It seems science and religion have been at odds ever since there was science. Galileo comes to mind as a notable example of early tension between the two. Each side has historically believed that it, more than the other, stood for truth.
Since then, only the names of the players have changed. The debate still revolves around which side has a corner on truth.
The Ring of Truth
Truth is often compared to the tone of a fine bell; that something has “the ring of truth” is a popular saying. For instance, there’s the adage that “people get what they deserve.” Although no one can prove that it’s true, many would say that it has the ring of truth. No matter what happens in the world, justice will be done.
It might not seem immediately obvious, but this “just world” perspective has a direct bearing on today’s science-versus-religion debate over truth. We all want to know why things happen; we seek light rather than dark, meaning rather than randomness. We want reassurance that the things we face in life aren’t pointless accidents.
In examining the just-world belief, psychologist Melvin Lerner, a pioneer in the study of social justice, found that although the believer’s conclusions may be incorrect, they do bring the comfort of predictability, even sanity, to our chaotic existence: “People want to and have to believe they live in a just world so that they can go about their daily lives with a sense of trust, hope, and confidence in their future” (The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion, 1980).
It’s the tension between the chaos of our existence and the comfort of our beliefs that’s at the heart of today’s standoff between science and a growing faction within Christianity.
Three recent books explore that tension.
The first, Dictionary of Christianity and Science: The Definitive Reference for the Intersection of Christian Faith and Contemporary Science, illustrates how science and belief operate side by side. Actually more of an encyclopedic collection of several hundred well-sourced essays, it addresses the nexus between Christian belief and science, scientists and scientific philosophies. The references at the conclusion of each essay reflect a remarkable balance of scholarship and are extremely helpful for deeper research.
Because this is such a balanced resource, we’ve drawn a few relevant quotations from it and highlighted them as callouts throughout this review.
The other two books, Paranoid Science: The Christian Right’s War on Reality and The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It, examine the impact of postmodern subjectivism and certain Christian Right evangelical beliefs on how we view and use scientific findings. Because science informs our global commitments to improving human livelihood, understanding how science can be distorted both actively and passively is important.
The material Shawn Otto and Antony Alumkal outline and the arguments they make are relevant to anyone, from evangelical to atheist, whose worldview compels them to improve our shared human condition on this little planet.
“A worldview functions something like a pair of glasses, as an interpretive lens through which a person makes sense of life and comprehends the world around them.”
Belief in Purpose
For American evangelical leader Rick Warren, the idea of life being “purpose driven” fulfills the same needs as the just-world belief that Lerner describes. According to Warren’s interpretation of Scripture, every detail of our existence is known and planned by God. Combining Einstein’s “God does not play dice” (with the universe) with Isaiah’s statement that God cares for us before we are born (Isaiah 44:2a), he insists that chance has no part to play in our destiny. We are just what God wants us to be, even down to our nucleotides.
“God had a plan in creating you,” Warren writes. “It doesn’t matter whether your parents were good, bad, or indifferent. God knew that those two individuals possessed exactly the right genetic makeup to create the custom ‘you’ he had in mind. They had the DNA God wanted to make you” (The Purpose-Driven Life, 2002).
That’s all very comforting, of course, and if one listens hard enough, it too can have that ring of truth. But how do we know whether it’s real or simply wishful thinking? After all, we really just have a charismatic preacher’s assurance that it’s true. It could give one a certain confidence to face the day, however, and that’s Warren’s attractiveness; we’re all encouraged by the idea of having purpose, that our lives have meaning and, if we believe in God, that His will is directing us, no matter what.
From this just-world or purpose-driven view, poverty, inequality, rape, cancer and even traffic collisions are difficult to understand. Each must be seen as ultimately God’s plan—because after all, what happens was intended to happen. Everything turns out as it was meant to be. Justice is served.
But as Solomon wrote, bad things do happen just out of the blue: “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11, English Standard Version). Jesus Himself denied any link between people’s goodness or badness and the things that may befall them in this life (see Luke 13:1–5).
The Bible, in fact, reconciles the apparent randomness of the events of life with a God who claims to be not only a trustworthy, just and righteous judge (Psalm 111:7) but an impartial advocate for His creation (Matthew 5:43–48).
It is certainly not a foregone conclusion that the Bible somehow negates a science-based understanding of the world. The history of science shows that indeed it was the predictability and regularity of nature, ascribed to God’s hand in creation, that made investigation possible.
“Theism not only catalyzed the rise of modern science, but it remains the only worldview on which the origin, order, and intelligibility of nature make any sense.”
Clash of the Worldviews
According to Otto’s The War on Science and Alumkal’s Paranoid Science, proponents of an innately purposeful and just world are using that belief to undermine a science-based worldview.
Physics and chemistry, through observation and experimentation, revealed the natural forces that made the world the way it is. A recent uptick in flat-Earthers and moon-landing deniers notwithstanding, most people understand this. And they understand that science and exploration also reveal, to some degree, how it operates. Science gives us a physical baseline from which we can evaluate our actions and their impact. Science cannot show us “right and wrong”; that’s the realm of religion, law and ethics. Most scientists agree that the scientific method reveals what could be done, not what should be done.
Until recently, a scientifically established fact was accepted as credible and therefore useful in determining what to do next on all levels of decision making—personal, political or geopolitical. But in a postmodern world, because all ideas seem to have equal status, Otto argues that we are losing track of the real world that centuries of scientific investigation have afforded us. “Truth,” he notes, has become “subjective, not objective. There [are now] many possible legitimate accounts of an event, not just one.”
This has infected all areas of human thought and action, Otto continues: “Over the course of twenty years, this thinking came to influence all of Western discourse, education, and politics.” And the just-world belief has especially affected Americans, he says.
“Climate change and other environmental problems seem to violate the just world belief,” Otto concludes. “The idea that despite our best efforts our fate is influenced by luck or the collective actions of others—or that our society is guilty of gross injustice that we are taking part in—is antithetical to the classic American ideals (and, to a certain extent, Canadian ideals) of self-determination and meritocracy.”
Otto warns that this is a dangerous situation because it stalls action by accepting the status quo as just. The state of the world is exactly as it was meant to be.
The average evangelical, who lives in what Alumkal calls a “purpose-driven life of unreality,” seems to fall in with this kind of thinking. One wants to consider them outliers, but these authors warn that such evangelicals are gaining in power and influence as ideas of an objective reality morph into a creeping postmodern slush. As it envelops all things in its path, social instability and political deadlock result.
Science vs. Alt-Science
The War on Science and Paranoid Science are themselves purpose driven in the sense that they’re ringing the fire alarm as the first smoke rises from a faux alt-science. Rather than allowing facts to mobilize change, alt-science seeks to interrogate the facts until their impact is diluted, shifted and ultimately abandoned.
Otto explains the first argument in this unraveling: “lacking certainty, we should do nothing.” The other is that, in the face of such uncertainty and in the interest of fairness, “we should get a balanced perspective from both sides.” The idea of pitting one side against the other, however, is a rhetorical argument, not science. This becomes a lawyerly debate on whose data seems most plausible. Plausibility does not determine knowledge, however. Otto writes: “These two arguments capitalize on the fact that, because legitimate scientific conclusions are empirical—that is to say, inductive and based on observation—they will rarely, if ever, make absolute statements without allowing for the possibility of error. Lack of absolute certainty is not a weakness in science—it’s a strength. It’s the only way one knows it is science.”
The problem is that most of us find the ring of truth in certainty, not probability. We go from “can’t win the lottery” (the probability is too low) to “can’t win if you don’t buy a ticket” (that’s a certainty) to buying the ticket pretty quickly. And we are only poorer for it.
This underscores that flawed thinking can lead us to arrive at the kind of faux-certainty that translates to action. “People are naturally skeptical, but they are also social,” says Otto. “They don’t like to think of themselves as antiscience, ignorant, or stupid. But when those qualities are put in conflict with social identity and reinforced by authority, skepticism can be suspended.” When that happens, a whole new layer of misinformation can be laid down, but because our social group is of the same mind, we’re comfortable that even our misinformed views constitute certainty, or truth.
The unfortunate outcome, to which Otto and Alumkal both devote much discussion, is a growing segment of the population that will believe anything and will be all the more content for it. “The celebration of anti-intellectualism offers social identity [and] belonging that allows people to let go of their shame of their scientific ignorance, a sort of group bravado in the face of what would otherwise be stigmatized,” warns Otto. Furthermore, he cautions, “this sets up a political and social atmosphere in which people can be sold ideas without any grounding in facts or, for that matter, in morals or ethics.”
But scientists themselves are not without blame. Some overplay the physical laws of science as reaching across all dimensions of human experience. Science is, by its very nature, unable to prove or disprove God’s existence, for example. A spiritual realm is simply beyond the scope of science, which can deal only in the physical. So when scientists dismiss God as a relic of ancient superstitions, they’re overreaching their expertise and understandably draw fire from believers.
“Science studies the physical realm, and the scientific method appears to be limited to this realm. . . . There are some areas of inquiry, including those dealing with significant questions in human life, that are not within its domain.”
Further, dishonesty kills trust, as Otto recognizes: “A not-insignificant reason the public distrusts science is because of scientists who engage in unethical behavior, such as misconduct for personal gain or overdramatized conclusions to get attention in the media.” To regulate this as we move forward, Otto suggests the development of a Hippocratic oath for scientists: “The intent of science should be to advance knowledge for the purpose of improving life.” He says it’s time to follow up on Nobel laureate Sir Joseph Rotblat’s 1995 call for such a do-no-harm oath (Rotblat had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to diminish the role of nuclear armaments in international politics).
The Scorpion’s Sting
Paranoid Science focuses on the politicized Christian Right and its alternative views of four topics: evolution, human sexuality, stem cell research and climate change. These are volatile subjects in almost any circle, liberal or conservative, and are especially so when extreme, emotion-packed religious views are pitted against data-driven scientific views. Unfortunately, there can be no win-win in this contest.
In a kind of clever foreshadowing, the astrological sign Scorpio is prominent on the book jacket. This alludes to the idea that Scorpios value truth and fact. Riding the Ptolemaic rings of an Earth-centered universe (meant to suggest that the Christian Right would like to take us back to circa 100 BCE, one supposes), the little scorpion looks ready to take on the Right and its “war on reality.
Alumkal certainly fires the scorpion’s sting at will. Most fundamentally, as he explains, the Right believes it is faithful to a literal understanding of the Scriptures. Thus, being given “dominion” to “subdue” the earth (Genesis 1:28) means that humankind’s role is nothing less than that of planetary master. The world is the way it is—climate change and all—because it was ordained to be.
Such arguments obviously won’t be in agreement with modern science and can seem a surreal and fantastical denial of reality. Do people really say these things? Well, US Congressman John Shimkus did; his remarks at a 2009 Energy and Environment subcommittee hearing noted that coal miners are losing their jobs, that we live on a “carbon [dioxide]-starved planet” and that “the earth will end only when God declares it’s time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth; this earth will not be destroyed by a flood” due to climate change and rising sea levels. He read Genesis 8:21–22 and Matthew 24:31 for support.
But other verses show the congressman’s use of the Scriptures to be incorrect, the quoted verses being cherry-picked and lacking wider biblical context; Revelation 11:18, for example, speaks of judgment on people “who destroy the earth.” Thus his (mis)use of the Bible to stall political action becomes evident.
Employing an extreme evangelical alt-science argument to undercut scientific evidence is exactly the practice that outrages Otto and Alumkal. And if climate change, nuclear armaments, environmental toxicity, and fresh-water depletion really are bell-ringing existential threats to our species’ survival, then we should all be concerned.
My Brother’s Keeper?
Alumkal is transparent concerning his own beliefs and admits that he is hardly an unbiased observer. As an associate professor of sociology of religion at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, he identifies himself as a progressive Christian. This is the Left or liberal wing of American Christianity.
“My writing is clearly influenced by my social location,” he says. “I believe that Christianity should have a much different expression in American society; it should support the scientific enterprise and counter social oppression rather than reinforce it. . . . I’m writing for anyone who wants to understand more about how the Christian Right attacks science.”
Yet in all of his unpacking and dressing down of the Christian Right, he has nothing to say in terms of theological correction or biblically based solutions to his disagreements. There are no “Can we work this out, brother?” moments (per Matthew 18:15), no reasoning together or testing ideas in order to “hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). This is not the kind of “love your enemy” attitude one might expect of those who, one assumes, all deem Scripture helpful in mediating problems of every sort.
Instead Alumkal takes a long, hard look at many of the source organizations that in various ways inform the Christian Right perspective. Specifically, he charges that Phillip E. Johnson, the Discovery Institute, the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality/the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity, Focus on the Family, the Christian Coalition, the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, the Cornwall Alliance and the Acton Institute are all manufacturing hubs of paranoid science. But while ideas that some of them advance are indeed suspect, to dismiss everything that each one stands for seems an extreme in its own right.
While Otto focuses more on the ways in which the science is misunderstood, poorly communicated and demonized to the general public, Alumkal sees the Christian Right (along with its religio-political support organizations) as a splinter group among evangelicals, fighting for self-preservation and political power.
His hypothesis is that a sense of conspiracy serves their purpose. The Christian Right portrays itself as the virtuous underdog against corrupt mainstream science. If people don’t look too deeply, are already inclined toward just-world thinking, and think they know their Bible, this can have real appeal. It can give a person the sense of being “on God’s side,” being part of the good Christian guys against the bad secular guys.
“We distort science-religion conflicts when framing them in terms of ‘what Scripture says’ versus ‘what science says.’ . . . Fully engaging both of God’s books [nature and Scripture] allows us to learn as much as we can about the totality of divine revelation.”
This conspiracy of secular establishment against the religious “true science” creates a paranoid bond that holds the group together. The idea, which forms the backbone of his book, is Alumkal’s updating of a very interesting and apparently cyclically applicable idea outlined by Richard Hofstadter in a 1964 essay titled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”
“The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent,” Hofstadter wrote. “Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish.”
Alumkal applies Hofstadter’s hypothesis to the Christian Right’s belief in a conspiracy to destroy what they see as a Bible-based view and replace it with a bogus, secularized science.
After punching as many holes as he can through their arguments and supporters, Alumkal admits, “I don’t personally know any of the Christian Right leaders whom I write about, and I can’t judge their motives.” And although he thinks they sincerely believe they’re doing the right thing by denying scientific evidence that contradicts their interpretation of Scripture, he insists that Christian Right leaders do “blatantly distort the truth, . . . engaging in self-deception, believing what they want to believe.”
The Ripple Effect
Concerning the just-world belief, psychologist Lerner concluded, “If it is true that people want or need to believe that they live in a world where people get what they deserve, then it is not surprising that they will find ways, other things being equal, to interpret events to fit this belief.”
That’s why almost 40 years ago he called the belief in a just world a fundamental delusion. Just as the distorted tone of a cracked bell ripples outward and contaminates the music as a whole, so our delusions and resulting misinterpretations of the world taint how we meet the challenges of life.
In one sense we do live in a just world. But it is not as either the psychologists or the pop preachers describe. The Bible that both the Christian Left and Right read explains that from the time humanity was expelled from the Garden of Eden for disobedience, we have operated apart from God. It calls disobedience sin, and it says that God cannot abide sin. This separation, therefore, is just. Fortunately, the Bible also says that God is not only a God of justice but also one of love, mercy and forgiveness, and that eventually, on His timetable, each will be offered the opportunity for a full relationship with creation and the Creator (John 6:44, 64–65; 2 Peter 3:9; Isaiah 30:18).
We live a fragmented and discordant life in a world of human injustices. But pitting science and Scripture against one another only exacerbates our frictions. Science is not thwarting God’s plans. As Einstein said, science without religion is lame, and religion without science is blind. Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman III puts it this way: “Any Christian reconciliation of the relationship between the Bible and science will ultimately conclude that the two have the same author and give a consistent picture” (“Creation,” Dictionary of Christianity and Science).
We need both science and religion to see that picture clearly.