Science and the Action Flick

It’s been said by enough smart people that we should start listening. Religion and science aren’t at war. This morning, a recent story about science and abortion suggests a new analogy for understanding the role science has always played in our hundred-years’ culture war. It has more to do with Jackie Chan and Bruce Willis than Galileo and John Scopes.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH won’t be surprised to hear it. Historians like Ronald Numbers and sociologists like Elaine Howard Ecklund have long since punctured the tired old myth that religion and science have always been on opposite sides of our culture-war trenches.

The old story is that religious conservatives fear and loathe science. They insist—the myth says—on anti-scientific ideas about a young earth because they don’t like science. They fight against scientific progress using stem cells because they prefer God to knowledge. They put their heads in the sand and bat science away with a swat of their annotated Bibles.

It’s just not accurate. As Professor Ecklund writes in her recent book, her surveys of evangelical Protestants found very different attitudes. They like science and they think science and religion can get along. For example, evangelicals are actually slightly less likely than the general population (13.9% of evangelicals compared to 14.9% of all respondents) to think that science does more harm than good. And, as Ecklund puts it, evangelicals

are actually significantly more likely than the general population and significantly more likely than any other religious group to see religion and science as having a collaborative relationship.

News from the abortion front shows how the religion/science dynamic actually works. As Emma Green reports in The Atlantic,

New technology makes it easier to apprehend the humanity of a growing child and imagine a fetus as a creature with moral status. Over the last several decades, pro-life leaders have increasingly recognized this and rallied the power of scientific evidence to promote their cause. They have built new institutions to produce, track, and distribute scientifically crafted information on abortion. They hungrily follow new research in embryology. They celebrate progress in neonatology as a means to save young lives.

Nor is this conservative religious fondness for science new. As I argued in my book about educational conservatism, in the 1920s anti-evolution leaders counted on mainstream science to disprove Darwin’s ideas about natural selection. At the Scopes Trial, for instance, proto-creationist William Jennings Bryan assumed he could put leading scientists on the stand to disprove the atheistic pretensions of false evolutionary science.

It was only when Bryan couldn’t find credentialed scientists (except for one impressive gynecologist) willing to take his side that he decided to fight against the use of expert scientific testimony.

Today’s pro-life activists are on the other side. They’re finding proof for their claims from mainstream science, and they’re thrilled. These conservative religious activists don’t fear science. They don’t loathe science. Rather, they desperately want to use science to prove themselves right. Science is only bad when it seems to go against them.

To our ILYBYGTH eyes, this situation suggests the need for a new way of thinking about the culture-war relationship between science and religion. They are not at war. We don’t see religious conservatives fighting against science. Rather, we see both sides eagerly glomming on to any science-y sounding proof of their position.

So here’s my humble suggestion for a better way of imagining the real relationship: Science is like the gun in the big fight at the end of action movies.

Hear me out: In any decent action flick, the final fight between the hero and the main villain takes a ridiculously long time. Each combatant will sustain enough blows to fell a charging rhino, yet they continue to battle. In a lot of the good fights, one or the other of the combatants will pull out a gun at some point. He or she smugly thinks the fight is over, but the gun will inevitably be batted away. As the fight progresses, both combatants desperately strive to reclaim the gun, to end the fight once and for all.

The way I see it, science is the gun. Both sides want it. Both sides recognize its power. Both sides hope that they can use it to end this too-long conflict by seizing it and using it against the other side. The gun is only bad when the other guy has it. From abortion to creation to sexuality, everyone wants to claim that science is on their side, no matter what that side is.

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4 Comments

  1. I have never thought that science and Christianity were in conflict. I’ve politely disagreed with Jerry Coyne over that (before he banned me from commenting on his blog). There is, of course, a conflict between what is said by some scientists and what is said by some Christians. But then there’s a conflict between what is said by some Christians and what is said by other Christians.

    Yes, fundamentalists like a lot of what comes from science, and they like the technology. They are not at all similar to the Amish. However, they are suspicious of the science classroom. They see students going in as Christians, and (a year or so later) coming out as non-believers. This is why they keep trying to get some of their religion into the classroom.

    Reply
    • Okay, I gotta ask…Why did Prof. Coyne ban you?

      Reply
      • I don’t really know. I just found out that I could no longer comment.

        I’m guessing. But I think he did not like some of my comments about his arguments on free will vs. determinism. Coyne thinks that criminals are not responsible, because they could not do otherwise. So he thinks we should change our criminal laws to reflect that. And to change our criminals laws would require us to be able to do otherwise. Coyne does not like people pointing out the apparent contradiction.

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