When it comes to convincing a skeptical evangelical Christian about the need to accept and confront climate change, a Bible can be a more useful tool than any chart, report or PowerPoint presentation.
That was the message from two leading environmental advocates who travel frequently between two worlds that are often perceived to be at odds with each other—the scientific and evangelical Christian communities—and have made it their mission to convince evangelicals of the need to take climate change seriously.
Katharine Hayhoe and Mitch Hescox both spoke Friday at an American Association for the Advancement of Science conference aimed at improving dialogue between the religious and scientific communities.
"It's beautiful when you can use scripture to counteract what sounds like scriptural arguments," said Hayhoe, director of Texas Tech University's Climate Science Center.
"God created a sustainable world ... but he also told us to take care of it," added Hescox, president and CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network. Hescox said he often quotes Genesis 2:15, where God orders Adam to "care for" the Garden of Eden. If he's feeling more confrontational, he may point to the Book of Isaiah, which includes the line "the earth is polluted because of its inhabitants, who have transgressed laws [and] violated statutes."
"Human beings are accountable for how they care about God's creation. ... To not tend to creation, to not steward it as a shepherd, as a renter, a leaser of the land, is definitively unbiblical, untheological," he said.
Polls frequently show that evangelical Christians, who tend to be politically conservative and more inclined to take a literal view of the Bible, are more skeptical of climate change than members of other religious groups.
Challenging the Inhofe dogma
One high-profile example of this is Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe (R), who chairs the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee. Inhofe often cites religious reasons for his doubts about human activity's role in climate change. "God is still up there, and He promised to maintain the seasons and that cold and heat would never cease as long as the earth remains," The Washington Post quoted him as writing earlier this year.
"The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous," Inhofe said at another point.
Hayhoe and Hescox said they have had the most success in bringing people around from this point of view by eschewing the data and reframing their arguments. That's why they focus on Bible verses that dwell on conservation and stewardship, or the effect climate change can have on poorer communities around the world (ClimateWire, March 12).
But a major theme of the conference was that Bible-centered evangelical faith and science do not have to necessarily contradict each other. AAAS used the conference to promote preliminary findings from a major national study it has been conducting on the intersection of science and faith, with a focus on evangelicals.
The Perceptions Project surveyed more than 10,000 people and conducted more than 300 follow-up interviews. Elaine Howard Ecklund, director of Rice University's Religion and Public Life Program, said some of its broad results flew in the face of common perceptions about how evangelicals view science.
For instance, while 21 percent of evangelicals described the relationship between religion and science as one of "conflict," about double that total—41 percent—told the surveyor they viewed the two as "collaborative" and that each could be used to support the other.
Leave room for miracles
Still, Ecklund told the conference, "I think it's inaccurate if we don't say it's nuanced here. There is huge, huge support for science in religious communities—in the evangelical community. But there is some tension around the supposed assumptions of science. And the central concern is, what is the role of God in a scientific world?"
She pointed to the fact that 60 percent of evangelicals agreed with a statement that "scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories and explanations."
"That's almost double the rate of agreement for any other group in our survey," Ecklund said.
Leith Anderson, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, summed up the general source of tension during a morning speech to the conference. Giving a "simple elevator definition" of evangelicals as "those tho take the Bible seriously and who believe in Jesus Christ as savior and lord," Anderson said, "There is a concern among many evangelicals that scientific discovery begins where the presupposition of cause and effect that does not include God as a primary cause, and therefore faith may be a subset of science."
While there might be concerns, Ecklund said it's wrong to view "the religious community" and "the scientific community" as two separate worlds. Among other findings, she pointed out that 17 percent of scientists in the survey identified themselves as evangelical.
And Hayhoe argued that when it comes to climate change, evangelical skepticism may have more to do with political leanings than religious affiliation. "Evangelicals are extremely decentralized and fragmented," she said.
"Who do evangelicals listen to as thought leaders? The conservative media. ... Climate change is now the most polarized issue in the United States. So if we listen to the conservative news, we hear people tell us it's not true. And they share our other values, so why wouldn't we trust them on this one?"
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500