A New Book Explains How the Christian Right Has Gotten Selective Denial Down to a Science

A Flat Earth map drawn by Orlando Ferguson in 1893, containing several references to biblical passages as well as various jabs at the "Globe Theory" (courtesy Wikipedia)

What inspired you to write Paranoid Science: The Christian Right’s War on Reality?

I discuss in the Introduction how I stumbled across a writer associated with the ex-gay movement, which seeks to “cure” gays and lesbians. After checking out the movement, I saw some clear parallels with creationism, especially the latest version called intelligent design. More research uncovered two other Christian Right pseudoscience movements, one pushing conservative positions on bioethics and a second using religious arguments to deny climate change. The individual movements had received some attention, but no one had written about the big picture, what these movements have in common. That seemed like a perfect book project.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

I coined the term “paranoid science” to refer to pseudoscience movements driven by paranoia. I built on historian Richard Hofstadter’s classic essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” which describes the recurrence of grand conspiracy theories (our whole way of life is under threat). When Christian Right leaders object to some sector of science, they respond by creating a grand conspiracy theory. “Not only are these scientists hiding the truth from the public, but they threaten to destroy the moral foundation of American society!” Once you understand the pattern, it’s easier to expose what Christian Right leaders are up to.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

I turned in the manuscript during the 2016 presidential primaries. I had no idea that by the time the book came out Donald Trump would be the President of the United States. Obviously, the war on science and on reality more broadly has intensified. In fact, it’s YUGE. It’s going bigly. Sad! I wrote a piece for the NYU Press blog tying the book to our current political climate. I argued that Trump’s contempt for facts may be unprecedented in its brazenness, but it’s a continuation of longstanding political patterns. The paranoid style that Hofstadter describes is all about “alternative facts.”

I also left out a section, which didn’t quite fit, illustrating just how ludicrous the classic psychoanalytic literature on homosexuality really was. In Charles Socarides’s The Overt Homosexual, he discusses some of the young women whose families forced them to seek treatment for lesbianism. “She may display intense envy of the penis by hostility toward the male analyst.” Dude, seriously? I hope you don’t play the penis card every time a woman gets mad at you. In any case, Christian Right leaders argue that the earlier decision by the American Psychiatric Association to classify homosexuality as a mental illness was based on “science,” while the later decision to declassify it was based on “politics.” But there was nothing scientific about the earlier decision.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

Many people see conservative evangelicalism/fundamentalism as anti-science. It’s more complicated than that. They love science as an abstract idea, and they even read the Bible as though it were a book of scientific facts. When they reject actual science, it is a selective rejection of ideas and technologies that threaten their religious beliefs. So Christian Right leaders have no problem with genetically modified crops. However, they object to human genetic engineering since they see humans as uniquely created in God’s image. Re-engineering humans would literally be playing God.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

I’m not naïve enough to think I can convert Christian Right leaders or their followers. I wrote the book more for their opponents. This would include politically progressive evangelicals, mainline Christians, and secularists. It would also include what we might call the defense of science movement, which gained increased notoriety with the recent March for Science.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Entertain them? Piss them off?

More than one person has said that my book is “disturbing.” That would rule out entertainment value, unless you’re a horror fan. I imagine that Christian Right leaders will be pissed off, but that wasn’t my intent, just an inevitable side effect of telling the truth.

What alternative title would you give the book?

The point of the book is to introduce the “paranoid science” concept, so that pretty much had to be the main title. There are several other “war on science” titles out there. I differentiated from those by going with “war on reality.” So there was not much room to maneuver on the title.

How do you feel about the cover?

I had suggesting something based on a Ptolemaic picture of the universe. This was an allusion to the Christian Right being stuck in the past regarding science. The cover designer went with an image based on Andreas Cellarius’s Harmonia Macrocosmica. This was from the seventeenth century rather than the second century. So it is retro, but not as retro as what I originally had in mind. It looks nice, though.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

I admire anyone who can write a good novel. It seems like almost a divine power to be able to create a mini-world. Writing a non-fiction book doesn’t feel as impressive to me. I’m a rock musician in my spare time, and I can record some interesting musical landscapes. But I don’t have the gift for creating fictional worlds.

What’s your next book?

My working title is Liberal Fundamentalism: Why Popular “Progressive Christianity” Is neither Progressive nor Christian. It will be a critique of the Jesus Seminar crowd: Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, John Shelby Spong, etc. They have the same binary thinking found among Christian Right leaders. They took dated ideas from earlier generations of liberal theologians and marketed them (through false advertising) as new and fresh. While they love colored beads, they apparently have little interest in people of color—their project is steeped in white, middle-class privilege, just like their target audience. When this book comes out, I will have two completely different groups of people pissed off at me. Woohoo!