Religion and Science in “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity. The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Humanity”

Earlier this week, a “Final Declaration” was published from a workshop on climate change, organized by, amongst others, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

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.

10 thoughts on “Religion and Science in “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity. The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Humanity”

  1. “…is science offering the facts and figures, which then can be interpreted by religion.”
    “with science dealing with the facts, and religion dealing with how to act on these facts.”

    Excuse me, but given the awful track-record of the religious dealing with scientific fact, as a scientist, this sounds like an awfully presumptuous statement. Besides, science does not need the random religious interpretation of facts. We already have irrational and dogmatic politicians to deal with. In this case, the facts damn well speak for themselves, what is there left to interpret? And how we should act is something science has cried out for decades, but was met with fierce dogmatic irrational propaganda from… yes, the religious right, big and large. If anything, religion has done immense harm when it comes to public awareness of the problem. All this is just TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE.

    1. I’m not sure from which context you wrote this comment, but the argument that we do not need interpretation is, philosophically speaking, just not true. The same goes for the hypothesis of conflict between science and religion you seem to advocate for. Historical research has shown that this hypothesis does not correlate with the data we have. See, for instance, “Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion
      “And how we should act is something science has cried out for decades”: the need to care for our natural environment belongs to the very core of many religions, including Christianity. “The religious right” is far from the majority position in Christianity, at least when you expand your view to the world outside the USA.

      1. I clearly said “science does not need the random RELIGIOUS interpretation of facts”

        Galileo got life-long house arrest. That is SO much better than jail, how considerate of them!
        Also I would love to see ‘the data’. You show me a title of a book behind a paywall, not even peer-reviewed. Of course the church bullied anyone with views that endangered their status. science undermined their authority, made them look like fools. You honestly believe a powerhouse like that would innocently stand by? Let’s just be honest about it, no need to defend it. And it’s OK to move on and accept it as it is.

        “”The religious right” is far from the majority position in Christianity”: I would not be so sure of that. Just go to France, UK, Ireland, Poland; Italy. Turn on the news ans see thousands of Catholic people protest against LBTG rights in the biggest cities in Europe.

        Ever considered the possibility that it is you and your environment who is the actually the minority? Or that it is you who distorts the true message, who cherry-picks the occasional nice moral because it fits with your preconception of what is good and discards all the bigotry? Ken Ham, for example, is just as ‘right’ as you are when he ‘interprets’ the scripture. What makes you think otherwise? It is you who has to do all the forced and constipated interpretation to turn something ugly into ‘barely acceptable’. Ken Ham simply reads what’s in the damn book, should he not? Why should there be some ‘interpretation’ or ‘contextualisation’? Is the original not good enough? What makes his interpretation less valid then yours? Maybe the simple answer is that Ken Ham is actually more catholic then you are?

      2. This is just silly. Every book is behind a ‘paywall’: you have to pay a library membership fee, or buy the book at a bookstore to be able to read it. There is a lot more to read about this subject. A simple ‘google scholar’ session could provide you with some peer reviewed sources.
        BTW: Galileo was put under house arrest not so much for his scientific theories, but more because of his troubled personal relation with the pope. A nuanced picture is offered by the website of the Vatican Observatory, itself a living example of how the relation between science and religion is more nuanced, and certainly more positive, than you seem to think.
        Concerning the last paragraph of your comment, it baffles me that you end up defending a literal reading of Scripture, denying the need for interpretation. We learned from philosophy of science that ruling out interpretation is impossible, so “simply reading what’s in the damn book” (I would prefer if you avoided cursing in the future) is simply not possible. “The original” is always mediated, can never be accessed directly. But it is interesting to see how right Ian Barbour was: he argued that the conflict thesis actually showed how the positions of biblical literalists (Ken Ham) and scientific materialists (you?), although shouting at each other from opposite sides of the fence, are actually fundamentally the same:

        ian Barbour, Religion and Science, p. 78: “Scientific materialism is at the opposite end of the theological spectrum from biblical literalism. But they share several characteristics that lead me to discuss them together. Both believe that there are serious conflicts between contemporary science and classical religious beliefs. Both seek knowledge with a sure foundation – that of logic and sense data, in the one case, that of infallible scripture, in the other. They both claim that science and theology make rival literal statements about the same domain, the history of nature, so that one must choose between them. I will suggest that scientific materialism and biblical literalism both represent a misuse of science. The scientific materialist starts from science but ends by making broad philosophical claims. The biblical literalist moves from theology to make claims about scientific matters. In both schools of thought, the differences between the two disciplines are not adequately respected.

  2. “The need to care for our natural environment belongs to the very core of many religions, including Christianity.”

    The bible says as good as nothing about caring about the environment (but go ahead and find me some obscure quote). Why should it, these kind of problems were alien to people back then. If anything, it says earth is a gift to men who has complete dominion over every other living thing. Needless to say this has been misused by fundamentalists to mistreat and look down on other species.

    1. I don’t think you have read the Bible well, since it is abound with metaphorical references to nature, the connection between nature and humanity, and God’s care for nature. I also disagree with your claim that people tended to care less (or not) for nature 2,000 years ago. Chances are that their relation with nature, on which they depended more visibly than we do now (with our industrialized agriculture), was far more intimate than ours. Good, recent reads on how current theology conceives of the relation between humanity and nature are “Ask the Beasts” or, obviously, the recent encyclical by pope Francis, Laudatio sii. As for other religions, one need only to look at Buddhist environmental actions, or read Lansings work on the role of religion in managing the relation between Bali’s farmers and their environment, to understand that your position can only be part of a much broader picture, in which the abuse of religion to “mistreat and look down on other species” needs to, has been, and will be put under criticism, both from outside and from inside different religious traditions.

  3. “Galileo was put under house arrest not so much for his scientific theories, but more because of his troubled personal relation with the pope.” Again, I fail to see how this makes any difference? One of the greatest minds of his generation was bullied by some ignorant disgrace of a human being, due to a conflict of interest. Completely unacceptable. I think it is ‘baffling’ you are still trying to downplay this?

    The Ian Barbour quote is indeed very interesting. Yes, I completely identify with the scientific “materialist”. But of course i do not agree that I “misuse science”.

    Also, you fail to understand that the scientific community is no asking party for the religious interpretation or symbiosis of whatever you want to call it. You invited yourself to the party. And they have every reason to be extremely skeptical whenever faith groups approach science, since: “there are serious conflicts between contemporary science and classical religious beliefs.”

    I will spell it out. religion = faith-based; science = fact-based. facts are the absence of faith, they are the perfect opposite. By definition, this makes science and religion complete opposites, mutually exclusive, fundamentally incompatible.

    “The scientific materialist starts from science but ends by making broad philosophical claims.” Again, I couldn’t agree more: what better foundation for making broad philosophical claims than those offered by the rigorous, factual based scientific method. It is the greatest achievement of mankind, and note, it did not need religious insight at all, in fact, it blasted them out of the water, time and time again, as immature attempts to explain our world, our universe, and most importantly our place in it.

    So if that defines me as a scientific materialist, I will PROUDLY wear that banner.

    This will be my last post. I said what I wanted to say to you, you can put it on your blog or not, doesn’t matter to me. cheers.

  4. You used the Galileo case as an example of conflict between science and religion, I indicated that the example, as well as the conflict thesis are not as clear-cut as you presented them.
    Dialogue between science and religion is foremost of theological importance, what Philip Hefner would call “building a worldview”. It’s about finding meaning, more than it is about apologetics. The opposition you construct between science and religion is flawed, as is your presentation of the emergence of science in history.
    Wear your banner if you like, but acknowledge that scientific materialism is a philosophical, metaphysical position, not a scientific one.

    1. Yes, a philosophical position firmly routed in and backed-up by scientific facts. I can live with that. Bye!

      1. A philosophical interpretation of science – and wasn’t interpretation something you wanted to avoid?
        I think we need to settle on “agree to disagree”, as far as our discussion goes. As a theologian who devotes his research to the dialogue between science and religion, I can only regret the rather negative perception you seem to have of both the intention behind this dialogue and its relevance. But thanks for the challenging comments, take care.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s