Christians losing faith in science

Thu, Oct 7, 2010, 01:00

If people reject scientific evidence in one area there is a danger they will distrust science in other areas, even when biblical texts are not challenged, writes WILLIAM REVILLE

MANY fundamentalist Christians will not accept the scientific explanation of origins. They reject the theory of evolution and the Big Bang theory of the origin of the world, despite the fact that mainline Christianity has no problem with these theories. This rejection is based on contradictions between the scientific explanations and the descriptions outlined in the Bible. Paradoxically, this fundamentalist rejection is particularly strong in America, the most technologically advanced and the richest country in the world.

Furthermore, a majority of people in the US and the UK are deeply sceptical of the scientific analysis that the world is warming rapidly under the influence of human activities – the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) hypothesis. Such widespread rejection of scientific explanations of matters squarely within the remit of science is worrying.

To illustrate the current fundamentalist Christian situation regarding origins, science commentator Lawrence Krauss quotes findings from a National Science Foundation survey (Scientific American, August 2010). When asked if they thought the following statement was true or false – “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals” – only 45 per cent of respondents indicated “true”. This compares with “true” responses in Japan (78 per cent), Europe (70 per cent), China (69 per cent) and South Korea (64 per cent). Only 33 per cent of Americans agreed that – “the universe began with a big explosion”, and 31 per cent of American adults believe “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time”.

Krauss correlates the survey responses with levels of religious activity, suggesting the most devout are least willing to accept scientific evidence of origins. Fifty five per cent of white evangelical Protestants, and 49 per cent of those across all religions who attend services at least once a week, are impervious to the scientific evidence. This outright rejection of science is greatly embarrassing to mainline Christianity.

America has a strong tradition of fundamentalist religious thought. The US was settled by Puritans in 1620, fleeing from religious oppression in England. The American heartland today remains very influenced by conservative puritan traditions of self-discipline, self-reliance, frugality, and a stubborn sense of independent religious philosophy. The America we see in TV drama and sitcom programmes represents only a narrow slice of the overall American scene.

Opinion polls also show strong scepticism in America about the warming climate hypothesis (only 50 per cent of people think global warming is mainly caused by human activities – poll results June 2010, carried out by Yale and George Mason Universities).

In the UK, a very weakly religious country, a 2009 BBC poll found that only 25 per cent of the public believe that global warming is happening and is significantly caused by human activities. Whatever is causing this high-level of UK scepticism, it is not religion.

American scepticism about global warming is significantly fuelled by a fossil-fuel industry campaign that flatly contradicts the majority scientific climate science evidence. And, the industry propagandists’ job is made easier by the poor performance of the Intergovern- mental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the official international body that collates all the scientific evidence on climate change, and its accompanying choir of yapping environmental groups, in selling the global warming message. Science and politics are entangled in the IPCC and this weakens public confidence in the science.

So far significant rejection of science by fundamentalist religious groups has been limited to evolution and Big Bang theory, but who can be sure what the future will bring – if people reject scientific evidence in one area there is a danger that they will distrust science in other areas, even when biblical texts are not challenged. The competence to explain the natural world, including physical origins and climate change, lies exclusively with science and contrary explanations from religion, philosophy or ideology must cede the floor to science. It is therefore deeply worrying when the findings of science in these areas are so widely rejected.

William Reville is Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Public Awareness of Science Officer at UCC –