Science and religion

December 9, 2011

I posted an entry this week over at Qideas about science and evangelical religion. Columnists are hyperventilating at what they perceive to be the anti-intellectualism of the Republican candidates, and more than a few are drawing conclusions about evangelicals from what they hear. But survey data on attitudes toward science among evangelicals are more encouraging, and show that they more faithfully Christians actually practice their religion (for example by reading the Bible!), the more sympathetic they feel toward science and its findings.

One study showing that religiosity leads to harmony between science and religion comes from Baylor University, where researcher Aaron Franzen finds that increased frequency of Bible reading is tied to, among other things, improved attitudes toward science. “Respondents were 22 percent less likely to view religion and science as incompatible at each step toward more frequent Bible reading,” according to David Briggs, who reported the Baylor study for Association of Religion Data Archives. (Interestingly, higher rates of Bible reading were also correlated with greater support for social and economic justice, simple lifestyles, humane treatment of criminals, and with lower support for abortion, same-sex unions, the death penalty, and the expansion of the war on terrorism.)

Interesting this week that the Obama administration was derided for giving in to “anti-science” pressure when it blocked over-the-counter access to the “morning after” pill for minors. Those pundits are willfully ignorant about what is science and what is morality, thinking that measurements of a drug’s effectiveness ought somehow to determine whether a minor should be able to access it without adult guidance or parental input. The same goes for claims that opposition to fetal stem cell research is somehow anti-scientific. One can certainly accept that experimenting on human embryos may lead to advances in scientific knowledge, while at the same time affirming that it is entirely immoral to conduct such research.


Evangelicals Advocate Mercury Reductions to Protect the Unborn

October 19, 2011

by Rusty Pritchard

Creation care opponents have thrown caution to the wind. Emboldened by demagogues like Glenn Beck, they’re not averse to painting as “totalitarians” anyone even slightly concerned about pollution, resource conservation, biodiversity loss, or energy efficiency.

The Washington Times published a piece on May 19, 2011, by creation care critic Cal Beisner purporting to reveal the “hidden dangers” in the National Day of Prayer for Creation Care, which was sponsored by the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN). Among their “dangerous” prayer requests: reducing mercury pollution that passes from pregnant mothers to their unborn babies.

Aside from being a worthy cause in its own right, the campaign seemed to me to be good apologetics as well. Here were evangelical Christians claiming publicly that God’s call to compassion and wise dominion extends to stopping air pollution that affects our most vulnerable citizens, growing the credibility of the pro-life witness by linking it to more than fighting abortion (the frequency of which, we must all admit, remains our greatest current national travesty), and doing so with smart, well-documented research and policy recommendations. I personally know of formerly pro-choice environmentalists who have changed their positions on abortion because of encountering pro-life evangelical environmental advocates.

But the most visible anti-environmentalists never let concerns about the church’s witness in the world overcome their fundamental desire to fight even the suggestion that democratically elected governments might use their regulatory authority to protect the environment. The libertarian ends consistently trump the means, and evangelism tends to be the first casualty, with regard for truth a close second.

In Beisner’s critique, he constructed two straw-man claims that EEN’s materials didn’t make; and even the way he rebuts the fictitious claims reveals a lot about his commitments.

Beisner said EEN claimed “the main source of mercury pollution is dirty air released by coal-burning power plants” and that international sources are more important. Beisner apparently didn’t read the materials he was criticizing, because they didn’t say what he said they did. Apparently the Washington Times can’t afford fact-checkers. EEN gave a quite detailed explanation on the sources of mercury pollution, and the relative contribution of domestic and international sources, which varies from place to place (they even provided a map).

But the reason Beisner invented that red herring is that he sniffed out an attempt to strengthen regulation on emissions from coal-fired power plants. He challenged a fictitious version of EEN’s claims about sourcing, because he didn’t want to draw attention to their well-researched claims about the economic benefits from regulating mercury emissions (which predict $60-140 billion in total health benefits, or a return of $5-13 for every $1 invested in meeting the regulations).

It wouldn’t be surprising, when we look back from the future, if the costs of limiting mercury went down relative to predictions and the benefits went up. That’s been the case with other environmental regulations as well—something even those opposed to regulations at the time now admit. Since we enacted the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, the economy has grown 64 percent while air pollution has gone down 41 percent, a puzzle to those who predict economic collapse in the face of strong environmental regulations.

Beisner goes on to accuse EEN of being a mouthpiece for the environmental lobby, repeating someone else’s suspect talking points about how bad mercury is for fetuses. But he ignored the peer-reviewed scientific literature the EEN documents clearly cite—again, he simply makes stuff up about EEN and its campaign to suit his own rhetorical purposes.

Beisner gives a drastically lower figure for unborn babies afflicted with unsafe levels of mercury in their blood—but he doesn’t say where he got his figures. So it turns out that Beisner committed the vice he (wrongly) accuses EEN of. EEN cited multiple studies that demonstrate not just how many infants are affected by mercury in utero but also to what degree, and (crucially) puts a dollar value on the health benefits of mercury pollution reductions.

I’m sympathetic to the problems of exaggeration and the nuances of weighing costs and benefits. I railed in the past about the irrational fears some parents have about the tiny amounts of mercury in vaccines, when the private and public health benefits from being vaccinated so far outweighs any negligible risk. Atmospheric mercury emissions are a different case—but it’s an empirical question, not an ideological question. Because Beisner is motivated chiefly by a libertarian worldview, he simply assumes that the costs of reducing mercury emissions will outweigh the direct and indirect benefits, when the best evidence shows that the reverse is actually true.

Beisner is certainly a devoted advocate. He is faithful to his ideology and political positions and tireless in their defense. There is indeed a strong case to be made for the free market and for capitalism; environmental policies for a flourishing economy would be much better if they reflected the concerns of economic conservatives. That case is not made stronger, however, by a sloppy critique that runs roughshod over facts or by deafness to reasonable counterarguments.

Beisner cites, without apparent sense of the irony, 1 Thessalonians 5:21 (in reference to prophecies, the readers are told to “test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil”). Free market advocacy and creation care advocacy can be done with care, rigor, and honesty. When the lost world is watching the way we argue, it is a necessity.

A natural resource economist, Rusty Pritchard is the cofounder and president of Flourish (, a national Christian ministry that serves Christians as they grow in environmental stewardship, healthy living, and radical discipleship.

Haitian earthquake deathtoll may be revised sharply downward

June 1, 2011

It would be nice to know that less than 316,000 people died in the January 2010 Haitian earthquake. News reports from the AP and the NY Times are suggesting that a new US government-sponsored report will show many fewer Haitian deaths.

A US-Commissioned report has said that far fewer than 316,000 people died in the massive earthquake in Haiti on January 12 last year.

The Associated Press said that the report projects that the death toll was between 46,000 and 85,000, far below the Haitian government’s official figure of 316,000. The report was prepared for the U.S. Agency for International Development but has not yet been publicly released, AP said.

Early reports from the leaked document suggest that numbers of homeless may also have been overreported. But all this may come down to differing methodologies for measuring such things. One hopes that the flow of aid to Haiti will not be threatened if the numbers are challenged. It was still a disaster of mind-blowing proportions.

Faux-skepticism: Conspiracy theories about science

June 1, 2011

faux skeptics aren't a part of the conversationI keep forgetting to come back here and note things I’ve been writing elsewhere! Here’s a piece on conspiracy theories in science that I’ve been wanting to write for awhile. One version was published at Q Ideas, and a longer version was published at Biologos.

The main point is that an identifier of denialism (what I call faux-skepticism in the article) is the complete lack of skepticism about one’s own position.

Related to this is the tendency of denialists (which I should think more about) to discount the sheer weight of a consensus position. They cherry-pick evidence and publications, but also completely underestimate the imbalance of opinion. This is different from maintaining that the majority might be wrong (of course they might–that’s how science moves forward). But real skeptics realize when they’re in the minority, and they take on the task of convincing the majority. Faux skeptics either don’t realize they’re in the minority, or they refuse to believe it. They waver between saying that numbers don’t matter and publishing outrageous claims about the size of the skeptic community.

Of course, in the end, numbers don’t really matter, because the majority might be wrong. The theory of plate tectonics held on as a minority view among geologists for a long time after it was proposed, because there was no way to make the observations that could build credibility. But the early skeptics of the consensus view knew they were a minority, and they knew that only by making credible scientific observations and advancing testable hypotheses could they prevail.

The Emerging Environmental Majority

February 17, 2011

Christina Larson at the Washington Monthly has an article that contains one of the best potted histories of American environmental movements (yes, plural) that I’ve seen lately. (She also explains why some of us reject the label environmentalist.) She traces the contribution of hunters, anglers, and foresters on the first wave of American environmental policies, and of farmers, hydrologists, and soil conservation scientists on the second wave. She describes well the third wave, as 1970s urban and suburban pollution fighters as counterparts to the conservationists already on the scene (and usefully explicates the professionalization of the environmental movement into a DC-based watchdog mode after the bipartisan passage of landmark environmental legislation in the Nixon era).

When it comes to describing the present, however, she seems to engage in a little wishful thinking. She quotes a leading environmental group’s CEO as claiming that global warming will almost certainly “be the glue that brings everyone together.”

I’m not so sure. There has been an intentional strategy for the last five years to connect all other environmental concerns to global warming–to create an umbrella issue under which all other concerns find their place. In the process, all sorts of useful collaborations and conversations about other environmental issues have significantly slowed. It has led to more polarization, not less, and the complicity of the mass media in the strategy has led many Americans to believe that the dangers of global warming have been exaggerated.

Climate change is a threat to our economy and the economies of other nations, whether or not people are causing it. We can certainly find common ground on strategies and investments to protect the poor from natural disasters, even if anthropogenic global warming has been exaggerated. Investments in energy efficiency save money, reduce pollution, and create healthier cities–but enforcing a “this-is-really-about-global-warming” orthodoxy repulses many willing partners in that enterprise. Clean energy technologies (including nuclear energy done right) are something that global warming advocates and skeptics might agree on, if the conversation were about something other than reducing greenhouse gases (like public health, or national security). Liveable, walkable neighborhoods make the lives of all kids, all elders, and all disabled people healthier, regardless of their beliefs about the climate system. Addressing biodiversity loss and the decline in ecosystem services required for flourishing economies is necessary whatever our stance on climate science and policy.

Unfortunately, most of the possibilities for common ground get lumped by greens into the category of “co-benefits”: a strange label which makes it sound as if these benefits are really side-effects of trying to fix global warming. That means potential partners are still asked to see themselves supporting an agenda they may not support. That’s asking a lot.

In the process of finding other things to work on, global warming advocates, skeptics, and the ambivalent will find that they have a lot in common (love of family, concern for the poor, care for future generations, sense of place). It may feel like changing the subject instead of winning a argument, but we’ve gone about as far as we can go in the public debate over global warming, thanks to the politics which have infected our public square and even our scientific establishment.  Nature is slowly providing the data we need to reach stronger conclusions about climate change, but we dare not let our paralysis about climate keep us from the rest of the task of stewarding natural resources for the common good.

Larson’s “environmental majority” is already here, and has been for sometime. Americans are already agreed that we cherish clean water, clean air, healthy food, a rich natural heritage, and vibrant natural resource-based economies. We can’t wait for the emergence of a “climate majority” to rededicate ourselves to the task of caring for these essentials.

What do Haitians think about God and the Earthquake?

January 13, 2011

I asked Dr. Gerald Murray, an anthropologist and an expert on Haiti, and a Catholic, to write a blog post for Q Ideas about the religious response of people in Haiti to the earthquake a year ago. I know several American Christians who found their faith in the goodness of God rocked by the tragedy last January 12. He writes about the reasons Haitian Christians did not experience a similar crisis of faith. Maybe their view of God, who controls the universe and sends things we consider good and bad, is more accurate than the benign grandfather we imagine in the West.

Read for yourself.

Haiti post-election update

December 8, 2010

They announced the Haiti election results, and it appears that vote-rigging and fraud landed the establishment candidate a second-place finish, less than 1% over the favored candidate of the Haitian street (carnival singer Michel “Sweet Mickey” Martelly). That means Martelly is out of the runoff, unless something changes. The US Embassy immediately released a press release challenging the credibility of the announced results, which are at odds with what poll observers predicted (they predicted the establishment candidate, Jude Celestin, would be out in the first round). Top vote getter was the wife of a former Haitian President, Manigat. The combination of Martelly being out and Celestin being in has enraged many people.

Lots of protests, rock throwing, tire burning, sporadic shooting, last night. Sounds calm where I am this morning, but the air outside is pretty thick with smoke from tires. My friend and I have been told not to show up to work–it would have been about a half-hour drive, and there are already lots of barricade throughout the city, and people toss a random rock at passing cars, so no point risking a broken window.

I’m in a safe place in the city of Port-au-Prince, where I can work here today and probably get more done than if I was down at the UN base anyway. But all the messiness does hamper my work plan for the rest of my stay–we’ll see if it is possible to travel tomorrow or Friday.

The election mess comes on top of the release of a report by a French epidemiologist yesterday that attributes the cholera outbreak to UN peacekeeping troops from Nepal. That doesn’t endear people the to international presence here.

And I’m sure that all this disruption will make it nearly impossible for people deathly ill with cholera to make their way to the already-difficult-to-reach cholera treatment centers.


December 2, 2010

I get invited to lots of “interfaith” events. Most are mislabeled–they aren’t really interfaith, they are “multifaith”, as Ed Stetzer recently put it.  (I usually start my talks by asking if there are any “interfaith” people there–and there usually isn’t anyone.) I suppose people like the word interfaith because it doesn’t sound very threatening.

It also doesn’t sound very interesting.  The main common features of interfaith gathering are that they are usually very poorly attended, and sometimes pretty dull. Those features are related. There just aren’t that many people out there looking for interfaith events to attend. And running our deeply help beliefs through a filter of what everyone has in common tends to screen out the things that give us a real identity. Interfaith events tend to attract the people who are at the edges of their religious traditions, escaping from the core, who are finding freedom in cosmopolitanism and universalism. But they wind up talking in vague platitudes about actual faith, or grossly misrepresenting their traditions.

All of the interesting things about religions are particular things. What makes me a Christian, rather than a Jew, or a Muslim, or anything else, is that I subscribe to a certain number of particular claims about events that I believe actually occurred in human history. I also believe a lot of particular things about God’s revelation to us. I have in some ways a lot more in common with Muslims who are glad to be Muslim, and who know why they are Muslim, than with Christians who are watering down their faith to find the least common denominators.

The abstract things that I believe in common with some other religions are not what makes me a Christian. But they are the things that make me human.

Our commonalities, if they exist, are found in ancient history, not in where we’re going but in where we’ve been–as a Christian I would say we share the image of God, and we are called as image-bearers to tend and keep what is good in human culture and in the rest of creation. There’s a lot of room to care for the common good. The Bible-believers (like me) point out that our charge to steward creation comes long before the special revelation to Abraham and his descendants. Genesis 1:26-28 points to a common humanity and common responsibility we share with all people, not just our co-religionists. I find it useful to point out that the religions are not climbing the same mountain, only to be surprised to meet each other at the top. Where we can get along and work together is down at the foot of our mountains, not at the summits.

Working for the common good can therefore be more than what Francis Schaeffer called “co-belligerency.” Co-belligerency happens when people who would otherwise despise each other agree to hold their noses and work together on an issue (as when feminists and conservatives work together to fight pornography). They may agree on a particular policy, but got there for very different reasons. Common good issues call us back to the most ancient fundamentals of responsibility to something bigger than ourselves, and in the process reminding ourselves of what it is to be human. Even Christians

True believers in other religions are happy when we acknowledge that there are real differences between us. True believers in a squishy interfaithism are less happy to hear that we don’t think we’re climbing the same mountain to God. Perhaps we should have separate meetings for those who believe in the truth of their traditions and those who don’t.

My ground rules for interfaith events:

(1) I’ll be speaking and interacting as a Christian, though I’ll be nice about it.

(2) I don’t do interfaith worship or prayer services. The more something looks like a worship service, the more it should be particular and not general. I’m happy to visit someone else’s church, temple, or mosque, but I don’t want them to blend it with my tradition.

(3) I won’t try to tell people from other religions what their religions say (or should say). I think it is at best meaningless, and at worst unfuriatingly patronizing, for Christians to tell Muslims that Islam is a religion of peace. It means rather more for a faithful Muslim to say it. I don’t want Unitarians telling me what I should believe about the Eucharist and organic food, or eschatology and environmental action. I’ll look to Christian thinkers to help me with that.

NOTE: There are environmental organizations in many states that go by the name “Interfaith Power and Light”. They do good work, helping houses of worship become more energy efficient. They also organize religious people to advocate for policies that fight global warming. They’re obviously pretty wedded to the name at this point, but the name helps to explain why evangelicals have not flocked to their programs. Oh, and the fact that they believe in that whole global warming thing…

Famous Chief Seattle environmental speech is actually a Southern Baptist document

October 20, 2010

“All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man does not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand of it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”

Some of the most cherished words in the environmental movement were never uttered by the Native American chief to whom they are attributed. The famous “Chief Seattle” speech that contains the lines above was made up for a Southern Baptist film project about pollution in 1971 (thanks to Russell Moore for the trivia tip).  The writer, a professor of film named Ted Perry, was under contract to do the script, and he imagined what Chief Seattle might have to say about the environmental problems of the day. The words are moving–so moving that people soon forgot they were invented, and they took on a life of their own. Read the rest of this entry »

Your brain on computers; cyber mobs; natural theology

September 15, 2010

I had the good fortune of (finally) meeting Tom and Christine Sine of the Mustard Seed Associates in a coffee shop in a suburb of Chicago. We were all leading (different) workshops at the Christian Community Development Association meeting last week.

In our conversation, Tom raised the question of how computers and our use of them affects our social, spiritual, emotional development. Our use of computers changes us in some pretty fundamental ways. I shared with him a little about things we’ve been posting at Flourish about children, videophilia and nature-deficit-disorder, the roots of (literal) myopia, and Sabbath.

As so often, since that conversation I’ve come across more and more material about the connections between computers, morality, and elemental sociality–

1. At Flourish, my friend Kristyn Komarnicki, editor of PRISM magazine, write about the things she learned when she went on vacation without her laptop. For one thing, she was challenged about the way she worked the rest of the time, preaching to her kids about too much computer time but keeping her laptop open nights and weekends.

2. Another post, a panel interview actually, at Big Questions Online, asks “is the cyber-mob a threat to freedom?” This post has more to do with pathological social organization than with individual moral development, but they are related.

3. Alan Jacobs, who rarely disappoints, asks “why has Internet discourse devolved into a ‘war of every man against every man?’ ” One paragraph describes the strange passions ignited by online debates:

The author and commenters bristled at my critique. I bristled right back. The argument escalated. At one point, I said to myself, “All right, you want to play hardball, we’ll play hardball” — and I would have cut loose and said exactly what I wanted to say, except that at that moment my hands were shaking too violently for me to type accurately. I looked at my trembling fingers for a moment. Then I closed that browser tab and spent a few minutes removing all …[the related] blogs from my bookmarks and my RSS reader. I stopped reading those blogs and have never looked at them again to this day. I don’t think I’ve ever made a better decision.

Implicit in all of this is the sense that we may not have been created (or that we “didn’t evolve”) to cope with the high-tech, anonymous, hyperconnected, high-energy environments we now have created, so we might be prone to infelicitous side-effects. Kind of like we aren’t well adapted physiologically for automobile domination, given that the leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 1 and 24 is car accidents, and the obesity epidemic is more linked to the decline of walking and rise of automobile transportation than to changes in diet or organized sports.

Taken together, modern technologies quite a lot more mundane than genetic engineering and stem-cell research raise the question of what it means to be truly, fully human. I hope that some of the intellectual heft behind natural theology can eventually be put toward some of these extensions of the “theology of the body.”