Monday, April 01, 2013

Evangelicalism and Science

For the sake of clarity, though the title may allude questions about the relationship between something called religion and something called science, I should point out my intention is not to commit cognitive suicide. Sometime in the middle of the 20th century, academics, including not a few Evangelicals, decided it would be a good idea to pretend religion and science were discrete things. Ian J. Barbour's taxonomic, historical analysis of these supposedly discrete 'things' is an especially famous example. Those who followed his line of thinking bought into a fundamental conceptual error, which would have beggared belief among pre-modern and early-modern thinkers. No longer did the human being have thoughts in their head, but thoughts had human beings through whom they expressed themselves on the historical stage. Religion did this and that, these taxonomists said, while Science did the other. In short, they commit cognitive suicide.

So, for the sake of clarity, what here is meant by 'Evangelicalism' is how self-identified Evangelicals have understood and continue to understand themselves in relation to a world full of other persons and a myriad number of other things. More to the point, what is meant by 'Evangelicalism and science' is how self-identified Evangelicals have thought about the methodological assumptions of contemporary science. Neither Evangelicalism nor science possess a thing-like qualities. Rather they are terms employed to designate ways of thinking about the human experience of things in the world. A self-identified Evangelical, on the other hand, does possess a think-like quality; though the capacity for self-definition means, despite evidence to the contrary, Evangelicals are thinking things--or what classical thinkers termed rational animals.


The relationship between Evangelicalism and science is best described as a highly-selective exercise in self-justification. The results of any scientific process through which a research question is formulated and a hypothesis is developed will be highly contingent upon the personal motivations, values, outlook on life, and so on. In the case of Evangelicals, however, there occurs a conflation of moral and scientific reasoning, which reduces both scientific study and moral judgment to mere exercises in self-assertion.

The paradigmatic example of how Evangelicals have understood the relations between moral judgments and the methods of scientific study is quite naturally creationism, as well as its intellectual progeny, scientific creationism and now intelligent design. Original six-day creationism was formulated as a response to social-Darwinism. After Darwin had made men out of monkeys, the scientific elite began proposing all manner of social engineering programs for the betterment of the human race. Social engineering was the province of totalitarian governments, who ran roughshod over the personal dignities and liberties of individuals. The moral deficiencies of social-Darwinism, in the minds of creationists, meant that the evolutionary accounts of humanity's natural history were therefore wrong. The idea of the human being created in the image of God provided a moral bulwark against the temptation towards social engineering, which meant that the natural history of humanity's origins related in the first chapters of Genesis were therefore right.

The prospects of original six-day creationism eroded steadily through the 20th century. The larger moral battle against social-Darwinism was largely won in the North America and Western Europe with the fall of Nazi Germany. Scientific creationism and now intelligent design theory both operate with a much restricted agenda. No longer possible to claim to be fighting on behalf of humanity, these are now regarded as markers of Evangelical identity, both inside and outside the community. The difference between the earlier creationism and its progeny turns mainly on its relationship to scientific methodology. Instead of rejecting the theory of evolution for its implicitly immoral conception of human nature, the tendency now has been to express moral truths in the language of scientific study.


My contention is that creationism is but one example of an Evangelical need to conflate moral and scientific reasoning--to the detriment of both moral and scientific reasoning. Because it presumes to pronounce upon matters related to the natural sciences, creationism comes across to most as quackery. With the social sciences, the Evangelical penchant for conflation comes across as a little more credible, no doubt because the object is not merely natural, but also moral. Lift the lid on a world of conservative, evangelical think-tanks in the United States just a little, and what you discover is a wide-reaching effort to marry old natural law arguments for this or that social configuration with the new methods of social scientific analysis. The result is an odd hybrid of 'outreach strategies" meant to bring in the unchurched while preaching to the choir.

My contention, further, is the need to conflate scientific claims and moral judgments are widespread. I am going to comment on two specific examples, both using the methods of social science, one to defend the normativity of heterosexual marriage, and the other as a justification for remaining in conservative churches. Please keep in mind that these patterns of thinking may be found beyond the case studies offered below.


A junior editor over at First Things, Ryan T. Anderson has published 'Marriage: What It Is, Why It Matters, and the Consequences of Redefining It. A position paper outlining the natural law argument for why governments should keep their hands off an social institution whose existence 'precedes' or 'predates' government, one needs to look in the bibliography to find actual sources of empirical evidence. The links provided are not exactly plentiful, but a little patience yields reward. Marriage and the Public Good, published by the Witherspoon Institute, dedicates almost half of its space to the discussion of actual scientific studies of familial relations, including an attempt to measure the physical presence of fathers on the development of children. Another study by the Social Trends Institute suggests that healthy economies owe something to marriage and fertility rates. Still another study, led by the Institute for American Values, looks at the cost of single-parent and broken homes to the taxpayer. It's immediately obvious the some of these studies are credible, while others leave a person scratching their head.

The plausibility of any one particular study is neither here nor there. Rather, the basic strategy of statistical correlation that everyone of these studies presumes draws my attention. The form of the statistical argument in social scientific study looks like this: between dataset X and dataset Y there is significant evidence for correlation Z, from which we conclude... The basic strategy is very much like moving puzzle pieces around on a board trying to figure out which one's fit with each other. There is an inescapable element of arbitrariness and contingency in the process of selecting one dataset, or one set of phenomenon, instead of another. The social scientist has to be very aware of the experimental constraints under which their dataset is collected. Those constraints have to be factored into any conclusion drawn.

The extremely limited purview of a social scientific claim makes empirical generalization difficult. Any generalization is open to an infinite number of qualifications. The data may indeed show it to be a good idea (which is defined empirically as the possession of something or the achievement of some state of mind or well-being) for a child to grow up with their father--expecting those situations where the father is abusive, an alcoholic, pedophile, sadist, and so on. An infinitely qualifiable, general empirical claim is not yet an normative moral judgment. The later sort of judgment has the power of organizing the infinite number of empirical qualifications into categories of good and bad, better or worse. But normative moral judgments are not necessarily sensitive to the complexities of a situation--that is, unless the person passing a moral judgment is sensitive to their own inability to process every possible piece of relevant data. A moral 'ought' (value) is can never be extracted from an empirical 'is', no matter how suggestive the empirical 'is' appears. Facts don't appear like anything in particular until they are interpreted by persons who see them as something.


The second example has to do with Evangelical self-assessment. The more conservative strains of Christianity have proved, especially in the last few decades, much more resilient to the tides of cultural change than liberal and mainline Protestant instances of the faith. Not a few Evangelicals have turned statistical tools furnished by the social sciences on the study of their own traditions and concluded that they must be doing something right. In fact, it was a liberal Protestant by the name of Dean Kelley who brought this to the attention of American readers. The question was again bandied about on the internet a couple of years ago, in response to an opinion piece in the New York Times reflecting on the virtues of inflexibility doctrinal versions of faith.

More seriously minded evangelicals will no doubt want to distance themselves from the cheap panacea of health and wealth preaching, which says, if we do A, B, and C, then God will reward us in very tangible ways. But the subtle allure of a statistical study, which discerns God's hand in absolute numbers and percentage increases, plays on the same sort of need to reduce divine purpose to very tangible manifestations. The only difference is one has the air of respectability because it appeals to certain scientific standards. There is also an irony implicit in conservative Christian appeals to raw data to demonstrate the superiority of their principled version of the faith over that of liberal and mainline churches. What killed liberal Christianity, the story goes, was a watered-down social gospel. grounded in late 19th century sociological theory. If sociology always leads to bad theology, just empirical conclusions should never be confused with moral judgments, what business do Evangelicals, on the terms of their own confession, have framing their arguments in the contemporary methods of social scientific study?


It is more or less true that reality has a liberal bias. By refusing to search for moral significance in every piece of empirical data, the liberal mindset is much more in tune with the contingent and conditional conclusions of the natural and social sciences. There are, of course, liberally-minded individuals who also behave as if certain scientific conclusions obviously lead to certain moral conclusions. But those moral conclusions usually presume something about the individual's right to self-determination, which conforms to the contingent and conditional character of scientific conclusions. The conservative Evangelical mind still assumes the natural order is fundamentally Aristotelian, invested with teleological purpose, orienting all things towards their transcendent end, foreshortening the distance between fact and value. There would be no problem if this were the 16th century. But the in the 21st century, our basic assumptions about scientific investigation of the natural order have fundamentally changed.

Perhaps more troubling is that the attempted marriage of natural law theory and the methods of social scientific study has the potential to cut the heart out of the longstanding Western moral and legal tradition. The conviction essential to the rule of law that one has to distinguish between the actions and nature of a person, allowing for the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven. If the only way one knows how to think about human beings is to quantify human action, prior assumptions about the nature of the human being--e.g. as a thinking thing or rational animal which is deserving of the dignity any being sharing in that nature deserves--cease to hold sway over our moral imagination.

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