as a student usually gives way to the desire to be inclusive and professional towards ones peers.

    To be clear, I don’t think anyone should feel ostracized from academia because of their religious beliefs. In fact, it is possible to imagine an evolutionary biologist who is theologically a creationist and yet adheres to the principles of the scientific method in their professional work. As a result, I don’t think personal or political beliefs should have any bearing on their professional assessment.

    However, I would also call for a careful interrogation of the role churches have played in creating and escalating tensions between Religion and Science.

  27. Interesting piece, but I’ve actually noticed the opposite process in several cases: students (and in one case a post-doc) who have been unable to integrate into local cultures and form friendly working relations due to their disrespect towards (the local) religion. I think this is more a matter of personality than belief; atheists who dismiss all religions and religious people who reject other belief systems are likely to have similar problems. Most people are able to treat the beliefs of others with respect and, if they disagree, to keep it to themselves. I’m an atheist myself, but find this seldom comes up in conversation, and I’m not aware of it having interfered with my ability to interact with anyone in any of the diverse countries I’ve lived and worked in. I’ve seen other people make life very hard for themselves though.

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