One of the oldest problem areas in sociology, the relationship between religion and science has taken on renewed importance in light of recent controversies about biomedical research, sexuality, and the environment. Antony Alumkal’s Paranoid Science, therefore, arrives at a crucial moment in our understanding of how religion and science are mobilized in the public sphere. Through an in-depth analysis of texts, films, and other materials that serve as the intellectual foundation for evangelical anti-science movements, Alumkal takes on a central question in the literature on secularization, namely, how do religious individuals and organizations respond to the growing centrality of science in society? More specifically, he asks, how do we make sense of some evangelicals’ rejection of science, or as the book’s subtitle puts it, “the Christian right’s war on reality?” The conceptual framework for the book is Richard Hofstadter’s theory of a paranoid style of politics. Originally developed to analyze conspiratorial, right-wing political thought, Alumkal adapts the argument to understand religious movements’ opposition to science. Alumkal’s study is set apart from others by his comparative analysis of four distinctive episodes (evolution, the ex-gay movement, bioethics, and climate change) where conservative Christian movements coalesced around a rejection of mainstream science. This comparative approach is especially well suited for identifying common themes in these movements’ attempts to undermine science. It is also revealing of how differences in the frames employed by these movements ultimately contributed to differences in their success. Throughout the book, Alumkal is careful to articulate the ideological heterogeneity among evangelicals. He notes that three of the four anti-science movements he studies are coalitions of conservative and moderate evangelicals. Only on the issue of climate change have moderate evangelicals broken with conservatives’ rejection of science. Despite wide differences in the science at stake in these four episodes (evolutionary biology, psychology, biomedicine, climate science), Paranoid Science identifies common threads that unify the Christian right’s resistance to the prevailing views of scientists. Central to each movement is the illusion of a vast conspiracy perpetrated by unseen secular interests to replace traditional religious values with scientism and naturalism. Moreover, each movement promotes a dualistic, Manichean worldview, which casts the Christian right’s opposition to science as an existential contest between good and evil. As Hofstadter concluded about conspiratorial politics, Alumkal notes that the paranoid response to science is marked not by a rejection of facts per se, but by illogical and unsupported leaps in reasoning. Thus, the paranoid style creates a catch-22 where disconfirming evidence is interpreted as further evidence of the conspiracy. As Alumkal observes, the Christian right is not roundly opposed to science. What triggers their opposition? According to Alumkal, science is most likely to elicit a paranoid response from the Christian right when it conflicts with deeply held religious values, especially concerning human exceptionalism. In these cases, the Christian right not only rejects mainstream science, it aims to supplant it with its own “scientific” reasoning, typically relying on outdated, debunked, or marginalized scientific theories. Consequently, it is unlikely that movement supporters would consider themselves to be anti-science. In fact, attempts to substitute junk science for mainstream science may even be construed by movement participants as a signal of their commitment to rational, evidence-based inquiry. In their view, they simply seek to replace corrupted science with uncorrupted science. Historians like Ron Numbers have made similar observations about the creation science movement. What is unique about Alumkal’s analysis is his extension of the argument to three additional cases where conservative Christians sparred with the scientific establishment. Alumkal’s argument also resonates with research by John Evans and others that argues that conservative Christians’ resistance to science reflects a perception of moral rather than epistemological conflict between religion and science. Perhaps the most obvious limitation of Paranoid Science is its scant attention to how the science and politics at the center of these episodes affected each movement. To his credit, Alumkal’s conceptualization of the Christian right is careful and measured. However, his characterization of “science” is less nuanced and often depicts the scientific community as a unified and undifferentiated group, a portrayal that may rankle sociologists and historians of science. Nevertheless, Paranoid Science offers valuable insights about the ability of religious and scientific interests to rally public support and potentially influence public policy. It will be of interest to sociologists who study religion, science, social movements, and to those interested in any of the four historical episodes that organize the book’s empirical chapters. Hopefully, Alumkal’s work will spur further research on the interface of religion, science, and society. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Association for the Sociology of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Sociology of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 3, 2018
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