How Christians React to the Religion-Science Conflict

Evidence for stereotype threat among scientists of faith.

Posted Jul 06, 2020

For most of the last century, the United States has been the world leader in science. And yet, it is also one of the most highly religious nations in the developed world. As a result, it’s not unusual for local school districts to ban the teaching of generally accepted scientific facts. One of the most infamous of these was the case of Cobb County, Georgia, which removed pages from biology textbooks that mentioned evolution and added stickers to these books warning students that evolution is “a theory, not a fact.”

In one opinion poll by the Pew Research Center, 38 percent of Americans believe that religion and science are mostly compatible, while 59 percent believe the two are often in conflict. Among those who believe religion and science are in conflict, no doubt some reject religion in favor of science, while others dismiss science when it challenges their cherished religious beliefs.

Some psychologists have theorized that religious belief operates according to a “fast” intuitive style, while scientific reasoning works according to a “slow” analytical style. While people use both “fast” and “slow” thinking in their daily lives, they also tend to have a preference for one style or the other. Indeed, prior research has shown that highly religious people tend to perform less well on scientific reasoning tasks compared to their non-religious counterparts.

However, as Ohio University psychologist Kimberly Rios points out in an article she recently published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, there are other potential explanations for these results. In particular, previous studies have inadvertently reminded participants of the religion-science conflict, and this could have biased the results in one of two ways.

One possibility is that a reminder of the religion-science conflict could have induced stereotype threat in religious participants. When people are reminded that they belong to a supposedly inferior group, they tend to perform worse than they would have otherwise. For instance, Blacks perform worse than Whites on standardized tests when they’re asked to indicate their race beforehand, but that difference disappears otherwise. Likewise, Whites tend to underperform at athletic tasks when first reminded of the stereotype that Blacks are more athletic. In this case, it could be that the religious “choke” on analytical reasoning tasks when reminded of the conflict between religion and science.

Another possibility is that disengagement occurs when religious persons are reminded that religion and science are often in conflict. Because religion is so central to their self-identity, these participants don’t even try hard and give up easily when faced with a “science” problem. In other words, they disengage from the task.

Whether the religious participant experiences stereotype threat or disengagement, the end result is the same, namely poor performance on the scientific reasoning task. However, Rios maintains, we can determine which of the two caused the poor performance if we look at how long the participants spend on the task. In the case of stereotype threat, people still persevere even though they perform poorly. Conversely, disengagement is by definition giving up quickly on a task perceived to be too difficult.

For the main experiment reported in this article, Rios recruited nearly 400 workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (a web site commonly used for recruiting participants for psychology studies). Roughly half of these self-identified as Christian, and the other half as non-Christian. The participants responded to two surveys before completing a set of analytic reasoning tasks, with total time spent on the tasks recorded as a measure of disengagement.

The first survey assessed the participants’ identification with science through their level of agreement with such statements as “I am good at science.” The second survey was intended to manipulate the participants’ thinking about the compatibility of religion and science. Half of the participants indicated their level of agreement with the statement, “Christianity and science are sometimes compatible,” while the other half responded to the statement, “Christianity and science are always compatible.”

This is a subtle manipulation. The statement with “sometimes” is almost certainly true and thus unlikely to bring the conflict between religion and science to mind. However, the statement with “always” is patently false, and so the religion-science conflict is brought to mind in these respondents.

In sum, three different comparisons were made among these participants: (1) Christian vs. non-Christian; (2) high vs. low science identification; and (3) whether they were reminded that religion and science are compatible or incompatible. The Christians performed worse than the non-Christians on the analytical reasoning tasks, but we get a clearer picture of why this was the case when we look at the other two comparisons.

Those with low science identification (“I’m not good at science”) tended to perform worse than those with high science identification (“I’m good at science”), as would be expected. And it didn’t matter whether they were Christian or non-Christian, or whether they were reminded that religion and science are compatible or incompatible. Furthermore, those who rated themselves as good at science spent more time on the analytical reasoning tasks. Thus, disengagement occurred, although not because of religion but rather lack of interest in science.

The most surprising pattern of results was from those who identified themselves as being good at science (high science identification). Non-Christians performed equally well whether reminded of the incompatibility of religion and science or not. In contrast, the Christians performed well when reminded that religion and science are sometimes compatible, but their performance dropped when they thought about the two as being in conflict. Apparently, these Christians who believed themselves to be good at science choked in this condition, providing strong evidence for stereotype threat.

This study also challenges the notion that religious and non-religious people have different modes of thinking. In particular, both Christians and non-Christians who had high science identification performed equally well on the analytical reasoning tasks. Instead, the poor performance among religious versus non-religious participants in previous studies is more likely due to either disengagement or stereotype threat.

As is so often the case in psychology, we find once again that humans are complex, and a simple distinction between “religious” and “scientific” thinking styles is insufficient to explain the diversity of human existence.

References

Rios, K. (2020). Examining Christians’ reactions to reminders of religion-science conflict: Stereotype threat versus disengagement. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/0146167220929193

Wikipedia contributors. (2018, September 5). Selman v. Cobb County School District. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19:40, June 12, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Selman_v._Cobb_County_School_District&oldid=858257880

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