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The Holy Church of Climate

Environmentalism as Religion

While people have worshipped many things, we may be the first to build shrines to garbage.
By PAUL H. RUBIN, The Wall Street Journal - APRIL 22, 2010

Many observers have made the point that environmentalism is eerily close to a religious belief system, since it includes creation stories and ideas of original sin. But there is another sense in which environmentalism is becoming more and more like a religion: It provides its adherents with an identity.

Scientists are understandably uninterested in religious stories because they do not meet the basic criterion for science: They cannot be tested. God may or may not have created the world—there is no way of knowing, although we do know that the biblical creation story is scientifically incorrect. Since we cannot prove or disprove the existence of God, science can't help us answer questions about the truth of religion as a method of understanding the world.

But scientists, particularly evolutionary psychologists, have identified another function of religion in addition to its function of explaining the world. Religion often supplements or replaces the tribalism that is an innate part of our evolved nature.

Original religions were tribal rather than universal. Each tribe had its own god or gods, and the success of the tribe was evidence that their god was stronger than others.

But modern religions have largely replaced tribal gods with universal gods and allowed unrelated individuals from outside the tribe to join. Identification with a religion has replaced identification with a tribe. While many decry religious wars, modern religion has probably net reduced human conflict because there are fewer tribal wars. (Anthropologists have shown that tribal wars are even more lethal per capita than modern wars.)

It is this identity-creating function that environmentalism provides. As the world becomes less religious, people can define themselves as being Green rather than being Christian or Jewish.

Consider some of the ways in which environmental behaviors echo religious behaviors and thus provide meaningful rituals for Greens:
  • There is a holy day—Earth Day.
  • There are food taboos. Instead of eating fish on Friday, or avoiding pork, Greens now eat organic foods and many are moving towards eating only locally grown foods.
  • There is no prayer, but there are self-sacrificing rituals that are not particularly useful, such as recycling. Recycling paper to save trees, for example, makes no sense since the effect will be to reduce the number of trees planted in the long run.
  • Belief systems are embraced with no logical basis. For example, environmentalists almost universally believe in the dangers of global warming but also reject the best solution to the problem, which is nuclear power. These two beliefs co-exist based on faith, not reason.
  • There are no temples, but there are sacred structures. As I walk around the Emory campus, I am continually confronted with recycling bins, and instead of one trash can I am faced with several for different sorts of trash. Universities are centers of the environmental religion, and such structures are increasingly common. While people have worshipped many things, we may be the first to build shrines to garbage.
  • Environmentalism is a proselytizing religion. Skeptics are not merely people unconvinced by the evidence: They are treated as evil sinners. I probably would not write this article if I did not have tenure.
Some conservatives spend their time criticizing the way Darwin is taught in schools. This is pointless and probably counterproductive. These same efforts should be spent on making sure that the schools only teach those aspects of environmentalism that pass rigorous scientific testing. By making the point that Greenism is a religion, perhaps we environmental skeptics can enlist the First Amendment on our side.

Mr. Rubin is a professor of economics at Emory University. He is the author of "Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom" (Rutgers University Press, 2002).

A religious take on climate change

About 90 people of many faiths gather at a cathedral near downtown Los Angeles to promote what they say is their moral duty to care for the Earth and all of God’s creation.

By Larry B. Stammer, Special to LA Times - May 1, 2010

Were it not for the setting in a stately Romanesque cathedral near downtown Los Angeles, the gathering might have been mistaken for a political rally.

Many of the 90 people present signed cards to California's two U.S. senators urging them to support legislation to roll back greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Others pledged to oppose efforts by oil companies and conservative activists in California to suspend the state's landmark Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. They signed a "carbon covenant" to oppose illegal logging and deforestation in the developing world.

Yet for most of those last Sunday, the underlying motivation was not political but religious. They said they had a moral duty to care for the Earth and all of God's creation. They called for a widened understanding of what it means to love one's neighbor in a world where choices made on one continent can affect people thousands of miles away, including those in poor countries least able to cope with climate shifts.

The gathering at St. John's Episcopal Cathedral was yet another sign of a maturing religious environmental activism and sophistication 40 years after the first Earth Day. At that time, religious bodies were virtually silent about "green" issues. Not now. Indeed, longtime environmental advocates such as author Bill McKibben, the keynote speaker at St. John's, said that whatever success there may be in staunching the worst effects of climate change will depend in large part on people of faith.

"We have very few institutions — really no other institutions than churches, synagogues and mosques — left in our culture that can posit some reason for existence other than accumulation," McKibben said in an interview before addressing the group. He said overconsumption, "hyper-individualism" and the wasteful burning of fossil fuels for energy and food production are unraveling the planet's living systems. His latest book, "Eaarth," asserts that the planet is already out of balance and that only by scaling back human activities can the direst consequences of climate change be avoided.

Marty Ostrow, co-producer of "Renewal," a documentary on the religious environmental movement, agreed. "What religion has is the capacity to hold people deeply to these issues in a way the secular movement doesn't," he said before addressing the group.

Called an "evening of interfaith environmental solidarity," the gathering included a ceremony with Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Unitarian Universalist participants. They drew on differing beliefs to find common ground in safeguarding the natural order. "Gratitude for the gift of life is the primary wellspring of all religions," the Rev. Peter Rood, rector of Holy Nativity Episcopal Church in Westchester, told the audience.

One immediate concern, participants said, is a campaign by oil companies and conservative activists to qualify an initiative for the November ballot that would suspend the state's 2006 climate change law. Under the statute, California's greenhouse gas emissions are to be capped at 1990 levels by 2020. That equals a 30% reduction below business-as-usual levels, according to Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the state Air Resources Board.

But if the initiative drive succeeds, the law would be suspended until the state's jobless rate dipped to 5.5% or below for four consecutive quarters. That would amount to a de facto repeal of the law, not a suspension, she said, since California has rarely seen unemployment levels that low. The rate stood at 12.6% in March. The air board is responsible for implementing the law.

Opponents and backers of the current law differ about its effects on the state's economy. But those present said their religious beliefs left no doubt where they should stand. "This initiative, if it makes the November ballot, must not pass," said Allis Druffel, Southern California outreach director for California Interfaith Power and Light. The organization, headquartered in San Francisco, promotes energy conservation and efficiency and sustainable energy.

Many local congregations, including Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles, have undertaken environmental projects. Along with its recycling program, the congregation has installed motion detectors to turn off electric lights when not needed, stopped using blown foam cups and installed waterless urinals and a solar-powered ceremonial light. "We're greening the temple," said Ivy B. Rappaport, co-founder of the congregation's "Green Team."

McKibben's climate change action organization,, is planning a worldwide effort Oct. 10 to cut back on carbon dioxide emissions. It will include building bike paths, installing solar panels and planting community gardens. The name is taken from the assertion by leading scientists that 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide is the upper limit to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

McKibben, however, said carbon dioxide levels have already risen to 390 ppm and are increasing at the rate of 2 ppm per year. "We're not going to solve it one light bulb at a time. There's nothing as individuals that we can do that significantly addresses climate change," he said. That will take major new laws that put "a stiff price" on carbon emissions.

"But the message we want to send with these work parties is … we're getting to work. What about you, our leaders? What are you up to? If we can climb up on the roof of a church and hammer in a solar panel, perhaps you could be bothered to rise to the floor of the Senate and hammer out some legislation. Perhaps you can do your jobs."