The War on Science and its Secular Cloak

Recently I’ve been reading The War on Science  by Chris Turner. Turner chronicles the Harper government’s steady dismantling of Canada’s environmental science infrastructure and the instantiation of anti-environmentalism into public policy. Turner documents Harper’s apparent insistence on thwarting environmental research and erecting barriers between evidence and policy.  Turner places his critique in an historical context that positions Harper as an enemy of science and a problem politician to the extent that what we formerly considered political scars now look like beauty marks. I’m exaggerating, of course, but I’m referring to the actions of Mulroney that left the country in financial despair and whose party was virtually demolished at the end of his parliamentary tenure. Mulroney, according to Turner, at least sought evidence-informed intervention in the problem of acid rain signaling an interest in the well-being of the country and its inhabitants.  If Mulroney and Harper are going to be compared, however, I’d like to point out another dissimilarity—under Harper, the country’s financial state cannot, arguably, be characterized in terms of despair.

According to Turner, Harper’s agenda is quite straight forward (loc 404 Kindle ed.): “Do No Science, Hear No Science, Speak No Science” — that is the Harper agenda. And if this agenda is most evident and most pronounced in environmental science, that is simply because it is the field most likely to uncover evidence that the government’s paramount goal — to free the country’s resource extraction industries from regulatory oversight in the name of rapid expansion — is wrongheaded, reckless, and damaging.”

Twice Turner quotes environmental scientist David Schindler’s comments about the deep cuts of Bill C-38: “The kindest thing I can say is that these people don’t know enough about science to know the value of what they are cutting” (361 and 1415).

I don’t dispute this author’s presentation of the data nor do I dispute his interpretation or analysis—that can be left up to others more qualified than me. My problem with this book draws on a point I made in an earlier post but now want to expand on here.

While I understand and appreciate Turner’s obvious frustration and outrage, I am not convinced of the picture he paints of the Harper government. Is it really the case that all of those powerful government officials are so uneducated, stupid, naive, silly, evil, stubborn, greedy, or whatever ill-characterization we might choose? Moreover, what do we make of those who elected them, repeatedly, not to mention those — such as the scientists, academics and generally concerned citizens—who have had little success in intervening to change Harper’s direction?

I do not think that the Harper government’s narrative is that simple. While he and his government have thus far taken a most obvious anti-environmentalist stance, there are more clues to be found as to some other things that might be going on and that might be connected to this war.

In 2010 Marci MacDonald published The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada. In this book, MacDonald offers another framework from which to understand some of the Harper government’s activities. She suggests that the Harper government is working in step with Canada’s Christian-right faction that seeks to instantiate its biblical ideology, couched in an end-times prophetic narrative, into the public mind and policy. In terms of Harper’s anti-environmentalism, this narrative makes more sense, though it too has some major gaps.

Just to give a couple of easy examples:  The Christian-right has the propensity to take the Bible quite literally (or quasi-literally I would argue), so it’s not such a leap for those operating in such a framework to interpret the declining environmental state as a sign of the end times and not the natural outcome of human behavior and activity (e.g., Luke 21:11: 11 — “There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven” [NIV]).   Or, there’s the view that God has given man dominion over the Earth and, apparently, the economy it facilitates, and good stewardship is manifested and rewarded by the bearing of abundant fruits (yes, the metaphors are a study onto themselves).

MacDonald’s framework is not a good enough answer either, however. There are indeed many movements afoot within the sphere of the Christian-right that advocate for careful environmental stewardship, are strongly concerned with the impact of environmental degradation on the poor, and disavow profits-at-all cost ambitions. Moreover, one might argue that there remains an acute environmental apathy within the Canadian culture more generally that is unassociated with religious beliefs whatsoever. The Liberals had had a robust environmental agenda as a key element of their platform in previous elections, but they lost rather dramatically. This is not a simple story and we cannot blame everything on one particular ideological orientation at work in our political culture.

My point(s) is(are) simple: there is much work to be done!! We cannot continue to talk about Harper’s “War on Science” without talking about the religious orientations of our elected officials to the extent that such orientations guide and/or influence public policy decisions. In a paper presented to the Canadian Political Science Association at Concordia in 2010, Jonathon Malloy makes some important and relevant points. Drawing on direct interviews with evangelical MPs he writes that “most self-identified evangelicals do not emphasize the building of separate and parallel ‘Christian’ institutions, but emphasize some variation of actions as ‘salt and light’ (see Matthew 5) within existing institutions” (pg 6). Furthermore, he writes, “evangelicals commonly argue that their faith does not necessarily determine their views on specific issues. Rather, it is a sense that their faith underlies their entire character and outlook, and particularly their personal integrity” (pg12).

Many of us may well look at the beliefs and assertions of religious groups and think to ourselves or aloud “This is crazy. Ridiculous.” But it is also ridiculous to simply write off a government and its public associates as irrational, stupid, and greedy particularly when this group, or at least subsections of this group, takes great pains to operate with a high degree of integrity. And I believe they are sincere. It seems easier for us to believe that people are greedy and evil, but such judgment seems to me to fall smack-dab in the center of the same religious framework that we are assailing. We take the narrative of good and evil without question, and so if Harper and his people are simply evil than we need a different religious narrative—one that offers some type of salvation to both the earth and its inhabitants. In this narrative we are coerced into seeking a new savior—one that will save the government from itself. “Forgive them–they know not what they do.”

The insistence of a secular cloak on politics is probably one of the greatest boons to those seeking to impose religious ideology into the public sphere. It forces people to seek and develop ways to quietly embed personal faith and beliefs into public pursuits thus it turns our attention away from the messiness of personal faith and beliefs onto the concise little policy outcomes to which they give rise. It also traps those seeking recourse into the easy narratives of profit and greed or whacko conspirators seeking to rule the world for some god to explain what is happening and why we can’t seem to do much about it. These are copouts.  The secular cloak seems to have truly partitioned off a sacred ground and granted it license to foster mystery and mystique—not a platform for democracy that I would embrace. And while Canada presents its ideally partitioned church-state profile to the world, the beliefs and ideas of the Christian-right, who or whatever this is or whatever it really means in Canada, are being carefully and cleanly translated into public policy and practices.

There is certainly a growing body of scholarship on the Christian-right in Canada, but we need more–more nuanced and just more, particularly in regards to science, policy and the general intellectual/academic milieu. We usually associate the political influence of the Christian-right with American politics, but while the US factions parade their worldview on Fox News for the world to cheer, challenge, mock or whatever one’s reaction might be, nothing much is said here in Canada. But lots is being done. It’s not a case of all talk and no action. It’s exactly the opposite.

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