Is the Church Undermining Itself?

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Are men better than women at math? That is a common stereotype, and research suggests that part of the reason women drop out of higher level math and have been seen to perform worse than their male peers on math tests is the result of what psychologists call a stereotype threat.

According to Emily Pronin at Princeton University,

Stereotype threat “occurs when a female math student is taking a difficult math test, and the challenges she experiences with it bring to her mind negative stereotypes about female math ability. Such stereotypes are widespread: 45% of our research participants report believing that men are ‘better at math’ than women—less than 1% report that women are better! Once she begins to consider these stereotypes, our female test-taker may become concerned that she will be judged according to them, or even that her performance may confirm them. Numerous experiments have found that the experience of ‘stereotype threat’ is sufficiently distracting and upsetting to cause women to score lower on difficult math tests than equally skilled men.”

Stereotype threats happen in other domains, including the church. This week I want to unpack how negative stereotypes, caused in part by the church, undermine efforts for Christians in the sciences to bridge faith and science. If the church is to aide Christians to pursue STEM vocations, as I suggested last week, we need to understand this threat and address it.

Negative Stereotypes and Christians

Psychologists Kim Rios and her colleagues have been studying how the narrative of conflict around science and faith impacts Christians. Specifically, her team is looking at the stereotype that Christians are not good at science and how such perceptions affect Christians’ performance in science. Here is how one of her collaborators summed up some of their initial findings:

“The paper shows how negative stereotypes about Christians’ performance in science can actually diminish their performance at analytical tasks and sap their interest in and identification with science. This has pernicious consequences for Christian students interested in science, and for science literacy in the US as a whole.”

In a subsequent study, Rios tried to understand not just if Christians underperformed, but why they did. She primed Christians and non-Christians with articles—one supported the conflict narrative and the other suggested compatibility between science and faith. Again, she found a negative effect on performance by Christians. Interestingly, the greatest decline in performance was not by Christians uninterested in science—those likely to not take a task seriously—but by Christians who reported being highly engaged with science prior to the intervention. She suggests that it is not a matter of Christians seeing science as inconsistent with their beliefs such that they don’t try. Rather, those who wanted to do well in science saw the biggest decrease, likely because they know how Christians in science are perceived, and underperform due to the pressure they feel from the stereotype.

In response to Rios’s research, this NPR interviewer summarizes the whole concept of stereotype threats:

“So you have evidence there that having the stereotype in your mind makes you anxious in some way, affects your performance. And this is the key—the most troubling part… people who are reminded of a stereotype about themselves end up behaving in ways that conform to the stereotype.”

  • Science that inspires awe and wonder is connected with religious belief.
  • Here is a nice write-up of the study led by Elaine Howard Ecklund on how knowledge of Francis Collins’s own beliefs led participants to view faith and science as compatible.

What Are We to Do?

Whether our churches explicitly proclaim a conflict with science, or simply stay silent on the matter, this perception of conflict between faith and science, as Rios’s research shows, undermines both Christians in the sciences and the church’s ability to encourage and support them. So, what do we do about it?

Well let me offer two hopeful possibilities. First, Rios found that underperformance was primed by the conflict article. Christians and non-Christians performed almost identically when they read the compatibility article. This mirrors a finding by sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund that found priming respondents with a description of Richard Dawkins’s approach to faith and science had little or no impact on their response to a survey question about the compatibility of religion and science. But a brief description of Francis Collins’s perspective led more respondents to suggest faith and science are compatible.

That is to say, proclaiming compatibility and highlighting Christians in the sciences seem to counter the negative stereotypes.

Second, there is another troubling line of research that claims a connection between science (or analytic thinking) and decreased religious belief, buttressing negative stereotypes of Christians in science. However, a recent study showed that science that inspires awe and wonder might actually inspire belief in God. Specifically, this lecture on quantum mechanics corresponded with unbelief, whereas this musical video about the wave and particle nature of atoms was associated with belief.

That is to say, to undermine the negative stereotype, we can use science that evokes awe and wonder to inspire belief in a Creator God.

Using social and psychological sciences to study the interface of science and religion is still quite new, and so it is probably premature to draw too many conclusions. Nevertheless, having worked with a number of churches engaging science, I think it is safe to say that to overcome the negative stereotypes about Christians and science, we should preach the value of science and its compatibility with our faith while also drawing attention to both Christians in the sciences and awe-inspiring aspects of science.

That is to say, our churches should tell of the amazing things science reveals about creation and leverage the scientists in our congregations.



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