Evangelical Christianity has gained a reputation for challenging science in numerous ways, particularly with creationism and climate change denial. Because I once contributed to this reputation, I consider it my responsibility to try and counteract the misinformation and misunderstanding of science denial wherever I can.
Even so, it’s tempting to see these issues as purely academic. Does it really matter if some people think the world around us is only a few thousand years old? People are still able to make new advances in medicine and technology despite such beliefs. What difference does it make?
There are numerous reasons why science denial is dangerous. Both climate crisis denial and the anti-vaccination movement follow the same trend of dismissing science, and both are serious problems for our communities and world. But the phenomenon of religious and political science denial extends far beyond the obvious examples. It can get much worse, and much uglier. An alarming example of this phenomenon emerged last week from evangelical, neocalvinist blogger Matt Walsh, in a post titled, “You are born a man or a woman. You don’t get to choose.”:
I want to begin by telling you about a grown adult male who, last week, beat a woman to a bloody pulp in front of a cheering crowd. As he gloated about his physical dominance over this outmatched female, media outlets and advocacy groups hailed him as a pioneer. Beating up women is literally this dude’s job. The man who stomps women and brags about it on Twitter, is, according to our progressive cultural ringleaders, a hero. A superhero. His noble endeavors put him in the lofty company of men like Ray Rice and Chris Brown. What gives? Well, our hero, Boyd Burton (alias “Fallon Fox”) went overseas and had his penis chopped off, then came back and became a “transgender female” MMA fighter. It’s OK for him to break a woman’s face because he likes to pretend he is one. It’s that simple. Want to give a girl a concussion? It’s cool to pound your fists into a woman’s cranium as long as you feel like a woman while you’re doing it.
I’m not a physician, or a psychologist, or any kind of expert on gender identity or gender dysphoria. I’ve never faced the incredible challenge of identifying outside of society’s cisgender expectations. I’m sure many people are more qualified than me to challenge these types of dangerous, violently transphobic views. But I do have experience with science denial, particularly in the context of religious fundamentalism. And that’s exactly what I see here.
Walsh’s comments exemplify what has become the standard conservative and fundamentalist response to LGBT issues. Progress in medicine and psychology are dismissed, and an entirely new brand of science is substituted based on the hallowed pillars of “common sense.” It is only convenient that this “common sense” just happens to exactly reflect the traditional values of the conservative and fundamentalist culture. In this worldview, trans people simply do not exist. Nonbinary gender is imaginary. Any sort of gender identification outside the traditional conservative “common sense” viewpoint is either imagined or fabricated outright, allowing people like Walsh to mock, demean, and label anyone who fails to conform. Within this mindset, Fallon Fox must have some ulterior motives in identifying as a woman, and it is perfectly legitimate to compare her to violent abusers like Ray Rice or Chris Brown.
It’s important to realize that this pattern — the one consistently followed by religious science deniers — doesn’t start with religion or religious texts. There are plenty of Christians who have no desire to invent their own sectarian branches of science. There are plenty of Christians who depend on the Bible as their means of understanding and experiencing God but have never expected it to include exact answers to every social controversy.
Religious science denial starts not in text or doctrine, but in the community. All communities have social standards and norms which are enforced to varying degrees. But in communities which view the outside world as dangerous or threatening, these traditional values — values like medieval male authority and archaic gender roles — are enforced more rigidly. As a result, such communities automatically exclude people who do not fall inside those roles and structures. LGBT persons are treated as dangerous anomalies, threats to the established social structure.
Religious communities then look to their texts — in the case of Christianity, the Bible — to find passages which can be used to justify those traditional norms. This elevates the community’s traditional norms to the level of divine mandate, painting anyone who fails to conform as broken and sinful and justifying every kind of discrimination.
So when advances in science or medicine call those traditional norms into question, fundamentalists are forced to challenge the advances in order to defend the validity of their religious beliefs. No consensus, regardless of how strong it is, will be enough: they treat science as yet another facet of the “liberal,” “secular” agenda created to challenge what they are certain is foundational religious truth. It is impossible for them to realize they are merely defending a system of roles and structures which have nothing to do with the Bible.
It is tempting to react to science denial with careful explanation, attempting to educate people about these realities. In responding to the worldview Walsh represents, we can point out that gender dysphoria is a real condition, that intersex and intergender people do exist, that being trans is not a choice, and that transphobia and trans denial often result in chilling violence. We can show why Mr. Walsh’s characterization of a trans female athlete is not only wrong, but dangerous. We should always be prepared to educate. But that won’t always be enough.
Science denial — whether in the form of trans denial or creationism or anything else — is able to persist due to a lack of education and awareness. But education alone cannot solve the problem. People need to be able to identify when their deeply-held religious convictions are really just traditions, borrowed from their communities and given false authority from a few poorly-understood scripture passages. They need to recognize that the community itself all too often dictates what will be seen as “normal” and that these norms invariably worm their way into doctrines and interpretations. Otherwise, they will all too commonly remain closed off to the possibility of considering other views and unable to respect the needs of people different from them.
It’s my hope that more Christians will begin to see where traditions have been treated as doctrines. I hope Christians will work to reverse the harm that has been done in the name of religion. The people Jesus spent the most time with were the people his society rejected, the people who didn’t fit inside the culture’s traditions and systems. When Christians meet people who don’t fit their preconceptions and expectations, I want us to welcome them, not pretend they don’t exist.
Unfortunately, for people who think like Walsh, that might be too much of a challenge.