It has become commonplace to say that environmentalism is a new religion. One reads it everywhere, from friends and foes alike. Typical is Nigel Lawson, former British Chancellor of the Exchequer, in his new book, An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming: “The new religion of global warming is the DaVinci Code of environmentalism. It’s a great story and a best seller. It contains a grain of truth and a mountain of nonsense.”
One of the most recent examples is from Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson, writing in the New York Review of Books that environmentalism has become “a worldwide secular religion,” that it “has replaced socialism as the leading secular religion,” and that “the path of righteousness is to live as frugally as possible.” As “a religion of hope and respect for nature . . . . environmentalism is a religion that we can all share.” But “unfortunately some members of the environmental movement have also adopted as an article of faith the belief that global warming is the greatest threat to the ecology of our planet.” And it is the religious character of this belief that has made the arguments about global warming so “bitter and passionate.”
Dyson’s article caught the eye of New York Times financial columnist Joe Nocera, who read it en route to Exxon Mobil’s annual meeting in Dallas, where various members of the Rockefeller family were trying to make “their” company adopt more “green” policies. Now tuned in to the metaphor, Nocera, siding with company management, chided the Rockefellers for trying to “push Exxon Mobil toward their belief system, their global warming religion.”
It’s clearly a metaphor with legs. What is the import of this identification, or at least this similarity?
For some who embrace the equivalence, environmentalism is the faith that will save the world. It has the power of religion, of ultimate commitment, and that is a very good and necessary quality. Or, if it is not a religion all by itself, it is a vital part of familiar religions. For Christian environmentalists, it is an obligation of faith to care for God’s good earth, to be faithful stewards of the place we have been given to live on—and right now God is calling us to fight global warming.
But on the other side are critics who say making environmentalism into a religion has given it a rigidity, a stifling orthodoxy that regards all dissent, all skepticism, as heresy—as the Dyson quote above suggests. Proper care of the environment depends on good science, and science must always remain open to questioning, skepticism, and dissent. Beware the heresy hunters when you hear, “The science is settled.” For indeed that is how the faithful treat the skeptics—as ignorant, senile, or in the pay of the oil companies, sinners who are not to be tolerated until they confess and repent.
The critics of course see the more prominent environmentalists as the “high priests” of the new religion that worships its own god, Gaia. They have the temper of inquisitors and seek legislation that will enforce their views: carbon taxes, emissions limits, proscriptions on all manner of ecological sins. Permits to be excused from a tax or to raise an emissions limit function effectively as religious dispensations and indulgences.
The religious metaphors are ubiquitous, coming in abundance from both sides. Combating global warming is like standing at Armageddon. It is our last chance to save the human race. If we don’t do everything possible, the wrath of God will descend upon us (as Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals warned in a debate I had with him a while ago, reported here). It’s already happening: Natural catastrophes like the Burmese cyclone (caused, says Gore, by global warming) foreshadow the end of the world. The apocalypse is nigh.
Or, from the contrarian voices, the environmentalists (“enviros” for short) want us to genuflect before Gaia and adopt “carbon chastity” as the ultimate vow. Emitting CO2 is our original sin, ever to be confessed. Gore is the messiah who will lead us to ecological salvation. They want to prescribe our lifestyle in minute detail (our “carbon footprint”) as a matter of catechetical morality. It’s the “dictat of the eco-theologians,” “dogmas [from] the Church of the Environment.”
Whew! Enough already! I’m tempted to mutter the incantation of the young: “Gimme a break!” I would like to be delivered from this language. People who use it to criticize the immovable “enviros” are not doing religion any favors; and some of them—not all, of course, but some of them—are openly hostile to religion. They slyly drop into their critique the note that they themselves are atheists, or agnostics, and that the planet would be better off delivered not only from the “enviros” but from religious believers, too, because both are hostile to the open, skeptical mindset required by good science. Their adversaries, the strongly religious environmentalists, are not much help to the conversation either, indulging in apocalyptic scenarios and threatening us with divine judgment if we don’t follow their orders.
We can do without this distracting way of framing the argument. Let’s untangle environmentalism from the science/religion debate and ask the skeptics (of whom I am one) to discuss the issues on their merits, not on the suspected darker motives of Gore’s followers. And let the religious environmentalists stick to the subject, too, back off their absolute certainty, and show a little more modesty in telling us what God wants us to do about global warming.
It’s a simple request.