Onward Christian "Science"
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Wed Jun 07, 2006 at 09:30:50 AM EST
Arlene Stein
We are delighted to welcome guest front pager Arlene Stein. She is, among other things, a sociologist at Rutgers University. -- ed.

Last December, when South Dakota's Republican-controlled state legislature established a task force to study abortion, they stacked it with anti-abortion doctors who concluded "the abortion procedure is inherently dangerous to the psychological and physical health of the pregnant mother," and should therefore be banned in nearly all cases.  

In the task force's 71-page page report, moral claims about the fetus were notable for their absence. Instead, there was a lot of talk about the emotional and physical "risks" abortion poses for women (http://www.sdrl.org/ATFReport.pdf).

Similarly, when conservative activists speak out against comprehensive sex education and same-sex marriage these days, they rarely if ever invoke arguments based on faith principles. Instead, they present themselves as public health advocates, scientific experts, and all-around concerned citizens, marshalling data to warn those who would have premarital sex (of both the heterosexual or homosexual variety) that they run the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases that cause infertility and even death.

Today, a wide-ranging network of Christian conservative "experts" are busily testifying against abortion, same-sex marriage, condom distribution in developing nations, and stem cell research, at the behest of federal, state and local officials. They're using graphs, pie charts, and the language of scientific objectivity to make their case for creationism, abstinence-only sex education, and prohibitions against homosexuality--even if that means making up their science along the way.

An earlier generation of Christian right activists wore their faith much more openly. But conservative strategists know that Americans place great faith in science, and are often turned off by overt religiosity. Beyond the one-quarter to one-third of all Americans who identify as conservative Christians, faith-based arguments can go down like a lead balloon.

Enter "stealth" religion, which uses the discourse of science and health to make faith-based arguments. Creationists in Lab Coats

Perhaps the most visible organization hawking "stealth religion" is the fifteen-year-old Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank, which was founded to "confront the materialistic bias in science" and replace it with "a sounder scientific dispensation" based on biblical principles. While "intelligent design" steers clear of words like "creation," "creator," or "creationism," its advocates are savvy conservative Christians who are charting a new, secular-sounding course.

A similar strategy is evident in campaigns against gay/lesbian civil rights, where public health messages have all but replaced the old claims that homosexuality is "abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse." In the 1990s, states like Colorado and Oregon became testing grounds for national Christian right initiatives against gay rights. These initiatives were consistently voted down, with public opinion polls indicated declining levels of homophobia.

Then Christian conservatives began to retool their message. When speaking to their own flock, they declared their faith unapologetically, but to the public at large, they described homosexuality as an "unhealthy lifestyle choice," packaging their disapproval of those who stray from "God-given" roles as expressions of "concern."

One of the more curious examples of this rhetorical strategy comes from the Family Research Council, which warns of the health effects of same-sex marriage (http://www.frc.org/get.cfm?i=IF04G01). Taking a page out of conservatives' playbook against welfare moms, the Washington DC-based advocacy organization invokes biology to warn of the dire consequences for daughters without fathers: "A father's pheromones influence the biological development of his daughter," it suggests. "A strong marriage provides a model for girls of what to look for in a man, and gives them the confidence to resist the sexual entreaties of their boyfriends." Since lesbians place their daughters at great risk of premarital sexuality, the story goes, sanctioning same-sex relationships through marriage poses a public health risk.

The strategy worked. In 2004, campaigns against same-sex marriage swept eleven states and helped George W. Bush win reelection.

Stealth Religion

That the religious right is skilled at the framing game, using science to make its case for moral positions, doesn't make it inherently suspect. All savvy political players use language to their advantage. Metaphors, linguist George Lakoff suggests, make language meaningful. The strict, finger-wagging father who imposes discipline on his wayward children, creating a strong, hierarchical family structure, is the operative metaphor for religious conservatives and capitalist boot-strappers alike.

That image might appeal to many people of faith, particularly those who believe that daddy knows best, but it's less convincing to those whose image of the family is less punitive--and moderate voters who are none too fond of Bible quotes. For this audience, "compassionate" conservative strategists emphasize the positive "health" consequences of a particular policy, or the superior "science" embedded in another. Homosexuality isn't immoral: it's unhealthy. Evolution isn't Satan's work; it's simply bad science.

What deserves close scrutiny are conservatives' efforts to play fast and loose with the facts, flouting scientific methodology, and passing religious ideology off as objective truth.

Antigay activists, for example, have long called upon psychologist Paul Cameron, chairman of a Colorado Springs group called the Family Research Institute. In the early 1980s, Cameron conducted a series of studies claiming that homosexuals threaten public health, social order, and the wellbeing of children--research that has buttressed campaigns against same-sex marriage.  

Because these studies used highly irregular sampling techniques and revealed clear homophobic biases, they enjoy little credibility among social scientists. At least two national academic professional associations, including the American Sociological Association, censured Cameron and expelled him from their ranks for "consistently misinterpret[ing] and misrepresent[ing] sociological and psychological research on sexuality, homosexuality, and lesbianism." A California psychologist has even dedicated a website to debunking Cameron's research (http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/rainbow/html/facts_cameron.html).

Yet Cameron's claims--that homosexual coupling undermines its participants' health, has the highest rate of domestic violence, shortens life, and is a poor environment in which to raise children-- continue to buttress campaigns against same-sex marriage, and make their way into journalists' accounts.

Other faith-based "findings"--that women who have abortions are more likely to develop breast cancer, and that condoms don't work, to name but two--have also flown under the radar, making their way into abstinence-only education curricula and web sites linked to the Federal government, according to a report released by California Representative Henry Waxman in 2004 (www. politicsandscience.org).  

Killing the Scientists

As Christian conservatives mobilize their own counter-facts, counter-studies and counter-experts, they're also placing pressure on elected representatives to de-fund research they believe is at odds with conservative religious principles. Sexuality-focused research has been a major focus of attention.

Steven Epstein, writing in the March 2006 issue of Sexuality Research & Social Policy, notes that in July 2003, the U.S. House of Representatives came within two votes of revoking the funding previously granted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to four research projects on topics related to sexuality and health, including HIV/AIDS.

Within a few months, a "hit list" of 157 sexuality researchers--compiled by the Traditional Values Coalition, renowned for its attacks on "the gay agenda"--made its way through Congress and the NIH, and a fact sheet on condoms mysteriously disappeared from a CDC web site. While the NIH managed to protect the researchers named on the "hit list," conservative efforts to defund so-called "frivolous" research projects, especially those dealing with sexual issues, have proven successful on a number of occasions. The indirect impact of such attacks, by steering researchers away from politically controversial areas, may be even greater.

Religious conservatives don't like to fund research on sexuality, among other subjects, because they believe that by its very nature scientific knowledge is a liberal, secularizing force. They're partially correct: scientific research can call into question faith-based truths and encourage a more skeptical view of the world.

By making informed debates about issues of national importance more and more difficult, Christian "science" is fostering faith in ignorance.

Arlene Stein's latest book, The Stranger Next Door: The Story of a Small Community’s Battle Over Sex, Faith, and Civil Rights (Beacon Press), is a study of one small community swept up in a bitter battle over gay/lesbian rights. A collection of her essays, Shameless: Sexual Dissidence in American Culture, will be published by New York University Press in July 2006. She has written about culture, religion, and social movements for The Nation, The Oregonian, The Forward, and Newsday. She teaches Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University.

What they are essentially doing is trying to reverse all the advances- especially scientific advances- since the Enlightenment. They are creating what I call an 'Endarkenment'.

And since the government is in charge of so much scientific funding, it is becoming instrumental in the reversal of our progress in science. We are becoming benighted.

by Lorie Johnson on Wed Jun 07, 2006 at 10:09:47 AM EST

Very, very nice coinage there, Lori.

Framing at its best.

by Bruce Wilson on Wed Jun 07, 2006 at 11:48:41 AM EST

Unaware of any single word that sums up so well the social, intellectual, and political goals of the religious right.

Deserves wide use.

by Psyche on Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 12:43:42 AM EST

Metaphors, linguist George Lakoff suggests, make language meaningful.
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by maroso on Tue Mar 26, 2024 at 03:33:31 AM EST

"Abstinence only" sex ed came to Texas in 1995, I believe. A few years later the decline in Syphilis rates in Texas that had been part of a national decline in Syphilis rates ongoing since about 1941 stopped.

In 1998-2000 in Texas, the state syphilis rate bottomed out and subsequently began to rise :

by Bruce Wilson on Wed Jun 07, 2006 at 11:54:43 AM EST

The film "The Education of Shelby Knox" agrees with you regarding abstinence.


by Ga on Wed Jun 07, 2006 at 09:41:39 PM EST

.............gives rise not only to an increase in STDs, but also paradoxically to a general increase in teenage sex and resulting pregnancies, according to what I've read.

Also, kids who sign abstinence-until-marriage pledges have been said to start having sex sooner than kids who don't. I presume that it's two sides of the same phenomenon, that the kids who go through abstinence-only thing are the ones who sign the pledges.

I wish I could cite the references, but I can't remember where I ran across them. In the mean time, it just shows to go ya, what you don't know can hurt you worse than what you do know.

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by shaka22 on Wed May 20, 2020 at 11:43:53 AM EST

would be another possibility.  It echoes off "New Age Movement" as Endarkenment echoes off Enlightenment, and uses the still powerfully resonant  image of the ignorance and superstition of the ealy Middle Ages.

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by shaka22 on Tue May 05, 2020 at 07:48:27 AM EST

Sometimes they inadvertently prove the opposite of what they'd like to prove. As a recent Talk2action article points out, the ex-gay movement has a 50% failure rate, and many of those who succeed simply become celibate not straight. Given the fact that the vast majority who enter such programs desperately want to stop being homosexual, the ex-gay groups have provided some of the most convincing evidence that homosexuality is a natural condition rather than a conscious choice. So I guess even Christian pseudo science has some value. Now if they would only show me how to change water in to wine, or better yet, whiskey. That would be cool!

by Dave on Wed Jun 07, 2006 at 04:49:43 PM EST
Soviet Lysenkoist science occasionally produced interesting results too.

by Bruce Wilson on Wed Jun 07, 2006 at 08:10:21 PM EST

Fifty percent failure rate implies 50% success. Even using an extremely generous definition of "success," the rate is nothing close to that. Actually there is no reputable peer-reviewed research in this area because the "successes" are so rare (and most of them are currently in "treatment" or employed by the ex-gay movement).


by Psyche on Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 01:05:41 AM EST

I was using their own claims as reported in the recent Talk2action piece: The Ex-Gay Movement at the White House.

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I remember a time when it seemed like there was some sort of consensus on what science was.

Now some people seem to think science is Jesus riding a dinosaur, or something like that.

by nonlinear on Wed Jun 07, 2006 at 09:27:23 PM EST

The indirect impact of such attacks, by steering researchers away from politically controversial areas, maybe even greater.
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They're partially correct: scientific research can call into question faith-based truths and encourage a more skeptical view of the world.

by maroso on Wed Mar 02, 2022 at 09:47:41 AM EST

Beyond the one-quarter to one-third of all Americans who identify as conservative Christians, faith-based arguments can go down like a lead balloon.

by madmardigan on Tue Apr 19, 2022 at 10:27:03 PM EST

They see a need to aggressively set the conditions such that today's teenagers will become involved with this subculture and stay inside it for the rest of their lives. - Towing

by madmardigan on Sat May 21, 2022 at 09:21:28 PM EST

In addition to mobilizing their own counter-evidence, counter-studies, and counter-experts, Christian conservatives are putting pressure on elected officials to stop funding research that they perceive to be incompatible with their own religiously-based conservatism. By the way, is any of you knows where to buy personalized dog tag keychain? Thanks!

by madmardigan on Mon Jan 16, 2023 at 07:07:07 AM EST

It doesn't make the religious right automatically dubious just because it's good at the framing game and uses science to support its moral claims. See: https:/www.duolaofgilbert.com

by madmardigan on Thu Jan 26, 2023 at 07:59:52 AM EST

By directing researchers away from politically contentious topics, such attacks may have an even greater indirect effect. Regards from Builders west Auckland!

by madmardigan on Fri May 05, 2023 at 11:07:36 AM EST

The strict, finger-wagging father who imposes discipline on his wayward children, creating a strong, hierarchical family structure, is the operative metaphor for religious conservatives and capitalist boot-strappers alike. | mold remediation

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