There isn't any inherent conflict between scientific facts and religious beliefs. The natural and the supernatural can be viewed as inhabiting different realms, with different laws.
Such was the view of leading scientists during the Enlightenment. There was this notion of The Book of Nature, where nature was viewed as the word of God. Learning about how the world works thus was akin to knowing the mind of God.
But nowadays many religious believers put their credence in what a Holy Book says rather than what nature says. Fundamentalist Christians in the United States deny evolution and global warming despite overwhelming evidence of their reality.
Last night my wife and I watched the first episode of a documentary series on Showtime, "Years of Living Dangerously." We were much impressed. Great cinematography, engaging script, excellent actors (Harrison Ford and Don Cheadle are featured), compelling "plot" lines.
The first episdode, and I assume others, can be viewed online if you don't have Showtime.
The most interesting person interviewed was a climate scientist at Texas Tech, Katharine Hayhoe. Not surprisingly she whole-heartedly embraces the scientific consensus about global warming: It is happening; It is causing big problems for life on Earth, including humans; We need to do something about it, now!
Hayhoe, though, is an evangelical Christian. This was surprising. And, fortunate.
Because Hayhoe has become a valuable bridge between fundamentalist Christians who don't think there is anything to worry about because God has the Earth's climate, along with everything else I guess, under control.
One focus of the first episode was a smallish town in Texas where drought has forced the closing of the biggest employer, a meat packing plant. Residents were shown walking around the closed plant praying for rain so grass could grow, cattle could eat it, and the plant could reopen.
Sure, that's crazy. But people believe all sorts of crazy things. I did for a long time. It isn't easy to talk them out of such deeply-held values.
In "Meet the Surprising Star of Showtime's New Climate Change Series," Hayhoe's two-year quest to convince her evangelical preacher husband, Andrew Farley, that human-caused global warming is real.
Farley and Hayhoe found themselves at an impasse. They both respected the other person, not only as researchers and academics, but as people who shared the same deep faith. If those things were true, then they had to talk about it. Eventually, Farley came around, but it wasn’t easy. “We are both first borns who love to argue and will not back down,” Hayhoe said. In all, Hayhoe guesses Farley, her first climate change convert, took about two years to convince — though she notes “it wasn’t like we talked about this every day.”
“A lot of my political opinions are Republican,” Farley tells Cheadle from the couple’s kitchen table. “The politics, the questions about God, and then the climate change — it’s all just become this ball of sound bites and people can’t parse it out.”
The tipping point for Farley? When the two went to the NASA website, downloaded global temperature data, and plotted it on their own computer. “It was clearly going up,” Hayhoe said, so “he had to decide, was NASA, the organization that put people on the moon, involved in some worldwide massive hoax or were they telling the truth?”
Having succeeded in converting her husband to scientific facts, they have teamed up to preach the gospel of science to other devoted Christians.
The inroads Hayhoe has been able to make with conservative religious communities focuses around one fundamental guiding belief: the key to bridging what has become such a divisive, heated issue is not hoping to present people with enough information that they adopt new values. “As Christians, we already have all of the values we need to care about climate change,” she said. And when climate change is presented in terms of its impacts on people, impacts that will disproportionately affect the world’s poor, then the path for engaging Christians is clear.
The Showtime episode showed how skilled Hayhoe is at communicating with those who share her Christian values. I don't consider that humans have free will, and I certainly don't believe in Christianity (or any other religion), but Hayhoe uses these beliefs in making the theological case for accepting the reality of global warming.
God gave us the freedom to choose, she says.
Humans have chosen to dramatically increase the level of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by burning "fossil fuels." Now it is up to us to choose a different path -- reducing our emissions of those gases in order to keep Earth livable.
I'd prefer that people embace scientific facts directly. But since many religious believers need coaxing through someone who speaks their own value system, I'm glad Katharine Hayhoe has taken on that job.