A couple of weeks ago, evangelical professors Karl Giberson and Randall Stephens wrote in the New York Times that evangelical rejection of science demonstrates “unyielding ignorance on the part of the religious.” They believe in Jesus, too, but “find it hard to recognize our religious tradition in the mainstream evangelical conversation.”
That didn’t sit too well with evangelicals and their sympathizers. Al Mohler predictably condemned their piece as a capitulation to secular knowledge and the desire for worldly approval. Columnist Dennis Prager, who is Jewish but often ideologically difficult to distinguish from evangelical conservatives, wrote that he would “take the evangelicals’ values and the evangelicals’ America over those of left-wing intellectuals any day of the year.” Privately, several evangelical believers I know expressed dismay that Giberson and Stephen’s piece seemed to oversimplify and misrepresent their beliefs.
I think this is worth discussing because the underlying question—evangelicals and their problem with science—is very important to people following the trajectory of American evangelicalism. But the forum where the idea was presented comes with some automatic hurdles for the evangelicals whose beliefs are being critiqued. So I hope to unpack all this a bit, and to explain why I think Giberson and Stephens are making a very prescient point that evangelicals should take as an opportunity to examine themselves rather than lashing out in defense, even if they may feel the authors are attacking them.
First, I’ll acknowledge the barriers to doing so. Giberson and Stephens presented their views in an opinion piece in the New York Times, which means several things: a) it is required to be somewhat artificially tied to the news; b) it is written for a particular audience; and c) it is very brief. So to meet these criteria, the piece is “pegged” to the science denialism on display in the GOP presidential primary, to which the authors’ subject is only very tangentially related. Strike one. It is also aimed at the largely secular, liberal reader of the Times, so a number of “hot button” political issues are mentioned that are particularly of interest to that audience but may not be central to the authors’ actual argument. Strike two. Finally, most op-ed pieces run about 700-800 words, which any columnist will tell you means that nuance has to be replaced with generalization; there is simply no space to do justice to a complex argument. Strike three. So considering that a piece like this is written for people who are generally hostile to conservative evangelical beliefs and written in a very constrained space, it’s not surprising to see evangelical readers—even those familiar with the realities of the media—find it alienating.
That’s no excuse, though, for the kind of misreading and spin on display in Prager’s response in particular. (I’ve written about Prager several times before.) He leads off his column with a paraphased bullet list of Giberson and Stephens’ reasons they see evangelicals and anti-science. One of the bullets—“evangelicals oppose same-sex marriage”—is not even something Giberson and Stephens address. But that’s only a minor misrepresentation. Throughout his piece, Prager argues that sure, evangelicals can be ideological and wrong, but their errors are nothing compared to the irrationality and ideology of left-wing academics. “Compared to the many irrational beliefs of secular-left intellectuals—good and evil exist even though there is no God, male and female are interchangeable, international institutions are the hope of mankind—evangelical irrational beliefs are utterly benign.”
You will never catch me disputing the notion that there are orthodoxies in every institution, from the church to the media to the academy, and that these orthodoxies can and do produce groupthink and ideology-driven errors. But what Prager is doing here is exactly what Giberson and Stephens are criticizing, and what a great number of evangelicals have done previously in their effort to discredit science and secular knowledge. That is to establish a false equivalency between the inevitable errors and blindnesses of mainstream science and the ideological pseudoscience practiced by evangelicals like Ken Ham, the founder of the Creationist organization Answers in Genesis, or reparative therapists who claim they can “cure” people of homosexuality. Because scientists make mistakes and have ideological blind spots, ergo all science is suspect and the supposed errors of evangelical “science” are no big deal.
The success of this strategy is quite astounding in both the conservative political movement as well as evangelicalism. Giberson and Stephens talk about how evangelicals have established a “parallel culture, nurtured by church, Sunday school, summer camps and colleges, as well as publishing houses, broadcasting networks, music festivals and counseling groups.” Political conservatives have done this as well, establishing highly partisan “alternatives” to mainstream institutions that mimic the form of those institutions, but exchange their primary goal of discovering new information for a primary goal of substantiating predetermined conclusions. Again, this is not to say those mainstream institutions don’t miss things or need to be challenged, it is saying that they are not nearly as constitutionally ideological as parallel conservative institutions are. To cover up this imbalance, conservative and evangelical institutions spend a great deal of energy trying to prove that mainstream institutions are as brazenly ideological and intellectually dishonest as they themselves are.
This is where I think Giberson and Stephens are fundamentally correct. Whatever Dennis Prager wants to say about how evangelicals don’t actually believe you can “pray the gay away” or how many scientists doubt that humans cause global warming, he cannot deny that evangelicals are responsible for decades and reams of psuedoscience that has deluded millions of people who could have handled more accurate information about the world and still loved God just as well. The errors and distortions of these psuedoscientists are not equivalent to the errors of mainstream science; their errors are much more pervasive and pronounced because their research was carried out with the instrumental goal of substantiating views seen as “biblical.” Prager also can’t deny that evangelical leaders and opportunists have created a prevailing posture among rank-and-file evangelical believers that is hostile to “secular” knowledge. Just to be clear, pointing this out is is not attacking evangelicals for not believing every word their doctor says about vaccinations or for not embracing the Democratic Party. It is about an underlying fear evident in many if not most evangelical believers that knowledge is dangerous and is a deliberate plot by secularists conspiring to undermine their faith. (The secular Republican version of this is that knowledge and information are a ploy by “elites” to increase the size of government and control your life.)
Instead of attacking Giberson and Stephens for pointing out something that has been obvious for a long time, evangelicals should be very soberly reflecting on why they have not been able to correct this “scandal of the evangelical mind.” I tend not to believe this is possible; I’m more of the opinion that anti-intellectualism is foundational to evangelical belief, that an assault on knowledge is the only means of defending some of the key tenets thereof. But I know and love a number of people still committed to the project, and my advice to them would be that people like Karl Giberson are their best hope of survival. Evangelicals should be thrilled that bona fide scientists like Giberson, Francis Collins, Warren Throckmorton, etc., are willing to publicly identify as evangelicals while refusing to tolerate the kind of distortions and outright lies that have characterized the evangelical relationship with science. But I must say the way these people are treated—called “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” for instance—does not make the outlook very bright.
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