More on the Church of Green

Today’s surfing led me to The New Atlantis, which is published by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and which calls itself “A Journal of Technology and Society.” An article by Joel Garreau, entitled “Environmentalism as Religion” caught my attention, and it’s worthy of yours as well.

Garreau notes that as traditional religion’s role in the life of the West has diminished, people attempt to fill the vacuum in various ways, one form of which is what the article calls “ecotheology.” Manifestations of this can be seen in a variety of contemporary Christian settings:

Christianity has begun to accept environmentalism. Theologians now speak routinely of “stewardship” — a doctrine of human responsibility for the natural world that unites interpretations of Biblical passages with contemporary teachings about social justice.

[…]Over the following two decades, John Paul repeatedly addressed in passionate terms the moral obligation “to care for all of Creation” and argued that “respect for life and for the dignity of the human person extends also to the rest of Creation, which is called to join man in praising God.” His successor, Benedict XVI, has also spoken about the environment, albeit less stirringly.


American Protestantism, too, has gone green. Numerous congregations are constructing “green churches” — choosing to glorify God not by erecting soaring sanctuaries but by building more energy-efficient houses of worship. In some denominations, programs for recycling or carpooling seem as common as food drives. Church-sponsored Earth Day celebrations are widespread.

Even some evangelicals are turning toward environmentalism.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting a cleaner world. But as Garreau observes, the religious characteristics of the environmental movement (even outside the churches) are readily apparent. He nods to the definitions of religion offered by philosophers William James and William P. Alston, and then reminds us:

As climate change literally transforms the heavens above us, faith-based environmentalism increasingly sports saints, sins, prophets, predictions, heretics, demons, sacraments, and rituals. Chief among its holy men is Al Gore — who, according to his supporters, was crucified in the 2000 election, then rose from the political dead and ascended to heaven twice — not only as a Nobel deity, but an Academy Awards angel. He speaks of “Creation care” and cites the Bible in hopes of appealing to evangelicals.

This, in turn is accompanied by what Garreau calls “Carbon Calvinism”, where

Fire and brimstone, too, are much in vogue — accompanied by an unmistakable whiff of authoritarianism: “A professor writing in the Medical Journal of Australia calls on the Australian government to impose a carbon charge of $5,000 on every birth, annual carbon fees of $800 per child and provide a carbon credit for sterilization,” writes Braden R. Allenby, an Arizona State University professor of environmental engineering, ethics, and law. An “article in the New Scientist suggests that the problem with obesity is the additional carbon load it imposes on the environment; others that a major social cost of divorce is the additional carbon burden resulting from splitting up families.”

A point that struck me as interesting was that partisans both Right and Left are known to use the environmentalism-as-religion idea disparagingly, in both cases because these particular partisans disdain religion’s insistence on something beyond rationalism. Garreau goes on to talk to both James Lovelock, creator of the “Gaia hypothesis“, and Bjorn Lomborg, who offers heterodox positions on climate change (arguing for example that there are more pressing issues), and finds that they both share, among other things, a faith in democratic, non-authoritarian solutions.

He goes on to pose some interesting questions about how the greener churches and the devout Greens may impact public policy. It’s an interesting article, and worth a read.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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6 Responses to More on the Church of Green

  1. Miss Self-Important says:

    TNA is an excellent journal. You should keep reading. But isn’t it possible that some who disparage environmentalism-as-religion do so precisely because they do take religion seriously, and see the obsession with carbon output and obesity as distractions at best from the real purpose of faith, which is generally not that useful in the service of simply maintaining the world? Even poor Calvin, most misused of all theologians, thought that these were indifferent things.

  2. majormaddog says:

    “This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting a cleaner world. But as Garreau observes, the religious characteristics of the environmental movement (even outside the churches) are readily apparent. ”

    I think this piece would have been just fine, until you got to the ‘but.’ The more you go on after the ‘but,’ the more I’m not sure I buy you really believe the first line. It’s like the follow on line ought to be, “but I shouldn’t have to do or give up a single thing to get that cleaner world.”

    But here’s a bigger question I’ve got for you Prof. So what? So what if environmentalists hold their beliefs with a fervor similar to what adherents of various religions have? Is the underlying point that those beliefs are not worthy of religious-type dedication? Or is it another one of those, Lefties (who are all atheists, right) go off on Christians, so see! They’re just like us after all.

    • profmondo says:

      First of all, you’re right in at least one regard: I don’t believe anyone should be forced to “bow to a bishop”, Green or otherwise. If you choose to do such a thing, or if you choose to patronize businesses who do, that’s your prerogative. However, you have no right to expect, and less right to compel, me to do so.

      As for the religious fervor of some environmentalists, and the environmental fervor of some religious folks, I figure your religion is your business. But once again, if people can knock those stupid Christers (you know, like Thomas Aquinas, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis and other self-evident fools), I don’t see what immunizes Greens from scrutiny, or even mockery (when they’re being foolish.)

      I think the most important things about Garreau’s article are the questions it asks, and I think that’s where your “so what” lies. To wit:

      “[C]an someone who has made a faith of ­environmentalism — whose worldview and lifestyle have been utterly shaped by it — adapt to changing facts? For the one fact we reliably know about the future of the planet’s climate is that the facts will change. It is simply too complex to be comprehensively and accurately modeled[…] In the years ahead, we will see whether the supposedly scientific debates over the environment can really be conducted by fact and reason alone, or whether necessary change, whatever that may turn out be, will require some new Reformation. For if environmental matters really have become matters of faith — if environmentalism has become a new front in the longstanding culture wars — then what place is left for the crucial function of pragmatic, democratic decision-making?”

  3. majormaddog says:

    As I read that last bit it occurred to me that this might be an example of bizarro conservatism. You know how your side is usually so concerned with making sure everything stays the same and progressives embrace change. Now with climate change it’s the opposite. Your side is like, hey, who says a little change is bad. Maybe the climate change will be for the better. And our side is like, we don’t want any change to the current climate – it’s just right as it is.

    • profmondo says:

      Really, I think it’s more a case where liberals think they can control things (human nature or climate) that conservatives believe are too complicated for the limited powers of humans to positively affect, other than by chance. Interestingly enough, given that we know of actual periods of significant climactic fluctuation (e.g., the medieval Warm Period), I have to wonder whether (and how) the Left actually can claim to have determined the ideal temperature, and whether there is a darker motive of just trying to find another avenue to try to control people. As always, to quote Eric Hoffer, “Absolute power corrupts even when exercised for humane purposes. The benevolent despot who sees himself as a shepherd of the people still demands from others the submissiveness of sheep.”

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