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Why science is despised by religion

When I reviewed the movie Jesus Camp, I mentioned that I was surprised by weird opposition to global warming research which is displayed by the homeschooled fundamentalist kids. I thought, sure, I expect them to be anti-science to the extent that they’re opposed to evolution and believe in a young earth. But why global warming, exactly?

I guess that if you think the world is ending within one generation, then you might be disinclined to care about environmental issues that will cause problems for the next generation, or the one after. But “disinclination” doesn’t begin to describe the outright hostility that conservative Christians appear to have for the issue.

The study of global warming is a relatively recent field — compared with, say, evolution (150 years) or Newtonian physics (300 years) or even relativity and quantum mechanics (about 100 years). As such, it is a field particularly active in generating new data and interpreting what this data means. Like evolution, there is a scientific consensus on the big picture (global warming is real, it is a recent development, and it is in some significant way affected by worldwide human behavior) but the details are open to debate (i.e., what will be the particular short term and long term effects, and what policy actions should be enacted as a result).

This is a fundamentalist gold mine, because what anti-science religious folks love to do is highlight a particular controversy and then say “See? Science is unreliable because it’s changing all the time!”

Case in point:

Noted Hurricane Expert Kerry Emanuel has publicly reversed his stance on the impact of Global Warming on Hurricanes. Saying “The models are telling us something quite different from what nature seems to be telling us,” Emanuel has released new research indicating that even in a rapidly warming world, hurricane frequency and intensity will not be substantially affected.

“The results surprised me,” says Emanuel, one of the media’s most quoted figures on the topic.


From a scientific perspective, if you believe one thing and then later you recognize that you were mistaken based on new evidence, it’s simply part of the process. It’s an important component of intellectual integrity. Science changes, just like people do. In both cases, it’s otherwise known as “learning new things.” Dawkins sometimes admiringly tells the story of a scientist who profusely thanks the man who shows that he has long been in error about an important concept.

To a fundamentalist, on the other hand, this story is treated as an opportunity to dismiss the entire science of climate change. “Ah, so they were WRONG! Knowing this, how can we trust anything those scientists say?” In this frame, change is treated as a sign of weakness rather than a sign of improvement. While creationists often pay lip service to the importance of science (“Our beliefs should totally be taught in science classes, you Nazis!”), when science appears to contradict the Bible, they do more than argue against the theory; they denigrate science itself. I get the distinct impression that science is viewed as a threat because it is a competing method of knowing things in general.


I’ve heard numerous sermons — some on the radio, some live — where the theme appeared to be “Everything in life is garbage unless you have Jesus.” Often repeated in this flavor of sermon are verses such as Isaiah 55:8-9:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”


And 1 Corinthians 3:19:


For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness.

Human knowledge is garbage. So says the Lord. And since we can’t rely on our own poor knowledge, the default option available should be to look to the church for answers. If someone purports to say something that does not match what the church says, don’t listen to them, for their ways are not His ways.

Then along comes science.

Science proposes a systematic, reliable, testable method for gaining more knowledge over time. It is not based on the Bible. It is not inherently hostile to religion; it just disregards religion completely in the pursuit of understanding the world.

That’s not something the church can accept. It undermines authority-based teaching, and it removes the feeling of helplessness that Isaiah’s words are meant to invoke.

So as a result, a large body of work has grown around the effort to frame science as simply a competing worldview, devoid of merit in its own right. It’s not just fundamentalists who do this; post-modernist writers also get off on the idea that there is no such thing as reality. In their works, they reduce science to one of many “belief systems,” neither better nor worse than any other way of understanding.

To paraphrase George Carlin: “Same as God. Same as the four leaf clover, the horse shoe, the rabbit’s foot, and the wishing well. Same as the mojo man. Same as the voodoo lady who tells your fortune by squeezing the goat’s testicles. It’s all the same.” (Carlin, of course, was not talking about science, but about offering prayers to Joe Pesci.)

Science is a threat to religious beliefs not only because it sometimes contradicts them, but because it offers a way to be correct without relying on supposed magic powers.

Comments

  1. says

    I’ve heard so much evidence for and against global warming that I don’t know what to think anymore (And I get most of my news from NPR.) For that reason, I don’t think it’s fair to compare global warming to evolution or other scientific theories. Global warming’s Pope is Al Gore, and its Richard Dawkins is Rush Limbaugh.When everyone who takes a strong stance on either side of the global warming debate wants you to vote for their political team, you can’t blame people for being skeptical of the science behind it.Why aren’t there Dems saying it’s fake, or Republicans saying it’s true? If the threat of global warming is as eminent as they say why can’t people cross the isle?

  2. says

    I think it goes along with what others have said about undermining certain parts of science such as evolution by saying “it’s JUST a theory”, without understanding the full weight a theory carries. Most people have an idea that a theory is little more than an educated guess, while I believe hypothesis better fits that category. I have seen people outright refute everything about science including the existence of gravity.sorry I can’t type more, but I need to go get some rope and tie my house down, some threw threw a ball at my door, and the momentum is making my house lift off the ground.

  3. says

    I’ve heard so much evidence for and against global warming that I don’t know what to think anymore (And I get most of my news from NPR.) For that reason, I don’t think it’s fair to compare global warming to evolution or other scientific theories.Actually, I think it’s very fair to cast the scientific perspective on global warming in the same pattern as evolution, and nearly everything you said in your comment has a counterpart in the “teach the controversy” strategy of creationists.You don’t get necessarily an overview of the mainstream scientific perspective by listening to mass media, even NPR. There is a “controversy” about evolution among the general public, but among the people who have actually dedicated their lives to studying it, there is very little disagreement on the broad strokes. There are outliers, certainly, and those outliers are very vocal, but the preponderance of scientific opinion is on one side. Global warming’s Pope is Al Gore, and its Richard Dawkins is Rush Limbaugh.Creationists also use religious language in an effort to recast evolution from a scientific position to a political controversy. But like evolution, calling someone the “pope” of global warming is completely missing the point. The scientific research isn’t performed by Al Gore; at most Gore is a popularizer like Carl Sagan was when he did his TV show. Of course, Sagan was himself a dedicated scientist, so the analogy isn’t perfect. Al Gore is doing something more like what I do as a non-scientist when I explain evolution on TV. Of course, Gore has a much bigger megaphone than I do, but neither of us generates the science behind the claims. When everyone who takes a strong stance on either side of the global warming debate wants you to vote for their political team, you can’t blame people for being skeptical of the science behind it.Isn’t that very similar to what the “Expelled” movie is all about? Playing up the political aspects of the debate and elevating “being skeptical” of opinions, while dismissing the scientific core of the matter? Why aren’t there Dems saying it’s fake, or Republicans saying it’s true? If the threat of global warming is as eminent as they say why can’t people cross the isle?Here, too, is an almost perfect analogy to the evolution/creation debate. The majority of Democrats accept evolution, and the majority of Republicans don’t. Partisan divides are no basis for resolving a scientific issue. One group may simply be wrong.

  4. says

    @KazimCorrect me if I’m wrong, but global warming hasn’t reached “theory” status. The volume of data collected for global warming is no where near that of the evidence for evolution. Data for global warming has a significant number of outliers.Though the overwhelming majority of scientists who study climate do except global warming, they do not support most alarmist statements. (New York City will be under 30 feet of water in 20 years.)Your comparison of Sagan and Gore is ridiculous. You can’t look at “Pale Blue Dot” and think Sagan has a hidden agenda. But when Gore splices “Day After Tomorrow” clips into his documentary, you’d be crazy to think he wasn’t trying to persuade you to his side.”Partisan divides are no basis for resolving a scientific issue. One group may simply be wrong.” – True. But in the case global warming: Democrat alarmists and the Republican deniers can both be wrong.

  5. says

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but global warming hasn’t reached “theory” status.Climate change is an observation based on numerous concurring lines of evidence. Similar to the way that evolution is described as “both a fact and a theory,” there is theory (that is, models of how climate change works) and there is fact (the consensus among scientists is that global temperatures have increased dramatically over the last century, and that it is strongly correlated to increases in human generated CO2). The theories are attempts to explain the data, which is that global warming has been observed. I’m not clear what else you are looking for in asking this question.The volume of data collected for global warming is no where near that of the evidence for evolution. Data for global warming has a significant number of outliers.As does evolution — when creationists try to discredit the science, they focus in on outliers which are not explained by the prevailing model, and they disregard the vast majority of evidence on which the consensus is based. However, a “significant number” is not the same thing as “a large proportion.”Though the overwhelming majority of scientists who study climate do except global warming, they do not support most alarmist statements. (New York City will be under 30 feet of water in 20 years.)Straw man much? How is it possible to read my original post, and infer that I’m claiming that New York City will be underwater in 20 years? What have “alarmist statements” got to do with the original claim that fundamentalists wrongly deny the existence of global warming outright?Your comparison of Sagan and Gore is ridiculous. You can’t look at “Pale Blue Dot” and think Sagan has a hidden agenda. But when Gore splices “Day After Tomorrow” clips into his documentary, you’d be crazy to think he wasn’t trying to persuade you to his side.I’m trying to think of any good reason why you would think that the scientific consensus on global warming has anything at all to do with what you think Al Gore is trying to tell you. I’m afraid I can’t. When I compared Gore to Sagan, my only point was that Gore is appearing in a popular media format to try and explain the science. When Sagan appeared on “Cosmos” he was not, at that time, doing science. You can dislike Gore’s movie from an artistic standpoint, but it has exactly zero bearing on whether you ought to accept claims by the National Academy of Sciences, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, etc., as well founded.I know that this discussion would be easier if it were simply a referendum on personalities and video editing styles, but it isn’t.”Partisan divides are no basis for resolving a scientific issue. One group may simply be wrong.” – True. But in the case global warming: Democrat alarmists and the Republican deniers can both be wrong.So are you making the claim that “Democrat alarmists” include me, or not? Just curious.

  6. says

    On further reflection, I am curious — exactly which scene from “An Inconvenient Truth” led you to believe that Gore thinks New York will be underwater in 30 years?

  7. says

    Even if New York City or Los Angeles was 40 feet underwater, the anti-warming horde would find another excuse and not attribute it to anything science is claiming today.

  8. says

    @Kazim You’ve made some good points that have inspired me to do some research of my own.First, I never meant to infer that you or Gore believes New York City will be under 30 feet of water in 20 years. I was using it as an example of a (seemingly) ridiculous statement that I’ve heard alarmists make. So I did some research to find out where they might have got that crazy idea from. I found a similar statement here, and it turns out its a completely reasonable idea mainly because it’s already happened. "Emily Lloyd, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, has said that the water table in southeast Queens has risen 30 feet in 20 years, and now sits “just below the surface.” Now there is a big difference between water table levels and submergence, but it easy to see how it could be misinterpreted or misremembered. Second, the main reason I started posting is because I had a problem with this statement in your original post:"Like evolution, there is a scientific consensus on the big picture (global warming is real, it is a recent development, and it is in some significant way affected by worldwide human behavior) but the details are open to debate (i.e., what will be the particular short term and long term effects, and what policy actions should be enacted as a result)."Now the NAS article you linked to says: "Changes observed over the lastseveral decades are likely mostlydue to human activities." This Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) summary says:"Most of the observed increase in the globally averaged temperaturesince the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations." This is probably arguing semantics, but to me "very likely ," and "likely mostly," are very different statements than "is in some significant way affected by." Especially when you’re trying to compare evolution to global warming.Every single strand of DNA we’ve looked has been shown to be consistent with the theory that all living things share a common ancestor. To my knowledge not a single DNA strand we’ve examined can be considered an outlier. Where as with global warming there is no evidence as compelling as DNA evidence and there are several considerable outliers. Like my NPR reference and the fact that some say the earth hasn’t warmed since 1998. Now, I’m not saying either of those two articles disprove global warming but they create doubt in peoples’ minds that make it easy for people to view climate change as more of a political issue than a scientific one.It’s very frustrating to me that there aren’t more people who accept climate change but don’t try to use it to push an agenda. And if the alarmists are right, why aren’t there any people on the right trying to save humanity from itself. I would hope that scientific consensus, would lead to a political acceptance on which real policy could be debated.I hope I haven’t changed the argument to much.Also, I don’t want to make it seem like I’m saying alarmists don’t exist. There are people (Gore) who will misrepresent and omit facts, and flat-out lie about climate change to push their agenda. "Straw man much?" – Only when I feel like I’m losing an argument.

  9. says

    You’ve made some good points that have inspired me to do some research of my own.Thank you, I appreciate you saying so.First, I never meant to infer that you or Gore believes New York City will be under 30 feet of water in 20 years. I was using it as an example of a (seemingly) ridiculous statement that I’ve heard alarmists make.I’m still left wondering exactly who the “alarmists” are, and why you are so interested in defining the debate based around them. Initially, it sounded like you believed that Al Gore was such an alarmist, but now it sounds like you have at least slightly changed your mind on that.I mean, there are some real crazies out there who defend, for example, vegetarianism. Some of them go so far as to say that meat is poisonous to humans and our bodies are not “designed” to consume other animals. That’s ridiculous, but at the same time, there are some valid issues about vegetarianism that center around health, ethics, and overpopulation concerns. I am not a vegetarian myself, but I do not think that those topics should be dismissed lightly just because some vegetarians are idiots.This is probably arguing semantics, but to me “very likely ,” and “likely mostly,” are very different statements than “is in some significant way affected by.” Especially when you’re trying to compare evolution to global warming.They put a qualifier on the human contribution, and so did I. I said “In some significant way,” which is not quite the same as saying “entirely” or even “mostly.” But for the more significant point, that global temperatures are rising in a pattern that significantly correlates with CO2 increases, the “scientific dispute” over those findings is about as large as the scientific support for a designer.Where as with global warming there is no evidence as compelling as DNA evidence and there are several considerable outliers. Like my NPR reference and the fact that some say the earth hasn’t warmed since 1998.“Some say” is neither scientific nor evidence. See the Wikipedian definition of “Weasel Words.”Now, I’m not saying either of those two articles disprove global warming but they create doubt in peoples’ minds that make it easy for people to view climate change as more of a political issue than a scientific one.Interestingly, the intelligent design people routinely say “We’re not trying to prove that ID is true… we just want to honestly teach the strengths and weaknesses of evolution.” “Creating doubt” is a cheap way to take what is legitimately a scientific issue and turn it into a political one.It’s very frustrating to me that there aren’t more people who accept climate change but don’t try to use it to push an agenda. And if the alarmists are right, why aren’t there any people on the right trying to save humanity from itself. I would hope that scientific consensus, would lead to a political acceptance on which real policy could be debated.What is “debating real policy,” if not “using science to support an agenda”? And why is an agenda necessarily a bad thing? As for why people on the right aren’t reacting with the same level of concern that the evidence might warrant, you will have to take that up with them. I feel that there are a lot of things that I take seriously but the right does not. For example, separation of church and state.Also, I don’t want to make it seem like I’m saying alarmists don’t exist. There are people (Gore) who will misrepresent and omit facts, and flat-out lie about climate change to push their agenda.Well, I think it’s interesting that you cite Gore once again as an example of an alarmist who lies, but the link that you included doesn’t seem to indicate that, at least not to me.In “An Inconvenient Truth,” Gore described the collapse of Antarctica’s Larsen B ice shelf. This event was also dramatized in the movie “The Day After Tomorrow” — a special effects team created a computer generated flyover of the Larsen ice shelf. Apparently the editors of Inconvenient Truth “borrowed” the animation, most likely because it looked cool. I have no idea if they got the appropriate permission to do that, but obviously that’s a matter for the producer’s lawyers to figure out. (In case you wondered, the producer was not Al Gore.)But what you should recognize is that the computer simulation was a depiction of a real event. The rest of TDAT was fictional (not to mention really bad). The characters who appeared on the ice shelf in the movie were actors not based on any particular people, obviously. But the ice shelf collapse was a real one.“A total of about 3,250 square kilometers of shelf area disintegrated in a 35-day period beginning on January 31, 2002… For reference, the area lost in this most recent event dwarfs Rhode Island in size.”So seriously, I don’t see how this constitutes “lying” on Gore’s part… unless perhaps the voiceover actually said at the time: “What you’re seeing here is live footage of the Lawrence B ice shelf.” For that matter, I can’t even see how an out of context clip of a panoramic CG shot is supposed to mislead you into believing that the rest of a different, fictional movie is true.Documentaries do this all the time, of course. Just last night I was watching a dinosaur documentary on Discovery. A scientist was describing new discoveries about the Tyrannosaurus Rex, and cut between shots of the scientist were scenes of the world’s cheesiest CGI dino animation. Does this mean that the scientist was lying about T Rex? As far as I recall, there was no explicit disclaimer that said “Not actual footage of T Rex.” And yet, I don’t think this calls into question the existence of dinosaurs.“Straw man much?” – Only when I feel like I’m losing an argument.Well, it takes a big man to make that kind of statement.

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