None of the creationists I worked with disliked science. Recently, I did fieldwork in two Sunni Muslim and two Evangelical Christian high schools in the New York City area, and while the majority in all four schools distrusted evolution, not a one disliked science, or even blamed it. In one conversation in a junior religion class in one of the Evangelical schools, a student asked, “Should we believe in science?” The teacher joked, “Absolutely not,” with a completely straight face. Some students laughed nervously and then the teacher started laughing. “Of course!” he shouted. He looked at me as he said, “Science is not the end-all be-all—we have to recognize it, it’s a gift God has given to us, and it’s important, but it’s not the end. Scientists will tell you we don’t know where the universe came from. I know where the universe came from: God created it. Scientists don’t know what’s true about where the universe came from, they have all sorts of debates, but they know one thing that isn’t true—God. They know that’s not true, and I disagree. Oftentimes, science is a greater leap of faith than religion, but they don’t recognize that they have faith, they think they just have theory.” Note here the quick jump from science to scientists. Science is undeniably good, a means of modern miracles and another approach to appreciating God. Yet scientists too often cause doubt. Note also the monolithic treatment of scientists: it’s not that some scientists are God-fearing and others are not. To say scientist nearly always meant to say atheist. The explanation for that problem has a lot to do with American Evangelical history and tricky questions about the definitions of science and religion.
Yet despite that teacher’s certainty, words like science and religion (and scientists and religious) are notoriously impossible to define. And while there are many scholars who think they’ve finally cracked exactly what religion, or what science, really, in fact, is, just as many disagree with the definitions they’ve provided, or take issue with the possibility of giving any definition at all. These doubters settle for pragmatic definitions: religion and science are complicated categories that make sense in specific historical moments within specific populations. Science in Francis Bacon’s England is not the same as science in an American research university’s physics lab, which in turn is not the same as science in that same university’s biology lab, or in the public high school down the street, or at the fundamentalist Christian high school outside of town.
We could say the same about religion—it differs drastically according to context. In some cases it’s theist, in some cases it’s not; at certain times it’s about prayers or rituals to improve our lot in life, at others it’s about a profound acceptance that we cannot change or do anything at all. We could provide definitions of either category—and of course many throughout history have. Indeed, we have to provide such definitions if science or religion (or science and religion) are things we set out to study. Yet to claim that we have access to the definition, instead of a pragmatic place-holder, necessarily involves us in fights that are either too easy (because the definition is tautological), too sloppy (because the definition is too broad), or too narrow (because the definition is too specific). All of which is to say, it is impossible to ask about the conflict between science and religion without asking which science and which religion.
I found these definitions even more complicated in my fieldwork. I looked at one urban and one suburban school for each tradition, and the study was originally about politics, not science. I was interested in school communities that wanted to find a middle ground between acceptance and rejection of the American mainstream, looking to be in the world but not of it. All four schools required teachers to be members of their religious tradition, and all but one of the Christian schools required students to be members of the tradition as well. The Muslim schools were mostly Arab with a large South Asian minority alongside a small number of children of African-Americans, white converts, Turks, and southeast Asians. The suburban Evangelical school was mostly white with a minority of students of color; the urban Evangelical school was flipped, with whites at about a third of the student body. None of these folks would say they had any problem with science at all. They certainly had a problem with scientists who made claims contrary to what they believed their holy books argued about the age of the earth and the evolution of the human race. But that was a scientist problem, not a science one. In all four high schools, there was an insistence that true science and true religion can never be in conflict.
But by the time you got to the modernist/fundamentalist split at the turn of the twentieth century, one thing was clear: a certain kind of American Protestant believed that science and the Bible were always in unison, and that anyone who disagreed was a delusional elitist.
This point of view ties into old traditions among both Sunnis and Evangelicals (there is of course tremendous diversity in both traditions, and I am mainly referring here to the more coherent historically situated communities of American Muslims and my American Evangelicals). In interviews, my Muslim interlocutors often told me about Islam’s golden age, when the Muslim world produced many of the era’s scientific advances. While American Evangelicals are notoriously ahistorical, inasmuch as there is a sense that the only history worth knowing is the history contained in the Bible, there was a sense in my conversations at the two Christian schools that religion and science used to work together before Darwin, which, if not precisely true, does indicate the lingering power of Scottish Common Sense Philosophy and the insistence that science and religion are simply realizations any human could recognize.
There’s also a hint here of the important historical arguments of people like George Marsden, Mark Noll, and Nathan Hatch: an early American suspicion of elites of all sorts (religious, medical, legal) led to an insistence that individuals could read the Bible on their own and that anyone who said they could not was worthy of suspicion. People disagree about where this story starts: some say Luther, some say German pietism, some say the Second Great Awakening. But by the time you got to the modernist/fundamentalist split at the turn of the twentieth century, one thing was clear: a certain kind of American Protestant believed that science and the Bible were always in unison, and that anyone who disagreed was a delusional elitist. Those are the ancestors of the Christians I studied.
Notice Inherit The Wind is not a part of this story. If you’re a relatively secular person, you’ll be surprised to know the Scopes Trial was actually not that important in the history of American Evangelical creationism (it was, however, important in the history of American Evangelical politics). Much more relevant were the seismic shifts in American Christianity already well underway: Protestants split into Liberals and Fundamentalists depending on their response to Higher Criticism and, via that reaction, their acceptance or animosity regarding Darwin’s explosive theory. This would not really be settled, even among elites, until Darwin’s work was synthesized with Mendelian genetics.
There are therefore two ways to think historically about Evangelicals and science. The Scopes angle makes Evangelicals and science a story about politics, the assurance of interpretive authority, and the power to establish the truth, especially within schools and other public institutions. The Higher Criticism angle makes this a story about texts and the changing role of the Bible: in an era of scientific doubt and growing anthropological and historical awareness, the world is not always as our supposed common sense would predict. Both of these angles are right, and they are more right when they’re put together: the story of any religious institution’s relationship to science is almost always both political and textual.
For American Muslims and American Christians, religion is in fact a different thing. Sure, it’s about worship of a God who acts in history. But the interesting questions are about how that works in everyday life.
Yet the word textual is deceptive. First, there are plenty of groups many would call religious who do not have sacred texts, or for whom sacred texts exist but are largely irrelevant. There are still “texts” for these communities in the sense that certain important stories and timeless characters play central roles in the community’s sense of self. Yet even for communities that do refer regularly to written works, what the text means is not as obvious as what it says.
One of the interesting things about my comparison between Sunni Muslims and Evangelical Christians is that both are parts of interpretive communities who insist their texts disprove (or at least disclaim) evolution. Yet any social scientific study of texts find what literary theorists have known for millennia: it’s actually not that easy to say what a text really says. Sure, there are words that mean one thing and not another, and there are limits: it’d be hard to make the case that the Gospel of Luke is really about samsara. But given those limits, the same texts can take radically different shapes in different socio-historical contexts. Anyone who’s read scripture commentary from centuries past can vouch that different scholars sometimes appear to be describing different books. So while what’s in the text is important, it’s only the starting point for the much more interesting questions of what interpretive communities say is in the text and, more importantly, what they consider important within it. Which passages are considered salient? Which passages are understood to be symbolic or “cultural” (the word used by both my Muslim and Christian respondents)?
I talked earlier about how American Evangelical history can be understood via both textual and political angles. The same is obviously true for American Muslim history. That history is both long and short: Muslims have been part of the United States since before its beginning, but when many people speak of American Muslims, they refer to the immigration boom beginning in the mid-1960s. The tension in that description exists both within and outside the American Muslim community, yet, with some exceptions for certain African-American Muslim groups, both Muslims before and Muslims after the 1960s identify as being part of a very long tradition guided by a scholarly elite. Evangelicals also have a respect for scholarship, yet too much of a focus on the academic requisites for an opinion on scripture runs counter to Luther’s insistence that every man is his own priest, a democratization brought to radical completion in the Second Great Awakening and into the present.
For American Muslims and American Christians, religion is in fact a different thing. Sure, it’s about worship of a God who acts in history. But the interesting questions are about how that works in everyday life. How do different historical understandings of a text affect individuals’ capacity to make claims about it or to have a relationship with that text as a constitutive part of their religious identity? This democratic impulse in Evangelicalism also has implications for the radically anti-democratic institution of modern science. Muslims have grown accustomed to experts whom they acknowledge know more than them as a part of their religious tradition. In my fieldwork, I found my Muslims would respondents would answer a difficult question by asking me to talk to a sheikh; the Evangelicals would tell me they need to think about it more. Evangelicals might acknowledge similar differences in authority (if nothing else as a division of labor), yet such admissions rest uneasily next to the radical democracy promised by an ideology of Biblical immediacy. The questions, then, are not only which science and which religion, but also science through which religion, and religion through which science?
Jeff Guhin is the Abd-El Kader Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He has an article forthcoming in Sociological Theory, “Why Worry about Evolution?: Boundaries, Practices, and Moral Salience in Sunni and Evangelical High Schools.”
Image from Flickr via binkley27