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Why are Evangelicals are so resistant to science?

Question & Answer


Q: By a Reader

I understand you come from an Evangelical background. Can you help me understand why Evangelicals are so resistant to science? First it was teaching evolution. Then it was homosexuality. Then it was climate change. More recently, a lot of them seemed to think they couldn’t catch COVID-19 so they kept their churches open and resisted social distancing. I just don’t get it.

A: By Brian D. Mclaren


Dear Reader,

I do indeed come from a conservative Evangelical background. It would take many books to even begin to explain the shared ethos that leads to this anti-science bias. But let me sketch out three dimensions of it.

First, you can look at the larger history of western Christianity. Back in the 17th Century, European Christians had to deal with first Copernicus and then Galileo challenging the prevailing model of the universe. Then came the Enlightenment in the 18th Century, launching a battle between faith and reason. European Christians responded in two ways, one liberal and one conservative. Liberal Christians were willing to negotiate the scientific and historical claims of the Bible and focus on its deeper meaning. Conservative Christians doubled down on the incorrigible (uncorrectable) trustworthiness of their authority structures (papal infallibility for Catholics, biblical inerrancy for Protestants).

After the Enlightenment, new rounds of challenge just kept coming: Darwin and evolution, Marx and socialism, Einstein and relativity, Hubble and the expanding universe, the Big Bang, etc. Faced with these challenges, conservative Christians enmeshed their identity with the idea of biblical inerrancy, epitomized in maxims I heard as a child: “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it,” and “If the Bible says the whale swallowed Jonah, I believe it. If it said that Jonah swallowed the whale, I’d believe that too.”

For centuries now, standing for literalistic readings of the Bible and standing against science have been baked into the recipe of what it means to be a conservative Protestant, and since the 1980’s, it’s gotten worse, as hard-core Fundamentalists have staged a near-complete takeover of the Evangelical movement. (The few remaining non-fundamentalist Evangelicals by and large have to lay low and speak in whispers.)

Second, it helps to understand the psychology and sociology of authoritarian and patriarchal communities. In a hostile, scary, or uncertain world, many people find safety in the shadow of a powerful authoritarian leader. The leader protects them (or at least gives them the feeling of being protected), and in exchange for protection, the group submits to the leader. The flip side of this arrangement is also important: if anyone dares to challenge the rightness of the leader, the group unites to exclude the dissenter. So, as long as the leaders of Evangelicalism fall in line behind their acknowledged leaders (these days, Trump and his allies, Fox News and its pundits, and all those who are silently compliant with this arrangement), the followers will comply

Third, I would just say, “Follow the money.” Some Evangelical leaders know that if they contradict Fox News or President Trump (who through most of March were minimizing the threat of COVID-19, calling it a liberal hoax, etc., etc.), they will alienate their top givers. Others run such tight margins that staying open a few extra Sundays, even risking the spread of COVID-19, is seen as a business decision. The money follows the conservative message, not the scientific facts (or the actual message of Jesus!), and many Evangelical leaders got where they are by following the money.

These, of course, are generalizations about the system as a whole. Many rank-and-file Evangelicals wouldn’t have any awareness of any of these dynamics. They are captives or victims of the system, “sheep without a shepherd” in the words of Jesus.

~ Brian D. McLaren

About the Author
Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. He is a passionate advocate for “a new kind of Christianity” – just, generous, and working with people of all faiths for the common good. A leader in the Convergence Network he also works closely with the Center for Progressive Renewal/Convergence, the Wild Goose Festival and the Fair Food Program‘s Faith Working Group. His most recent joint project is an illustrated children’s book (for all ages) called Cory and the Seventh Story. Other recent books include: The Great Spiritual MigrationWe Make the Road by Walking, and Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? (Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World).

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