The March for Science Is Willing to Get Political. But Will It Welcome Religion?

How evangelical scientists square their place in the global movement.
The March for Science Is Willing to Get Political. But Will It Welcome Religion?

Hundreds of thousands of researchers, educators, and doctors will take to the streets tomorrow, holding nerdy signs and sporting pins with slogans like “I Believe in Science.”

For many of them, that’s not all they believe in. Evangelicals’ involvement in the upcoming March for Science reflects their unique place in the sector. Despite all the motivations and concerns they share with their secular counterparts, there’s still some tension over how their faith fits in a field built on empirical facts—especially as the movement employs those facts toward political ends.

The event was initially inspired by fear over anticipated “gag orders” on government scientists following President Donald Trump’s inauguration. The march ballooned from Washington, DC, to more than 500 locations worldwide. Over the past three months, organizers pushed for the scientific community to find common ground to celebrate the role of scientific discovery in society and policy.

“I would hope that the presence of Christians in the march can show that theists and non-theists can look through the microscope together and come to the exact same conclusions,” said Mike Beidler, the president of the Washington, DC, chapter of the American Scientific Affiliation, a network for Christians in science. “The only difference is that the theist then moves beyond the awe of discovery to an attitude of worship of the Creator.”

More than 2 million of the 12 million scientists in the United States identify as evangelical, according to research by Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund. March organizers nodded to faith’s place at the march when their diversity committee stated a desire to include a range of people from different religions as well as races, sexual orientations, gender identities, ages, and socioeconomic and immigration statuses. It also made clear that it would not condone harassment including “intolerance regarding religious, agnostic, and atheistic beliefs.”

This picture of inclusiveness complements Ecklund’s newest research, which found that the global scientific community—as people might assume—is more agnostic (and sometimes atheist) than the general population, but not usually hostile to religion overall.

“There’s a perception from a lot of Christians that scientists are all atheists,” said Seth Axen, a PhD candidate in biostatistics, who numbers among an often-overlooked crowd of pro-science Christians. He plans to march in San Francisco.

Where the Science March Draws the Line

Evangelical Christians support the overall message and vision of the march: to champion publicly funded and communicated science in the public good.

But much like the Women’s March in January, when organizers drew the boundaries around its principles, they left some Christians outside the circle.

“I thought based on the way that they publicly described the mission that there was a way to be a partner group,” said John West, vice president of the Discovery Institute, which represents scientists who believe in intelligent design.

According to West, march organizers said they declined to include the Discovery Institute because the event does not align with groups that hold a viewpoint outside of the current scientific consensus. In the case of origins of life, 98 percent of scientists surveyed by Pew Research Center agree that humans have evolved over time.

Though a minority position, the intelligent design umbrella is broad enough to encompass a range of beliefs: young earth creationism, old earth creationism, and even common descent. The term intelligent design suggests a philosophical or theological position, though much of its work is done by scientists and undergoes the rigorous peer-reviewed process. (For context: Most Americans, and most Christians themselves, fall somewhere between the creationism and evolution camps.)

The Discovery Institute also pushes a political agenda that directly conflicts with the march’s effort to counteract “an alarming trend discrediting scientific consensus and restricting scientific discovery.” The Discovery Institute has promoted Ben Stein’s anti-evolution documentary Expelled and advocated for legislation supporting public educators’ right to speak against evolution.

West still sees the decision as inconsistent with the other partners approved for the event. For example, even though 88 percent of AAAS scientists feel that genetically modified foods are safe, the March for Science welcomed the left-leaning Union for Concerned Scientists, which advocates against GMOs.

The American Humanist Association is another approved partner. “If they were really concerned about not involving anyone that got into the larger worldview implications of science, then why were they including [humanist groups] as partners? I think it’s massive amounts of hypocrisy. … They’ve given a platform for groups that argue that science disproves religion,” said West.

From the beginning, one of the biggest questions over the march has been whether it will be left-leaning and anti-Trump or if it will rise above partisan hostilities and give space to conservatives.

Christians in science agree with march organizers that science should not side with one party or the other, though it does have political implications. Axen and fellow Christians Aaron Sathyanesan and Ian MacLaren explained their reasons for backing the march on the BioLogos site, which espouses an evolutionary understanding of creation.

In line with the march’s mission, the three hold the viewpoint that science should inform policy—and officials need to take research more seriously.

The Influence of Ideology

According to Pew, 87 percent of the members of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences believe that the earth is warming due to human activity, though the American population is split nearly right down the middle on the issue. The best indicator of what side someone falls? Her political party.

Climate change “was seized as a political issue by the left early on; the right has responded to that by seizing on skepticism as their issue,” said Axen, the biomedical researcher in San Francisco. “The problem is: It shouldn’t have become a partisan issue at all.”

The gap between scientific consensus and the general public isn’t unique to the American context. MacLaren, a physicist who holds a faculty position at the University of Glasgow in the UK, said, “Science and expert advice has been under attack in our country for quite a while. So when people say to stand up for science, you say, ‘Yeah, maybe it’s about time to do so.’”

“There’s an erosion of public trust in the scientific method and scientists themselves,” said Axen.

Some Christians assume scientific consensus on evolution arose because scientists constrained the evidence to support a secular humanist worldview, and their suspicion over the discipline has impacted their views of other issues, too.

That’s why churchgoing scientists like Axen build bridges between their faith communities and their colleagues, between some who are skeptical of science and some who are skeptical of God.

“My Christian community can easily misunderstand scientists as being about promoting a partisan agenda or trying to constrain all evidence to fit a certain worldview,” he said. “It would be helpful for my friends and family, my fellow believers at church to see [me as] someone who doesn’t fit that stereotype.”

Questioning Beyond Our Limits

Science and religion have some parallels; both force their adherents to understand their own limits.

“God is much, much bigger—you cannot make everything consistent simply because you can’t know enough,” MacLaren said. “When you’re a scientist you come to the exact same conclusion. You realize just how little you understand because you see how many questions are still out there. ... We are trying to test things to the best of our abilities at the moment, but if we’re honest, what we’re doing is incomplete, we can’t find everything out.”

To that end, can dialogue spurred by the March for Science be about more than being right?

“When you’re an intellectual, it’s a temptation to overconcentrate on being technically right. And forget that it’s actually about a relationship and love and character and not just about facts,” said MacLaren.

If the March for Science can get scientists out of the lab to present a human face, Christians in the field hope for constructive dialogue between people of different fields and faiths.

Together, they are pushing for their communities, Christians included, to support scientific study and celebrate its contributions, so that they can continue to ask the big questions—and answer them to the best extent they can.

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