Science and religion rarely get along.
Angry atheist and esteemed biologist Richard Dawkins thinks that religion is for idiots, and philosopher Sam Harris has written that “there are few modes of thinking less congenial to religious faith than science is.”
But Pope Francis just proposed an alliance between reason and faith.
In Thursday’s encyclical (a papal letter to all bishops of the Roman Catholic Church), the pope made a 98-page plea to stop climate destruction, an issue that the world’s scientific community says poses catastrophic risks.
Francis’s argument boils down to a few choice quotes.
Like this one:
If the simple fact of being human moves people to care for the environment of which they are a part, Christians in their turn ‘realise that their responsibility within creation, and their duty towards nature and the Creator, are an essential part of their faith.’
It is good for humanity and the world at large when we believers better recognise the ecological commitments which stem from our convictions.
In short, the Pope is proposing that having concern for creation is part of keeping the faith.
Francis goes all the way back to the book of Genesis, where he skewers the popularly held conception that God granting ‘dominion’ over Earth is an excuse for pillaging its resources.
Again, here’s Francis:
We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us. This allows us to respond to the charge that Judaeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man “dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature.
This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church. Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.
With this encyclical, Francis is starting to build a bridge between science and religion on the traditional wedge issue of climate change.
As you might expect, this is presenting a problem for a group of people eager to share their conviction of faith: politicians.
The encyclical is already stirring the pot for American presidential candidates, especially on the right side of the spectrum:
• Jeb Bush, a Catholic, brushed off the Pope’s comments, saying “I don’t go to mass for economic policy or for things in politics. I’ve got another people helping me along the way with that.”
• Rick Santorum has said that Pope Francis should leave the “science to the scientists” … “I would just say this: The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think that we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re really good at, which is theology and morality.”
Yet that’s precisely what Francis is arguing — that scientific reasoning and economic choices are included in the living of a spiritual and moral life.
“If we are truly concerned to develop an ecology capable of remedying the damage we have done,” he writes, “no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out, and that includes religion and the language particular to it.”
If Francis can get the organisation he leads to follow him on this issue, it could be huge.
According to the Vatican, there are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, or about 17% of the global population. If they were to start living with the ecological conscientiousness that Francis prescribes, it would have gigantic impacts for battling climate change. That would be a game changer for climate scientists and activists.
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