Monday’s Los Angeles Times contains a remarkably weak-minded op-ed pushing science/faith accommodationism: “Science and religion: a false divide.” The author is John H. Evans, a professor of sociology in the UC San Diego who has written two books on bioethics. His point is that fundamentalist protestants in America aren’t the big opponents of science that we take them to be.
Evans claims to have conducted “survey research” showing that, compared with those “who do not participate in any religion,”
The conservative Protestants are equally likely to understand scientific methods, to know scientific facts and to claim knowledge of science. They are as likely as the nonreligious to have majored in science or to have a scientific occupation.
That may be true, but he doesn’t reference his survey. And he draws a conclusion about these conservatives that doesn’t seem supported by his study—that is, he asserts this conclusion before he brings up his survey, and I find the statement dubious:
While many conservative Protestants disagree with the scientific consensus about evolution, you cannot infer their perspectives on other scientific issues such as climate change from this one view alone. Fundamentalists’ and evangelicals’ relationship with science is much more complicated than the idea that they “oppose science.”
The disagreement with evolution alone is telling, but it was my impression that conservative protestants were more opposed to the idea of anthropogenic global warming than, say, atheists or those of more liberal faiths. This is confirmed by a Pew Survey for Earth Day in 2009, showing that evangelical Protestants were far less likely than either other religious groups or the religiously unaffiliated to accept the idea of human-caused climate change—and far more likely to deny it. Here are the data from that survey (click to enlarge):
Note too that evangelical Protestants are more recalcitrant on this issue than “mainline” white Protestants or black Protestants.
And a Pew Survey in 2009 found that while 36% of Americans as a whole agreed with the statement that “science conflicts with your religious beliefs,” and 61% disagreed, the figures were quite different for white evangelical Protestants, among whom 52% found a conflict between science and their religious beliefs, and only 46% disagreed.
I would, then, like to see Evans’s own “survey” research.
Evans then uses his dubious results to make a case for comity between science and religion:
On most issues, there is actually very little conflict between religion and science. Religion makes no claims about the speed of hummingbird wings, and there are no university departments of anti-resurrection studies — scientists generally are unconcerned with the vast majority of religious claims and vice versa.
Of course there are departments of anti-resurrection studies: we call them physics departments and biology departments. We’re unconcerned with the vast majority of religious claims because many of us (and most “elite” scientists) simply don’t accept them as worthy of consideration. Evans goes on:
There are, of course, a few fact claims in which conservative Protestant theology and science differ, such as the origins of humans and the universe. Here we find that typical conservative Protestants are likely to believe the teaching of their religion on the issue and not the scientific claim.
We could complain that they are being inconsistent in believing the scientific method some of the time but not always. Yet social science research has long shown that people typically are not very consistent. The people who are more consistent are those who are punished for inconsistency: philosophers, media pundits, political activists and politicians.
What is he saying here? That it’s okay to be inconsistent—to tell pollsters that you accept science but, when the rubber meets the road, deny science when it conflicts with your faith? As I told the audience in my debate with John Haught last night, a Time Magazine poll in 2006 showed that 64% of Americans would reject a scientific fact if it was shown to conflict with their faith. In such a situation, a general “support of science or the scientific method” means very little.
Evans homes in on something, however, that does seem true: much of American opposition to evolution (and science) is based on its perceived erosion of moral values:
The greatest conflict between fundamentalists, evangelicals and science is not over facts but over values. While scientists like to say that their work is value-free, that is not how the public views it, and conservative Protestants especially have homed in on the moral message of science. William Jennings Bryan, famed defender of the creationist perspective at the Scopes “monkey trial,” was not just opposed to evolution for contradicting the Bible but also concerned that the underlying philosophy of Darwinism had ruined the morals of German youth and had caused World War I.
The situation today is not that different: Contemporary “intelligent design” advocates, for example, are deeply worried that the teaching of evolution has a negative effect on children’s values.
It would have been nice, though, had Evans inserted a caveat that there isn’t a “moral message of science”; there are just scientists who use the objective findings of science to draw conclusions about what is good and what isn’t. Most of those conclusions derive from personal and extra-scientific considerations. And Evans might also have noted that in countries that have much broader acceptance of evolution than America—countries like Sweden, Denmark, France, or Germany—children and adults don’t have markedly debased morals.
Evans’s lesson: moar accommodationism is needed! And most of that accommodation should, of course, come from by scientists and atheists, who simply have to be more accepting of right-wing religious people:
To move forward, we, as a country, need to lower the political conflict. Yes, the views found in fundamentalist churches are not exactly the same as those at the National Science Foundation. But we would see less of the polarizing “we real Americans” rhetoric from the religious right if its members were not ridiculed as know-nothings. Conservative Protestants are not fundamentally opposed to all science.
No, they’re just fundamentally opposed to those parts of science that contravene their faith, like global warming, evolution, and stem-cell research. I’m sorry, but though I may not ridicule those people as morons, I do decry their ignorance—an ignorance that stems from blind adherence to unsupported superstitions. Evans’s prescription is weird:
No, it isn’t futile. Understanding what concerns the “other side” would help. Those wishing to affect public policy on issues such as climate change, for example, need to make it clear to conservative Protestants that the science of global warming is based more on direct observations than on analytic abstractions, that it is more like determining the average body temperature of a human than where humans came from.
This is like saying that if we simply made it clear to conservative Protestants that scientists’ acceptance of evolution is based not on abstractions but on hard evidence—evidence drawn from fields as diverse as paleontology, molecular biology, biogeography, and embryology—then those Protestants would simply roll over and accept evolution. Is anyone really stupid enough to believe that?
As I mentioned in my book, I once gave a lecture on the evidence for evolution to a group of conservative and religious businessmen in a rich town north of Chicago. At the end of my talk, one of them came up to me and said, “I find your evidence very convincing. But I’m not convinced.” Why not? Because he was religious—one of the 64% who reject scientific facts that contravene their faith.
It’s naive to think that educating the public on the science alone is going to change minds. That change is blocked by religious faith. And that’s why, if we want to solve the problem of evolution-denial and climate-change denial, we have a harder job ahead of us than simply purveying facts: we must loosen the grip of faith on the American mind. When will people realize this obvious conclusion?