As someone who teaches and writes about faith and science, I’ve noticed a troubling disconnect between many Christians and the work of scientists. The problem is apparent in a variety of scientific disciplines, but the consequences of the widespread rejection of climate science are devastating. According to the Pew Research Center, only 50 percent of American adults (and just 28 percent of white evangelicals) believe that global climate change is caused by human activity. This wholesale rejection of scientific opinion is surprising, considering that we live in a scientific society. We unconsciously think scientifically even about things that are clearly not scientific. We ask about the evidence of our faith. We look for scientific approaches to parenting. We try to prove our affections. In our culture, scientists are positioned in a role that is almost priestly, as the wise ones who know the mysteries of the universe and have the power to bless with a bountiful harvest, healthy offspring, or long life.
Perhaps this priestly role has contributed to the strain between science and the church, but there are other causes as well. Scientific findings in evolutionary biology and genomics have led to insights that challenge traditional Christian interpretations of Scripture. Advances in scientific technologies, such as those around genome editing, grant scientists possibilities that some believers think should be reserved for God alone. But I’m convinced that some of the tension between science and the church regarding climate change has little to do with theology. There is ample motivation among Christians, like everyone else, to resist scientific discoveries that demand lifestyle changes we would rather avoid.
Tension Between the Church and Science
When faced with challenging science like global climate change, Christians too often respond in ways that are unhelpful for the church, for science, or for our broader society. Our gut reactions tend to arise from fear, skepticism, or unwarranted optimism. We show our fear by lashing out at those with whom we disagree. We prove our skepticism by sowing dissension with rumors and doubt we barely understand. And sometimes we embrace unwarranted optimism by refusing to believe God would allow humans to ruin God’s creation.
The division between science and Christianity has consequences that reach beyond climate change. Our inability to engage difficult science—including climate science—robs both the church and the scientific community of gifts we have to share with one another. When Christians reject science generally, and scientific findings specifically, we are deprived of more fully understanding God’s majesty as Creator, and we ignore our responsibilities to be stewards of God’s creation.
This division also hurts our gospel witness. Our neighbors, and particularly our young people, are paying attention. When the church is wrong about things that are easily proven, it is difficult for people to trust the church with matters of faith that are not easily proven. In You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church . . . and Rethinking Faith, authors David Kinnaman and Aly Hawkins report that up to 30 percent of young people who leave the church do so because they think churches are out of step with science. We have inadvertently taught Christian students that the relationship between science and faith is a war in which they must choose one side or the other. When students come to believe scientific findings that come with difficult implications, they are only following that logic when they decide to leave their faith.
In my position as a biology professor at a Christian college, I have seen gifted students disengage from challenging science, knowing that their home churches approach science with fear and skepticism. Instead they choose careers in health or leave the scientific world altogether.
When Christians disengage from the scientific community, not only do we rob ourselves and hurt our gospel witness, we also deprive the scientific enterprise of the gifts of the Christian worldview. The church should be reminding scientists to share the redemptive gifts God grants through their work—gifts that reduce suffering and bring life. The church must also caution science as to its limitations in making claims only about the observable world.
The church has blessings to offer, and the scientific community has gifts to share. In order to develop a healthful relationship within which these can be exchanged, we must adopt a more productive means of engaging challenging science, including climate change.
One way we as believers should be giving these spiritual gifts to the scientific community is by encouraging our talented young people who are blessed with the interests and aptitudes to become scientists.
A Global Response to Climate Change
The science of climate change is widely available online for scientists and ordinary citizens to read (the Intergovernmental Council on Climate Change was established in 1988 to provide the current state of global knowledge in the science of climate change; see www.ipcc.ch/organization/organization.shtml.) As in any field, the language scientists use is loaded with technical jargon that may make it difficult for non-scientists to understand. But while those of us who can read the science directly should do so, church members can look at how other organizations have responded to the science. In December 2015, at the Conference of Parties 21, world leaders responded by signing a statement called The Paris Climate Agreement. The product of 20 previous global meetings, the statement begins by laying out the threat of global climate change that is already disrupting society. Next it explains the best-known solution for minimizing the consequences (increases to world average temperature must be stopped at 2 degrees Celsius). Then it explains how that ambitious solution will be carried out (each nation will voluntarily but publicly commit to specific greenhouse gas reductions). Finally, and very importantly, the agreement addresses issues of justice (such as why rich nations were allowed to use coal as they developed but currently developing nations cannot). Through negotiation, compromise, good faith, and the work of the Holy Spirit, nearly every country on Earth signed the document.
At the most recent Conference of Parties, COP-23, Syria (which had been delayed by its brutal civil war) signed on to the agreement, so that now every nation on the planet has signed the document. (Since then, as has been well publicized, the United States government has vowed to leave the agreement.)
Fear works its effects on all extreme views. Some people, including Christians, lament an almost immediate and irreversible destruction of the entire world order because of climate change. These views spread fear—and when they fail to materialize, they provide talking points for climate change deniers on the other extreme. Many deniers also work from a place of fear. I have heard charges that “the climate change movement is embedded with corruption and political agendas.” Underlying such comments is a fear of cultural forces, hidden agendas, and perverse motivations—none of which is suggested by the science. In either extreme, fear prevents the hearer from thoughtfully engaging the science.
Skepticism is particularly common among Christians when discussing climate change. It’s not unusual for me to hear comments along these lines: “There is no consensus in the scientific community about what (if any) correlation there is between the activities of man and climate change.” Any clear-headed analysis of the situation suggests that there is more than a likely correlation between our actions and climate change; indeed, there is causation. Nearly every expert in the field agrees that climate change is a serious and human-caused problem; every country in the world has agreed to address this problem; and major corporations are investing serious money into preparing for climate change. If the whole world is convinced by the science of human culpability to the problem and human responsibility for addressing it, we need to push beyond our skepticism.
Unwarranted optimism has a particularly interesting manifestation among some Christians engaging climate science. It typically sounds something like this: “From a Christian standpoint, to suggest that we are the cause places our actions as more powerful than God’s creative acts.” From this perspective, God made the world good and would never allow humans to harm it. This argument is not new. In the early 1800s, Christians rejected the idea of extinction by arguing that God would never allow a species to disappear from the earth. Now we know that climate change, habitat loss, and other forces push between 150 to 200 species to extinction every day. This position represents a misunderstanding of God, creation, history, and sin. As the consequence of our sin, we are permitted hope but not unwarranted optimism.
A Better Way: Critical Reading, Thoughtfulness, Gratitude
I believe a more productive way of responding to the science of climate change involves critical reading, thoughtfulness, and gratitude. Critical reading of the science offers clear, robust, evidence of a serious worldwide threat. The exact extent of the threat varies by model, location, and our future decisions, but the overwhelming scientific consensus is that human action has led to higher temperatures, which will result in harmful consequences. Stronger hurricanes, more widespread fires, and more frequent droughts are just a sampling of these predicted results. Critical reading demands that we respond, no matter how difficult that may be or what lifestyle changes may be required. But in the face of a problem so big, how do we respond as families, churches, and as the church?
A thoughtful approach will allow us to shape our answers to the difficult questions that arise. Is responding to global climate change in line with our Scriptural mandates? We are called to steward God’s world and to be God’s image to the world. We are expected to care for people who are poor, for widows and orphans. We can remember, with trembling, that to those whom much has been given, much will be expected. Engaging climate science with thoughtfulness reveals that we who live in developed nations need to make changes in how we eat, how we drive, and how we live. Our current lifestyle cannot be sustained. Churches need to educate members and function as examples of ecological stewardship. In our denomination, the Office of Social Justice provides resources for doing just that. The global church should be leading efforts against climate change, and as we lead we should be constant advocates for the poorest populations in the poorest nations. This work is being carried out by groups like Climate Witness Project, Climate Caretakers, and Young Evangelicals for Climate Action.
As we learn to engage the challenging work of climate science with critical reading and thoughtfulness, we can learn to face this sobering field of science with gratitude. Just as it is possible to experience gratitude for an abnormal mammogram or colonoscopy, and just as we can be grateful for a friend who calls out our sin, we can be grateful for the warning climate science has given us. Debates about how to address climate change can easily devolve into discussions of dollars, percents, and degrees. But the role of the church is to remind the world and its leaders that this is God's good world, and we owe it our affectionate care. We must guarantee that while the world responds to climate change, the burdens of expense, effort, and hardship must be paid first by those of us with the most to give.
Science continues to find new insights about God's good creation. As it does so, the church must finds ways to engage those results productively. For the sake of our witness, our young people, and our world, we must rise above fear, skepticism, and unwarranted optimism. May God grant us experts to guide us through critical reading, wise leaders to shape our conversations into thoughtfulness, and hearts of worship so that we might lift up each new scientific discovery to God with gratitude.
Christian Reformed Church Resources on Climate Change
Centre for Public Dialogue (Canada)
- How important do you think it is to take seriously the issue of climate change? Why do you feel that way?
- Have you witnessed the phenomenon of young Christians leaving the faith or avoiding scientific professions because of a perceived tension between science and faith? How can we reduce such occurrences?
- The author states that “we are permitted hope but not unwarranted optimism”. What makes optimism unwarranted? And what gives us hope in the midst of sinful consequences?
- The author suggests that a better way for Christians to respond to climate science is with critical reading, thoughtfulness, and gratitude. What steps or actions you could take in that direction?
About the Author
Clayton Carlson is an associate professor of biology at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Ill.; his work is supported by the Oxford Interdisciplinary Seminars in Science and Religion. He attends Hope Christian Reformed Church in Oak Forest, Ill.