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When It Comes to Science Denial, Ignorance Runs Both Ways


A good friend shared an interesting article the other day, titled, "8 Ways Christian Fundamentalists Make People Convert -- to Agnosticism or Atheism."  The article has a lot of good things to say - things Christians ought to think about.  But there are some major inaccuracies and sloppy thinking in the article, too.  Especially in the author's sixth point: science denial.  The author accuses evangelical Christians of causing people to leave the faith by being scientifically ignorant (an accusation which is quite true for parts of Evangelicalism), but then she makes some blunders of her own.  It appears scientific ignorance is two-sided: it can be both a cause and effect of people leaving the church.

There are a number of inaccuracies and prejudices in the article that I don't have time or space to address.  My focus will be on her point about science denial, since that's of special interest to my current studies.  As I see it, there are three things the author gets wrong in this section.

1.  Accusing Christians of Reinterpreting Genesis 1.  The author suggests that, when scientific evidence started coming in to show the earth is much older than previously thought, Christians began reinterpreting Genesis 1 to avoid being proven wrong.  She says:
Christians have come up with dozens of squishier, less falsifiable ways to explain the geological record: The "days" in Genesis 1 were really "ages." Or God created the world with the fossils already in place to test our faith. Or the biblical creation story is really sacred metaphor.
Apart from the bit about fossils being placed there to test our faith (that really is absurd, in my opinion), the rest of her statement is historically ignorant.  Non-literal interpretations of Genesis 1 were held by prominent Christians long before James Hutton was even a twinkle in his poppa's eye.  Augustine (c.a. 400 A.D.), for example, believed in a form of what today is called the literary framework interpretation of Genesis 1.  Origen (c.a. 200 A.D.) likewise believed Genesis 1 was meant to be interpreted figuratively, not literally.  And Thomas Aquinas (c.a. 1250 A.D.) was supposedly open to figurative interpretations as well.  All that to say, there has never been an "official" interpretation of Genesis 1.  Christians have always disagreed and, for the most part, given each other the freedom to disagree on this issue.

The author also seems unaware that modern geology likely owes a debt of gratitude to Christian theology, as certain award-winning historians of science have argued.  Apparently, early geologists' ideas about Earth having a finite, linear history, and of finding a "scientific" way to study that history, came from Christian theology and Bible scholarship.  Who'da thunk?

2.  Her Characterization of the Galileo Trial.  The author makes a drive-by reference to the Galileo trial.  She remarks, "The Catholic church, perhaps still licking wounds about Galileo (it apologized finally in the 20th century), has managed to avoid embarrassing and easily disproven positions on evolutionary biology."  Taken in context, I think it is clear her statement is meant to imply that the Galileo trial is an iconic example of science denial by Christians.  Again, this reveals her ignorance.

A number of historians have shown that the Galileo trial, while unquestionably an abuse of church power, has been exaggerated to the point of myth.  The Inquisition went after Galileo more because he publicly insulted Pope Urban VIII (supposedly unintentionally), not merely for advocating a heliocentric view of the solar system.  The overly simplistic, mythical version of the story continues to be perpetuated by those who wish to portray Christians as science denialists. 

3.  Her Criticism of the Catholic Pro-Life Position.  In the final statement of her section on science denial, the author claims that the Catholic church's "positions on conception and contraception similarly rely on ignorance about or denial of biological science -- in this case embryology and the basic fact that most embryos never become persons."  Here the author is implying that the belief, "life begins at conception" contradicts biological facts - namely, "that most embryos never become persons."  This is sloppy thinking.

As I've argued recently, there is no biological/development difference between a fetus and a newborn significant enough for us to say that one is a person and the other isn't.  To do so would be to draw an arbitrary line; certainly not one based on science.  The author's implied "argument" here is that it's okay to kill human embryos, because not all of them survive long enough to develop into "persons."  Let's try applying her reasoning to newborns, since fetuses and newborns are morally equivalent.

Not all newborns survive and become "persons" (in the author's definition).  Does that mean it's okay to kill them?  Of course not.  The fact that not all newborns (or human embryos) survive has nothing to do with whether or not it's okay to kill them.  To suggest it does is to present faulty reasoning, and to confuse a biological fact with a philosophical preference.  So, who is showing their ignorance here, the author or Christians?  Maybe both.

The author is an ex-Evangelical herself.  I think Christians and church leaders can learn some important lessons from the good points she makes in her article (points about hypocrisy, disgusting behavior, etc.).  But I think there is an equally important lesson to learn from the author's ignorance and prejudice.  Her article is a demonstration that, as long as some Christians continue to promote a blithely shallow, biblically unstudied faith, they will continue to push deep thinkers - and doubting "Thomases" - out of the church, and sow resentment.  Ignorant and defensive religious faith often produces equally ignorant and defensive religious skepticism.

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