Readers of some of my past blog posts know that one of my biggest pet peeves is when stereotypes and sloppy over-generalizations replace constructive dialogue when talking about science and faith. I regularly see examples of this on all sides of the discussion, but a recent NPR radio segment entitled “Are We Predisposed to Believe in Religion More Than Science?” wins the prize for the most counter-productive entry in recent memory.
This segment aired on April 29 on “The Colin McEnroe Show”, a production of WNPR in Connecticut. While the majority of the show is dedicated to a series of conversations about faith and science in America, it begins with a short skit revolving around a fictional conversation between a pastor delivering a sermon and a listener (it’s unclear if it is meant to be a parishioner). While I encourage you to click the link above and listen for yourself, I’ve written out a transcript below:
Pastor: And Jesus spake unto his army of unicorns, saying, “many of you will die today, but that is necessary to defeat the Tyrannosaurus and save Germany!” Then he did leap upon the back of his favorite unicorn, Nebuchadnezzar, and shouted “Eureka!” which means, “kill the dinosaurs!”
Listener: Excuse me…
Pastor: I am right in the middle of the sermon, here…
Listener: Yes, but you’re mistaken.
Pastor: Oh, did I get the plural of Tyrannosaurus wrong?
Listener: You got everything wrong—unicorns, dinosaurs co-existing with Jesus, the word “eureka”—everything you said is factually incorrect!
Pastor: That’s just, like, your opinion, man. You interpret the facts your way.
Listener: There’s a difference between scientifically proven things and raw theory.
Pastor (sarcastically): I suppose you’re going to tell me that humans evolved from ape-like ancestors, yeah?
Pastor: OK, let me ask you something: How come we still have gorillas? And monkeys? And chimps? I mean, how come they didn’t evolve?
Listener: I...well, off the top of my head, I don’t really have a good answer, but I know there is one.
Pastor: Yes, the Bible tells us in the Book of Zither that God told some monkeys they had to stay back.
Listener: OK, none of that is right.
Pastor: God also said, “some people will say this is wrong, but they are wicked, and do bad things in their pants.”
Pastor (who reveals herself to be the radio announcer): Today on our show: Are science and religion in constant conflict? [then guests are introduced]
I am sure that nobody involved in this skit was intending to mock the whole Christian religion. It’s obviously absurd, and probably meant as an attention-grabber and little else. Further, the jabs are clearly directed at creationists in particular, not necessarily all Christians (“creationist” defined in its popular sense, meaning a Christian who denies evolution in favor of special creation). What bothers me is not that NPR is poking fun at certain Christians. I’m a big fan of light-hearted satire, directed at anyone (some of my favorite articles of all time are from The Onion). Yet my reaction to this skit bordered on visceral disgust, because—whether intentionally or not—it reflects much of what is wrong with the current dialogue about science and faith.
As a former (anti-evolutionary) creationist, and one who dialogues with them on a regular basis, I know that one of the things that they find most annoying is how little effort people give to actually understand what they believe and why they believe it. I don’t doubt that creationism sounds ridiculous to people outside the conservative Christian community, and the absurdity of the NPR sketch is a reflection of that. This would have been a perfect segue into an in-depth interview with an actual, flesh-and-blood creationist, but alas—not a single person on the rest of the show actually holds the perspective at which NPR is poking fun. A pro-evolution Christian theologian does make an appearance, but no young-earthers, or even old-earth creationists (or anybody who is skeptical of mainstream evolutionary science).
The show weaves through several interviews with people at the intersection of faith and science, including biology professor James Krupa, who wrote a thought-provoking and controversial essay in Orion magazine earlier this year about his experiences teaching evolution at the University of Kentucky. Krupa, with the other guests, discuss why mainstream scientific theories like evolution are viewed with skepticism by many religious (and especially Christian) Americans. But because nobody is there to offer a truly opposing viewpoint, the tone of the show is how to deal with those other people who hold such irrational and strange beliefs.
Of course, for every example like this one, there is an equal and opposite example from the “other side.” Creationist media too often portrays pro-evolution scientists (and their allies) as Christian-hating buffoons and liars. One of the reasons these negative (and largely false) stereotypes persist is the same cultural divide that separates the people on this NPR segment from young-earth creationists. When a debate turns into us vs. them, there is little incentive to reach outside of one’s own social group and encounter those on the other side. A stereotype replaces a person, and a rant replaces a conversation.
Indeed, what reinforced my own anti-evolutionary views during my childhood, more than any other factor, was a clear sense that accepting evolution put me on the wrong side of this cultural divide. Evolution was what they believed, and I was not one of them. What ultimately changed my mind was not ideas or information alone, but meeting Francis Collins, who embodied what I considered to be an unthinkable position: The deep Christian faith of one of us, and pro-evolutionary science of one of them. He scrambled my categories in the best way possible, and it changed my life. I’m not the only one. Over and over, people have told stories on this blog of their perspective being changed by encountering real people who challenged their black-and-white division of Christianity and mainstream science. Many changed their minds simply by meeting real people with opposing views who weren’t nearly as anti-Christian or untrustworthy as they imagined.
In other words, what really creates productive dialogue is when people encounter people, and not just stereotypes or arguments. But by airing such an exaggerated and caricatured representation of young-earth creationist Christians at the beginning of their show, these NPR journalists threw this option off the table before the discussion even began. I understand that NPR caters to a left-leaning crowd, but I tend to think good journalism creates conversations across cultural divides, instead of simply reinforcing them. I don’t know whether NPR is truly interested in this, but I hope they are.
The good news is that better dialogue is happening more and more. Consider the work of Faith Angle Forum, which brings together journalists and religious believers who often live across cultural divides. Last year’s Forum featured BioLogos Board Chair Jeff Hardin, which led to a ground-breaking profile in Slate. The result is the slow deterioration of the myth that religion and science are in endless conflict. And most importantly, it helps lower the cultural barriers that help reinforce and perpetuate the conflict.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/npr-unicorns-and-the-great-american-cultural-divide