What Scott Pruitt's Misapplied Bible Verse Says About Science and Religion

Director of the Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt places his hand on a Bible as he is sworn into his post. Carlos Barria/Reuters

Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, invoked an uncited Bible verse in a highly criticized announcement that he would change EPA rules so scientists who receive funding from the agency cannot serve on its advisory boards. The decision, which is unprecedented, has prompted outrage among the scientific community. But beyond that, Pruitt's biblical reference seems ot have struck a nerve.

Media outlets were quick to pounce on the inclusion of a biblical verse. "Joshua says to the people of Israel: choose this day whom you are going to serve," Pruitt said according to BuzzFeed News. "This is sort of like the Joshua principle—that as it relates to grants from this agency, you are going to have to choose either service on the committee to provide counsel to us in an independent fashion or chose the grant. But you can't do both."

The verse Pruitt is likely citing, Joshua 24:15, has nothing to do with leadership. Instead, the prophet Joshua tells the people of Schechem to abandon all Gods who are not the God of Israel.

The response to Pruitt's statement has less to do with religious rhetoric and more to do with the fact that he is breaking precedent, and, as groups of scientists and policymakers are claiming, is clearing the advisory boards of the top scientists in their fields so that industry-backed scientists who work for corporations regulated by the EPA can join instead. One researcher told BuzzFeed "this directive is nuts." Many outlets have reported that this is seen as a clear move to prevent scientists from serving on the advisory board so that they can be replaced by people from industry.

News headlines have highlighted the fact that Pruitt quoted the Bible as part of his rhetoric in explaining the decision. The scrutiny of that quote highlights a perceived tension between science and religion. But these two disciplines don't always exist in opposition to one another.

In the United States, the understanding of the intersection of the two often brings to mind the Scopes Trial, which lives on in the popular imagination as a story of religion versus evolution. But religion and science have not always been understood as divided, and in fact, are not by many people. Scientists from several faith groups attended the March for Science. And while some groups apply biblical rhetoric to justify positions on matters that involve scientific research, no religious group is a monolith.

The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, has been highly critical of religion and is seen as a major figure in the New Atheist movement. But other scientists readily reconcile the two or do not see them as incompatible in the first place. Francis Collins, the geneticist and director of the National Institutes of Health, who has called himself a "serious Christian," has spoken publicly about the compatibility of science and religion. "I find it oddly anachronistic that in today's culture there seems to be a widespread presumption that scientific and spiritual views are incompatible," Collins told National Geographic.

But as Pruitt's decision shows, this is less about religion and more about other interests—and genuine divisions.