Vancouver Sun

Pope dares to side with science

Acceptance of evolution shows Vatican’s shifting attitudes


WASHINGTON — During the past decade, there has been a resurgence of the idea that science and religion are in fundamenta­l conflict with one another. The argument is often associated with prominent thinkers — such as neuroscien­tist and author Sam Harris who has argued that “there is a conflict between science and religion, and it is zero-sum” — but it also gains strength from the political context in which we live.

After all, we see science-religion conflicts all the time: creationis­ts try to disrupt the sole teaching of evolution. Religiousl­y driven anti-abortionis­ts come up with dubious scientific arguments for why the procedure is dangerous.

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 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

God is not... a magician. Evolution in nature is not inconsiste­nt with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.



to endorse two major scientific concepts that have given religious believers big trouble: the Big Bang and evolution.

Of the Big Bang, he said it is “considered to be the origin of the world” and “does not contradict the creative interventi­on of God.”

And then there’s evolution. “God is not ... a magician, but the Creator who brought everything to life,” Francis said. “Evolution in nature is not inconsiste­nt with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.”

In other words, Pope Francis appears to be embracing an idea that had great currency in the Enlightenm­ent — the notion of a God who created a universe that follows laws that can be scientific­ally discerned. That’s an idea that would have appealed to deeply religious scientists such as Galileo, who argued, in his famous Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, that the insights of Copernicus could be made compatible with the Bible.

More recently, the Guardian reported that the Pope is planning to issue “a rare encyclical on climate change and human ecology” next year. Certainly, Pope Francis has been active on the subject of taking care of the environmen­t, arguing in May that Catholics must “safeguard Creation. Because if we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us! Never forget this!” The Pope also declared, during the Lima, Peru climate change conference that the “time to find global solutions is running out.”

Indeed, there has been much environmen­t and climaterel­ated activity coming out of the Vatican. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences convened a workshop entitled Sustainabl­e Humanity, Sustainabl­e Nature: Our Responsibi­lity, bringing together 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 do so out of religious motivation­s.

In fact, the idea that the Pope wants the world to do something about climate change hardly makes him unique. James West of Mother Jones points to polling data suggesting that large numbers of U.S. Catholics also support climate action, including a 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, the fact is that a substantia­l minority of them actually do.

Evangelica­l leaders such as climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe are working to convince more believers, by making theologica­lly and politicall­y resonant arguments for why they need to take climate science seriously.

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 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.

The Pope has the power to make this latter group a whole lot more prominent than it already is.

 ?? FRANCO ORIGLIA/GETTY IMAGES FILES ?? Pope Francis is reportedly planning to issue a rare encyclical on climate change and human ecology.
FRANCO ORIGLIA/GETTY IMAGES FILES Pope Francis is reportedly planning to issue a rare encyclical on climate change and human ecology.

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