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Religion v. Science Once Again

With virtually all the Democratic presidential candidates placing a high priority on dealing with climate change, it may seem puzzling that this would even be a controversial issue. How could Republicans question the need to confront something that almost all scientists consider such a clear and proximate threat to humanity? The answer has several elements. For one thing, there is the huge economic cost of any comprehensive plan to significantly reduce our carbon footprint. This is especially a threat to the large and powerful fossil fuel industry. Next, there is the fact that many conservatives consider almost anything with broad liberal support to be some sort of dangerous conspiracy. That attitude, of course, is being exacerbated by a President who dismisses the whole idea of climate change as liberal poppycock and encourages his supporters to regard media coverage of the issue as fake news.

But perhaps the greatest reason for the widespread skepticism about climate change is an underlying skepticism about science in general. There is nothing new about challenging the validity of science and the challenges have tended to come from organized religion. One of the most famous examples is the persecution of Galileo because his astronomy did not fit into the religious cosmology of the day. A prime example in the United States is the Scopes trial when a teacher was charged with teaching the theory of evolution. Although Scopes was vindicated, that same controversy continues in the present. There are still conservative Christians trying to get the biblical creation myth into classrooms by clothing it in more scientific sounding terminology such as “intelligent design.”

Of course not all religious people see a conflict between religion and science. Many see science as revealing wonderful things about the universe God created. But there are still many, found primarily in the conservative or evangelical Christian denominations, who believe that science is at odds with the revealed truth of God.

That concept of revealed truth from a divine source is at the heart of the conflict that keeps emerging between science and religion. The root of this conflict is the result of two diametrically opposed methodologies. The scientific method begins with empirical evidence and uses it to reach a conclusion. The conclusion is validated by the evidence. The methodology of conservative, scripture based religion is just the opposite. It begins with the conclusion derived from the infallible word of God and uses that to test the evidence. If the evidence is not consistent with the revealed truth, it is the evidence that is not valid. Thus if the age of a fossil as indicated by carbon dating conflicts with the biblically based calculation that the earth is only 7000 years old, there must be something wrong with carbon dating.

It should be no surprise if people who already believe that science is not the ultimate test of truth remain unimpressed by the amount of scientific evidence that supports the reality of climate change. They have already seen examples of science making claims that they know to be false. If it is wrong about the creation of the universe and the origin of human beings, why would it be right about climate change? There is really no answer. How do you argue with people who know the truth because God tells them? You can of course tell them that they should not interpret the Bible so literally or that the people who wrote it did not have the benefit of modern scientific knowledge. But they will reply that it was God who inspired every word in the Bible and that He knows more than our merely human scientists will ever know. If we understand how religious fundamentalists think, we will not chase them down a rabbit hole where are arguments are useless. Instead, we must simply be glad that they are a minority and enlist those who do value scientific evidence in what will truly be a battle for survival against forces of nature that do not read the Bible but can be understood and anticipated through science.

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