Science and Religion—Keep Talking

By: Walter Grazer

April 18, 2017

The March for Science: Is There a Place for Religion?

The March for Science, scheduled for Earth Day, April 22, prompts questions and concerns about the role of science, including the relationship of science and religion. In 1925, the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said: “When we consider what religion is for mankind, and what science is, it is not exaggeration to say that the future course of history depends upon the decision of this generation as to the relations between them.”

“This generation” now extends to “our generation” and likely the next. Religion and science are two major global culture shapers. While their relationship has been challenging at times, as evident in debates about the existence of God, evolution, cosmology, and the origins of life, ecology, and stem cell and certain genetic research, they must remain engaged.

Can religion and science avoid being swept up into our cultural wars? Is there a way to avoid conflict or isolation from one another? Pope Francis says yes. He offers us a different vision and relationship model—namely, one of dialogue. Pope Francis’ call for dialogue is not new for the Catholic Church, but it comes at a time of increasing suspicion of major institutions including religion and science.

In his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si (On Care for Our Common Home), Pope Francis’ call to dialogue is a central motif. While simultaneously acknowledging that empirical science cannot provide a complete explanation of life and that “religious classics can prove meaningful in every age,” he calls for dialogue. As the majority of people in the world are religious believers, dialogue for Pope Francis includes dialogue among religions, between religion and science, among various sciences, and among ecological movements all oriented around the common good and “ecological crisis.”

While not ignoring differences, the Catholic Church has made deliberate efforts to engage in dialogue with science. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences has its roots in 1603 with the establishment of the Academy of the Lynxes “as the first exclusively scientific academy in the world.” One of its members was Galileo Galilei. While this first edition did not long survive, it was reconstituted in 1847, taking its current form in 1936. This prestigious body explores many themes of mutual concern to science and religion, including stem cell research, neuroscience, global climate change, biodiversity, and sustainable development.

In the United States in 1990, key scientists issued Preserving and Cherishing the Earth: An Appeal for Joint Commitment in Science and Religion. They highlighted that current environmental problems were of “such magnitude, and solutions demanding so broad a perspective must be recognized from the outset as having a religious as well as scientific dimension.” Religious leaders responded with the Joint Appeal in Science and Religion. These actions by scientists and religious leaders helped launch a unique interfaith and ecumenical effort known as the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. Its members include mainline Protestants, Orthodox individuals, Jews, Catholics, and evangelicals.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is a member organization. The USCCB conducted its own dialogue on issues of mutual interest originally through its Committee on Science and Human Values. The process the bishops used to develop their 2001 global climate statement, "Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good," included consultations with scientists.

The immediate impetus for the March for Science arises from recent attacks on science, particularly on the subject of global climate change and proposed major cuts in science research and development by the Trump administration. However, a more significant danger in the “post-factual and fake news world” is that science itself may be rapidly losing respect and confidence within our society. It risks becoming another political victim of our culture wars. What is at stake is a fundamental attack on the notion of truth itself. While religion and science may at times have their differences, dialogue is vastly preferred to the denial of scientific processes, findings, theories, and the denigration of the scientific project itself.

It is reported that Winston Churchill once said, “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” While that quote may have referred to geopolitics, we should follow the spirit of his comment and urge continued dialogue between science and religion for the sake of the common good, humanity, and the planet.

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