Lately, Karl Giberson and Randall J. Stephens have spilled some ink trying to convince the world that there is a distinction to be drawn between evangelicalism and fundamentalism. “Fundamentalism appeals to evangelicals who have become convinced that their country has been overrun by a vast secular conspiracy; denial is the simplest and most attractive response to change,” they write in this week’s Times. “Evangelicalism at its best seeks a biblically grounded expression of Christianity that is intellectually engaged, humble and forward-looking. In contrast, fundamentalism is literalistic, overconfident and reactionary.” So fundamentalism is, in their view, spiritually and intellectually stagnant evangelicalism.
In their view evangelicalism has been hijacked (my word) by fundamentalists such as James Dobson, David Barton, and Ken Ham. Dobson and Barton maintain overly-narrow and even demonstrably false notions about human sexuality and US history, while Ham holds to scientific ideas — such as a young earth creationism — that were discredited before Charles Darwin was born.
Although I am neither a fundamentalist nor an evangelical (and although I have not read their recent book on the subject), Giberson’s and Stephens’ distinction strikes me as fair and well-drawn. I know and have known a number of evangelical Christians who do not deny evolution. There is some evidence that the evangelical world may be softening their views on homosexuality. And economic justice can no longer be considered solely the interest of mainline Christianity.
Therefore, on his website Giberson asks, “Why do tens of millions of Americans prefer to get their science from Ken Ham, founder of the creationist Answers in Genesis, who has no scientific expertise, rather than from his fellow evangelical Francis Collins, current Director of the National Institutes of Health?”
I can think of a few possible answers to this question.
Several prominent atheists have pointed out that some mental gymnastics is required to reconcile anything like traditional Christianity with modern science. And although I don’t agree that Christians who actually reconcile the two are simply being disingenuous, I do think they’re on to something: real reconciliation is not easy. If it were, more people would have done it.
I have taught several church courses on religion and science and so I have some experience talking to (mostly religiously moderate) parishioners about their views on this issue. And I think that most people simply don’t think about it. (One asked me, “Religion and science? Is that a thing?”) Beyond this, the responses tend to fall into two groups. The first group assumes that science is just wrong; their opinion basically amounts to asking, “If we evolved from apes, why are there still apes?” The second group sees no problem at all. “I see no contradiction,” they say, “Religion tells us why and science tells us how.” My skeptical reflex: Is this true reconciliation, or is it just a more culturally acceptable way of not thinking about it?
And then there’s the fact that even casual observers of religion and politics know that simple sells. Simple works. And so, for most politicians and religious leaders, the question becomes not, “How can both theology and science be right,” but, “How can I use this question to not only gain votes, but to establish clear markers for distinguishing my group from others?” And it is far easier to latch onto the simplicity (and spectacle) of Ken Ham and his posse than to the more shaded opinion of Giberson, Stephens, and Collins. (Plus, evangelical or not, Collins is an Obama-appointed member of the federal bureaucracy. This cannot but hurt his case among the Republican-heavy evangelical population.)
Finally, the success of public atheists like Richard Dawkins has made it more difficult for some to see science as compatible with Christianity. This is in line with atheists’ intentions, and is in fact part of their success. The nonbelievers didn’t start it, of course; there was boring theology before there was boring atheism. But if ever there was a wedge strategy, Dawkins et al. have found it. By painting science as the enemy of all religion, they have drawn artificial dividing lines and transformed many people’s attitudes toward mainstream science from curiosity and mild suspicion into distrust and even hostility.
One can’t really blame the atheists. They’re just using what they have so freely been given. But the irony of it all is that Ham (who is just a wee bit miffed at Giberson and Stephens) would not have been successful in the first place if it were not for the success of mainstream science. Overawed by real science, Ham cloaks his work in its language and bamboozles those who know virtually nothing about it. His and other creationist organizations (like the Discovery Institute) have played directly into the hands of those who would destroy all religion.
Back in my physics days I would have called this a positive feedback cycle. The whole thing goes around and around and gets louder and louder and more and more distracting.
My answer to Giberson’s question? Such a circus makes it hard for moderate voices like his and Stephen’s and Collins’ to be heard, much less taken seriously.