Religion, Science, and the Climate Change Debate

Published April 10, 2017

By Yasir Ali

“If you believe in God, then intellectually you cannot believe in man made global warming… You must be either agnostic or atheistic to believe that man controls something that he can’t create.” That is the statement of Rush Limbaugh, conservative radio talk-show host. The notion he expresses pits science against belief in God. Yet, it takes little analysis to collapse the argument. One example will do: A human being did not create his own nature; God did. Yet, religion aims to enlighten every individual as to how to purify and elevate, that is, control, his nature — restrain the lower impulses, effectively manage emotions, and ennoble his or her intentions, words, and deeds.

Historically, two court trials have done more than anything else to advance the general understanding that science and religion are at odds with each other. The first, the Roman Catholic Church’s Inquisition of Galileo over his confirmation of Copernicus’ heliocentric position (that the sun is the center of the solar system), took place in 1633. The second, the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, brought to trial a school teacher who refused to comply with Tennessee’s Butler Act, which made it unlawful to teach, in public schools or universities, the evolution of man, that humans have descended from a lower order of animals. In each of these cases, scientific theories appeared to contradict the commonly accepted interpretation of scripture. However, a careful examination highlights the role of political, economic, and social factors that contributed much to the cases’ outcomes, overlaying the scientific opposition to the traditional understanding of biblical text. This essay examines these factors and then presents factors influencing the public debate around climate change. This essay attempts to discern the influence of external factors in the contemporary debate surrounding climate change while keeping the Inquisition of Galileo and the Scopes trial in mind.

The Inquisition of Galileo

Galileo’s work on heliocentrism was based on that of the Renaissance astronomer Copernicus, who seventy years earlier had proposed the model as an alternative to geocentrism. The Copernican model had raised questions about the interpretation of select biblical passages but did not provoke a response from the Catholic Church. In the wake of the Protestant Reformation however, the Catholic Church had become more forceful against dissenting opinions. So when Galileo wrote a letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, drawing upon the arguments of St. Augustine in support of an allegorical rather than literal reading of the scripture when astronomical or other physical matters or principles are mentioned in its text, Catholic theologians and the Holy Office responded with hostility and the controversy led to a first hearing of Galileo. A formal censure of heliocentrism followed in 1616, declaring it to be heretical.

With the historical background of the Church’s attempts to obstruct the Protestant Reformation, we see in the case brought against Galileo additional factors of both political and personal motivation. In 1623, one of Galileo’s close friends ascended the papal throne as Pope Urban VIII. The new Pope was known to be an intellectual and a moderate on the heliocentric position. In his bid to revive the debate about heliocentrism, Galileo met with the Pope who granted him permission to write about heliocentrism, with arguments both for and against, while also cautioning him not to openly advocate a position favoring the heliocentric theory. Galileo’s subsequent work, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, featured three characters: Simplicio, a simpleton frequently caught in his own errors while defending the Aristotelian geocentric view; Sagredo, a Venetian nobleman who is open-minded and willing to listen to both sides of the argument; and Salviati, who advanced arguments supporting the Copernican model. Although Galileo concluded the dialogue with heliocentrism presented more as mathematical hypothesis than established scientific fact, he delivered some of the Pope’s statements from their earlier meetings through Simplicio, a disrespectful gesture that angered the Pope and led to the trial of Galileo in 1633. Galileo was forced to recant his heliocentric views and was subsequently placed under house arrest. As Lindberg and Numbers note in When Science & Christianity Meet, Galileo’s trial “was about disobedience and flagrant insubordination: the issues dealt with in the decree of 1616 [geocentrism and heliocentrism and which one was in harmony with Scripture] were not reexamined; its conclusions were merely reasserted” [that Galileo was to relinquish the theory of heliocentrism]. Scientifically, while Galileo’s telescopic observations had drawn attention to the flaws in Ptolemy’s geocentric model, it did not conclusively prove the heliocentric model. The trial was therefore viewed as pitting “biblical certainties against improbable scientific conjectures,” write Lindberg and Numbers.

The Scopes Monkey Trial

In the Scopes Monkey case, political and economic factors first led to the trial, yet fictionalized representations of the case later sketched the whole affair as nothing more than a conflict between science and religion. With the passage of Tennessee’s Butler Act in 1925, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) actively sought school teachers who were willing to challenge the statute’s constitutionality in court. The offer piqued the interest of a civic leader in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, who saw it as an opportunity to advance Dayton’s economic interests. Through his efforts, a local schoolteacher, John Scopes, took up the ACLU’s offer and not only did he admit to teaching evolution in class, but he also coached his testifying students in their answers. None of this was captured in the movie Inherit the Wind, which in spite of its systematic and substantive inaccuracies continues to be viewed as a documentary drama.

The prosecuting attorney, William Jennings Bryan, who was drawn into the case due to his concerns about the implications of social Darwinism, was portrayed as a close-minded, hypocritical, and insincere person. The defense on the other hand was consistently portrayed as a voice of reason who was subjected to abuse and threats from fundamentalist Christians. Clarence Darrow, the attorney for the defense, argued that the Butler Act violated the principle of separation of church and state, as mandated by the Constitution, as well as impinging on John Scope’s academic freedom of expression. So while the trial dealt with political issues of the relationship between church and state and the individual liberty of teachers, due to the strong religious sentiments surrounding the trial, it was subsequently portrayed in a simplistic and reductionist way as a conflict between science and religion.

The Climate Change Debate

Unlike the issues of heliocentrism and evolution, climate change does not immediately evoke religious sensitivities, as the scientific proposition that there are changes in global and regional climate patterns, correlated with human activity, does not contradict any religious teachings. However, a significant number of Christians question the idea that humans can negatively impact the divinely created environment. The Pew Research Center conducted a survey in 2010 and reported that 50 percent of American adults believe that the earth is getting warmer due to human activity. Although the survey reported “only a modest effect of religion on attitudes about environmental protection,” that number changed significantly among members of different Christian denominations, ranging from 77 percent of Hispanic Catholics to only 28 percent of White Evangelicals. This difference is more likely related to the nature of the structure of authority within each of the denominations than their religious teachings.

In the absence of a central religious authority, Evangelical Christians are greatly influenced by Evangelical political leaders who have historically opposed any government intervention on climate change. The Catholic Church on the other hand has been a long-time supporter of government action for the protection of the environment. In June 2015, Pope Francis released his groundbreaking encyclical on climate change, encouraging governments around the globe to take necessary action to help reverse conditions leading to global warming. While this effort drew praise from supporters around the world, conservatives in the U.S. were quick to criticize the pontiff’s climate change remarks. Rebuking the Pope, then Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum remarked that the church is “better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re really good at, which is theology and morality,” as reported in the Washington Post in June, 2015.

Some of the other reasons for disagreement on climate change are not related to the science itself, but to the solutions offered to address the problem. The nature of the issue is such that individuals acting alone cannot adequately address climate change and so collective action involving the government becomes necessary. Being strong proponents of limited government, conservatives, therefore, oppose any government solutions to problems. In an interview with Bill Moyers, climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, herself an Evangelical Christian, said, “So with climate change, we have people who we trust in our community… And these are the people standing up telling us it’s a hoax, it’s not real. Or even maybe it’s real, but it’s not a big deal and we don’t have to worry about it…” In an article by Chris Mooney on, she is quoted as saying, “We have been given information about climate change that is not true. We have been told that it is incompatible with our values, whereas in fact it’s entirely compatible with conservative and with Christian values.”

Economically, climate change differs from the controversies over heliocentrism and evolution in that it has a measurable economic impact on the lives of people, especially for those in the agricultural and livestock industries. In a recent example, after suffering from two years of severe drought, Cargill, one of North America’s largest beef processing company, closed its meat processing plant in Plainview, Texas, leaving behind 10 percent of that city’s population unemployed. Some who have suffered economic hardship from circumstances attributed to global warming have subsequently switched their opinion, no longer denying climate change. This was confirmed by a Pew survey in which 18 percent of respondents indicated that their opinion on global warming had changed based on their personal experiences.

Scientific data on climate change alone, however convincing, does not necessarily provide the impetus to galvanize people into action. The potential to mobilize however, comes natural to religion and with more than eight-in-ten of the global population identifying with one religion or another, according to Pew, religion could serve as a broader platform to increase awareness of the perils of climate change and to highlight the ethical and religious responsibility that practitioners have towards the protection and conservation of the environment and its limited resources. This provides a rare opportunity to build alliances between religious and scientific communities for working towards a shared purpose – one that can potentially extend to other domains of perceived conflict and allow for a much-needed dialogue between the two.

Yasir AliAuthor

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