Science and the Evangelical Communities: Earnest, Imperfect Steps Forward

Image: Guro Aspenes
Image: Guro Aspenes

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Jen Davison, a research scientist and science communicator at the University of Washington’s College of the Environment. Davison attended this year’s AAAS meeting in Chicago, and writes about a session there on science and religion.

As Galen Carey, vice president for government relations for the National Association of Evangelicals, took his place in front of a room full of researchers and science journalists, he asked the crowd, “So why aren’t y’all at church?” The laughter was scattered. We’d agreed that common ground between the increasingly polarized scientific and religious communities was an issue; that’s why we were in the room. It was a weird coincidence that the conference session entitled “Religious Communities, Science, Scientists, and Perceptions: A Comprehensive Survey” fell on Sunday morning, but I honestly hadn’t even considered the irony until Carey called it out.

The session (live-tweeted and storified here and here) was one of a few events held at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) by the professional society’s Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER). These events marked the release of preliminary results from a large new survey on Americans’ perceptions of science, religion, and how the communities relate to each other. I was excited to attend; as an ecologist studying the effects of climate change and as a science communicator, I am very aware of the need to find common ground between these communities.

Jen Davison
Jen Davison

The results of the DoSER survey, still preliminary, highlighted both the perception of hostility from scientists and evangelical Protestants (which were focused on as they represent up to 30% of the US population), as well as the perceived potential for collaboration between the groups. The most discussed findings can be found here and here. While about one fifth of the more than 10,000 people surveyed perceived hostility from the religious community toward science or vice versa, 48% of the population felt that the two communities were collaborative. The survey also found that more than a third of scientists “have no doubt about God’s existence” (a vaguely worded statement, I think), and around 15% of scientists—a percentage not significantly different from the general population—regularly engage in religious activities.

As I sat through the 3-hour session, I noticed that the conversations mirrored the complicated relationship between the science and religious communities. Both groups seem to at least want to like each other, though there are some misgivings and hurt feelings, and I came away with a sense that earnestness, above all, was driving this tender step toward dialogue. One gesture I appreciated as a scientist was that Professor James McCarthy, preeminent climate scientist and oceanographer, decided not to use slides “for the first time in decades,” in order to have a conversation with the audience rather than give a lecture. As another token of good-will, in presenting the survey results suggesting that “ignorance” might underlay the perceived conflict between science and religion, Carey graciously led with the evangelical community, noting that it has “inadequate education and participation in science, some belief that revelation preempts discovery” and “a minority of anti-intellectualism.” Carey then turned to the science community, highlighting its “inadequate training in religion, and in the history and philosophy of science.”

I also noted how the science and evangelical communities had some key shared values: the search for “truth” (though the definition varies), and a compassion and sense of responsibility for the natural world. Signaling a growing trend within the climate science community, McCarthy worried how his grandchildren would fare in the face of climate change, and wanted a broader dialogue between the two populations for this reason. Carey highlighted the evangelical value of “activism” as potential common ground with scientists, pointing the audience to the NAE’s publication “Loving the Least of These: Addressing a Changing Environment.” The eighty or so people who attended this 8:30 a.m. session were all ostensibly trying to understand how the apparent rifts between the science and religious communities had come about, and searching for evidence that we could yet work together.

There are clearly a lot of misconceptions regarding both science and evangelicals, as the survey suggested. Carey asked the audience to come up with definitions of “evangelical”; the answers ranged from “spreading the good news!” to “shouting about God.” Carey shared the lengthy NAE definition, highlighting the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and that “interacting with the broader society is as important as preserving theological integrity.”

One of the most damaging, and most common, misconceptions is when people assume science is more than a methodology for understanding the natural world, conflating it with science-informed ideologies (various types of materialism, for example). But science is a way of understanding the observable world; it is not, strictly speaking, a worldview. The National Center for Science Education’s Dr. Eugenie Scott focused on this false dichotomy with religion, which she defined as a “set of rules about the nonmaterial world and its inhabitants.” Although religion sometimes explains the natural world, it is far more focused on the meaning and purpose of life. (Martin Luther King, Jr. has provided a particularly eloquent differentiation.) Therefore, Scott pointed out, “Science is no more incompatible with religion than long division.” And crucially, science cannot speak to “supernatural forces, which are unconstrained and cannot be tested.”

I was intrigued by Scott’s explanation of ideologies as flowers in a garden, growing in different types of soil, such as science, politics, art, literary criticism, theology, history and other forms of knowledge-gathering. As one soil type, science nurtures various ideologies and does nothing for others. And all the soil sits on a bedrock of critical thinking, which itself is not the provenance only of science.

Again, it is here that I think we have the most trouble. One scientist asked why, if scientists don’t tell religious people how to be religious, do they tell scientists how to do or teach science? Carey ended his talk with a suggestion that we all “consider Jesus”, garnering another mixed response. Because, while information and values are fundamentally different, it is human nature to seek out, interpret, dismiss, or even discredit information that does not align with our values. (This can be seen in Yale professor Dan Kahan’s work, for example.) In fact, one participant in the DoSER survey explained that the theory of evolution necessarily negates the entire Bible—it’s all or nothing. Therefore, to accept evolution would mean fundamentally undermining this person’s worldview. And I believe that climate change is similarly destabilizing. So here’s a question: if one of your core values is information that is gained through the scientific process, where does that leave you if the religious community, or anyone else, dismisses that information? This conflation is irrational but it is real, and it goes both ways. In response to the audience-member’s question about why religious people try to control the teaching of science, one Twitter follower stated that “scientists tell religious people that God doesn’t exist PLENTY.”

This topic is fraught within my own professional network, and I have had plenty of heated conversations about the difference between science and atheism. Both McCarthy and Professor Kaye Husbands Fealing, noted how challenging it is for faculty as well as students, to talk about their faith with their peers, and to talk about their work with their parish. Scott pointed out that when science and religion are juxtaposed in college classrooms, then the door is shut for dialogue, or for involvement with both communities. And, given that most students in the U.S. are religious, this often means that these students will choose their faith over studying science.

The speakers noted some ways to move forward, through addressing common values, and, importantly, by both communities reacquainting themselves with the “bedrock” of critical theory in order to understand the underpinnings of both science and of religion. Carey recommended navigating conflicts between the communities with humility, respect, integrity, and patience–“when was the last time you changed your mind because you had a conversation with someone you disagreed with, who disrespected you?” He also pointed out that both communities are routinely co-opted by political forces, whose agendas don’t serve either group.

Clearly, both the science community and the evangelical community have been hurt or offended by each other, and it will take more work to get to a point where each can be comfortable with the other’s ideologies. Although Evangelical scientists were found to be more likely to perceive hostility among the groups than the general population, they actually might be the key to helping to solidify common ground. Someone in another of the DoSER sessions quoted Arthur Eddington: “In science as in religion the truth shines ahead as a beacon showing us the path; we do not ask to attain it; it is better far that we be permitted to seek.” Can scientists and religious communities appreciate each other’s love of the search, even if one community searches the natural world and the other searches the supernatural?


2 thoughts on “Science and the Evangelical Communities: Earnest, Imperfect Steps Forward

  1. As a professional meteorologist and a devout Christian/Lutheran, I have seen the extremists views over the years on both sides and heard little about common ground, sadly. I would guess, again: sadly, that saying this will draw the ire of many on either side who say I can’t be both without compromising the other.

    I would hope that – like the Nye/Hamm debate – there would be more talk and interaction, rather than mutual dehumanizing or engaging in accusations and mindless chatter. One of my scientific heroes is Carl Sagan, famous for the quote: “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.” I can look up into the night sky and wonder and dream, just as well as I can looking for inspiration in the Bible. At the very least, with Sagan’s books and TV series ‘Cosmos’, it drove me to a larger understanding of things scientific. Along with a pastor at a church I once attended that reminded our college age group that ‘we don’t know everything’ but that it shouldn’t stop us from doing our best to try and go forward, helping each other along the way.

    Both sides can learn from each other and draw inspiration and hope from each other, more than we can from the “No way!/Nuh-UH!” crowds. If we are to make strides forward, each extreme side must make more efforts to come towards the middle, which can be done without giving up views/opinions on either side. At the very least we can learn more from each other, no matter the subject, and show future generations how to properly conduct ourselves.

    I, for one, am quite tired of animosity and arguing, and will do whatever I can to engage in debate and conversation rather than shout-your-opponent-down-whatever-the-cost practices.


  2. Gene Partlow

    This article unconsciously assumes the two important groups
    in the US are scientists and evangelical/fundamentalists, and
    that they are to be taken equally seriously… This reflects deep
    inroads by the sword-bearers of the infamous Culture Wars,
    where in an effort not to offend anybody, self-effacing
    Enlightenment-inspired intellectuals feel they must behave
    as though every idea, every belief system out there has equal
    semantic, evidentiary and rational value, and must be given
    absolutely equal airtime in our schools and media. It follows
    from this that nothing is too absurd, too self-evidently wrong-
    headed to merit equal billing in what passes for our coarsening
    national dialogue.

    The hard, cold truth is that while, yes, historically some scientists
    and many ‘devout’ atheist ideologues use every chance they get
    to ridicule all religion, the reverse action is and has been far more
    massive and damaging for at least a century and a half. By
    this I mean that evangelicals and fundamentalists in general
    have acted as though it were their god’s mission for them to
    attack, slander and hamstring the very existence and teaching
    of science. As though the process and knowledge results of
    science were anathema to all decent society. Which by definition
    would be only a certain kind of Christian society. In this context
    biblically literal creationists are only the loudest and busiest of
    a far larger assault on science and the egalitarian-enlightenment
    tradition in general.

    Additionally, in the confused and muddy accusations scientists
    often attempt to wade through, in efforts to bridge the gap
    with religious zealots legislating against evolution, geology
    and other sciences, scientists are under the illusion that
    their adversaries harbor a core belief in which rational debate
    regarding tangible data has primacy; not wildly different from
    the core assumptions within science itself. Unfortunately,
    this is not true. Historically, at the center of hardline religious
    activism is belief in an angry and jealous God, ever watchful
    and ready with vengeance. For true believers, whether in
    Christianity, Judaism, Islam or Hinduism, to actually entertain
    a single doubt or question about the inerrancy of one’s God or
    religious teachings, is quite literally unthinkable.

    Given the dominance of sensation and superficial appeal to
    the lowest common denominators in most mainstream media
    and politics today, this gives momentary, short-term advantage
    to what in the American Civil War were openly called Fire
    Breathers. And it puts scientists and genuine scholarship
    at a distinct disadvantage. To not recognize or understand
    this quality in the ongoing national public dialogue is something
    we cannot afford.


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