Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Post-Truth: Why Are Religious Fundamentalists So Anti-Science?

On the face of it, there is a huge gap between Evangelical Protestants (also other religious fundamentalists) and ultra-Orthodox Jews (haredim). But on at least one issue area they are in strong agreement: science is the enemy. This leads to two questions: Why? And what can be done about it?

One need not look further than their respective educational systems. As one example among many, fundamentalists refuse to teach anything about Darwinian evolution, or if forced to do so by state mandate then it becomes merely “one theory among others”. (This plays off the double/ambiguous meaning of “theory”: 1- the colloquial “I have a theory about that”, i.e. a speculation; 2- A well-tested, evidence-based model of an aspect of our world. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is the second meaning.)  Haredim – universally in Israel and where they can get away with it in the U.S. – don’t even bother with ambiguity: core subjects such as science, math and English are minimally taught, if at all.

Why their antipathy? It’s not the methodological process of science that bothers fundamentalists (after all, the Talmud is highly logical and methodological; similarly, Thomas Aquinas, et al). Rather, it’s the bottom-line results along a host of areas that undercut their strongly held belief system. Such “results” can be divided into two basic categories, although some would argue that this is splitting hairs (or angels on the head of a pin). First, beliefs that do not have direct biblical or heavenly sources, e.g. the age of the Earth is not biblically mandated at 5781 years (Maimonides argued that the “6 Days of Creation” should not be considered regular “days” but rather “eras” of unknown length). Second, those that the bible state explicitly, e.g. the prohibition of homosexual intercourse. However, for true believers, these two categories are really one and the same in practice: “God’s word”.

Along comes science and proves without a shadow of a doubt that the universe is 13.7 billion years old, and that homosexuals are born that way (its prohibition or acceptance throughout history was based on local culture, but the phenomenon is universal so that even from this standpoint it is virtually impossible to argue that “society” can successfully “cause” or “prevent” homosexuality).

What are the consequences of such antipathy to science? First (and perhaps least), it undercuts their children’s ability to have a high-level “information age” career, sans math, English (for haredim), and basic scientific knowledge. Second, fundamentalists try to influence public policy in a non-scientific or non-fact-based direction, e.g. it’s no coincidence that the heart of America’s unwillingness to social distance and wear masks is found in fundamentalist territory, not to mention disbelief in global warming.

However, in my opinion by far the most deleterious result of fundamentalists’ antipathy to science – because of its very broad societal impact – is what we today call “post-truth”, i.e. the unwillingness of huge swaths of people to accept evidentiary facts as a basis of conducting one’s private life and by extension (as in the second consequence just mentioned) in the public sphere as well. This is certainly not to say that only fundamentalists are suspicious of truth – scientific or otherwise; President Trump (no churchgoer, he!) is a good example of a more general anti-scientific bent. It is also not to argue that only fundamentalists are to blame for this sorry state of affairs – subjective, constructivist, academic “post-modernist” theory (this time in the first above meaning of the term) has its share of the blame. Of course, this too is ironic: the cultural “far Left” and “far Right” are on the same page in their antagonism to scientific and other types of truth.

What can or should be done about this? Any suggestion involving “the force of law” will be controversial, but here goes. No democracy would countenance a group that called for, and tried to put into practice, action to eliminate voting, as that strikes at the very essence of the democratic system. Why, then, should democracy countenance any group that undercuts another fundamental principle of democracy: truth?

Of course, a possible counterargument is that “free speech” is sacrosanct in a democracy. However, that misses the original (and still central) intent of free speech: to enable the people (“demos”) to arrive at the truth in order to set policy. To be sure, there are many areas of life in which evidence can be brought to both (or several) sides of the issue; little in life is completely black and white. But where something can be shown to be really factually correct or incorrect (e.g. global warming), democracy has the right to at least have the truth/scientific “non-believer” be taught the facts.

Israel today is in the throes of a public discussion as to whether the haredim should be forced to teach what is called “core subjects” (מקצועות ליבה). At the very least, America too should start that discussion regarding the basic requirements for educating its own religious fundamentalists. If not, the country will ultimately deteriorate into becoming a “democrazy”.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. For more information and other publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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