Did Pope Francis Just End the Religion and Science Conflict?

It’s unclear what kind of political impact Laudato si, the first encyclical of Francis’ papacy will have, but from a scholarly perspective it’s already doing something significant: scrambling one of the dominant paradigms for thinking about relationships between science and religion—what academics call the “Conflict Thesis.”

The Anti-Catholic History of the Conflict Thesis

The Conflict Thesis, a misnomer from the moment it took shape in the writings of NYU Professor John William Draper, and A.D. White, the co-founder of Cornell University, was created to do political work in the 19th century by attacking Catholicism. Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, published in 1873, argued that there is an intractable battle between science and certain forms of religion. The qualifier—certain forms—is crucial, because in spite of the sweeping title, Draper’s attacks were almost exclusively focused on the Catholic Church. Draper took issue, for example, with the trial of Galileo and the Church’s location of interpretative authority in priests rather than individuals.

For Draper, the issue was never about a basic irreconcilability between religion and science, but what he saw as specific problems with the Roman Catholic Church, the most expansive and politically powerful Christian denomination. In fact, he explicitly endorsed Protestantism as an appropriate partner for scientific discovery and modernization.

Contemporary historians of science and religion have abandoned the Conflict Thesis. It focuses too selectively on a handful of occurrences (primarily the Galileo affair and contemporary reactions against Darwinism), forfeiting attention to a broad range of relationships between religious and scientific thought and institutions. But its popular appeal endures, in large part fueled by the 20th-century US Creationism debates and, more recently, in the work of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

A New Alliance between Religion and Science?

This is where Francis’s encyclical, which names the interrelated issues of global climate change and global poverty as moral catastrophes, is significant. In using the highly authoritative encyclical format to come out in favor of an ambitious, activist agenda against anthropogenic climate change, Francis wades into an ongoing debate among the world’s most powerful countries about the interpretation of climate data. Specifically, Francis sides with the preponderance of scientists and against conservative politicians and business leaders in affirming that anthropogenic climate change is both real and urgent. He thus adds moral weight to the scientific consensus.

Francis then takes it a step further by calling on Catholics to see science as a necessary tool for methodically tracking the health of the Earth and its inhabitants—a global stethoscope—and to see their own role in taking moral responsibility for following through on those diagnoses. In this vision, science and religion combine forces to defend domains of truth-telling that demand the right to be left untouched by the profit motive: science in terms of natural description, religion in terms of moral vision. Science and religion are not at odds; they’re both obstructed by rampaging capitalism.

ConservativesCatholic and otherwise—have been lining up for some time to criticize the Pope’s move. Before Jeb Bush’s highly scrutinized comments this week, fellow Catholic Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum told a Philadelphia radio station that “The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focus on what we’re really good at, which is theology and morality.” Ironically, like the anti-Catholic Draper, Santorum, Bush and other Catholic Republicans are deploying a version of the Conflict Thesis to achieve political ends.

Overcoming the popular appeal of the Conflict Thesis would also mean abandoning its deployment by secularists. Political theorist William Connolly has suggested that in order to defeat the coalition of right-wing Christian and capitalist interests that still controls much of the US political landscape, activists for progressive causes need a movement “organized across religious, class, gender, ethnic, and generational lines without trying to pretend that citizens can leave their faiths entirely behind them when they enter public life.”

In other words, rather than demand total theological compatibility as a precondition for cooperation, potential political allies should focus on their common problems. Winning theological fights may not be the best use of time and resources when the health of the planet is on the line.

This shift may never happen. The shadow of the ongoing debates about Darwinism—especially among American Protestants—may be too long and too dark to challenge popular acceptance of the Conflict Thesis anytime soon. It would also require an enhanced commitment on the part of the Catholic Church itself to honor science—by acknowledging, for instance, the consensus among scientists that emergency contraceptive pills do not function as abortifacients, or the correlation between environmental and economic deterioration and limited access to birth control.

But if Pope Francis is best understood as a religious leader who is reconfiguring the Church not by modifying doctrine, but by moving its moral and intellectual center of gravity, Laudato Si could be the beginning of a paradigm shift, paving the way for a new coalition of religion and science against entrenched corporate and political interests that place the right to maximize profit above all else.

  • Jim Reed

    This seems to be changing dynamic. Like any good dynamic, it will take some effort to plot out and understand.

    CURRENT CONSERVATIVE ALLIGNMENT

    – Republicans –

    Questioning global warning is the key issue. They need to keep status quo to keep money flowing.

    Abortion and contraception are only important issues as a key to the end of keeping the social conservative voting block.

    – Conservative Religion –

    Abortion and contraception is the central issue. Needed to maintain their moral superiority.

    Rejecting earth science is really only CRITICAL for political access to conservative Republicans and getting more political promises.

    NOW THE POPE SAYS

    Environmentalism is the key issue of our time.

    Abortion and contraception are important too, but that issue you always have with you.

    STATUS QUO

    The pope seems to be breaking the current conservative status quo. Without the anti-environmentalism, the abortion and contraception issue don’t do Republicans any good.

    Unless the pope is stopped, the current fiscal/social conservative alliance doesn’t work, and without half of the Catholics, the current conservative voting block doesn’t work, and without the voting block the Republicans no longer have reason to pander to evangelicals. The Catholics will do what they do, the rich will reevaluate and figure out the best political option going forward, but I think the evangelicals are screwed because they can’t make any changes, and they can’t correct errors. All they can do is continue to drive people away at an even faster rate.

  • DKeane123

    I don’t see how we can call the fights over Darwinism a “shadow”, especially in the US. Just look to LA and its enshrinement in law.

    While I applaud the Pope’s statement on climate change (about time) and agree with the author that we need to focus on our common goals, I think the popularity of the Conflict Thesis isn’t going away any time soon. Even in the encyclical, the Pope makes sure to stick to the dogmatic script on reproductive health and overpopulation:

    “To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.”

    While population growth isn’t the whole story – it is a good component of it, but the Catholic Church could never admit it. Don’t get me started on what science thinks about a wafer becoming the body of a long dead Palestinian…

  • cmbennett01

    Nope.

  • Jim Reed

    He may have. The real conflict between religion and science is being stirred up by the Republicans. They reject science when that gets in the way of their profits. The pope is willing to coexist with science on the evolution issue, and as long as the church doesn’t get too political, science and religion can get along on contraception. Once the pope is able to break with Republicans on their anti-science global warming denial, the conflict is pretty much over.

  • cmbennett01

    The church is willing to coexist with science on the evolution issue only to the extent that it doesn’t include God’s special creation. So, that’s not really agreement with science on evolution.
    The church’s position on contraception is the same as it has always been. The fact that large numbers of Catholics ignore some parts of church doctrine is not a sign that the church has embraced science.
    There seems to be a shift toward the “social gospel” and respect for the environment in the church, and while that is a good thing, this is also not a sign the church is going to embrace science. There is a lot of history there that isn’t going to go away because the Pope says we should take care of the planet. It’s more likely that the more conservative elements will reject the Pope. It wouldn’t be the first time.

  • Jim Reed

    The Republicans are driven by greed. They just want the rich to get more rich, and today it is the Republicans driving the split between science and religion. If the pope doesn’t give the Republicans what they want, then the world as we know it is over.

  • cmbennett01

    If the Pope doesn’t give the conservative Catholics what they need, the Southern Baptists will be more than happy to. The church is not an omnipotent force imposing irrationality on the helpless masses to feed their greed. If only we could break the chains we would be living in a happy, prosperous, peaceful world? Not quite.
    Those in positions of power can easily manipulate large numbers of people, because those people have rejected rationality. They can no longer make informed rational judgments about the world. If the Pope disappeared today, the Koch brothers would still be here to manipulate those who have decided not to think for themselves.

  • My childhood was in an Protestant evangelical-ish setting. Judging by the prevailing attitudes I remember from that setting I left behind, the pope could say almost anything and it wouldn’t make any difference there. Seriously, the entire Catholic hierarchy was irrelevant to them. Francis might change some minds among conservative Catholics, but I greatly doubt evangelical Protestants will pay attention. Some of them may…for the purpose of muttering that they have one more excuse to say that Catholics are off-base.

  • Jim Reed

    They are in first place on greed and irrationality.

  • Givethedogabone

    I can’t see an end to conflict between religion and science (other than the cessation of one) because of two basic differences that, I suggest, are eternally irreconcilable. Papal tinkering with a detail leaves the core antagonisms unresolved and, in this case at least, is unlikely to change much. Those who deny climate change are often not Roman Catholics and will be unmoved by his words whilst many Roman Catholics are already years ahead of their church in practical matters.

    1 – Religion can only accept answers to any question provided that the answers leave the door open for the supernatural, usually God(s), to be involved. Science requires that the answer be obtained, via the scientific method, without precondition and without limiting the range of potential answers.
    Science starts from “what if” and tries to find an answer by examining the evidence and testing its hypotheses; this sometimes leads to rejecting widely and dearly held views. Religion has no option but to start with an answer (effectively “goddidit”) and then tries to reconcile that with the evidence, often modifying the question and or cherry-picking the evidence in an undignified pursuit of the avoidance of conflict with what it perceives as “God’s (usually) unchanging word”. Hence, for many, the creation myths in Genesis become no more than stories which don’t preclude the idea that God might, possibly, have flicked the switch/breathed the word which caused the rapid expansion of a singularity a.k.a. the big bang.
    Science thus reduces the supernatural to an unlikely, unevidenced concept which is only still around because of the impossibility of proving a negative.

    2 – Religion is human-centred, science is universe-centred.
    Religion is primarily about the individual’s intangible “soul” and its imagined eternal destiny. Science is about how the universe works, including how we work, and where we fit within that which demonstrably exists. Science says that we exist in response to our environment and c. 13.8bn years of processes which follow from the initial event whilst religion says that the universe was brought into existence in order to support us and that humanity is the pinnacle of material life rather than a natural consequence of unplanned events. (I do wonder why religious folk are so content to worship an obviously incompetent creator think epiglottis).

    Unless a proof of the supernatural is found (which would mean the end of Faith) there is no reason why science should abandon its successful practice of considering god(s) to be irrelevant. Would religion survive if it were to embrace the irrelevance of god(s)? Without one of those events occurring conflict is inevitable since both require large amounts of money, effort and societal support; finite resources for which aggressive competition is inevitable.

  • cmbennett01

    Maybe, but it’s a narrow lead. Close to 40% of Democrats in this country are young earth creationists. And you can probably find a list of corrupt Democrat politicians on you own, so I won’ t bother to send you one.

  • Jim Reed

    Religion is actually church centered more than human centered. This pope thing works if it just switches a few votes. Sure, evangelicals won’t care what the pope says on the issue, but if enough Catholic votes switch to change some elections, that is plenty.

    Science will continue to be science, but it doesn’t have to be in all this conflict with religion. A couple decades ago science thought they didn’t have to bother with creationism. Students could learn evolution in school, then learn Biblical creationism in Sunday school. Science was fine with that, but religion had to keep pushing the issue until it turned into a big battle, and science had to put them in their place. Science could easily coexist with religion as long as religion stays in their place, and doen’t try those tricks like they did before. This pope seems willing to let science be science, and only play around the edges in a Sunday churchey way. This pope is even willing to go against conservative politics and respect science. This could change everything.

  • Diane

    Went through 12 years of Catholic school and evolution was accepted as fact . Never had the bible as a text except in religion class. I was taught that the bible had flaws and was not the strict word of God that is accepted today.
    We were taught critical thinking skills. And this was in the 70’s!!!!1

  • Camera Obscura

    I don’t suppose anyone has mentioned that Francis was a working scientist at one point in his career.

    The idea that there is a conflict between religion and science is best shown to be total nonsense by the fact that many scientists contain both their science and their religion in the one and only mind which would be the only place the existence of such a conflict could be seen.

    As usual, the atheists are misrepresenting religion.