Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Of the Pope, Oil and Snakes

By Bob Ferris

The garden of Eden with the fall of man by Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the elder. 
I will start by saying that I am not religious in any way.  I was raised in the Episcopal Church but I always felt like an observer rather than a participant.  I spent more time finding fault than I did finding faith.  That said, I have been thinking a lot about religion of late because I recently attended my mother-in-laws’ very Catholic funeral, have been doing some research on my Huguenot ancestors (in particular Marie Ferree who was a remarkable woman), and like many am eagerly anticipating the official release of the Pope’s upcoming encyclical on the need for global environmental stewardship.  In all of this the latter seems the most important at present.

As a scientist I find that the leaked drafts of Pope Francis’ papal letter taken in combination with statements last fall about evolution and the “Big Bang” theory are interesting and welcome.  Though I am pleased with the pontiff’s pronouncements, I still do not find myself reaching for a rosary for to me the Bible remains man-made and allegorical rather than literal.  And religion is still something that I hope that we will outgrow (not the moral lessons but the blind belief).
And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.
And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. Genesis 15-17
I tend to live in the world of science and curiosity rather that belief, but if the Bible and an Abrahamic religion are your things then I would ask you to consider this:  What if the garden of Eden story was not only about spiritual "apples" and "snakes" but also about harmful resource use and those who promote it?  How, for instance, are clearcuts, overgrazing along with air and water pollution properly “dressing and keeping” the Eden that man was supposedly given?  And what if the fruit of the "tree of knowledge of good and evil" could be interpreted to be a metaphorical reference to fossil fuels sequestered underground during the process of making the earth and its climate ready to optimally support humans?

In this I have absolutely no trouble seeing the Koch brothers and their ilk as the "snakes" in this equation (and I really have nothing against snakes).  In this regard, I cannot think of a single secular or sacred measure (save some hypothetical Ayn Rand Selfishness Quotient) where the greed and deceit exhibited by these billionaires at the expense of everyone else would grant them anything resembling a favorable ranking.

So where does that leave us?  My sense is that we (i.e.,those with a tendency towards faith and those without) need to look for the key themes in the Pope's message where we can all agree and then move forward on those points of consensus.  I suspect that these points will be that science indicates that climate change is happening, our role in this phenomenon is significant, and that we need to act now to avoid the worst of the coming damage.  The Pope has already been preaching about the problems with "greed" and a "lust for power" (1,2,3) so this will likely play in his offering of solutions and laying of blame.  All but the most "scaly" among us should embrace these central themes.

This encyclical to be released tomorrow is not going to change how I feel about religion, but I will say that this Pope with his statements about the origin of the universe, evolution and climate as well as his forthrightness on the inherent dangers of greed and power has captured my attention.  And when we are faced with peril on the scale that we now face across the globe our philosophical differences are and should be secondary.  I therefore thank the Pope for stepping up to the plate on this and other important issues.  I look forward to seeing the final document.

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