A new study published in the journal Public Understanding of Science sheds light on why religious believers tend to distrust scientists. The findings suggest that Christians in the United States assume that religious scientists are more motivated than non-religious scientists to help others.
“Stereotypes of both scientists and atheists are fairly pervasive, representing them as intelligent, but lacking social skills and morality. In contrast, religious individuals are commonly seen as sociable and highly moral,” said study author Alexandra L. Beauchamp, a curatorial science fellow at the Wildlife Conservation Society.
“Since the majority of Americans are religious, we were interested in how people might think about a scientist differently knowing that scientist’s religious affiliation. We focused on self-identified Christians as Christianity is the majority religion in the United States.”
Three studies with 890 participants in total found that Christian participants trusted a scientist who was described as an atheist significantly less than a scientist who was described as Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. The participants also rated atheist scientists as less warm than religious scientists.
The researchers found that perceptions about the scientists’ motives mediated the link between religious affiliation and trustworthiness. The Christian participants viewed scientists of any religion as more motivated by prosociality than non-religious scientists. These results were true regardless of whether the scientist was described as doing research to benefit society or doing research to produce new materials.
“We favor scientists who we believe are trying to help society. However, we differ in how much we perceive scientists as intending to help us. For people who identified themselves as Christian, a scientist’s religious affiliation influences how helpful they believe a scientist is, and thus how much trust they place in that scientist. The article highlights the role religion plays in our evaluations of science, particularly in America, where science is often presented as the antithesis of religion,” Beauchamp told PsyPost.
“More work still needs to be done on practical approaches to increasing trust in scientists who are already seen as untrustworthy. Our article suggests that we can bolster trust through highlighting a scientist’s prosocial nature, but how might this be realized? Can we directly state the societal benefits of a scientist’s work? Or do we need to change the portrayals of scientists to show greater collaboration between scientists and the public? We also need to test whether these effects are consistent across different science topics, including those which the public finds more controversial.
“One important caveat to consider is that the people who participated in these studies were from the United States. The cultural and historical relationship between science and religion in other countries may not be the same as in the United States, and as a result, we may not see the same pattern of results in other countries,” Beauchamp added.
The study, “Secularism in science: The role of religious affiliation in assessments of scientists’ trustworthiness“, was authored by Alexandra L. Beauchamp and Kimberly Rios.