Obviously, this declaration is an important contribution to the debate regarding global warming (or, more euphemistically: ‘climate change’), inviting a number of enthusiastic as well as more critical comments in the media.
What I would like to discuss briefly are two elements in the Declaration that I think are important notifiers for how the Vatican – or, at least, the participants in the Workshop – sees the relation between science and religion.
First, there is this quote:
We have considered the overwhelming scientific evidence regarding human-induced climate change, the loss of biodiversity, and the vulnerabilities of the poor to economic, social, and environmental shocks.
In the face of the emergencies of human-induced climate change, social exclusion, and extreme poverty, we join together to declare that:
Human-induced climate change is a scientific reality, and its decisive mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity;
In this core moral space, the world’s religions play a very vital role. (emphasis added)
What you see happening here, is science offering the facts and figures, which then can be interpreted by religion. There are no quotes from any sacred scripture (the Workshop was inter religious) or references to any religious tradition to argue for or against climate change. To use Mikael Stenmark‘s terms: there is no ideological expansionism on the territory of science. The Declaration goes on to point to the consequences of climate change, which clearly are of a moral nature. It is in this regard, the Declaration states, that religious communities have a contribution to make.
This not only goes against the grain of some climate change deniers, but it also makes clear where the importance of the dialogue between science and religion ultimately lies: not in apologetics, not in defending the rationality of religion (however important these aspects are, and however much attention we should devote to this), but in enabling religion to help improving the world we live in. From a Christian perspective one could say that the dialogue between religion and science ultimately is at service of the coming of Gods Kingdom, but that might sound a bit too hyperbolic for some. Regardless, our conclusion could be that the Declaration suggests a ‘division of labour’, with science dealing with the facts, and religion dealing with how to act on these facts.
But there’s more, just a few lines beneath the former quote:
They (the world’s religions) affirm the beauty, wonder, and inherent goodness of the natural world, and appreciate that it is a precious gift entrusted to our common care, making it our moral duty to respect rather than ravage the garden that is our home;
Here the perspective from which scientific data are to be interpreted becomes clear. Each religious tradition looks at the world as a gift. This implies, of course, that people of faith do not only learn about moral rules from their religious tradition. They learn to look at the world from the perspective of their religious tradition. The Declaration is very brief about what this world view entails, but the phrase “a precious gift entrusted to our common care”, is clear enough. Although this might seem rather obvious, I think this gives us an indication that a division of labour between religion and science is not what the authors had in mind when writing the Declaration.
Because a religious perspective could well be able to criticize a scientific one. Let us pretend that scientific research indicates that climate change is not caused by human action, but by natural processes. That would still leave us with devastating pollution and ever more precarious living conditions, especially for the poor. A view on the world as “a precious gift entrusted to our common care”, a view on the world-as-it-could-be, would still be difficult to reconcile with the world-as-it-is. Questions could be raised, from a religious perspective, about the choices we, as a global community, make. Questions for which, in order to find answers that can lead to informed policy making, we need the help of sciences.
The Declaration thus, in my view, shows two aspects of how the authors see the relation between science and religion:
- The dialogue between science and religion is ultimately about making this world a better place.
- Religious traditions have an important heritage to bring to the dialogue with science: their views on how the world could be.
I think these two elements alone account for both the importance of positive relations between science and religion, and its complexity.