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Faith and reason: Scientists are not as secular as people think


February 22, 2014
The Economist

TO GREENS, men like John Shimkus—the chairman of a congressional body that oversees work to curb air, soil and water pollution—represent a special sort of bogeyman. Mr Shimkus, a Republican from rural Illinois, is not just staunchly pro-industry, anti-regulation and sceptical of claims that man’s activities menace the planet. He also brings his Bible to work. At a hearing on greenhouse gases, he opened it and quoted God’s words to Noah after the Flood. “Never again will I destroy all living creatures,” God promised. This, said Mr Shimkus, was “infallible” proof that neither man’s actions nor rising flood waters will destroy the Earth. So let’s not worry too much about global warming.

Folk like Mr Shimkus feed a perception that American religion and science are doomed to be in conflict, with unhappy consequences for public policy. For decades, the loudest boffin-on-believer fights involved the teaching of evolution in public schools (a battle the boffins nearly always won), followed more recently by disputes about stem-cell research. Rows about global warming are catching up. In conservative states such as Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee and Oklahoma, Republicans have introduced bills urging schools to teach children that there are competing opinions on such “controversial” scientific issues as evolution, global warming and human cloning.

Ostensibly the goal is to foster critical thinking. But the country’s largest science-promotion body, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), has urged states to reject such bills, protesting that the basic facts of global warming and evolution are not in significant dispute. (Even if the policy response to global warming is hotly disputed, as are the ethics of cloning.) Pro-evolution campaigners are blunter, calling the bills a ploy by the political and religious Right to muscle their way into science classrooms.

Political and religious conservatives do not perfectly overlap. Black churchgoers, for instance, may be stern traditionalists when it comes to morality, yet reliably vote Democratic. Not all conservatives who oppose government action to tackle climate change are religious: plenty of businesses straightforwardly oppose rules which they fear will cost money and jobs. Meanwhile, some strict believers and church leaders think God wants people to take care of the environment; they talk of their responsibilities as “stewards of creation”. But in general the very religious—and especially the third of all Americans who call themselves evangelical or born-again Christians—have been allies for conservatives itching for a scrap with the scientific establishment. Though most evangelicals say that the earth is warming, in polls they are much less sure than the average American that this matters, or that man is to blame.

Why this should be so is a subject of debate, and until recently a lot of guesswork. Evangelical Christianity is a slightly hazy term. To simplify, it describes a faith anchored by a believer’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and which closely follows the Bible. It is an individualistic faith—many jump from church to church until they find a style of worship that appeals—rooted in conservative communities (evangelicals are a majority in nine states, all in the South).

A much-cited theory advanced in 1967 by Lynn White, a historian, charges that the devout draw from Genesis the idea that mankind has “dominion” over nature, and thus think they have a right to exploit the world’s resources. A hypothesis floated in the 1980s draws a link between “environmental apathy” and the belief, among some evangelicals, that the End Times are near. In 2010 Elaine Howard Ecklund, a sociologist at Rice University, caused a stir with a survey of 1,700 scientists at Harvard, MIT and other elite colleges. About a third were atheists (as opposed to fewer than one-in-20 ordinary Americans), just under a third were agnostics, and the rest reported varying degrees of belief.

At the annual meeting of the AAAS in Chicago on February 16th Dr Ecklund unveiled the first results of a still-larger study into science and religion, involving more than 9,000 survey respondents and lots of follow-up interviews. This new survey sought out “rank-and-file” scientists: researchers in company labs, engineers, dentists and so on. To her surprise, Main Street scientists are only a bit less religious than the average American. Perhaps Ivy League scientists are ultra-secular because they are Ivy League, not because they are scientists?

The Al Gore effect

Evangelicals are wary of calls to environmental action, but not necessarily because they feel strutting dominion over nature, Dr Ecklund adds, in a forthcoming paper in the Review of Religious Research. Instead, many describe a rigid hierarchy placing God above humans and humans above the environment. To “respect the earth more than its due”—to quote a young Southern Baptist in the study—is to risk worshipping creation rather than the creator. Many simply trust that “God’s in control”. The evangelicals in the study barely engage with the science of environmentalism, instead querying the motives of those pushing such arguments. They especially bridle when Democratic politicians push for big-government solutions (“The Al Gore Effect”, the paper calls it).

Dr Ecklund and her colleagues at the Chicago seminar wondered if the devout might be won round by environmental arguments stripped of politics and focused on helping people in poor, ecologically vulnerable countries. Climate change need not challenge evangelical theology, it was argued: mankind can cause terrible harm that stops short of ending the world. As for secular-minded scientists, they should beware of conflating their work (explaining the world in terms of natural forces) with what they personally believe (that the natural world is all there is). The worlds of religion and science will not always agree. But America, a big country, has room for both.

 

http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21597021-scientists-are-not-secular-people-think-faith-and-reason