How Evangelical-Friendly Are Scientists? A Response

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.

19 Comments

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    The virulence, hostility, and enmity that characterizes many contemporary scientists’ treatment of religion is also the way they treat other scientists. That is the way science works. If a scientist makes a mistake, he gets clobbered by other scientists. What is wrong gets eliminated, no matter what people feel about it. Get used to it.

    This is a battle that science did not want. They tried hard, for many years, to just turn the other cheek and hold their tongue when attacked by religion, and the topic was evolution. Science finally came to understand the silent approach was not working in society as a whole, and they had to fight back. Evolution was the big issue, and perhaps it still is. It is the way to make it clear the truth of what evangelicals think about science. Do evangelicals think Darwin was right about his branching tree structure of common ancestry, where if you go back far enough on the evolutionary tree, any two different species of today will have a common ancestor that they came from? I know in the past many evangelicals have had a dislike of Darwin and didn’t want to accept his work. That has to be the starting point of our discussion here. Was Darwin right?

  • dkeane123@comcast.net' DKeane123 says:

    “secular fundamentalists” – I take issue with this particular comparison. With a secular fundamentalist, feelings get hurt due to a lack of respect for ideas that are not based on evidential reasoning. The flip side of this coin is the religious fundamentalist – who (dare I say), has the history of fomenting ideas that can hurt a bit more than just feelings. A recent Mr. Deity explains pretty well why this compairion is bogus on many levels. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3B-PQpGBdY

    As a geologist, I can understand the frustration of Krauss and other scientists direct towards religion. They see scientific progress as being handcuffed by religious sentiments. Off the top of my head I can think of stem cell research, climate change, sex ed, vaccinations, etc. The author talks a bit about the vocal minority of evangelicals. I beg to differ, the majority has significant issues too. A recent Gallop Poll indicated that 69% of Americans that attended church weekly believe in straight up creationism (10,000 years/created in present form). Which means they can’t understand the basics of drug resistant bacteria, vaccines, genetics, or human induced selection.

  • dkeane123@comcast.net' DKeane123 says:

    If evangelicals accept evolution, it means that Jesus died for a metaphor (no Adam and Eve). That is a tough sell for many.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    You can see Jonathan’s point here. Science doesn’t respect religion, at least not evangelical Christianity.

  • jon.orbell@gmail.com' Jonathan Orbell says:

    I think the distinction Aghapour makes between pluralistic friendliness and preferential friendliness is crucial, and I wish I had emphasized it myself! My intent was to advocate for the former and eschew the latter.

    – Jon

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    That is an interesting point of view in the video. Did anyone hear any points that the atheist made that were wrong?

  • mitchellhay@comcast.net' Mitchell Hay says:

    I want to lift up the discussion on this article with as much non-snarkiness a I can muster; it has allowed me to break a basic commandment of internet browsing: “Thou shalt not read the Comments after any thoughtful article, for it shall destroy thy faith in humanity.” The comments here are thoughtful, nuanced, respectful and entertaining. In the video, Mr. Deity’s “Austin Powers Defense” metaphor is a serious challenge for us in the progressive wing of faith to intellectually own the grimmer aspects of our history/theology in the “Texts of Terror” (to use Phyllis Trible’s term.)

    Aghapour’s criticism of the article was spot-on, and Orbell’s agreement with the criticism makes me want to celebrate and take them both out for a beer. RD and the NY Times seem to be two places where reasonably intelligent folk can comment and disagree and challenge without always having to take a shower afterwards to wash off the verbal and intellectual slime. Thank you.

  • dkeane123@comcast.net' DKeane123 says:

    These conversations tend to be very one way. We all need to listen to religious concerns, but try and voice concerns from atheists and you hit a wall.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    What are religious concerns? They don’t have any real concerns in this country, do they? I know they try to manufacture problems like the catholics want a veto over every law because they are part of the country so they sometimes have to pay taxes (every law except military and war).

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    At RD we have learned that you can avoid the snarkiness and personal insults, and still maintain a sense of humor that is perhaps even more condescending than it otherwise would be. That is always important in religious type conversations.

  • truktyre@hotmail.com' Craptacular says:

    “…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.” – Jonathan Orbell

    What type of engagement are you talking about here? My personal experience with evangelical “honest engagement with the scientific community” has been their efforts to spread disinformation, misrepresent scientific consensus or just flat out lie. So please let us know what “honest engagement” you find inhibited by Krauss’ offensive remarks.

  • truktyre@hotmail.com' Craptacular says:

    “I think the distinction Aghapour makes between pluralistic friendliness and preferential friendliness is crucial, and I wish I had emphasized it myself! My intent was to advocate for the former and eschew the latter.” – Jonathan Orbell

    Yet your actions seem to say otherwise. The fact that you were offended by the FSM belief system comparison to your own belief system exposes the arrogance of your beliefs…your beliefs are superior to another person’s beliefs, neither of which have scientific or logical proofs. This is why you were offended and the FSM adherents were (probably) not…you actually want preferential friendliness (don’t equate my unprovable beliefs with other unprovable beliefs), not pluralistic friendliness.

  • jon.orbell@gmail.com' Jonathan Orbell says:

    My issue with Krauss is not that he is equating one “unprovable belief” (in a flying spaghetti monster) with another “unprovable belief” (evangelical religious belief).

    My issue is that, in equating these kinds of belief, Krauss refuses to recognize the substantial qualitative difference between the two. For such a public intellectual to be so ignorant of such a distinction seems, at least to me, worthy of a little criticism.

  • truktyre@hotmail.com' Craptacular says:

    “…Krauss refuses to recognize the substantial qualitative difference between the two.” – JO

    See, there it is again. You feel your beliefs are “qualitatively” better than someone else’ beliefs…and still resent the comparison. Without being aware of the irony, apparently.

  • jon.orbell@gmail.com' Jonathan Orbell says:

    That’s an excellent point. “Honest engagement” seems like one of those things that you know when you see.

    However, I am still working out a universal definition. Appreciate your critiques and insights.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Christianity of the past had a special place (or more special place) in America. We were about 95% Christian, some serious and some less serious, but almost nobody openly hostile to the religion because hostility would come with big consequences. Christianity was a system of rewards and punishments where those who believed the most deeply could be leaders who would teach the next generation of Christians, and those who rejected the system could be ignored because it was such a small group it didn’t matter. I think Christianity overplayed their hand in this country, first with the moral majority, and later with the election of Bush jr. The problems with the religion just became way too big to continue to ignore. As the percent of active non believers grew from a very few percent to 20% or more, questioning Christianity became something to no longer fear. That is kind of where we stand today. Christianity is not what it used to be, and there are consequences. They fight back as best they can, and now we are locked in a struggle. Personally, I believe the religion has no actual divine calling, and acting like they do will be their eventual doom. I know some others will disagree on this point, so we will have to continue to work it out.

  • gfeltham@embarqmail.com' jimlefferts says:

    “…. 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. … ”

    Yes, this is the focus of all this confrontation. Let us please stop trying to compromise on some sort of accommodation between theology and science. Like trying to mix oil and water. It most certainly is not an answer for resolution of the issue. Each of us must struggle with the tensions so often inherent between these perspectives. And, as indiviudals covering a vast spectrum of thought; melding the two seems just plain silly. However, I am complete agreement with all who would suggest that we must, in any case, be a bit more charitable to all who do not see things as we might ourselves.

  • wesseldawn@gmail.com' Duck says:

    The two are decidedly contrary – and never the twain shall meet.

  • wesseldawn@gmail.com' Duck says:

    Not that it matters to science one iota but Christians as a whole tend to be ignorant of their own Bible; man/Adam (ruddy) was ‘of’ the dust/ground (dirt, earth, ‘mud’, dust, etc.) Dust/ground or primordial soup – what’s the difference?

    It is strange that evangelicals appeal so staunchly for their faith when most of the time they’re arguing theology within their own camps.

    Still the current trend to silence the religious right (although I am more sympathetic to science) at all costs is bothering me because people assume science is without fault in any area, just because it’s ‘science’. It’s the very opposite side of the coin that used to believe (not all that long ago) that the Church was without fault. The word science may evoke feelings of rationality and fairness yet if you happen to visit evolution blogs and sound remotely Bible-ish you’re not likely to encounter rational people, and if your computer is not protected you’re more than likely to come away with a nasty intestinal bug.

    I dislike religion but as I said in another post, who is going to conduct your weddings and funerals?

    We want the good and not the bad but the two tend to walk hand in hand with the good outweighing the bad.

    It’s ‘power’ that corrupts human beings, the more power, the more corrupt people become.That applies to ‘all’ people, and the reason why democracy must be protected.
    I think if we’re going to begin to settle this thing in a healthy way we should be working at ways to separate Church and State. It will not be easy but to start we need impartial laws across the board. It’s the only way to maintain freedom of speech without sacrificing democracy.

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