Unlikely Allies

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI: A surprising ally in the fight against global warming? 

Science and religion have always been in conflict, but over the past few hundred years or so, the light of science has gradually beaten back the darkness and ignorance of religion. That’s the narrative people tell, anyway, and it’s a powerful one. But there's a problem: it hasn't been an eternal struggle. This story was invented in the 19th-century

A vital strand in the story is that the backward religion being rebelled against was Catholicism—a fact now mostly forgotten.And the Vatican still dabbles in science. Just recently, it put out a report on one of the most controversial scientific topics of the day: global warming. How dare it! It didn’t even have the sense to stay in character as the bad guy. Instead, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Church’s scientific arm, warns of the impacts of global warming on the planet and, among other things, recommends reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Let’s move out of simple but satisfying narratives and into the real world. The Vatican’s Pontifical Academy reports that warming of the earth is unequivocal. Should the Vatican be pontificating about science? The impetus for the report does appear to be partly religious in nature. It reads, “By acting now, in the spirit of common but differentiated responsibility, we accept our duty to one another and to the stewardship of a planet blessed with the gift of life . . . We are aware that, if we want justice and peace, we must protect the habitat that sustains us. The believers among us ask God to grant us this wish.” Yet in this case those contributing to the report are climatologists, glaciologists, chemists, physicists, and so on—that is, scientists

Does this muddy the separation between science and religion—or perhaps even pollute the science? I don’t think so. Science has never been pure; the key here is the role played by religion. Does it provide only inspiration? Or is it trying to guide the doing of science, as Creationism does? If it's the latter, count me out. But historically, the impetus for doing science, whether good, bad, or indifferent, has often been non-scientific in nature. Simple curiosity, desire for fame, religious impulses—each or all can drive the doers of science.

There are valid issues when it comes to science and religion, but in the 21st century we don’t need 19th century narrative retreads to deal with them.

Posted In: History

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