In the past decade or so, there has been a resurgence of the idea that science and religion are in fundamental conflict with each other.
There’s a difference, though, between the idea of a necessary conflict between science and religion, and the notion that conflicts merely happen at some times, for some individuals or religious groups. The latter is obvious and irrefutable – but the former is seemingly contradicted whenever we see a prominent religious believer who also strongly embraces scientific realities. And it looks like we might be seeing, right now, the most prominent one of those in a long time: Pope Francis.
In October, the new pope spoke at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and appeared to endorse two major scientific concepts that have often given religious believers big trouble: the Big Bang and evolution.
On the Big Bang, he remarked that it is “considered to be the origin of the world” and “does not contradict the creative intervention of God.”
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
And then there’s evolution. “God is not … a magician, but the Creator who brought everything to life,” said Francis on the occasion. “Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.”
More recently, meanwhile, the Guardian newspaper reported that the pope is planning to issue “a rare encyclical on climate change and human ecology.” Certainly, Pope Francis has been quite active on the subject of taking care of the environment, arguing back in May that Catholics must “safeguard creation.”
Indeed, there has been much environment and climate-related activity coming out of the Vatican. Earlier this year the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (along with the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences) convened a workshop that brought together a number of scientists and experts who then released a statement declaring that “if current trends continue, this century will witness unprecedented climate changes and ecosystem destruction that will severely impact us all.”
Thus, while creationists may reject science out of religious belief, other religious believers accept and embrace what science tells us – and frequently also do so out of religious motivations.
In fact, the idea that Pope Francis wants the world to do something about climate change, and that he apparently sees this as a matter of taking care of the creation, hardly makes him unique. Polling data suggests that large numbers of U.S. Catholics also support climate action, including a very strong majority among Hispanic Catholics.
But it’s not just Catholics. While evangelicals often get a bad rap for not wanting to do anything about climate change, a substantial minority of them actually do. While a majority of white evangelical Protestants are “somewhat or very unconcerned” about the issue, some 35 percent are either “somewhat or very concerned,” according to recent polling by the Public Religion Research Institute.
So the relationship between science and religion is complex, and generalizations are dangerous. There’s no doubt that many religious people around the world cling to their beliefs (or, to what they think their beliefs require) in the face of evidence, and history shows science-religion conflicts popping up at regular intervals. But it also shows something else: believers who find a way to reconcile faith and science.
If Pope Francis continues on his current course, he has the power to make this latter group a whole lot more prominent than it already is.
Chris Mooney writes for the Washington Post.