Evangelicals and the Social Sciences

Thursday, 23rd August 2012 at 9:21 UTC 8 comments

Despite certain stereotypes and even the best efforts of the media, most Western Christians today do not hold to a literalist view of creation – they believe something approximating to a divinely inspired and intended creation worked out through the processes described by modern science. In fact, science degrees are thought to be more popular than arts degrees amongst UK Christians students. But this only refers to ‘hard science’ – what of the Social Sciences? Is the Church unable to extend its understanding of divine inspiration beyond Biology, Chemistry and Physics?

I’ve just been to Momentum, the students, school-leavers and twenty-something’s event run by Soul Survivor. On the whole, Soul Survivor are great – they explicitly support women in ministry and have been leaders in church child protection policy for two decades. But one thing stuck out this week: a massive distrust of anything that social science has to say about the modern world.

Where most Evangelicals accept (and I realise this is a simplification) that hard sciences like biology and physics tell us how the world was made and that our faith gives us insight in why the world was made, sociology, anthropology, social psych and the less biological side of psychology are viewed with deep suspicion.

I’m not even really sure why this is. Its become the norm for Christians to pray prayers like “thank you God that you’ve allowed scientists to show us how wonderfully you designed your creation”, but never “thank you God that you’ve allowed sociologists to understand the amazing diversity amongst the people you’ve created”. But here are a few observations:

It is a basic premise of many Evangelical Christian’s understanding of humanity that each of us should discover our God-given identity. This identity is an exclusionary Christian identity[1] – we are Children of God and we can be nothing else. I generally use the term “Christian Identitist Movement” to refer to this line of thinking, but its not a common term.

Bizarrely, the only deviation from this thinking is that someone is a ‘Man of God’ or a ‘Woman of God’. No combination with any other Identity is accepted – people are not Black Children of God or Disabled Children of God. On one hand, I get why this came about – the world labels us to give us places within a hierarchy, and there is a perception that to be a Disabled Child of God is to not be fully a Child of God; the former tarnishing the latter amidst a failure to embrace a better model of disability (or even accept that the model of Disability that the Western Church has subscribed to has changed considerably over recent centuries[2]).

Then it hit me: most of those who I have seen speaking about casting off any other identity and just being a Christian/Child of God have ticked two or more of the following: white, male, middle-class, in a straight marriage. Could it be that the Evangelical Church finds sociological theories of identity threatening, because they inherently carry a sense of privilege or non-privilege?

In fact, I’ve only ever heard White preachers talk about worship being divorced of culture, of a colour-blind tradition. I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard a Disabled Christian say disabled people shouldn’t identify as such. The exception to this is people who claim ‘same sex attraction’ but refuse to be called Gay. I’ve had conversations with Christians who want to dispute the validity of Goth churches, but they’ve never been Goths; ditto skaters, ditto Deaf people, ditto Work Class people.

This is only one facet of the rejection of social sciences by the Evangelical Church today. Others include outright refusal to acknowledge any validity to the claim that language lacks a static underlying meaning and that class has any meaning whatsoever.

So what is my problem here? Its essentially this: Evangelicalism has largely come to terms with a God big enough to rely on a process like the Big Bang to bring about his intended world, and yet remains unable to reconcile the diversity of created humans and the intricacies of cultural development to God’s plan. Ultimately it leaves us with an imperialist faith that ignores the message of the Tower of Babel story in Genesis, where God gives people their different languages and identities. The Social Sciences could provide Evangelicalism with fresh insights, and yet it refuses to acknowledge the possibilities.


[1] I either need to cite Manuel Castells’ book on Identity or John Holloway’s “Change the world without taking power”. I suspect both talk about this phenomena within Identity Theory.

[2] My friend Imbecillis needs citing here. He’s looking for funding for a PhD in medieval Christian understandings of disability. If you can fund him, please do.


Entry filed under: Church, Culture, Education, Religion.

Church Shopping Normalising Extremism

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Greg  |  Thursday, 23rd August 2012 at 11:13 UTC

    Are ‘social sciences’ science? Discuss`!

    Could I also suggest that your meeting of a lot of white Christians has more to do with your living in Britain than with anything else? Christianity is the most adaptable, contextual religion around, which has fitted in with dozens of cultures around the world. Our holy book can be translated into any language and so can our faith – ask Wycliffe bible translators, or just speak to an anglican Englishman (or woman if you prefer), a pentecostal African, a Lutheran German and a few others. I’d also suggest (though I’m diverging into anecdote here) that working class Christians are the more likely to be evangelical – the independent nonconformist evangelical churches I’ve visited have almost always been the less posh ones. I suspect (completely unscientifically) that it’s been that way since the Methodist revival, via the time in Wales where you could ask someone whether they were church or chapel.

    We are primarily children of God – that identity trumps everything. Other, peripheral identities exist, but they should be discarded if they’re getting in the way of what’s most important. To quote the man “If your eye should cause you to sin … “, I’m also reminded of the parable of the seven broghers, where Jesus tells us that we’ll all be single in heaven. That’s a hard pill for some people to swallow, but then we enter the world with nothing and so will we leave it – it’s not a good idea to get laden down with too much baggage in the interim.

    We need to deal with people’s situations where they’re at, and yes, that involves dealing with the unique issues they bring to the table from their background. What you may be missing is that ‘network’ churches lead to tribalism, at the expense of catholicity. We’re all one big family of God and we should model that to the world in the way that we worship him: black and white, male and female, rich and homeless all together. The churches I’ve known that have approached that ideal have been some of the most successful and godly churches that I’ve known, and I don’t think that’s any coincidence.

    P.S. I don’t usually say this anymore but it’s quite ironic for you to talk about linguistics when you have the punctuation and grammar skills of an early teen. Your rejection of the English language annoys me.

  • 2. Graham Martin  |  Thursday, 23rd August 2012 at 13:03 UTC

    Para 2: it has to do with my living in York. Inside the M25, Black Christians outnumber White Christians. Your grasp of Church stats is shocking. The I agree that the Pentecostal movement has done a lot to de-Britishify Christianity around the world, and that its largely an Anglican problem where we used to march in with the bible in one hand, the prayer book in the other and an army at our side. Also, I agree with your final point in this paragraph.

    Para 3: saying they’re peripheral is much easier if you are of the historically privileged side on each spectrum. Who decides if they’re getting in the way? Claiming Colourblindness doesn’t make you look good anymore. Discard all Identities and you leave those who aren’t White, Male, in Straight marriages, Educated, non-Disabled to be invisible. What has that parable got to do with anything I’m writing about? We are told that in heaven “all the nations will assemble before God”. This implies that nation will be important! We’re meant to live in beautiful harmony, not uniform melody.

    Para 4: You really love the word “Tribalism”, don’t you? I’m not even sure you actually understand the diversity of tribalisms, or indeed the extent to which most tribal tension in the world is the result of Western intervention. Catholicity =/= Uniformity.

    Anyhow, now we know what Greg thinks, anyone else want to comment?

  • 3. imbecillis  |  Thursday, 23rd August 2012 at 18:52 UTC

    Just a few thoughts (thanks for the citation by the way Graham)
    Though my views on this are quite well documented, here is a brief summary. The Church in the West is inherently ethnocentric. It’s true that growing up in a culture you absorb its values, proxies and mores and view them to be the norm, and judge all other cultures on the basis of this (John T. Omohundro (2008). Thinking like an Anthropologist: A practical introduction to Cultural Anthropology). The church does this on a very regular basis. The outrage caused by a comparison between literal transubstantiation and any other form of deistic anthropophagy is perhaps a telling example of this (I admit that there is not a great deal of scholar consensus of the later, given the frequent uses of anthropophagy as a cultural stereotype used to rhetorically enforce culture superiority). The view that all other identities are to be submitted, or cast off in favour of a single theocentric one size fits all is fundamentally flawed given large amounts of Biblical teaching on the matter. Christ breaks cultural taboos between cultures, he does not destroy cultures themselves. The teaching of the early Christians is one of equality between cultures, not a uniformity of culture – the two are not one and the same. Furthermore it is clear these cultural distinctions do carry over – else how can Revelation declare that there shall be people of every tongue, tribe and nation in Heaven, if such things cease to exist in a significant and real sense? The same way, when at a discussion group the question of deafness came up – “Will deaf people be deaf in heaven?” – the general answer from amongst Christians is a resounding and triumphant ‘No’, while the answer from critical, cultural theory and largely from the deaf community is – “It depends on whether you’re Deaf or deaf.” One is a culture, the other is a condition and as such part of the individual’s identity. The debate as regards the significance of disability in this context is on going – some scholars argue that it was not viewed as part of identity since, unlike gender, it does not carry over into heaven (Metzler, 2006, Disability in Medieval Society – Thinking about Physical Impairment in the High Middle Ages), while others (including myself) dispute this given the significant impact of conditions on both social and religious standing, and the rhetorical usage of terms for disabilities in narratives of moral correction. It’s worth noting that we talk of ‘black’ and ‘white’ here – when human ethnicity have a much broader variation. There is also an important distinction to be drawn between the ‘majority’ of a movement and the ‘leadership’ or ‘figureheads’ of a movement. The status Graham identifies is in effect a Venn diagram of the leadership of many evangelical movements, The worry growth of some extreme evangelical ‘churches’ amongst my own community is an example of this – particular in its desire to destroy large areas of tradition within the community.

    The respond to Greg – If linguistics are your thing it might interest you to look up the etymological root of the word ‘science’. It’s ‘scientia’ – ‘organised knowledge’ – hence why theology is sometimes described as the ‘queen of sciences’.
    The argument that all other identities submit to the view that we are all Children of God is imply that these identities are something created by man – rather than something which God himself made and intended to be a part of us. This goes against a lot of Biblical teaching and more generalised Christian teaching, especially that during the medieval period. Also your usage of the word ‘tribalism’ as a negative is firstly a misuse of the term, and secondly in the context in which you use it inherently an ethnocentric, and basically racist term.

  • 4. Peter Birkinshaw (@failingtofollow)  |  Saturday, 25th August 2012 at 14:09 UTC

    I’m going to leave the social theory as we’re already way beyond my expertise on that one.

    However, I do think there’s a slight ‘undistributed middle’ issue here. In this case…

    Evangelicals have a problem with social sciences.
    Social Science deal with diversity
    Therefore Evangelicals have a problem with diversity

    (Sorry Graham that this is the crassest form of your argument, but it makes the point)

    I suspect that the more Evangelical strains of Christianity struggle with social sciences because they find them challenging and feel out of their depth in most debates. Particularly as social sciences, like most academic disciplines of the past century, largely start from a point of skepticism (and rightly so). So as pulpit bred pop-sociology can no longer stand up to thinking with the weight of academic and professional research, Evangelicism has run scared from the subject – or cornered itself into biblical literalism as it needs to find ways to justify arguments that no longer match the evidence.

    Hopefully, as happened with physics and biology, as more social scientists are able to navigate the territory, a better understanding will develop. Though my guess is that it’ll be even more of an uphill struggle, mainly because it requires the church to admit it doesn’t have the final say in some areas of social commentary it would like to think it does.

    (On diversity, I suspect the church is a mixed bag, but why this is requires more thought than the comments thread on a blog post)

  • 5. Greg  |  Wednesday, 29th August 2012 at 23:26 UTC

    My grasp of church stats is shocking? Really? I’m afraid habitually ignore any arguments from statistics that don’t provide any, stats themselves. Care to do that? In the meantime, I’ll remind you that Christianity is a religion that started in the Middle East, spread to Europe as well as some other places, spend the last century doing best in Africa and is hotly tipped to spend the next century doing best in China. Given all that, I don’t feel any overpowering need to do the “Oh no I’m so privileged” flaggelation trick.

    We all find some bits of the gospel harder to accept than others. Of course we do, just like we all have our own weak spots and our own favourite sins – and those weak spots aren’t even always our fault: plenty of people have had trouble with family attachments because of their faith. That may make it harder for them to accept the gospel, but it doesn’t make it any less necessary – neither does attachment to colour or class, or the loss of a marital bond in the next life. We all have our own unique stumbling blocks, but that doesn’t mean that we can simply carry them around with us rather than letting God help us get over them.

  • 6. helenspeaks  |  Tuesday, 4th September 2012 at 22:43 UTC

    I didn’t read that story as Jesus saying that we’ll be single in Heaven. I think he was saying there would be no marriage, but that doesn’t mean singleness as we know it. In Heaven, surely the love and the trust in a good marriage would be extended to all

    • 7. helenspeaks  |  Tuesday, 4th September 2012 at 22:45 UTC

      Or in other words, we aren’t losing anyone in heaven, we’re gaining everyone. We won’t be single, we’ll be polyamorous 🙂

  • 8. Greg  |  Thursday, 6th September 2012 at 13:30 UTC

    I don’t think ‘polyamorous’ is any more accurate than ‘single’! Anyway, the point I was making was that people had to get over their ‘part of a couple’ identity in order to fulfil their ‘child of God’ identity in the next life – the relevant point being that multifarious identities are so much baggage that we’ll eventually have to lose.

    Carl Trueman does a good job of voicing my problem with identiy politics, here: http://www.wtsbooks.com/pdf_files/9781596381834.pdf Basically, the Left has lost its monopoly on dealing with real, economic oppression, so it’s sold out to the idea of oppression of identity, allowing middle class kids to get a kick out of being radical while not actually doing anyone much good. Meanwhile, the Left has lost its raison d’etre and is alienating a lot of Christians, who should be its natural supporters, with its new – point less but also sub-Christian – pronouncements.


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