It’s easy to react with incredulity when politicians like Missouri congressman, Todd Akin, state that most women who’ve been ‘legitimately raped’ don’t get pregnant because of ‘bodily secretions’ that would prevent it.
It’s also easy to accuse folks like Akin of being hypocrites who try to maintain a sincere religious belief on one hand and yet can seem so ignorant and lacking in compassion on the other. However, the very science that Akin attempts to invoke in his explanation can provide some answers as to why the congressman seems to express such contrary tendencies.
Several studies have confirmed that people often maintain contrary beliefs and use science and superstition in combination rather than opting for one or the other.
Todd Akin’s comments are a case in point. Note that he attempts to explain the rather bizarre idea that it’s hard for raped women to get pregnant (when in fact they get pregnant at about the same rate as women having sex under consensual circumstances) by appealing to what appears at first glance to be a physiological response. He’s not invoking the protection of spirits or the Divine, he’s trying to be scientific, opting for medical language, even though he clearly has little understanding of biology.
In the same fashion, anti-gay activists have used the practices of psychology, biology and functionalist sociology to convince themselves and others that “gayness” is simply a choice or that it can be cured, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. The fact that such a stance would imply that heterosexuality is also merely a choice never seems to occur to them.
So, in these cases, it’s fair to say that science is being used in the service of specific supernatural and even superstitious views about correct human behavior and response.
Additionally, according to Elliot Aronson, Mr. Akin also appears to be attempting to address an issue of cognitive dissonance, a relatively common psychological phenomenon that has been clinically documented for decades. It involves an individual attempting to juggle and believe in at least two contrary ideas or behaviors.
In this instance, Mr. Akin is trying to reconcile his belief that he is a compassionate religious man who doesn’t want to accuse any particular woman unnecessarily, but at the same time, deeply believes that “good women probably don’t get raped,” and if they do, something about it is God’s will, whether they’re protected from pregnancy or not.
Another recent study, with real world implications, shows that individuals who merge unsupported belief and science usually do so because they really don’t understand either, and feel genuinely threatened in some fashion. If a scientific explanation makes sense, parts of it might be used, but only the aspects of it that can be easily understood, sound familiar or can be used to bolster already held convictions.
As the above link describes, social scientists working in South Africa among AIDS patients found that when faced with the real physical threat of AIDS, individuals will opt for a combination of scientific and superstitious/supernatural explanations of their illness based on what makes them feel safer.
One can also see these tendencies among Creationists, for example, who generally are attempting to merge certain facets of evolutionary theory with the creation story specifically found in the Bible. No other creation stories are used or admitted as possible. Only those aspects of evolution that can be used to support the biblical Genesis are regarded as factual, in spite of evidence, and any controversy among scientists is used as a pretext for questioning evolution generally.
The cognitive dissonance here is significant: the evidence for evolution is strong and Creationists can’t avoid it, yet, their attachment to the meaningful narrative of the Bible is just as strong. Therefore, the Bible, somehow, has to be made into a scientific text in order to be revelation, because, science has been accepted as the arbiter of truth.
It isn’t just evangelical Christians who are sometimes caught in these dilemmas. New Agers have their share of cognitive dissonances and mergers of science/superstition as well.
Every metaphysical bookstore in New York features material on the end of the Mayan calendar in December 2012. Many people believe the end of the world, in some fashion, is really coming this time.
However, science and the Mayan people, tell us that the Mayan calendar is just resetting itself (like the Western calendar did in 2000) and while there have been apocalyptic changes in Earth’s past (and will be again) most of them take thousands if not millions of years to accomplish. The most pressing concern for humanity is probably whether we’re going to survive long enough to see any of those changes, and that’s on us, not a cosmic event.
Oddly, New Agers often seem to share the Evangelical predilection for disaster, perhaps because the “real world” is experienced as unbearable by both. Rather than consulting the Mayan people, many New Agers would rather use the astonishing mathematical calculations of a non-Western people for their own spiritual aggrandizement.
It seems that many Christians and New Agers could do with a bigger dose of both real faith AND science.