Evangelicals vs. science

Evangelicals vs. science October 6, 2011

When the Evangelical Environmental Network first launched, the core of our message was simple: If you love the Creator, you ought to care for the creation.

I still find the logic of that message compelling and unassailable. If you believe that God made this world, then love of God ought to entail a corresponding love for the world that God made. To be disdainful of creation is to show disdain for the Creator.

It’s right there in American evangelical Christianity’s favorite Bible verse, “For God so loved the world.”

The original word there in John’s Gospel was “cosmos” — a word that was, for John, as vast and comprehensive as it would be centuries later for Carl Sagan.

John 3:16 isn’t mainly about God as Creator, but about God as Redeemer, which only intensifies the point about God’s passionate love for the cosmos. God created the world and declared it good. Then God redeemed the world, thus dispelling any doubt about the Creator’s enduring love for the creation. (And yes, John 3 teaches, as Paul did, that God is redeeming “the world.” Jesus may be your “personal Lord and Savior,” but Jesus is not only your “personal Lord and Savior.”)

So that was the core of our basic message: If you love the Creator, you must love the creation. And caring for creation must also mean caring about creation. And that means wanting to know more about it — wanting to learn as much as you can learn about every facet and aspect, every realm and region, nook and cranny, quark and quasar.

Imagine someone who didn’t know their spouse’s middle name, or favorite foods, or hobbies, occupation, background or family. You would assume — rightly, I think — that such a person couldn’t possibly really love their spouse, because to love someone is to desire to know them better.

So that core message we had with the Evangelical Environmental Network shouldn’t just apply to environmentalism. It ought to apply to all of science. To all the many practical and pleasurable reasons anyone has to explore the sciences and to be excited and enthralled by science, evangelical Christians can add one more: It’s God’s world, God’s cosmos. God made it. God is redeeming it. God loves it. Anyone who loves God ought to love the world as well — and to love learning about the world.

We Christians ought to be famous for our love and devotion to the best, deepest, broadest and most ambitious science. We ought to be known for the same half-goofy, starry-eyed wonderment that the late Carl Sagan showed toward science.

But that’s not the case. Perversely, the opposite is true. We Christians have a long history of ambivalence and antipathy toward science. Sure, we can point to dozens of examples of devout Christians who were also top-notch scientists — Newton, Mendel, Francis Collins, etc. — but they stand out as exceptions.

And for American evangelical Christians the track record is even worse. American evangelicals tend to treat science as the enemy and to regard scientists as guilty until proven innocent. This is due to a host of reasons, foremost among them being the perception that evolution poses a threat to the Bible. But this unlovely (and, frankly, sinful) antipathy to science preceded Darwin — his work was not the first natural explanation rejected as a perceived threat to supernatural beliefs. And while the Scopes trial got the headlines, the formative main event in the 1920s for American evangelicals was the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy — another dispute in which science, particularly scientific criticism, was engaged in battle as the enemy.

That long history and the many causes and roots of evangelical Christian distrust of science are worth exploring in more detail, because if we want to overcome that distrust, then we need to understand it. I want to return to this topic in future posts to discuss some of the responses and approaches that I think are most promising and/or necessary for challenging and overcoming this anti-science reflex. But since I started thinking about this topic again due to a series of recent articles and posts, let me just wrap up for now by highlighting some of those.

I’m looking forward to reading the new book from Physicist Karl Giberson and historian Randall Stephens, The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Scientific Age. Giberson has been on something  of an online publicity tour for the book, publishing a series of articles on its basic themes.

Why Do So Many Evangelicals Prefer to Get Their ‘Science’ From Ken Ham Rather Than Francis Collins?” Giberson asks at science + religion today:

Anti-evolutionists like Ken Ham—and his colleagues at places like the Discovery Institute—constantly bash science as ideology claiming that its conclusions derive from “assumptions” rather than observations. After years of seeing science bashed, many evangelicals simply don’t trust it. And so they embrace a “science” that seems to agree with the Bible, oblivious to the fact that it has no support of any kind.

My only quibble there is with the word “oblivious,” which is inaccurate unless it’s qualified as, say, “mostly oblivious” or “willfully oblivious.” At the very least, this obliviousness is a choice, and having to make that choice means that one cannot ever quite be wholly oblivious.

At The Guardian (UK), Giberson writes that “Millions of evangelicals, including GOP candidates, are trapped in an alternative ‘parallel culture’ with its own standards of truth“:

By the time we were in college our generation of evangelicals had been educated into a profoundly different worldview than that of the secular, anti-Christian, Satan-following Ivy League elites we had been taught to fear. We understood the world to be a spiritual battleground with forces of good pitted against forces of evil. Real angels and real demons hovered about us as we prepared to wage these wars.

And at the Huffington Post, Giberson writes on “Why Evangelicals Are Fooled Into Accepting Pseudoscience“:

Why have evangelicals been so ready to reject the generally accepted conclusions of the scientific community on global warming?

I want to suggest that the reason has nothing to do with climate science per se, but derives from the generally dim view that many evangelicals have of science and scientists — views that make it hard to distinguish credible science from fake challengers.

One of the strategies employed most effectively by evangelicals in their crusade against evolution, which does pose real, although soluble, biblical and theological problems, has been to undermine the entire scientific enterprise. If science is a deeply flawed, ideologically driven, philosophically suspect enterprise, then why should anyone care if almost every scientist supports the theory of evolution? If the scientific community is just a bunch of self-serving ideologues with Ivy League appointments, then we can ignore anything it says that we don’t like.

All spot on and very true, but not the whole explanation for evangelicals’ rejection of climate science. The whole explanation would also include the very important factors of politics and money. Evangelical Christians who say they reject climate science explicitly indicate that this rejection is political, not scientific. And the subject of evangelical hostility toward science has become a hot topic lately for explicitly political reasons. The Republican presidential primary has become a contest to capture the evangelical Christian voting bloc, bringing about the spectacle of what Phil Plait calls “The increasingly antiscience Republican candidates“:

Each candidate on the right is simply scrambling to be even more antiscience than the next.

Of course, if that “next” is Rick Perry, then I doubt anyone could sprint away from reality more than he does. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool creationist … and when it comes to denying climate change he also apparently had no problem with simply making things up. …

Even the candidates people are calling “moderate” are falling over themselves to appease the base when it comes to science and the lack thereof. Mitt Romney tried to eat his cake and have it too about accepting evolution, and even Ron Paul has now distanced himself from evolution.

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