Perhaps the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould was just having a bad day when he characterized science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria.” It was a considerable burden he set for himself, a burden that he couldn’t begin to meet without having to make far too many caveats and exceptions — particularly now. Had Gould lived to see the post-Trump era I think he would have abandoned the theory altogether. Those twin magisteria don’t just overlap nowadays, they positively step on each other’s toes.
But in the conflict between science and religion I place the greater blame squarely on the shoulders of religion, to put it in unapologetically and starkly black-and-white terms. Having been both an evangelical in my youth and a scientist professionally I think I am unusually positioned to comprehend the gestalt of both. Anti-science sentiment was bad enough when I was an evangelical. But it has gotten far worse in recent times.
In my day, thirty years or so ago, evangelicals had a certain amount of grudging respect for those of us employed in the sciences, but that respect was tempered by a mistrust for the so-called “wisdom of the world.” Whenever science and religion were at diametric odds, science was the loser because religion was allegedly the wisdom of God. Lessons from history were seldom learned. It took the Catholic Church 400 years to apologize to Galileo for persecuting him for proclaiming that the Earth was not the center of the Universe, for instance. Only then could they get back to the business of being infallible.
It’s dangerous for a person or a group of persons to believe they know with absolute certainty what God wants. It leaves no room for doubt or humility. It also creates situations where great evils can be committed in the name of that certainty. People who think they know what God wants feel morally justified in robbing their neighbors of their personal choices — and sometimes even their lives.
In the United States, wherever COVID-19 vaccinations are few, the number of evangelicals is many. Not only are many evangelicals avoiding getting vaccinated but anti-vaxxer sentiment is being preached from some pulpits. Hospitalizations due to COVID-19 — as well as case rates overall — are strongly correlated with low vaccination rates. Put another way, today more than 95% of all COVID hospitalizations are of people who have not been vaccinated.
Everything from vaccine hesitancy to outright anti-vaccine sentiment can be traced to an alarmingly high percentage of white evangelicals. A recent Pew Research Center poll shows those who said they were Christian and “born-again” were far more likely than any other religious group to say they definitely or probably would not get vaccinated. I might agree with some who insist that they deserve the consequences of their ignorance were it not for the fact that they also influence and infect the innocent.
Much of this vaccine hesitancy or denialism comes from the evangelical partiality to Trump. Because Trump has mocked mask wearing and said equivocal things about COVID avoidance in the past, evangelicals are suspicious about established pandemic science. Even though many Republicans have tried to take credit for the recent spectacular success in getting millions of Americans vaccinated, the fact remains the success belongs to President Joe Biden. When it comes right down to it, in their hearts many evangelicals are willing to let people die to make Biden look bad.
Not only will such people never be officially disavowed by the Republican Party, they will always be made to feel welcome there. This is how far Republicans have fallen. These Republicans are some of your latter-day white evangelical Christians. I would say without hesitation to such people that you can no longer call yourself a patriot if you are an evangelical of that ilk. Indeed, you cannot hope for the deaths of your fellow countrymen and be anything less than a monster. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.