Fewer slurs against Christianity are more common today than the accusation that Christians are anti-science. You know the portrayal—Christians as Bible-thumping fundamentalists, so sure of themselves they don’t give a darn what science says; Matthew Brady in Inherit the Wind. A few, perhaps are happy to accept the stereotype, while others regret it, but see this as the price they have to pay in order to be faithful to Scripture on issues of creation and evolution. Others more cockily insist they care deeply about science, but it’s just mainstream science that isn’t to be trusted, and they trumpet their own idiosyncratic scientific theories instead. Outside of evangelicalism, and increasingly within, many have nervously shifted out of the firing line, doing their best to renounce all that is scientifically unrespectable in traditional Christian teaching. On the wisdom of this latter strategy I do not intend to comment here (clearly, I have described it in rather unflattering terms, but on many issues, such accommodation may involve no trace of unfaithfulness).
On reading Merchants of Doubt, though, I was troubled by just how much truth there might be to the stereotype, and I have begun to wonder how true is the claim of American Christians that “We’re not anti-science in general; we just cannot accept mainstream science on Darwinian evolution.” For when it comes to environmental skepticism, there seems little question that evangelical Christians have been in the front ranks. To be sure, I speak somewhat impressionistically and anecdotally, but as I look back, it seems to me that not only was skepticism (or downright hostility) toward climate change issues the norm in my evangelical background, but also skepticism regarding the litany of other issues surveyed in Merchants of Doubt—the ozone hole, acid rain, the dangers of secondhand smoke, the dangers of pesticides, etc. Certainly, “red states” that are strongholds of the religious right also tend to be the places where one would encounter the greatest opposition to mainstream science on such issues. Much of this may be correlation without causation, and indeed, no doubt the chief source of evangelical skepticism toward environmental science is the same as it was for Fred Seitz and Fred Singer—allegiance to free market ideology, which is threatened by environmentalism.
But still it seems so incongruous that Christians would so instinctively rally to the side of Big Tobacco or Monsanto that I couldn’t help but ask whether or not there might be a deeper cause. Two might be identified. First, I suspect that being a conservative Christian in today’s world cannot help but encourage a certain contrarian tendency, a tendency to “root for the underdog,” so to speak. We are counter-cultural, we are despised and rejected among men, we insist on positions that are unpopular or anathema in respectable public opinion, etc. And so we tend to have a predisposition to sympathize with others who hold minority or out-of-the-mainstream views. If the majority is not to be trusted in matters of morals, then why should we think it is to be trusted in matters of ____ (fill in the blank—science, history, economics, aesthetics)? Not only do we lend a favorable ear to such voices on the margins of respectable opinion, but we often go on to identify with them, and to extend some of the martyr complex that we may have developed to the resulting scorn we receive. Within the Reformed world, I wonder if the passion for “Christian worldview thinking” doesn’t contribute to some of this—Christian claims, we are told, will shape how we think about every aspect of life and the world, so if our Christianity is counter-cultural, then why shouldn’t we expect ourselves to be counter-cultural on nearly every subject we take up?
Now, I should immediately add that I have a deep contrarian streak myself, and think there are often sound reasons for doubting the received orthodoxy on any number of issues. But I have to be honest with myself and always ask how much of my reflexive skepticism might be due to this deeply engrained way of thinking.
Second, I think we might have a particularly bad case of this contrarian pathology when it comes to science. The culprit is not hard to find; perhaps the popular Inherit the Wind stereotype is not so far off. To be committed to creationism (especially young-earth creationism) requires a determination to stubbornly contest almost everything that mainstream science—geology and biology in particular—most confidently affirms. It may well be true that such contrarianism stems not from any particular anti-science animus, which is earnestly disclaimed by many, but it would be hard to imagine that it does not tend to generate a kind of instinctive skepticism. After all, if mainstream science can have been so dead wrong on so many fundamental matters, as creationists must insist, then how are we to have much if any respect for it? It is as if we were convinced that our history professor didn’t know whether Martin Luther or Constantine came first, or whether it was Hitler or Genghis Khan that ruled the Third Reich. Would we really be disposed to trust him on other matters, however much we denied any particular bias against him? Indeed, some creationists may feel that to be intellectually consistent, they have to denigrate the reliability of science across the board; if they place great faith in science on climate science, for instance, how can they consistently refuse to trust carbon dating?
I write this not at all as an attack on creationism; but if creationists are going to hold their heads high and deny the charge that they are simply anti-science, then they’re going to have to find a way of resisting these tendencies; they’re going to have to show that they can take science seriously when it deserves to be taken seriously, and will not just join every contrarian chorus that comes along. When they do refuse the conclusions of scientific orthodoxy, they’re going to have to be willing to articulate why with theological and scientific precision, without simply resorting to broad-brush attacks on science as a mere “naturalistic religion” or as the tool of some left-wing agenda. My friend Bradley Belschner makes just this plea in his comment on my Merchants of Doubt post below (in another of our remarkably frequent intellectual deja vus, I was working on this post already before I saw his comment):
“It’s important that we know what we’re doing when we oppose a “scientific consensus.” If we oppose global warming willy-nilly without even weighing up the scientific evidence carefully, then how will folks treat us when we start criticizing Evolution? Oh, there they go again—the idiot Christians who refuse to look at real science. . . . I would like for Christians have a reputation for rigorous science, which in my opinion would involve the realization that global warming is real and evolution isn’t.”
Even better are the words of Augustine, writing fully 1600 years ago in De Genesi ad litteram, and still incredibly relevant
“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth. This knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.
The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think that our sacred writers held such opinions. Then, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well, and hear him maintaining foolish opinions of his own about what our books say, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on matters of fact which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?”