In the last decade or so, 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, like 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. Seeing these science and religion conflicts inclines us to believe that science and religion...conflict.
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 completely 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, right now, 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 to endorse two major scientific concepts that have often given religious believers big trouble: the Big Bang, and evolution.
On the Big Bang, he remarked that 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,” said Francis on the occasion. “Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.”
In other words, the Pope 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 which can be scientifically discerned. That's an idea that certainly would have appealed to deeply religious scientists like 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, meanwhile, the Guardian reported recently that the Pope is planning to issue "a rare encyclical on climate change and human ecology" next year. Certainly, Pope Francis has been quite active on the subject of taking care of the environment, arguing back 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 earlier this month, that the "time to find global solutions is running out."
Indeed, there has been much environment and climate related activity coming out of the Vatican. Earlier this year the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (along with the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences) convened a workshop entitled "Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility," bringing together a number of 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 also do so out of religious motivations.
In fact, the idea that Pope Francis wants the world to do something about climate change, and that he apparently sees this as a matter of taking care of the creation, 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 very 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. While a majority of white Evangelical Protestants are "somewhat or very unconcerned" about the issue, some 35 percent are either "somewhat or very concerned," according to recent polling by the Public Religion Research Institute.
The biblically based stewardship or "Creation Care" message -- which went very, very mainstream earlier this year in the blockbuster film Noah -- may not have won out with a majority of these believers. But it appears to have made substantial inroads. And evangelicals leaders like the climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe are working every day to convince more believers, by making theologically (and politically) resonant arguments for why they need to take climate science seriously.
So in sum: The relationship between science and religion is very complex, and generalizations are dangerous. There's no doubt that many religious people around the world cling to their beliefs (or, to what they think their beliefs require) 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.
If Pope Francis continues on his current course, he has the power to make this latter group a whole lot more prominent than it already is.