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Science and Protestantism: why is evolution a target?

Why is it that modern Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists seem to struggle with accepting science today? Why does this struggle emerge especially around biology, particularly evolution? And why have many evangelicals turned to approaches like “Intelligent Design,” which instead of replacing science with religion, instead seeks to co-opt science within terms acceptable to Protestant evangelicalism?

By Kristopher A. Nelson in

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The Ossified ArkRobert Merton once postulated that the flourishing of Puritanism directly led to the growth of modern science, rather like Max Weber maintained that the Protestant ethic fostered the growth of capitalism.

Why then is it that modern Protestant evangelicals appear to struggle with accepting science today? Why does this struggle emerge especially around biology, particularly evolution? And why have many evangelicals turned to approaches like “Intelligent Design,” which instead of replacing science with religion, instead seeks to co-opt science within terms acceptable to Protestant evangelicalism?

These are the questions I was considering today while discussing sociology and science, and considering how the nature of certain kinds of evidence and theory influences its acceptance and utility by different social groups. (For more, see, e.g., Religion and Science: Beyond the Epistemological Conflict Narrative, by John Evans and Michael Evans.)

Let’s consider Protestant fundamentalists, who generally consider the Bible literally true (despite problems of translation, changes in fundamentalist interpretations over time, and other difficulties). This is the group, one would expect, who might well have the most objections to science, and indeed when it comes to geological sciences and evolution, they do.

But interestingly, most Christian fundamentalists see no conflict with other kinds of science (chemistry, for example), and are typically — despite what one might extrapolate from Young Earth Creationists or geo-centrists, for example — quite happy to accept many forms of modern science and technology.

Evangelicals — who take the Bible less literally than the fundamentalists, but otherwise share many values — have even fewer quibbles with mainstream science, but do tend still to object specifically to the concept of Darwinian evolution. They object so strongly, and yet otherwise consider science so important, that they have struggled to create and teach their own theory of “Intelligent Design” to account for the empirical data scientists have accumulated.

But why is it evolution, and not heliocentrism or photosynthesis, both of which draw from scientific theories which organize and explain empirical data, which has attracted such vehement opposition from evangelicals and fundamentalists?

First, I think evolution, and especially the apparent “randomness” of mutations that leads to change (even if natural selection itself is far from random), generates a kind of anti-materialist repugnance that sees in it a threat to the moral order. If our existence owes as much to chance as anything else, does this not threaten the role of the divine in our lives and, perhaps more importantly, does this not threaten or status as the elite of the world? If we as humans came to exist in the same manner as every animal on Earth, what right do we have to claim an immortal soul?

Second, Protestantism comes from a tradition that values evidence and observation, but looks suspiciously at over-abstract concepts and trust in elites. Thus, evangelicals are wary of science that relies on abstractions, but are fine with science that is strongly connected with observable events. We can see and experience a chemical reaction, but we cannot see or directly experience macro-evolution over millennia.

So why is evolution a target? It is abstract. It is difficult to observe directly, and thus seem to require trusting in scientific elites. (Both of these have historically been issues for Protestantism generally.) It is threat to the established order of things. It feels wrong.

In short, it is less about the truth of the matter than it is about values.

Does this same kind of analysis apply to conservative resistance to climate change research? How many of those who do not believe that the Earth’s climate is being impacted by human activity are evangelical or fundamentalist Protestants? I’m not sure of the answers to these two questions, but I am curious.