by Sally Steenland
The Rev. Canon Sally Bingham is president and founder of the Regeneration Project and Interfaith Power and Light, a national interfaith network of affiliates that work with congregations to promote energy conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy. She is also the lead author of Love God Heal Earth, published in 2009. In 2012 Sally was awarded the Audubon Society’s Rachel Carson Award for her environmental leadership.
Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist who studies climate change. She is an expert reviewer for the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as well as an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. Together with her husband she is the co-author of A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions. She recently appeared in Frontline’s “Climate of Doubt,” a PBS documentary exposing the individuals and groups behind efforts to attack science by undermining scientists who say they believe there is current climate change caused by human activity.
Sally Steenland: Sally, you’re an Episcopal priest who works on environmental issues, and Katharine, you’re an expert on climate change who is an evangelical. Lots of times when we read about faith and science, they’re often seen as adversarial—especially when you talk about the environment and climate change. But the two of you blend these issues together in your lives. Can you each talk about how you do that—how faith and science play out in your lives? Sally, let’s start with you.
Rev. Sally Bingham: I couldn’t stand in a pulpit and talk to a community or congregation and tell them that humans are changing the climate if I didn’t have people like Katharine Hayhoe behind me to show the science, where I can fall back on the scientific evidence. It wouldn’t make sense for me to say, “The climate is changing, it’s coming from human-induced activity,” if I couldn’t back that up with science. I always say that scientists are today’s prophets. They are the people giving us the news that we need to pay attention to, and we need to listen to them.
SS: How about you, Katharine? How do faith and science play out in your life?
Katharine Hayhoe: As Christians, we believe that God reveals himself to us in two ways. The first and most obvious way is through the written word, the Bible. But the second way is through creation. And so when we look at the world around us, when we look at the planet, when we look at creation, whatever it’s telling us is an expression of what God has defined it to be. So instead of studying science, I feel like I’m studying what God was thinking when he set up our planet.
SS: Katharine, you said that in 2009 you “came out the closet” as a Christian. Can you talk about what that’s like, combining your work as a climate scientist and a Christian, and what happened when you did that?
KH: There are many issues in which faith and science find themselves on opposite sides. Not because of any inherent incompatibilities between faith and science at all, but because of our interpretations of one or the other. Because of that, in the scientific community, there tends to be a fair amount of distrust of the faith community, because I and my colleagues have been hammered so hard by many of them and attacked even, and there’s often unfortunately little respect for science in the faith community and for what I view as the expression of God’s creation.
So from that perspective, I was definitely nervous as a research scientist at a public university telling my peers and colleagues that I was a Christian because I’d heard so many disparaging remarks about Christians and their lack of intelligence, their lack of ability to understand science. I was definitely nervous, in writing the book with my husband, who is a pastor and linguist.
But I have to say that the result has been overwhelming. So many of my colleagues have been supportive, have been encouraging, and have even revealed themselves to also be “closet Christians.”
And this is actually backed up by a sociologist at Rice, Elaine Ecklund. She actually studies the spirituality of scientists—we’re under her microscope, we’re her lab rats. And what she found is that the vast majority of scientists are deeply spiritual. They just don’t tend to always express their spirituality in traditional ways, often because, I think, of the perceived cultural divides between faith and science.
SS: So, in other words, when people like you speak out and acknowledge your spirituality, you move the needle a little closer to the reality of who scientists are.
KH: Yes, I think it’s actually very representative of who we are.
SS: Sally, you started from the pulpit and clearly relied on scientists like Katharine, but you had to learn the science, too. You can’t be a dummy about these things. How did you learn the science?
SB: I am on the board of one of our nation’s best environmental organizations with a big science component—the Environmental Defense Fund. Michael Oppenheimer was talking about climate change in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. I was alarmed when he told us, in the early ‘80s, addressing our board of directors, about the seriousness of climate change.
I actually was not ordained at the time, but I was realizing that having been an Episcopalian all my life and going to church on a somewhat regular basis, I had never heard a clergy person talk about saving creation in any aspect from the pulpit. So I started inquiring of the religious people I knew, “Have you ever heard a clergy person talk about stewardship of creation from the pulpit?” And no one had.
This was one of the things that pushed me. First I had to go to college, then to seminary, then I had a 10-year process of getting through the ordination process. And now when I get in the pulpit to talk about saving creation, I’m coming from a little different area in the faith community than Katharine.
Most of my colleagues in the Episcopal Church, Protestants, and even a great many Catholics have come to realize that we are the stewards of creation, and that the climate problem is real. And they are much more receptive than maybe your evangelicals in Texas are. So I didn’t find a lot of opposition to the issue, and I was invited to go all over the country and stand in the pulpit and talk about how Christians are called to be the stewards of creation.