The Surrogate Religion of Environmentalism

The Surrogate Religion of Environmentalism

 by Dr. Thomas P. Sheahen

 
Q.        On a TV talk show, I saw an interview where the claim was made that “environmentalism” is actually a form of religion. That seemed pretty strange to me. How can anyone hold that?
 
            Your inquiry departs from a standard science-only question, and brings up some subjective (but important) issues at the interface of religion and science. No one can construct a strictly objective “scientific” explanation, so I'll necessarily have to include my own subjective thoughts on the subject.
 
            The ending “-ism” denotes a way of thinking, perceiving and structuring one's life.  Every “ism” is based on underlying assumptions, principles and beliefs that tell its adherents what they ought to do.  Providing ethical guidance for its members is a major part of what an “-ism” does.
 
            Followers of Judaism who observe Passover this week, and Christians who commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ at Easter, have no problem in acknowledging that these are matters of belief. They would never claim that science provides absolute proof of authenticity – although many find in science valuable support for the validity of their beliefs. Those who can see an underlying compatibility between science and religious faith are comfortable in both realms.
 
            Environmentalism likewise provides ethical guidance, but its followers generally recoil from the suggestion that it's a religion. The traditional buildings and rituals are absent; moreover, many adherents come from a background of explicitly rejecting “institutional” religions.  Nevertheless, a careful examination of the basic assumptions shows that environmentalism indeed meets the criteria of a secular religion.
 
            A cornerstone belief of environmentalism is that mankind is just one species among many. This view opposes the Judeo-Christian belief that God considers mankind to be very special. “Mother earth” replaces God as the object of special devotion, causing some of environmentalism’s subsequent assertions to be in direct opposition to the teachings of Christianity and Judaism.
 
            Science appears to play a major role in environmentalism, but actually its role is distinctly secondary: Science is used subjectively, not objectively. After a set of beliefs has been established, various fields of science (and scholarly studies within those fields), are carefully sifted to select facts that support those beliefs. That's not the way science is supposed to work. But it happens every day in movies, magazines, blogs, TV and newspapers.
 
            In his excellent book, “The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religion in Contemporary America,” Professor Robert H. Nelson likens the contemporary struggle between those two secular religions to John Calvin's struggle against the establishment of Catholicism 500 years ago.  Nelson's book concludes:  “It is time to take secular religion seriously. It is real religion. In the twentieth century, it showed greater energy, won more converts, and had more impact on the western world than the traditional institutional forms of Christianity.”
 
            For the believing environmentalist, there is a certain “Garden of Eden” narrative:  the beginning of evil came with the development of agriculture, when mankind rose above hunter-gatherer status and began to control and improve on nature to meet his needs. Thereafter came civilization and all its negative environmental associations. The whole story hangs together within a religious framework.
 
            In America today, the religion of environmentalism has the distinct advantage of being taught in the public schools, and receiving plentiful government funding. Some of its beliefs are fairly benign, such as sympathy for polar bear cubs. But other beliefs have had horrible consequences.
 
        The chemical spray DDT is a powerful weapon against malaria. It wiped the disease out in the developed world. Sprayed on walls, it acts for six months or more with a single application, keeping mosquitoes out of homes, preventing them from biting, and killing any that land. But environmental activism and incorrect scientific interpretations led politicians to believe DDT harmed birds and fish, and the insecticide was banned in the United States in 1972. Since then, it has been largely purged from the disease control arsenal worldwide, even though malaria still infects a billion people in poor countries every year, killing up to one million. Since 1972, at least 20 million African children have died from malaria.

            Throwing trash out of your car window is considered a sin by environmentalism.  In other religions, allowing preventable deaths of millions of children is a far greater sin.
 
            This year Easter, Passover and Earth Day all are close together. It's a good time to ask if environmentalism can be reconciled with traditional religions. Most religious people also want to protect the environment, and see ecological stewardship as part of their responsibility to God. Indeed, that is the message of another excellent book, “Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition.” Published by the Acton Institute a decade ago, it is a brief collection of essays by Protestant, Jewish and Catholic scholars who have pondered how and why their own faith embraces care for God's creation.
 
In all cases, these authors root their arguments in Scripture, abetted by an understanding of modern science. They stress that the word “dominion” used in the Bible doesn't mean you can wreck the planet; rather, mankind is a partner chosen by God to be a responsible steward of creation. Emphatically they do not regard mankind as just “one species among many.” And they don't confuse “mother earth” with God.

 

Dr. Thomas P. Sheahen, a physicist and MIT graduate, writes a weekly newspaper column entitled "Ask the Everyday Scientist."