(Warning: If speaking frankly about religion’s dark side upsets you, please read no further.)
There has been a lot of discussion on this site recently about the potential positive role religion (specifically Christianity) can have in solving our environmental problems.
Call me skeptical.
Before I explain, it’s important to lay out a few things, since as soon as someone criticizes of religion it opens them up to all sorts of allegations. First off, I fully respect and support the right of freedom of religion and the larger right for everyone to believe whatever they want. In fact, I would fight for that right any day. But while I respect people’s right to their beliefs, I don’t have to respect the content of those beliefs, or more importantly, believe that they are a sound basis for public policy. For example, someone might believe that oil companies are engaged in a vast conspiracy to control the world or that little green men control the White House. I can respect the right to freedom of speech and thought, but I don’t have to take those assertions or beliefs seriously.
The same holds for religion.
I’m someone who has actually read the Bible and most other major religious works. While no doubt there are beautiful verses and passages that suggest peaceful and compassionate conduct consistent with a progressive environmental ethic, the god depicted in the Bible acts more often than not like a genocidal terrorist. No, that wasn’t a typo. The god of the Bible routinely slaughters innocents to punish them for the “sins” of their ancestors (anyone know the story of Passover?). He has not only destroyed the world already a few times in his anger, but plans to do so again. In addition, while Jesus is rightly associated with many views of tolerance and peace, such as in the Sermon on the Mount, he is far from the pacifist many claim, according to other accounts in the New Testament.
The point is that after reading these texts I see no reason to associate them with the type of ethic I think is most needed to solve our current environmental problems. In fact, I think the blind faith and fear of science religions bring out in many is exactly the antithesis of what we need most: reasoned debate and an acceptance that we are not as exceptional as we are accustomed to believing. This last point runs entirely counter to the thrust of all religious thought: that we are somehow elevated by our god above all other living things. This is not to say I believe there is a moral equivalence between a human being and an ape, but that we have much more in common with the other animals than we acknowledge, and that our fate is much more closely tied to theirs than we know.
So if religion does not provide a good justification for an ethic that respects life and understands that we are not as unique as we think, can it still have a positive role to play in convincing those who are religious to take environmentalism more seriously? Again, call me skeptical. This would be true if a religious environmental awakening could convince significant numbers of people who are not otherwise prone to thinking about the environment to do so. It would have an especially profound effect if it were to convince large numbers on the religious right to demand more action from the GOP leadership. I see very little evidence of this. If anything, the religious right is turning away from the GOP because it hasn’t been sufficiently adept at denying gay rights and stripping women of their reproductive freedom. As to the Christian left, they are already voting and supporting environmental candidates anyway.
So where does this leave us?
I do not deny there may be some good courting religious communities for environmental goals based on strictly pragmatic grounds, but the effect will likely be minimal. I think our energy would be much better spent educating the public about the types of common sense public policies that would have significant environmental impacts, like the hugely destructive resource subsidies most countries support, and shifting our tax burden toward consumption of harmful products and away from income.