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New Atheists, don't label Christians as anti-science

Kerby Anderson
Courtesy of Kerby Anderson

Christians believe in science and religious liberty. Skeptics might question the first part of that statement because we often hear that Christians are anti-scientific. That has been the mantra from many of the leaders of what has come to be known as the New Atheists.

The liberal media have come up with labels they slap on anyone who strays from the current orthodoxy. Question a scientific model, and you quickly get labelled as a “science denier.” Participate in a protest over a draconian order promulgated by a governor or mayor, and you receive the label “virus denier.” But let’s analyze what is going on.

A frequent phrase used these days is that we need “to trust the science.” But I have found that often “trust the science” really means “trust the model,” which is not the same thing. Computer models are used to predict everything from the climate to the economy. Often, they are inaccurate. Asking legitimate questions about these models and their assumptions is appropriate and not “anti-science.”

When I was in graduate school at Yale University, many of us worked with professors who had developed computer models attempting to understand more about the environment. These models, written in FORTRAN and somewhat primitive, helped me learn two valuable lessons.

First, you need good data for the model to accurately predict the future. No doubt you have seen the word GIGO that stands for “garbage in, garbage out.” If the data you have for a pandemic model comes from China or Iran, you may not have good data.

Second, a good model also needs to be based upon accurate assumptions. If you don’t account for the impact of mitigation procedures, you are going to come to scary conclusions about the infection rate and the death rate.

Should we have some skepticism about the models used to predict the future? Let’s look at two models currently being used in our public policy debates about the climate or the economy. In any discussion about climate change, you are likely to hear someone say we need “to trust the science.” But they usually mean, that you should believe the science model. Unfortunately, the climate models that were developed back in the 1990s predicted rising temperatures. Instead, we had a “warming hiatus” that lasted for nearly a decade and a half. Global temperatures essentially remained flat. If the model was off during the first part of the 21st century, why should we believe the predictions about global temperatures for the rest of the century? It’s a question worth asking. But if you ask it, you are usually labelled as a “climate denier.”

What I learned when in government classes while in graduate school at Georgetown University was that the “gold standard” for congressional spending bills was the Congressional Budget Office. They are given the responsibility of estimating the impact of legislation on federal revenue. But they are often limited in the assumptions they can use. For example, if a tax reform bill reduces taxes, the CBO score assumes that lower taxes will mean lower tax revenue. But individual investors and consumers react to lower taxes by investing more and spending more. Lower taxes might actually generate more revenue.

The point of these two examples is to remind us that we have seen models in the past give us erroneous predictions. It isn’t “anti-science” to question the models that justified locking down our lives and our economy. When the Imperial College model from London predicted there could be 2.2 million deaths in America from the coronavirus, politicians and health officials reacted accordingly. But as this model (along other models) turned out to be inaccurate because of bad data and poor assumptions, people (including Christians) began to question the models. Questioning the models and their assumptions is not “anti-science.”

Christians also believe in religious liberty. They have been willing to comply with orders and policies issued to keep Americans safe. Romans 13:1-7 instructs us to obey government. 1 Timothy 2:1-2 instructs us to pray for our leaders. Christians should provide an example of what good citizenship should look like.

But Christians began to notice something. First, we saw what appeared to be an overreaction by law enforcement to the stay-at-home orders. A former Colorado State Patrol trooper was caught on video being handcuffed in front of his six-year-old daughter. A man in California was paddle boarding in the ocean. Although there was no way he could contract or spread the coronavirus, police chased him down and hauled him away in handcuffs. Further down the coast, the sheriff’s department was handing out citations for people “watching the sunset” on the beach.

In many parts of the country, mayors and governors banned the sale of non-essential items. One of those items is mosquito repellent. Apparently, the prevention of malaria, West Nile virus, and mosquito-borne encephalitis isn’t an important health issue anymore.

Then Christians began to hear stories of how churches and Christian groups were being singled out. The mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, specifically prohibited churches from holding drive-in services, prompting a legal challenge. Members of the King James Bible Baptist Church of Greenville, Mississippi, held a drive-in service using a low-frequency radio-station signal. Everyone in the parking lot kept their windows up. The attendees were surrounded by police cars ordering them to leave. If you watch the video, you hear a white police office yelling at the black church members that, “Your rights are suspended!”

Again, it is easy to understand why Christians would start questioning the wisdom and even the constitutionality of some of these orders and policies. If the goal is to keep Americans safe, Christians are willing to comply. If the policies are enforced equally and not used to single out churches or Christian groups, they are willing to obey. But if they reasonably question the value or effectiveness of a policy, they aren’t being “anti-virus.” They are exercising good judgment.

Likewise, Christians also question why Big Tech companies believe they must censor any scientific or medical information that challenges the current shutdown. Obviously, these social media companies have a right and even a responsibility to remove posts or videos that prescribe quack treatments for the coronavirus. But Christians should question whether Big Tech should be shutting down legitimate questions about the models used to justify draconian policies.

As we move forward, let’s have an open and honest discussion about the assumptions behind the policies as our leaders attempt to balance liberty and safety. Christians are not “anti-science” when they question these assumptions, and they aren’t “anti-virus” when the protest orders and policies that illegitimately use safety concerns merely to restrict our liberty.

Kerby Anderson is the President of Probe Ministries and host of the Point of View radio talk show.  He holds masters degrees from Yale University (science) and Georgetown University (government).  He also serves as a visiting professor at Dallas Theological Seminary and has spoken on dozens of university campuses including University of Michigan, Vanderbilt University, Princeton University, Johns Hopkins University, University of Colorado and University of Texas.

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