The current pandemic shows us we ignore science at our own peril

The news cycle over the recent months has been dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on the health and wellbeing of the wider society. One important lesson that gets lost in the mass coverage is the importance of the public understanding of, and engagement with, science. With that in mind, let us highlight one long-standing obstacle in the public’s awareness and understanding of science – the religious Right’s ongoing and persistent science denialism.

Let’s unpack these issues. Science, and the promotional of science journalism, has been relegated to secondary status, not only by politicians who zealously advocated free-market supremacy as the ultimate arbiter of a society’s general health. Public engagement with science has also been sidelined by the sustained campaign of political ignorance by the evangelical Christian Right, particularly in the United States.

Over at the New York Times, Katherine Stewart has written an op-ed piece stating that the religious right’s decades-long science denialism has contributed to the current failure of the US authorities to adequately tackle the Covid-19 pandemic. The ulttaconservative evangelical religious base of Trump supporters did not arise out of nowhere.

They have nurtured and promoted an evangelical Christian nationalism that has resulted in, among other things, a dogmatic refusal to critically engage with the important science issues of our times – whether it be evolutionary biology, human-induced climate change, or ecological sustainability.

Rather than promoting an understanding of, and education in, these scientific issues that impact our communities, the evangelical Christian Right has attacked these subjects, and science in general, as ‘doctrines of unbelief’. Trump and his ultraconservative supporters are located firmly in the tradition of 19th century proslavery theologians who campaigned against the abolition of slavery as a Satanic-inspired measure contrary to God’s teachings.

The evangelical Christian nationalist preachers are not denying that Covid-19 is a problem – at least, not anymore now that the pandemic has spread its lethality to the United States and Europe. They have a long track record of opposing any branch of science, or scientific understanding, that conflicts with their political and theology underpinnings and goals. Amanda Marcotte, writing in Salon magazine, states that:

The Christian right has always been a threat to public health. They were a threat during the AIDS crisis, when they successfully exerted pressure on Republican leaders to minimize the disease, which conservative Christians saw as a punishment for sinful behavior. They have contributed to the spread of all manner of STIs, in fact, by convincing schools to replace sex education with programs meant to discourage the use of condoms.

It is not only in the area of public health in which the conservative evangelical Right has been waging a politico-cultural war. The belief in supernatural capacities to overcome, or indeed provide a cause, for natural and/or material realities has provided a traditional blockage to scientific inquiry. The denial of evolutionary biology by theologians and faith-based groups is a huge subject to cover, however, we can observe the underlying trend of science denial running through to today’s evangelical Christian nationalist advocates.

Since at least the 1980s, the evangelical Christian Right has campaigned against the teaching of evolution in schools. Adopting a cynical tactic, they have promoted the pseudoscience of ‘intelligent design‘, portraying their efforts to marginalise evolution as simply advocacy of ‘teaching both sides’. The latter is a wonderful principle; teaching both sides of a controversy is great. But it is not a cover for surreptitiously introducing supernatural concepts into a science course. Intelligent design is properly understood as a religiously-based alternative, and belongs in religion class.

A number of Christian denominations have declared a truce, or a kind of peaceful accommodation, with evolutionary biology. The Anglican Church has taken a hands-off approach when confronting scientific subjects, and indeed Pope Francis has advised his Catholic followers to accept evolution, stating that is the monotheistic god is not a magician with a magic wand. However, the American Christian nationalist Right is not interested in scientific debate, but the reshaping of US society along theocratic lines.

It is no secret that the evangelical Christian Right has been a staunch reservoir of climate change denialism, viewing environmental concerns and green issues as the thin edge of the dark Satanic wedge. Deriving from the conservative Moral Majority movement in the 1980s, these ultrarightist disciples of Reagan reject ecological issues as an ostensible ‘leftist-Communist’ plot to destabilise the current system. Denying the evidence for human-induced climate change, nevertheless accept ecological breakdown as part of the fulfilment of apocalyptic Biblical prophesies.

In the current pandemonium about the Covid-19 pandemic, my fellow Australians have largely forgotten that we have only just emerged from the most catastrophic bushfire season the Australian continent has ever experienced. Longer, hotter summers along with more sustained and widespread bushfires are the result of human-induced climate change. Rejecting the evidence for global warming has lethal and economically devastating consequences. The scope and intensity of the fires were unprecedented, and it will take decades for the local ecosystems to recover.

When rejecting the cumulative scientific evidence for anthropogenic global warming, the evangelical Christian Right provides a buttress of support for continuing current neoliberal economic practices – the very economic model responsible for inducing the current climate emergency. The road to hell was not caused by the Christian nationalist Right – but they are doing their utmost to ensure that we get there as quickly as possible.

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