In a recent post from RD’s religion and science portal, The Cubit, Andrew Aghapour casts doubt on some conclusions drawn from the research of Rice University’s Elaine Howard Ecklund indicating that evangelicals are not as hostile to scientific inquiry as many have thought. Most notably, according to her findings 70% of self-identified evangelicals “do not view religion and science as being in conflict.”
Aghapour highlights two glaring issues. First, although 70% of evangelicals may indeed view science and religion as compatible, he rightly notes that all other groups surveyed affirmed the compatability view at significantly higher rates than evangelicals. Second, while evangelicals may pay lip service to the ideal of more scientific collaboration, it is clear they expect scientists to “meet in the middle” on theologically challenging issues. Scientists must, for example, be open to the idea that certain events cannot be explained through experimentation and observation; that they are miraculous.
Aghapour’s conclusion then, is that evangelicals are not actually that “science-friendly.” While they pay lip service to the idea of closer collaboration with the scientific world, they are only open to this increased engagement once certain conditions are met; once the scientific community becomes more “evangelical-friendly.” The old faith versus reason dichotomy lives on.
While Aghapour’s points are well taken, I believe his analysis omits a crucial factor in this discussion: the virulence, hostility, and enmity that characterizes many contemporary scientists’ treatment of religion, particularly evangelical Christianity.
In December 2012, Intelligence Squared US debated the motion “Science Refutes God.” Arguing for the motion, Lawrence Krauss opened the discussion with this statement:
Michael [Shermer] and I have the distinct advantage of arguing in favor of the motion here because… we have evidence, reason, logic, rationality and empirical methods on our side while they have vague hopes, and fears, and are arguing in favor of a motion that is hanging on for its existence by mere shreds of emotional and ideological spaghetti, much like the type provided by the flying spaghetti monster, one of the many equally irrational gods which science provides no support for.
Krauss, Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration and Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, is a visible, influential scientific thinker, and his statements reverberate far beyond the walls of Intelligence Squared’s New York City studio. They are heard by thousands of religious people—including evangelical Christians—across the country, many of whom are seeking the honest engagement with the scientific community described by Aghapour. I know this because I am one of those evangelicals.
What sentient person would not recoil when a scholar of Krauss’ stature equates their most closely held beliefs—in the evangelical case, their personal, intimate relationship with the divine—with blind, unthinking faith in a flying spaghetti monster.
For evangelicals, faith is so much more than a statement on the epistemic merits of the scientific method. At its core, it centers on the atoning work of Christ, work that has saved them from drug addiction, self-harm, depression, and innumerable other maladies. It has provided many of them with spiritual communities in which they can heal, allowing them safe places in which they can become better versions of themselves (although this is certainly not always the case).
Regardless of whether or not you affirm the reality of this theological viewpoint, to dismiss as nonsense evangelicals’ most intimate personal narratives, to describe the spiritual experiences that give their lives abundant meaning as mere “shreds of emotional and ideological spaghetti,” is bound to put even a well-intentioned evangelical on the defensive. It certainly did for me.
While it is true that evangelicals are wary of secular scientists (again, who wouldn’t be a little defensive in response to a statement like Krauss’s?), it’s important to note that Krauss’s dismissiveness is not, at least in my experience, representative of the broader population of practicing scientists. However, it seems as if the world of scientific inquiry is now experiencing one of religion’s historic pitfalls: the silent majority of reasonable voices being drowned out by an unfortunately vocal, visible few.
We need to keep perspectives of evangelicals who have been put on the defensive by crude, offensive scientism in mind when interpreting the conditional way, to use Aghapour’s term, evangelicals seem to collaborate with the scientific community.
I want to reiterate that the issues Aghapour points out in Ecklund’s work are legitimate. He is absolutely correct in imploring evangelicals to stop themselves from forcing the findings of secular scientific work into narrow boxes in an effort to make them fit within their “biblical” world views. However, I wish the scientific community had been implicated as well, at least in some small way. If evangelicals are expected to become more “science-friendly,” should not the scientific community—or at least its ideological standard bearers—learn to become a little more “evangelical-friendly” in the literal sense of actually being respectful and kind? If true collaboration is the goal, both sides—religion and science—should be expected to work towards it.
In his 2008 book, I Don’t Believe in Atheists, Chris Hedges convincingly argues that New Atheist thinkers “are little more than secular fundamentalists” who exhibit the same judgmental ignorance that too often characterizes the religious right.
Aghapour argues that the evangelical community is expected to forgo some of their dogmatic commitments in the interest of a more meaningful engagement with the secular scientific community, and he does so well. Should not the scientific community be willing to do the same?
Andrew Aghapour responds:
First, yes. Yes, the secular scientific community ought to eschew dogmatic commitments in the interest of a more meaningful cultural engagement with evangelicals. Yes, Lawrence Krauss is a windbag. Yes, reducing religion to “vague hopes and fears” held together by “ideological spaghetti” is actually itself evidence of an absolutist ideology. Yes, let me say this again, Lawrence Krauss is a windbag. Yes, ideological fundamentalism of any stripe obscures the messy many-ness our world and threatens intellectual and political pluralism. Yes, Lawrence Krauss is a windbag.
But let’s also be clear that we’re talking about two different ways to be friendly. Orbell argues that evangelicals have been put on the defensive by crude scientism and asks that the scientific community speak up against the windbags. I agree, because in a secular, pluralistic society we should always defend against cultural attacks that mobilize dubious, hateful, fundamentalist rhetoric. Let’s call this pluralistic friendliness.
This is different than requesting that science—a secular epistemological institution—meet evangelicals half-way by making room for miracles and creationism. That would be preferential friendliness, privileging one religious group within the public square because they happen to be the most powerful and vocal minority.
We can all benefit from being more kind to one another. But, although I don’t believe Orbell is doing so, we should also be mindful of the common tactic among conservative Christians—playing out in Indiana and elsewhere right now—of calling for preferential friendliness in the name of pluralism.