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Matt Oliver
 on June 25, 2019

Book Review: Morals Not Knowledge

A critical, yet charitable, approach of popular scientific and religious cultural combatants, Evans focuses on the scientific topics where moral and cultural conflict exists.

tops of assorted books where you can only see the spine and pages

As a pastor’s kid who grew up in an orthodox Protestant church, I was encouraged to pursue science as a career. Along the way, I had heard that there was a major difference in the way religious and secular people come to knowledge about the world. Religious people relied on faith, while secular people relied on science. I guess that seemed plausible, but in my everyday experience, it was hard for me to see this difference. Both religious and secular people seem to engage in scientific or technological pursuits. Both seem to engage in non-scientific topics like prayer, human rights, justice, karma, or fate. In short, they didn’t seem to have different ways of understanding the world in the way I was told.

John Evans, author of Morals Not Knowledge: Recasting the Contemporary U.S. Conflict Between Religion and Science argues that the reason I didn’t detect any major differences between these groups is that there are no major differences. What matters are the relatively few scientific issues that have the strongest moral implications. Evans is both an analyst and historian of sociology and the Christian faith. What is refreshing about his approach is how critical yet charitable it is toward popular scientific and religious cultural combatants. This is no easy feat. But Evans is heading somewhere, and he wants you to come along. Rather than seeing the debate as a grand conflict between science and religion (Christianity specifically), Evans focuses on the scientific topics where moral and cultural conflict exists.

Analyzing the General Social Survey, Evans works with hot topics like human evolution, stem cell research, and climate change. He shows that challenges to scientific consensus on these issues are due to their moral or ethical implications. Thus, we should expect that morally significant scientific claims are highly scrutinized.

book cover of Morals Not Knowledge

Of course, engaging in high level moral debates requires working knowledge of these scientific subjects. This also turns out to be true. In most cases, Christians are as scientifically competent and science-positive as their non-religious counterparts. This result seems to map on to my own experience as a professor. Both religious and non-religious students understand the technical details of science. Where they diverge is on its moral and societal significance.

In one of his most intriguing analyses, Evans shows that conservative Christians and their non-religious counterparts have no difference in their positive assessment of climate science and scientists after controlling for political ideology. He suspects that resistance to climate science is not about conservative Christianity. Rather, it is because most conservative Christians are also political conservatives. In my experience, political conservatives worry about diverting precious resources away from other societal needs, and toward climate concerns. This is an important point. Identity groups have complicated moral histories. It is easy to draw poor conclusions about what people actually believe and why they believe it.

This is a cautionary note for scientists. Evans suggests that conservative Christians defend non-scientific ideas not because they are in conflict with scientists, but because they are in conflict with liberal Christians over biblical interpretation. Biblical interpretation is a complex topic, so a story will help show its relevance. Imagine a pizza delivery guy approaches a house door to deliver an order. The door crashes open, and a member of the family chucks the pizza into the street. At first take, the unpaid delivery person might think the family is crazy and anti-pizza. In reality, it was one short event in an active fight about how a family in financial crisis should use its money. Like the delivery guy, scientists might not know about the Christian family fights, leading them to false conclusions about what Christians think.

Finally, Evans shows that scientists like to imagine themselves as dis-interested and morally neutral, but this is not how they are perceived. Conservative Christians are less likely to see scientists are morally neutral. They are more likely to see scientists as self-serving and not working for the good of humanity when dealing with moral topics.  One explanation for this distrust is that scientists are often depicted as either aloof (e.g. The Big Bang Theory) or nefarious (e.g. Dr. Frankenstein). Or, it could be that secular scientists are not morally neutral. This seems to me like a much more plausible explanation. Scientists are every bit moral creatures as any other human being. They choose what kinds of science to get involved in, often because of moral or ethical goals.  I have sensed the frustration from conservative Christians who feel like their ethical concerns are dismissed because they are from an organized religion, all the while scientists’ ethical concerns are smuggled in under the guise of neutral truth-seeking. This leads to resentment of the social privilege scientists currently enjoy.

Evans is not trying to explain away the conflict between secular scientists and conservative Christians. Rather, he wants these groups to disagree for the right reasons. He casts a compelling vision for future research into the moral reasoning used by both science and religious practitioners. This book is a “must read” for practitioners working with morally charged scientific claims. It is available for free download through the Luminos open access program at the University of California Press.

About the author

Matt Oliver in hat and jacket

Matt Oliver

Matt Oliver is the Patricia & Charles Robertson Associate Professor of Marine Science & Policy at the University of Delaware. Matt studies marine ecology, oceanography, conservation, and science education. Matt was inspired to be a scientist at Valley Christian High School in Cerritos, CA. He started his college career at Cerritos College in Norwalk CA, and finished his B.S. and M.S. in Biology at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Matt went on to a Ph.D. at Rutgers University in Oceanography.