STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. And if you don't mind, we'd like to stretch your mind just a little bit on this New Year's morning. We're going to report on the possibility - the possibility of a change in the uneasy relationship between religion and science.
Novelist Margaret Atwood is known for her literary science fiction. And she thinks that in the future we could see a religion that combines religion and science. To understand the prospects for that idea you could begin with a scholar who's looked at the past. Rick Kleffel reports from member station KUSP.
RICK KLEFFEL: Karen Armstrong is a religious scholar who has studied the history of belief. In her latest book, �The Case for God,� she looks at the relationship between science and religion. The current conflict between the two, with Darwin's theory of evolution as a flash point, is not in keeping with historical interpretations of scripture.
Ms. KAREN ARMSTRONG (Religious scholar): Darwin came along and found a natural explanation for life itself. Now, this wouldn't have been a big deal. In the past, Saint Augustine had laid down an important principle that said if a scriptural text contradicts science, you must give it an allegorical interpretation.
KLEFFEL: Armstrong is looking at lessons of the past, while Margaret Atwood extrapolates from the past to create a vision of the future. One of Atwood's best-known novels adapted into a movie is �The Handmaid's Tale,� set in the future in which America has become a Christian fundamentalist theocracy.
Atwood believes that science fiction became necessary when the contradictions between objective reality and religious orthodoxy became too difficult to ignore.
Ms. MARGARET ATWOOD (Novelist): Those things that we used to just believe in all the time went to Planet X where they are alive and well. Angels with flaming swords, the burning bush that speaks, you know, all of those really quite science fiction things in the Bible.
KLEFFEL: Karen Armstrong says her research into the history of religion demonstrates that science and religion are two very different kinds of knowledge.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Religion is not answering our scientific questions about how did the world come into being. That's a question for science. Religion is asking us to consider these problems that always occur to human beings: Why is life so filled with pain? What is the nature of happiness? What is the meaning of our mortality?
KLEFFEL: Armstrong sees the role of religion as a guiding force for ethical behavior. Margaret Atwood brings that notion to life in her newest novel, "The Year of the Flood." It's set in a dystopian near future where genetic engineering has ravaged much of the planet. The survivors have created a new religion.
Ms. ATWOOD: This group, which is called God's Gardeners, has taken it possibly to an extreme that not everybody will be able to do. They live on rooftops in slums on which they have vegetable gardens. And they keep bees. And they are strictly vegetarian, unless you get really, really hungry, in which case you have to start at the bottom of the food chain and work up. And they make everything out of recycled castoffs and junk. So they're quite strict.
KLEFFEL: Atwood points out that the beginnings of her religion of the future have already appeared in the present.
Ms. ATWOOD: Indeed, we now have the Green Bible among us, which I did not know when I was writing this book, which has tasteful linen covers, ecologically correct paper, the green parts in green. Introduction by Archbishop Tutu. And a list at the end of useful things you can do to be a more worthy green person.
KLEFFEL: Atwood created a new pantheon of saints, including Rachel Carson, Al Gore and Dian Fossey, the murdered conservationist, as well as hymns, which have been brought to life by Orville Stoeber.
(Soundbite of song, �Today We Praise Our St. Dian�)
Mr. ORVILLE STOEBER (Singer): (Singing) Today we praise our Saint Dian, whose blood for bounteous life was spilled. Although she interposed her faith, one species more was killed.
KLEFFEL: Atwood's environmentally based religion gets to the core of Armstrong's understanding of faith.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: The creation story was therapeutic. It was telling us how to be creative ourselves and, indeed, to keep the cosmos in balance. Men and women and gods had to work together to keep this fragile ecostructure together.
KLEFFEL: Karen Armstrong's philosophical ecosystem is reflected in Atwood's futuristic religion. But even though God's Gardeners feels like a real religion, Margaret Atwood is not ready to step up to the pulpit.
Ms. ATWOOD: Well, not quite in the same way that L. Ron Hubbard did. I don't have any adherents yet. But, who knows?
KLEFFEL: For NPR News, I'm Rick Kleffel.
INSKEEP: And you can read Karen Armstrong and Margaret Atwood at Npr.org.