The intersection of political tribes and science acceptance/denial among Christians

Time for some social science discussion! Disclaimer. The article I am linking is about political tribes in the US. This is not an invitation to argue about politics, which we all know is not allowed. The point is to talk about tribalism and understand some of the dynamics that go into the tribalism that surrounds evolution acceptance and evolution denial. That wasn’t at all what the research was about, but I think many of the insights from this study can be applied in interesting ways to understanding some of the dynamics that make evolution a contentious issue, and it seems to me, more contentious for people who identify more strongly with conservative political tribes. Some people associate BioLogos with liberal politics even though there is a concerted effort to be apolitical. Why is that? Is there a reason why it sometimes seems that the Christians who are drawn to the ideas here maybe skew more progressive on some political issues than their anti-evolution friends and family.

A friend and I were just discussing this “Hidden Tribes” study tonight:

It has some pretty interesting things in it. We both want to be moderate progressive activists, which is to say, we place ourselves in two different tribes. I wonder how many BioLogos types feel torn this way? Or how many legitimately actually participate in two different tribes, depending on the context. I think I do. I ask myself a lot if I am being hypocritical or flexible, wishy-washy or balanced. And in both contexts there are times when I feel totally at home and times when I throw up my hands and ask, “how can these people be my people?”

The section called “The Hidden Architecture of Political Behavior” is really interesting. I wonder how those value pillars correlate with science acceptance/anti-evolution attitudes.

Here’s a few quotes, because I don’t expect you all to wade through the whole thing just because I think it’s interesting.

" Core Belief 1: Group Identity and Tribalism in America. Perhaps the most important aspect of the hidden architecture underlying political behavior is people’s group identities . Social scientists have long recognized that people see their own groups as a strong source of self-esteem and a sense of belonging. Consequently, these tribal identities have an almost magical influence over people’s views, for example, captured recently in a T-shirt (circulated on social media) proclaiming “I’d rather be Russian than Democrat.”

That sounds exactly like what I was trying to say over on the denial of evolution thread. Magical influence is about right. Evolution proponents tend to see Creationists as brainwashed by their group. Creationists see evolution proponents as unable to come to any other conclusions because of the peer pressure of “atheist scientists.”

Core Belief 2: Perceived Threat. People diverge in the amount of danger they perceive in the world. Some people see the world as a largely safe place with isolated pockets of violence. Others see the world as threatening, with isolated pockets of tranquility. To test people’s degree of perceived threat, the survey asked them how much they agree with the statement, “The world is becoming a more and more dangerous place.” This basic sense of threat versus security is strongly correlated with people’s views on a wide variety of other issues, including immigration and terrorism.”

I think BioLogos types feel less threatened in general than anti-evolution types, so that might explain some of the overlap between people here and resonance with aspects of progressive politics.

" Core Belief 3: Parenting Style and Authoritarianism. Recent research has found that people’s tendency towards authoritarianism ―that is, their support for strong leaders and strict social hierarchy―is linked to their views on parenting style . For example, people who deem it more important for a child to be “well-behaved” than “creative” are more likely to endorse an authoritarian ethic. The Hidden Tribes report confirms those findings. How Americans view parenting closely tracks their views on many political issues."

This one is a little harder to relate to the science/anti-evolution context, but I think it is interesting that many anti-evolution proponents frame the debate in terms of the authority of Scripture or what God expects of them and how they don’t want to stand before him and be held accountable for not trusting his word. Maybe people’s fundamental view of how God parents affects their openness to science. If you see God as a parent who encourages creativity and exploration in his children, then of course he wants you to be curious about his world and figure out its mysteries. He would take proud delight in you doing that. But if you see God as an authoritarian parent, he gave you his word so you would obey it. He is going to test your faith to see if you measure up to his standards of devoted obedience. You better not step outside the boundaries.

" Core Belief 4: Moral Foundations. Morality is about more than just equal treatment. The 2012 book The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, which provides important insights into the ways in which morality underlies political behavior, explains how morality is comprised of at least five pillars. These pillars, also called moral foundations , are:

  • Fairness/Cheating : Relating to proportionality, equality, reciprocity, and rendering justice according to shared rules.

  • Care/Harm : Protecting the vulnerable and helping those in need.

  • Authority/Subversion : Submitting to tradition and legitimate authority.

  • Purity/Disgust : Abhorrence for things that evoke disgust.

  • Loyalty/Betrayal : Standing with one’s group, family or nation."

The study found that people on the progressive “wing” valued the first two, fairness and care, much more than the other pillars, but people in the middle and on the conservative “wing” tended to value all the pillars more equally. I think that is interesting to consider when thinking about how to communicate concern over climate change or the shared rules that go into establishing scientific consensus. If they are framed just in terms of the values of care or fairness, they will not resonate as well with other tribes as if they could be framed more equally in terms of some of the other values. It seems to me that maybe we don’t empathize enough with how more conservative Christians value purity, authority, and loyalty. Sometimes asking them to accept scientific consensus is going to be processed as asking them to betray one of these core values, whether it is about disgust at the idea of humans sharing ancestry with animals, not being perceived as showing enough respect for the authority of Scripture and traditional doctrine, or not being seen as loyal to the Christian social group that has in many ways defined themselves by their opposition to “secular” thinking.

Anyway, this is probably really long for an OP, but I thought some of the connections were kind of fascinating and I am interested in everyone’s thoughts.


Fascinating topic. Trying to get a handle on understanding both sides of the progressive/conservative divide evenly from some neutral viewpoint while clearly occupying one of them myself has been an elusive goal for some time. You probably can’t possibly guess which side I personally would be on. About the closest I’ve come is to make friends with some great people on the other side. Unfortunately, they couldn’t give me the insight I was looking for. The five moral foundations were helpful but not decisive for my purpose either.

I think you may be missing an angle on authoritarianism and parenting style here, and that is its connections to the Oord-style extreme free will EC view versus the Garvey-Eddie-style Neo-Reformed-leaning EC view. This explains tribes within the EC tent, along with their wider affinities outside that tent. I’m typing with my thumbs or else I would elaborate further, but hopefully it makes some sense…


@AMWolfe Could you expand on this a bit more? I’m not sure I’m familiar with these views and very curious.

@Christy Article looks very interesting but I’ve only skimmed it. Will read it after work.

Oord is an Open Theist. The other side of the spectrum would be Calvinists. I’m not sure about political alignments but in terms of the parenting and authoritarianism axis I think there certainly may be a correlation. I suspect that those who are more oriented toward free will have a less authoritarian structure. This is certainly true in the Protestant churches; free will-loving Anabaptists are also strictly egalitarian in church structure.


[my own emphasis added]

I love your choice of words there. What a confounding and sometimes confused bunch we can be… :crazy_face::crazy_face::confused:


I think this also goes back to loyalty and group identity, in that many Christians have it pounded into them from day one that we must not “conform to the world.” So when the entire world (or so it seems) says we evolved from a common ancestor with monkeys, who cares whether rejecting it makes us different? We’re supposed to be weird, and in fact, being ridiculed or seen as odd or nonconforming can actually confirm our “in-group” status (we’re proud of not having strayed outside the boundaries). It’s acceptance by the scientific community that can seem suspicious.

I also wonder how much of our adult views go back to how each of us was actually parented.


If you believe the psychologists, probably like 90%. :stuck_out_tongue:

Hmmm. Yes, you might be on to something there. I have been confused sometimes by comments like “BioLogos doesn’t care at all about theology” coming from the latter group. The response makes more sense if you understand that for some people, “doing theology” necessarily involves a deep understanding of and a certain amount of deference and submission to the theological authorities and established doctrinal structures. For the former group theology is more of an imaginative enterprise.

Though I wonder what comes first, the theology or the values. Are people attracted to certain theological stances because of intrinsic personal traits and values, or do certain theological systems instill and cultivate in people those traits and values? It’s probably a lot like nature/nurture and not something you can tease apart, but it’s interesting to think about.

In any case, just like with politics I think in EC conversations you sometimes get more vocal people on both extremes leading people to think there are only two camps, when the majority hang out in the middle with affinities and ambivalence with aspects of both the “wings.”


Just took the quiz and I’m a moderate (which makes sense to me). I read the entire PDF and am still processing things. I definitely identify with tribalism fatigue. Haidt wrote an article in Science in 2007 where he spoke then of six foundations of morality (care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity). Back then he said progressives preferentially value the first three and conservatives count all six and heavily value the last three.

@Christy I am fairly new to this community but would agree so far that BioLogos types probably feel less threatened in general than anti-evolution types. My thoughts are random as I’ve been on call but I recently read Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave about the biological basis for human behavior (knowing that I would disagree with his anti-theism, but I don’t feel threatened :wink: ). In chapter 12 he addresses the neurobiological correlation with political beliefs. Progressives tend to have more gray matter in the cingulate cortex (involved in empathy) and conservatives tend to have larger amygdalas (involved in threat perception). He argues for synergism of nature and nurture in developing these changes in the brain.

I agree with this statement which concisely states the issue at hand in my estimation:

I think all argumentation requires that we challenge folks on one of their dogmatically held core values. BioLogos and its contributing scholars are playing a key role in this difficult task but I’m optimistic that in the next generation more Christians who take the Bible seriously will recognize the validity of scientific claims about evolution (and other issues such as climate change).

Edited: to remove a verbose section revealing my sleep deprivation

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I took the quiz, but I feel like I just break quizzes like that. I can’t decide between answers and my life is too atypical to fit categories. Reading the descriptions, I think “moderate” describes my actions and lifestyle best. But I strongly agree philosophically with progressive activists on a large number of key issues. But unlike a typical progressive activist that they say lives in relative security and hangs out with educated people, I live in a dangerous place, with poor illiterate people and lots of violence and suffering, and that reality does a good job of killing the hope, optimism, and idealism that I hear from progressive activists that seems to suggest that if we all just understood how oppression works, we could fix things. I feel very powerless to actually fix anything, apart from the Kingdom of God transforming lives.


Seeing my name taken in vain here, just one post.

First, to say that this extreme polarisation is distinctly American - it is much less marked over here, though headed in the same direction. The interesting sociological question is not “Why are X and Y on side A and B”, but why those are the two sides at all.

For myself, back in 1972-3 I read social psychology at Cambridge, at a time when much radical politics was afoot there - the New Left was much influenced by Paris Maoism of the 1968 riots (and I had a psychology supervisor who had led the me-too equivalent in Cambridge before his conversion to Christ - an interesting guy).

I was one of only two Christians in the lectures, during which much (and I mean MUCH) was taught on “the authoritarian personality,” and required reading included Adorno, R D Laing, Reich and Marcuse etc. It permeated the syllabus from anti-psychiatry (The Myth of Mental Illness - psychiatry as authroitarian repression) through to Intelligence Testing (Race, Culture and Intelligence - IQ as an application of white supremacist authority). The Psychology of Interpersonal Behaviour told me how we hold our religious beliefs in subordination to authority, even though we don’t believe them… and so on.

And the whole class clearly took this stuff on board unquestioned. As you can imagine many doing social and political sciences were at the sit-ins during their time off (or the time they took off in protest). And chatting with them, it was interesting to me how many were reacting against the authority structures of their parents and, more particularly the private boarding schools (which we call public schools!) most of them had been sent to.

Now, I had gone to state school, and hadn’t had any reason to resent my parents, despite their mild ambivalence when I became a Christian. And, being a Christian amongst a Marxist (and therefore atheist leaning) peer group, I had accepted, willingly, a Lord over my life in the person of Jesus.

So I had reason to examine the “authoritarian personality” stuff skeptically, and to ask why it was so one-sidedly against the very concept of authority, and blind to its own political assumptions. It was a healthy time for me, not least because it liberated me from belief in the “objectivity” of the natural sciences I had been immersed in for years, as well as exposing me to a self-contained ideology in the social sciences.

Incidentally, regarding the alleged different brain structures of liberals and conservatives, another of the dictums that irked me in social psychology was the reduction of all human activity to nature or nurture, because (I was told) there is nothing else.

People in the social sciences now assure me that human free choice has, in the interim, been admitted back into sociology - so I was ahead of the curve on that - and part of that is the realization that the choices we make habitually will influence our brain structure.

It might have been interesting to study the brain of my supervisor both when he was a violent Maoist, and after he’d been a Pentecostal Christian for a few years. I’m not sure that either such studies, or his family background, would get to the bottom of why he chose the path he did.


Thank you @Jon_Garvey. This is a penetrating mirror to regard oneself in.


Thanks for sharing some of your story with us. Sorry for dragging you into this. You’re right of course about the peculiarly American categories we have of American left and American right. And, of course, as anyone who’s been paying attention can tell you, even our goalposts move year by year, so that things that were conservative last year are liberal next year and vice versa.

I often think that American Christianity really needs some outside perspectives from other cultural expressions of our faith to help free us from these tribal straitjackets.


Incidentally, interesting you mention Pentecostalism. It’s the natural counterexample to my alignment of free-will emphasis and egalitarianism. The Pentecostals I have known have been simultaneously the strongest defenders of free will theologically and the staunchest supporters of abusive, unaccountable and unquestioned, self-styled apostles. So perhaps my generalization bears revision…


At that stage the guy (I wish I could remember his name) was a new Christian, and had, I think, been shocked out of his Maoism by the witness of Pentecostals, so it was an accidental rather than conscious home.

One also needs to remember that 1973 was at the beginning of the Charismatic renewal, and that’s where a lot of things were happening - even in the Christian Union there was an interesting mix of cultures between suits and horn-rimmed specs and the hairy guitarists like me sympathetic to spiritual experiences (I wouldn’t have lasted two lectures in Social and Political Sciences without the jeans and hair!).

In fact Pentecostalism was relatively uncommon in Britain then, as probably now. I spent much of a previous journalistic career laying into the abuses of the Kentucky Fried Prophets, etc., but had some good friends from a strong Elim church in my town. Nothing is as clearcut as it may seem.


This reminds me of Christy’s dilemma of being disposed toward creation by evolution but recognizing that would be a bridge too far for friends she wouldn’t risk losing by questioning shared beliefs about creation. It seems the same dynamic plays out amongst the godless as well. Not really surprising I suppose.


Yes - a similar dilemma for the guitarist who tells his bandmates that he doesn’t want a puff, but would quite fancy a nice cup of tea and some cake.


I don’t understand “threatened by” in the context of this discussion. What is the threat?

In the research, I got the impression that the questions were designed to determine generally where people landed on a “perceived threat” versus “perceived security” in society continuum. They found out that how “threatened” or “secure” people felt was predictive of a variety of political views on things like immigration, multi-culturalism, race, crime, etc.

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The NT tells us to seek our salvation or security in Jesus and not in “the world.” Today it seems that too many people who claim to have their security in Jesus are instead motivated by fear of people who are different ethnically from themselves, and find their security in the things of this world like money and social/cultural privilege.

The Kingdom of God needs to be our reference, rather than some human ideology, no matter how good it sounds. The goodness of the tree is proven by its fruit and the fruit is bad .

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“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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