Thursday, March 24, 2011

Faith, Science & Climate Change

I am pleased to offer this guest post by Mike Stafford:

Faith, Science & Climate Change: The Truth Can Never Be a Heresy
Mike Stafford, Delaware Coordinator for Republicans for Environmental Protection

"And yet...it moves." — Galileo (attributed)

Do not be deceived. The opposition to the scientific evidence supporting anthropomorphic global warming ("AGW") among some conservatives may, at times, hide behind a pseudo-scientific veneer. However, much of it is often really rooted in an anti-intellectual strain of religious fundamentalism. It is this element—a barren theology that leaves no room for our God-given gifts of reason and discovery—that gives the opposition its implacable character.

Some say faith and reason are at war in the modern age. Not so for men like Rep. John Shimkus, who premises his rejection of AGW on Scriptural passages promising that the Earth will not perish in a flood. For him, the war is over, and reason has been routed from the field.

And sadly, Rep. Shimkus is not alone. Many conservative opponents of AGW claim that it is impossible because God would never permit it, or that it is erroneous because only God, and not humanity, has the capacity to destroy the world. I suppose these individuals have never heard of nuclear weapons.

It is the religious aspect of the AGW debate that has taken it out of the realm of mere policy, and planted it firmly in the thick of the culture wars.

As a result, any understanding of opposition to AGW, or of the apparent anti-intellectualism in segments of the GOP today, must begin with a discussion of religion and theology—specifically, the anti-intellectual theology underpinning elements of the fundamentalist Christian Right. In this regard, climate denial is merely one aspect of a broader rejection of reason and scientific inquiry.

With respect to the environment, these theological strains tend to place great emphasis on humanity's "dominion" over the Earth, but downplay or entirely ignore our concomitant responsibility for the stewardship of it. In so doing, they provide a false reading of the Book of Genesis, one that ignores the connotations of nurturing and care present in the original Hebrew text in favor of an interpretation emphasizing naked power and supremacy. Simply put, the Biblical mandate is to care for creation, not to commodify and exploit it.

In addition, AGW also touches on millennialist currents and visions prevalent in some streams of fundamentalist Christianity. This is significant. Stewardship is rooted in a concern for the future well-being of others. It matters little if you believe our world has no future, or that God will miraculously deliver you from it, and its consequences. Like the Easter Islanders of old, many among us seem ready to bet that the moai will come to life and rescue us from ourselves. In the face of very real problems, such an escape into magical thinking may temporarily relieve anxiety, but it actually accelerates the trajectory towards disaster.

In its opposition to AGW, the anti-intellectual theological strain also ignores the first of the cardinal virtues- prudence. Prudence speaks to the need for sagacity, for careful reflection and consideration. It is a requisite for effective stewardship, and effective political leadership.

Today, there is no debate in the scientific community about whether the Earth is warming—it is. There is also a nearly unanimous consensus that human activity is responsible for this warming. There is some debate over the severity of the consequences that will inure from this and, on the margins, over whether we can take any remedial measures that will slow, stop, or reverse this process. The consensus position, however, is clear—it will probably have a significant negative impact on human civilization and the natural world, and there are practical steps that could be taken now to avoid this fate.

Given the potential implications for humanity, it is reckless to ignore the broad scientific consensus on AGW. Doing so in the face of this evidence is tantamount to an abdication of both our duty to future generations, and of our duty to care for the natural world. It is an act of immense selfishness. After all, the natural world, our Earth, is a shared, a common, inheritance. As the late Admiral Hyman Rickover once said: "A prudent and responsible parent will use his capital sparingly in order to pass on to his children as much as possible of his inheritance. A selfish and irresponsible parent will squander it in riotous living and care not one whit how his offspring will fare."

Placing religion and theology in the service of such selfishness and irresponsibility is an act of deep betrayal.

In the end, a theology that requires the rejection of empirical evidence on a variety of topics, and an escapist descent into magical thinking, is not a living faith. It is a dead one. Such a faith is not spiritual armor for the believer going out into the world, but rather, an intellectual tomb for someone hiding from it.

Let me suggest something different. Faith and reason are not at war–or at least, do not need to be. Religious belief and rational inquiry, faith and doubt, are not binary pairs of opposites. Indeed, at a fundamental level, both religion and science remind us of the deep mystery underpinning the world, and our existence in it. Scientific inquiry also expands our knowledge of the natural world and the universe which, we are told in Genesis, is a reflection of God. This is why learning, the quest for knowledge and understanding, is a sacred thing. Or as Pope Benedict XVI has taught, religious faith "consolidates, integrates and illuminates truth[s] acquired by human reason." For my own part, I think God gave us our minds, our intellects, and our capacity to reason, in the hope that we would put them to use advancing the common good.

Today, in their opposition to AGW, some religious conservatives imagine themselves as brave dissenters defending individual rights and Biblical truth from yet another assault by a grasping, rapacious, regulatory Government and the atheist liberals that run it. They are wrong. They are actually reprising the role of the Inquisition in the trial of Galileo.

And in so doing, they have forgotten something fundamental about faith. If God is the author of the world, then the truth, whatever it is, can never be a heresy...and people of faith ought never fear it.

Image: "Interdependence" – A Tiffany window at Yale University shows harmony between science and religion, Michael Marsland, Yale University

2 Comments:

Anonymous kavips said...

That was an awesome piece of writing.

6:18 AM, March 29, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Until the majority of the those that call themselves republicans wake up and see this point of view, I can never associate myself with that political party.

4:08 PM, March 29, 2011  

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