White Evangelical Hostility to Science is Still a Thing

I’m calling shenanigans on this Religion News Service commentary by sociologists Christopher P. Scheitle and Elaine Howard Ecklund, “Evangelicals’ surprising view of science and what it may mean.”

This is partly due to the way they keep reshuffling the focus of their study. Observe:

Over the past five years we have conducted hundreds of interviews, visits to houses of worship and a survey of over 10,000 U.S. adults representing a wide range of religious perspectives, all with the goal of better understanding how Americans understand the relationship between religion and science. What we found does not support the conclusion that religious people are hostile toward, disinterested in or pessimistic about science.

That “wide range of religious perspectives” and reference to “religious people” morphs back-and-forth in this piece as something sometimes broader than, and at other times apparently identical to, the smaller category of [white] “evangelicals.” This is confusing, and at times conveniently so, since the allegedly “surprising” aspect of evangelicals’ view of science being touted here is that it may not be quite as reflexively hostile as you might think. Do you imagine that evangelicals go around saying “We don’t like science”? Well, they don’t.

I wouldn’t have expected that they would. I don’t find it at all surprising that interviews and surveys would find a significant share of white evangelicals claiming they harbor no hostility toward science. But I don’t think that interviews and surveys are the best measure of gauging such hostility. A better measure is not what they say, but what they do. To paraphrase the book of James, survey data by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

Surveys and interviews provide information about how people perceive themselves and about how they wish to be perceived by others. They don’t necessarily provide us any such information about whether such perceptions correspond to reality. (This is why, for example, one shouldn’t put too much stock in a survey finding that 99 percent of white Americans don’t have a racist bone in their body. Just ask them.) I think what Scheitle and Ecklund reveal is a not very surprising gap between self-perception and behavior when it comes to white evangelical hostility toward science.

Consider for example that white evangelicals have spent the past several years arguing in court — often successfully — that a fundamental aspect of their religious belief requires them to reject the basic scientific facts of human reproduction and of how contraceptives work, and that it would be impossible for them to enjoy “religious liberty” unless they are granted a special right to claim, contra-science and contra-fact, that contraception is “abortifacient.” This defiant refusal to accept science is, according to these white evangelicals themselves, essential to their religious identity. (That explicit claim of an intrinsically anti-science religious identity was made by, among others, the president of a college that enjoys referring to itself as the “evangelical Harvard.”)

Or consider that white evangelicals overwhelmingly support political candidates who claim that climate science is a “hoax,” who embrace magical thinking about Voodoo economics and the misapplication of the “Laffer curve,” and who call for the defunding of everything from the NSF to the CDC. Something like 80 percent of white evangelicals had no qualms about voting for an anti-vaxxer for president.

Or consider white evangelicals’ stubborn refusal to accept that “reparative therapy” does not and has not ever turned LGBT people into happily married heterosexuals.

Or white evangelicals’ generations-long embrace of “curse of Ham” folklore. This blasphemous white Christian “doctrine” has arguably done more to shape American history and culture than any other aspect of Christianity, and it’s just as anti-science as it is anti-gospel. (And if you think that folklore is only something from the distant past, you’re mistaken.)

Or think of white evangelicals’ highly selective enthusiasm for “biblical archaeology,” a spastic exercise in confirmation bias that celebrates certain details from a few findings while steadfastly denying the existence of the rest of the discipline.

This is PRE-biblical archaeology, so we have to pretend that it -- like everything else more than 10,000 years old -- does not exist.
This is PRE-biblical archaeology, so we have to pretend that it — like everything else more than 10,000 years old — does not exist.

And then, of course, there’s the big one: young-Earth creationism, which is based on a claim that is demonstrably false. Most white evangelicals recognize that figures like Ken Ham are Barnum-esque clowns, but other young-Earth creationists — Al Mohler, for example — are respected as intellectual leaders within evangelicalism despite their routine rejection of most of biology, geology, astronomy, etc.

None of that ceases to matter just because 48 percent of evangelicals surveyed “say that they view religion and science as having a collaborative relationship in which the two spheres support each other.” And it certainly can’t all be dismissed because:

Our in-depth interviews showed us that many evangelicals see support for their faith in science. As one evangelical we talked to said, “Science is fantastic and I thank God for this. … It isn’t as if He didn’t want us to find out about His incredible creation.”

That scientific “support for their faith” tends to be as selective as their occasional interest in Palestinian archaeology. “A man hears what he wants to hear / And disregards the rest.”

That’s a problem. And the problem with this study seems to be that it isn’t interested in addressing that problem, but in diminishing it. (As Hemant Mehta notes, this is typical of much of the research funded by the Templeton Foundation, which explicitly aims to demonstrate the compatibility of faith and science.)

Having said that, though, I think Scheitle and Ecklund’s research is helpful — just not perhaps in the way they seem to think. It doesn’t really support their RNS-commentary claim that white evangelicals are less hostile to science than a crude caricature might lead one to think. But it does show us that their hostility toward science is checked, somewhat, by their desire not to be perceived as hostile to science and their desire not to have to think of themselves as such. Perhaps that suggests a possible opening for a bit of corrective persuasion.


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