Science degrees ‘unwelcoming’ to religious students

Even though half of STEM students say that they are religious, atheist worldviews are perceived to dominate in the laboratory

February 12, 2024
Workmen install a 6-metre fibre glass statue of the god Pazuzu onto the rooftop of the Institute of the Contemporary Arts to illustrate Science degrees ‘unwelcoming’ to religious students
Source: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images

Science students are much more likely to face insensitivity about their beliefs than their peers in other subject areas, according to new research.

The study, based on a survey of more than 8,000 students across 133 universities, found that 51 per cent of students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) identified as non-religious, slightly higher than the all-student average of 48 per cent.

But despite nearly half of STEM students describing themselves as religious – including 28 per cent who said that they were Christian – many said they felt that non-religious views dominated their courses.

The study found that around three in 10 students on STEM and medicine-related courses agreed that religious and non-religious differences created “a sense of division” on campus, compared with one in five students in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

STEM and medicine students were also more likely to report frequently hearing or reading insensitive comments about their worldviews. Significantly, the proportion who reported hearing such comments from university staff (around 11 per cent) was almost double the rate found in other disciplines.

Lucy Peacock, the lead researcher on the year-long project and a research fellow in Coventry University’s Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, said that the findings were alarming and could have a significant impact on students’ academic engagement.

She said interviewees had shared some concerning stories of insensitivity or divisiveness that made them question whether STEM was right for them, but many of them self-censored religious expression to avoid conflict.

“This in itself is a product of an insensitive and divisive academic atmosphere, and we know from our own wider research into religion in higher education that self-censorship, or a lack of interaction across religious difference, is detrimental to students’ overall interfaith development,” she said.

Dr Peacock said a lack of opportunity for discussion in STEM subjects meant that they had failed to normalise religious beliefs.

“The perception that STEM departments are dominated by atheist and agnostic worldviews is simply normalised, despite there being a range of religious worldviews represented among STEM students,” she said.

The report makes a series of recommendations for how universities across the UK can improve STEM environments, including not scheduling work on religious holidays, allowing students to wear appropriate religious clothing in the laboratory without remark, and normalising talking about religion informally among religious staff.

If universities do nothing, Dr Peacock warned, students’ ability to engage in their academic studies might suffer, they would be less willing to engage across religion and worldview differences, and they might feel less safe in expressing their own religious commitments – all of which could affect the recruitment of STEM students.

In addition, she said, universities would not fulfil their equality, diversity and inclusion obligations and would feed into discriminatory and insensitive STEM workplaces.

“Should religion-related insensitive and divisive experiences continue in STEM education, we might reasonably expect graduates to perpetuate a climate of insensitivity and divisiveness beyond university,” she said.

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Reader's comments (7)

If I want to research the architectural principles on which the dome of St Pauls Cathedral was constructed, why is it a problem to know that a person, Christopher Wren, was behind the design? Similarly if I want to research the principles on which the Universe works, why is a problem if there is a Designer, God, behind it all, rather than it being a random phenomenon. In fact the 'sky-blue swan' argument proves there IS a 'Designer'. Ask, has there ever been a sky-blue swan (naturally coloured). No, you say. But you haven't seen all the world's swans, let alone all that have ever lived. No, because such an animal is just too improbable. Like a coin I say is fair, you toss it 20x, 20 heads, OK 1 in a million, now you toss it 60, 80, times, all heads. At some point we invoke the Standard Deviation argument, that coin cannot be fair, even though the next time we toss that coin it might have been tails. For the Universe, if we change the ratio between any of the 4 basic forces (weak nuclear=stellar fusion, strong nuclear=atomic structure, gravity, electromagnetic) by even 0.01% we might have no stars, no planets, no atoms, or no molecules. So no life. How were the electron shell values (2, 8, 8....) set BEFORE the Big Bang, without that, no element with 4 bonds, carbon, no complex molecules that life needs. If the resonance energy of helium fusion inside stars was slightly different, we'd have a Universe of hydrogen, helium., some lithium and beryllium, rather than hydrogen, carbon, oxygen as now, again no life. I have no problem with stydying these physical attributes and knowing that a Designer has to be behind it all. And Life has an interesting function in the Universe, reversing Entropy, and human life can create information that truly creates 'negative entropy'.....but that's another story.
Of course non religious view dominate courses. we deal with observable verifiable facts, not mythology. If you want to bring mythology into courses which would you choose? the Greek view, Norse, Pacifica islanders views or are you only concerned about the various mythos of bronze-age goat herding tribes from in the middle east? So if you want to mark religious holidays how many adherents to a view do you require before interrupting the study term of everyone else? Does the failure of the social science or theology faculty to include discussion on quantum mechanics create a sense of diversion between the scientifically iterate and those who are not? "The reply from Digging Deeper" is deeply depressing and article the intellectual stupor into which "THE" is falling.
For "DiggingDeeper". The historical authenticity of Sir ChristopherWren is not in any doubt. His life is well recorded. You can even find his grave and if you were so minded his remains. Once you start on about a "Designer" you are digging yourself a hole. which one Zeus, Jupiter Odin etc. Problem is we have not one piece of evidence that any of them existed. If you do then the onus is on you to prove it - should give you a 4* REF paper :-/. As to entropy I suggest you consult a book on physics before going down that rabbit hole and in particular the difference between open and closed systems.
Claims are being made about the levels of religous belief amongst students, but has anyone looked at STEM academics? That is going to be more of an influence on how the subject is delivered. You also have to consider that faith is not the correct tool for studying STEM subjects. Just as STEM subjects are not designed to study religion or seek for the existence of any deities... I see it this way: The believing scientist says, "By my work and that of my fellow scientists, we learn more about how the universe works. Isn't God clever?" The non-believing scientist says, "By my work and that of my fellow scientists, we learn more about how the universe works, who needs a God now?" (For 'God' substitute the name of the deity of your choice.)
I am a STEM academic and a believer in God. Some of the finest minds in science with whom I have worked are also believers. It is naive and immensely short-sighted to suggest that science and faith in God are mutually exclusive.
The issue isn't the belief of staff - who hold and are usually welcome to hold a range of believes provided that they do not compromise their ability to perform their duties. The article was discussing whether the content of STEM courses could somehow be more accommodating to the beliefs of students, to which I think the answer must be NO. you cannot twist reality to fit the brliefs of students.. If that makes some students uncomfortable, perhaps they are on the wrong programme of study.
Unfortunately most of both the “pro” and “anti” religious comments here are rather depressing, and make clear the extent of the very issue the article highlights. Just as fallacious logic tricks and misuse of scientific concepts are poor arguments in favour of religion, so too are childish comments about Bronze Age sky gods poor substitutes for religious literacy. Absolutely no one is claiming that religious beliefs ought to be taught or accommodated at the level of course content. The issue the article raises is that of department cultures - how people are treated. In other words, don’t be an asshole to others based on beliefs and cultural backgrounds that are irrelevant to their scientific work. This is an incredibly easy request to fulfil.