Consumption, Population, and Sustainability provides a brief history of the dialogue between science and religion on environmental issues.
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Consumption, Population, and Sustainability
Perspectives from Science and Religion
By Audrey R. Chapman, Rodney L. Petersen, Barbara Smith-Moran
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2000 Island Press
All rights reserved.
Science, Religion, and the Environment
Audrey R. Chapman
The creation narratives in the book of Genesis provide images of an ideal landscape that anticipates a balanced and interdependent ecosystem. According to the biblical writers, God brings forth living creatures of every kind, blessing them and telling them to be fruitful and multiply. At the apex of the creation process, the first man and woman are placed in the Garden of Eden to till and keep it. The primordial couple are given one restriction, not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but of course they violate this mandate. When they do, they suffer the penalty of banishment. They are driven out of the garden to face the realities of the outside world.
Suppose that the narrative turned out differently, that Adam and Eve were forgiven and allowed to remain in the garden. What might the outcome have been? Beginning the task of procreation, the first couple would soon have had a family. Their children and the countless generations following them would likely have taken God's blessing to be fruitful and multiply quite literally, as would the other species. This process of fruitful procreation would have set up a competition between the human family and otherkind for resources and space. Humans, having eaten of the tree of knowledge, might have tried to resolve the ensuing problems through the ingenious introduction of technology. Over the long term, however, their technology is likely to have been intrusive and affected the ecological balance. Eventually, the entire environmental system in the garden probably would have been threatened. Instead of banishment to the realities of an often harsh world outside the garden, humans would have undermined their paradise and turned it into a polluted and depleted landscape.
And that is our current situation. The growth in human population from five million people at the dawn of the agricultural revolution to six billion people at the close of the twentieth century has transformed ecosystems and contributed to an environmental crisis that threatens the planet. As ethicist James Nash comments, the biblical injunction to "increase and multiply" may be the only one that humankind has fully obeyed. All other things being equal, a significantly smaller human population, five million people or even one billion, would have had considerably less impact on the environment than the current toll of six billion. If the planet's population had stabilized at even half of our current numbers, it is unlikely that there would be falling water tables, deforestation, or the extinction of thousands of species each year. But of course, not all things are equal. Not only has the human population grown exponentially, but also changing lifestyles and rising consumption patterns have resulted in ever more environmentally damaging technologies. Modern technologies that have been developed to support affluent consumption patterns—even more than increasing numbers—have resulted in such environmental hazards as ozone holes and the possibility of human-induced climate change. This finite planet is being seriously taxed by modern industrial technologies that extract resources and pollute the earth at rates that would have been unimaginable in earlier periods.
What are the implications? As theologian Daniel Maguire starkly summarizes the situation, "If current trends continue, we will not. And that is qualitatively and epochally new." As the twentieth century is coming to an end, many scientists believe that the cumulative impact of human activity is pushing to the limit the earth's life-supporting or carrying capacity, perhaps even exceeding it. Our Eden is being threatened, but there is no place to go.
This volume is an outgrowth of "Consumption, Population and the Environment: Religion and Science Envision Equity for an Altered Creation" a conference cosponsored by the Boston Theological Institute and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Held in November 1995 in Weston, Massachusetts, the conference brought together more than 250 scientists and people of religious faith to discuss scientific and religious perspectives regarding the impact of consumption patterns and population trends on the environment; to envision alternative and more equitable value systems, economic arrangements, and technologies; and to consider the potential contributions of religious communities to developing a more sustainable future. The focus of the conference and this volume raise two questions: First, why have a dialogue between the scientific and religious communities relating to the environment, and, second, why should such a dialogue focus on the issues of consumption and population?
Relationship between Science and Religion
The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once described science and religion as "the two strongest general forces (apart from the mere impulses of the various senses) which influence men." Taking up this theme, a World Council of Churches publication titled Faith, Science and the Future characterizes faith and science as two human ventures: "One meets the world with an inquiring intelligence. It values accurate, testable knowledge. It experiences the sheer joy of knowing, of understanding the world, of making discoveries and the power of prediction and control." This, of course, is the venture of science and technology, but, as the authors remind us, in some ways science is also a venture of faith, faith in the ultimate rationality and knowability of the world. Religious faith, in contrast, "meets the world in wonder, trust and commitment. It values the relations of persons to each other and to their ultimate source and destiny. It glories in the beauty of holiness and the responsibility of service." And it might be added that religious faith also pursues truth and understanding—however, with different methodologies and approaches than science does. Although both science and religion are essential to human understanding, their relationship has sometimes been problematic.
The relationship between the two ventures has frequently been portrayed as one of warfare, and various historical instances of conflict are well known. The Vatican's condemnation of Galileo for accepting the Copernican view of a heliocentric (suncentered) universe is often cited as one example. The decision to burn at the stake Giordano Bruno, a sixteenth-century astronomer and philosopher, because of the tenacity with which he maintained his unorthodox ideas of an infinite universe and a multiplicity of worlds also constitutes part of the litany of the supposed incompatibility of religious and scientific principles. A third example is that of the 1925 Scopes trial, in which it was argued that the teaching of evolution in the schools should be forbidden because it is contrary to scripture.
However, the conflict model simplifies and distorts a complex historical relationship. Historians remind us that modern empirical western science "was cast in a matrix of Christian theology. The dynamism of religious devotion, shaped by the Judeo-Christian dogma of creation, gave it impetus." According to Lynn White, by the early thirteenth century in the Latin West, natural theology was moving away from a focus on decoding the physical symbols of God's communication with humanity and was making more of an effort to understand God's mind by discovering how the creation operates. Up to and including Leibnitz and Galileo, scientists typically explained their motivation in religious terms. Not until the late eighteenth century did scientists secularize their vocations.
Even in the post-Enlightenment period, it can be argued that autonomy rather than conflict was more often the dominant theme in the relationship between science and religion. After all, the dynamic of secularization over the centuries was to push religion from the public to the private sphere and to emphasize the contrast between faith and reason. Many writers in the history of Western thought have dealt with the epistemological dichotomy between religious and scientific knowledge, each of which is said to have its own distinctive domain and methods. The prevailing metaphysical dualism of spirit and matter further reinforced the independence and mutual autonomy of the two fields. Langdon Gilkey's testimony at a 1982 trial provides a contemporary expression of this view. The trial contested an Arkansas law requiring the teaching of "creationist theory," that there is scientific evidence for so-called scriptural claims that the world was created within the last few thousand years, as scientific theory in high school biology classes. Gilkey, who is a theologian, makes the following distinctions: science asks objective how questions, while religion asks why questions about meaning and purpose in the world and about our origin and ultimate destiny. Science seeks to explain objective, public, repeatable data; religion is concerned with the existence of order and beauty in the world and the experiences of our inner life. Logical coherence and experimental adequacy provide the basis of authority in science; the divine is the final authority for religion, and revelation through God's human agents constitutes the medium of enlightenment and insight. Science makes quantitative predictions that can be tested experimentally; religion uses symbolic and analogical language.
Rather than ongoing warfare, conflicts between science and religion have been sporadic, usually occasioned by scientific discoveries that threaten religious dogma. With the exception of the relatively small group of biblical literalists, most modern religionists, at least in the West, have repented of the famous, or perhaps infamous, efforts to suppress scientific findings. In 1984, a Vatican commission acknowledged that "church officials had erred in condemning Galileo" in the seventeenth century. In 1988, Pope John Paul II issued a statement in which he underscored the importance of the search for "areas of common ground" between the fields of religion and science. According to the pope, "It is crucial that this common search based on critical openness and interchange should not only continue but also grow and deepen in its quality and scope. For the impact [that science and religion have] and will continue to have, on the course of civilization and on the world itself, cannot be overestimated, and there is so much that each can offer the other." While critical of scientism, the philosophical notion that does not admit the validity of forms of knowledge other than those of the sciences, the pope's recent encyclical letter Fides et Ratio conveys his admiration for scientific achievements and offers "encouragement to these brave pioneers of scientific research, to whom humanity owes so much of its current development." He urges scientists "to continue their efforts without ever abandoning the sapiential horizon within which scientific and technological achievements are wedded to the philosophical and ethical values which are the distinctive and indelible mark of the human person."
One dimension of an effort at rapprochement is the religious community's growing interest in science. Efforts to better understand the implications for theology of scientific methodologies and discoveries are manifested on an academic level in course offerings, research, and literature addressing various aspects of "theology for a scientific age." Theologians from many different faith traditions have begun to explore the implications of modern science for understanding the nature and purpose of the creation. Several academic programs and centers have been established, one of which, the Faith and Science Exchange at the Boston Theological Institute, played a major role in the cosponsorship of the conference that provided the basis for this volume. Religious ethicists, and in some cases faith communities, have also sought to address ethical and policy issues related to the impact of science on society. On the other side of the divide, scientists in some fields, particularly physics, cosmology, and astronomy, have begun to consider issues related to the origins, nature, and ultimate destiny of the universe, which are traditionally within the religious domain.
These developments raise a question as to how the religious and scientific communities can develop more meaningful and constructive relationships. In his landmark volume, Religion in an Age of Science, Ian Barbour identifies four options for the relationship between science and religion: conflict (the "warfare" model), independence (which assumes that the methodologies and subject areas of religion and science are unrelated to one another), dialogue (the effort to explore boundary questions), and integration (approaches to developing a comprehensive metaphysics or coherent worldview based on science and religion). Likewise, John Haught's book Science & Religion: From Conflict to Conversation offers four typologies: conflict, contrast, contact, and confirmation, the first three of which are similar to Barbour's options. Haught's fourth category, confirmation, expresses his belief that religion ultimately inspires and facilitates scientific discovery by setting the framework for a rational and orderly universe.
There are several other complex and nuanced typologies. Ted Peters outlines eight models of interaction: (1) scientism (the belief that science offers the only path to knowledge); (2) scientific imperialism (which claims that knowledge of the divine comes from scientific research rather than religious revelation); (3) ecclesiastical authoritarianism (religious censorship of science); (4) scientific creationism (the use of pseudoscience to claim that biblical accounts of creation are fully scientific); (5) the two-language theory (which distinguishes between the language of fact and the language of values); (6) hypothetical consonance (which looks for areas in which there is a correspondence between science and religion); (7) ethical overlap (which addresses challenges created by science and technology); and (8) new age spirituality (which integrates spirituality with physical theory). Philip Hefner's survey of contemporary thinking on the religion-science interface offers six trajectories: (1) the Christian evangelical option (which reaffirms the rationality of traditional belief); (2) the modern option (which translates traditional religious wisdom into scientific concepts); (3) the constructivist traditional option (which interprets science by means of traditional theological concepts that have themselves been reinterpreted in light of scientific findings); (4) the postmodern-new age option (which constructs new science-based myths); (5) the critical post-Enlightenment option (which expresses the truth at the "obscure margin" between what we know through science and the transcendent reality that we seek to know); and (6) the postmodern constructivist option (which fashions a new metaphysical loom on which scientific knowledge can be woven).
Media reports notwithstanding, few mainstream religious thinkers currently believe that there are intrinsic conflicts between contemporary science and classical Western religious teachings. The major and sometimes very vocal exceptions within the religious community are fundamentalists and scriptural literalists who believe that every word and passage in the Bible are literally true and must be considered to be scientifically factual. So-called creation scientists, or creationists, who purport to prove the scientific basis of biblical accounts of the creation and disprove scientific theories of evolution are a subgroup within the "conflict" constituency. Scientific skeptics who assume that modern science disproves religious belief in a purposeful universe created by a benevolent God constitute another subcommunity. Some scientists make the epistemological claim that science and scientific methods offer the only reliable guide to truth. Others go beyond an epistemological scientism to assert that physical matter is the only or fundamental reality in the universe. Barbour and Haught argue that earlier conflicts between the religious and scientific communities, as well as current attitudes of religious fundamentalists and scientific skeptics, result from mistakenly conflating or confusing the appropriate methodologies and subject matter of science and religion.
Excerpted from Consumption, Population, and Sustainability by Audrey R. Chapman, Rodney L. Petersen, Barbara Smith-Moran. Copyright © 2000 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Part I - INTRODUCTION,
Science, Religion, and the Environment,
Perspectives on Sustainability,
Part II - SCIENCE,
Overview of Scientific Perspectives,
World Population Projections to 2150,
Population Growth and Earth's Human Carrying Capacity,
Revisiting Carrying Capacity: Area-Based Indicators of Sustainability,
U.S. Consumption and the Environment,
Part III - RELIGION AND THEOLOGY,
Overview of Religious Perspectives,
World Religions and the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development,
A Catholic Perspective,
Foundations for a Jewish Ethic Regarding Consumption,
A Greek Orthodox Perspective,
An Islamic Perspective,
Toward the Revival and Reform of the Subversive Virtue: Frugality,
Part IV - ETHICS AND PUBLIC POLICY,
Overview of Perspectives on Ethics and Policy,
Report of the International Conference on Population and Development,
Consumption and Well-Being,
Population, Consumption, and Eco-justice: A Moral Assessment of the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development,
The Transition to a Transition,
Christian Responses to Coercion in Population Regulation,
To Protect the Whole of Creation,
Part V - CONCLUSIONS,
Earth Literacy for Theology,
Envisioning Equity in Consumption, Population, and Sustainability,
About the Contributors,
Island Press Board of Directors,