Christian Religion versus Environmental Religion

Posted on November 5, 2013 by


We see it every day, a newspaper article or news report about what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has done or might do to further regulate what it considers to be pollution.  Most recently President Obama issued a statement to his agencies that he would soon be addressing global warming through some type of Federal action, undetermined as of yet.  What are we to make of all this?  More importantly, what is a Christian to make of it?  How do we (Christians) respond to efforts such as those above and more generally to the environmental movement as a whole.  The environment is a touchy subject today. Many younger believers see it as one of the more important issues in their own lives.  To be sure, I agree that Scripture has something to say that gives us guidelines for our attitude toward our natural environment.  I will address the implications of those below.  But first, let’s take a closer look at the environmental movement and at governmental policies flowing from environmental concerns?  

A recent book by Robert H. Nelson entitled The New Holy Wars:  Economic Religion versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America sheds both historical and current light on the movement to clean up and then preserve the environment, beginning in the 1960s.  First the historical:  The movement did not begin out of thin air, but many trace its  emergence to two works. The first was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) in which DDT was “exposed” as a pollutant (later exonerated–but too late).  The second, influencing Christians more was Lynn White’s 1967 article in Science entitled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” casting blame on Christianity for the “crisis” by its idea of dominion of nature.  These might have been immediate causes, but there were, as White demonstrates, more remote causes, including for example the unorthodox Transcendentalism of the nineteenth century.  So Nelson actually traces the roots of the modern movement to Christianity in its unorthodox forms.  What’s more he concludes that this “religious” foundation is not merely historical but continues to exert an influence, even though most environmentalists would deny any religious connections.  In addition, though Nelson does not specifically address it, the movement also has indirect roots in Eastern ideas about nature.  

The conclusions reached by modern environmentalists do have a religious veneer and even use religious language and allusions to biblical language.  But the content is vastly different.  To take one of the most important conclusions, more radical environmentalists adopt a kind of sin-idea, but the sin is by man against nature.  The solution is either for man to drastically scale back his economic activity and lifestyle or for man to “disappear” (hopefully for some) from the planet or at least reduce population (many possible means are proposed).  Frankly, this is religion.  It is not rooted primarily or at all in any orthodox version of Christianity, but it is nevertheless thoroughly religious.  So what does it have to do with policy.

Simply, these more radical views have tended to drive a segment of the population to invest a great deal of time, energy and money in lobbying and direct policy-making to achieve their sometimes radical ends.  Environmental organizations are well-funded and also politically and legally savvy.  They have succeeded in convincing Congress to pass many versions of environmental laws which (consistent with much recent legislation) has given much unaccountable authority to agencies for implementation.  They have successfully argued cases before Federal courts, whose decisions have resulted in greater Federal control as well as direct prohibitions on activities.  Finally, it is an open secret that the EPA and other agencies are populated with what Anthony Downs in his justly famous book entitled Inside Bureaucracy (1967) has called “zealots” or “true believers” in the environmental cause.

Is the environment cleaner as a result of the totality of all this activity?  Undoubtedly it is.  Evidence is not hard to find. Compare photos of Pittsburgh, PA in the 1950s in mid-afternoon with photos of the same locations today.  But is this massive governmental activity misguided?  That is a question just as much for Christians as for anyone else.  Genesis 1: 26-31 does, I contend, give humans a dominion over the natural world, not to destroy it but to make it productive for humans and to enhance its productivity (implying that we do not want to destroy that world).  But the point is that God gave man the dominion over nature.  Nature, as beautiful as it may be, is not equivalent to humans.  Of course it must be protected both in order that it may continue to show God’s greatness (even though humans suppress that truth they clearly see in unrighteousness) and in order that nature can continue to enhance human flourishing.  But nature cannot be treated as a god, an idol.  That means at least that nature cannot be treated as wilderness, to be left unused by humans.  Reasonable measures are good, but the key word is reasonable, not absolute prohibition of use.  

I fear that global warming is an example of this zealotry.  Even in the face of new evidence, the most recent that we may be in a “cooling stage” for up to twenty years, does not dissuade the true believer environmentalists.  They insist that mankind is the (THE) cause of global warming (insisting it exists) and that we (the state) must take drastic measures to reduce its effects, even with dubious causal connections.  This is religious zeal, pure and simple.  

I am not sure the radical wing of environmentalism will disappear anytime soon, but it is possible to reason with more moderate people in the movement.  Christians are not anti-environmental–at least none that I know.  But they understand the teaching of Scripture properly.  We are here for God’s glory, and so even in our use (a deliberate term) of the environment we are to glorify God.  This translates into reasonable policy both in its ends or goals and the means for achieving those goals.  Our goal should be to use what God has given us to enhance human flourishing, but not to destroy that gift irrevocably.  But we should not support means that prevent human use at all or even that that are so economically oppressive that humans are left worse off without any corresponding benefits for their daily lives.  Christianity’s aim is not to make people worse off, not to make human life miserable, as it still is in some undeveloped parts of the world.  Christ warned against an over-emphasis on temporal well-being, but He most certainly did not advocate the deliberate creation of misery.  Our religion is Christianity, not the environment.  Our goal is human flourishing, not human decline.  Our aim is ultimately that the Gospel be proclaimed to all,the earth.  Our final end is to glorify God in our use of His gift of nature.