Subduing the Earth

Christianity’s relationship with the environmental movement has always been a rocky one. While some groups of Christians view protecting the planet to be a sacred imperative, others – an alarmingly large number of others – believe that God gave us the Earth to use and exploit in any way we deem fit, and since Jesus is coming back real soon to destroy the world anyway, it really doesn’t matter what we do to it in the meantime.

Now, Pharyngula gives us not one but two examples of prominent religious conservatives voicing the latter view – from opposite sides of the theological aisle, no less. First, Catholic Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, whose highly appropriate former title was Archbishop of Bologna:

An arch-conservative cardinal chosen by the Pope to deliver this year’s Lenten meditations to the Vatican hierarchy has caused consternation by giving warning of an Antichrist who is “a pacifist, ecologist and ecumenist”.

…Cardinal Biffi said that Christianity stood for “absolute values, such as goodness, truth, beauty”. If “relative values” such as “solidarity, love of peace and respect for nature” became absolute, they would encourage “idolatry” and “put obstacles in the way of salvation”.

And on the Protestant side, Jerry Falwell, whose position on just about any issue is pretty much guaranteed to be the wrong one:

[Falwell] said Sunday the debate over global warming is a tool of Satan being used to distract churches from their primary focus of preaching the gospel.

“If I decide here as the pastor and our deacons decide that we’re going to get caught up in the global warming thing, we’re not going to be able to reach the masses of souls for Christ, because our attention will be elsewhere, ” Falwell said in Sunday’s sermon at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va. “That’s pretty wise for Satan to concoct.”

…Falwell quoted a scientist saying the west Antarctic ice shelf has been retreating two inches a year for 10,000 years. “I would back it up to 6,000,” Falwell quipped…

…Falwell cited two Bible verses that he said apply to the global-warming debate: Psalm 24:1-2, which declares “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof,” and Genesis 8:22, which says there will be seasons of spring, summer, fall and winter for “as long as the earth remains.”

“Now that alone ought to let you sleep better at night, after you read Al Gore and attend his ‘Inconvenient Truth’ film,” Falwell said.

Yes, that certainly calms my fears. The Earth is warming so rapidly that entire new islands are emerging out of melting ice in Greenland and Inuit people in the Arctic Circle now need to use air conditioners, but relax! A book written two and a half thousand years ago by an Iron Age tribe living in a small region of the Middle East explains quite clearly that their tribal god will not allow the Earth to change too dramatically, so we have nothing to concern ourselves about. I, for one, will sleep much better now that I have that reassurance.

Falwell and Biffi are not by any means the only Christians to voice this view. Here’s a similar sentiment stated even more bluntly by pastor John MacArthur:

The earth we inhabit is not a permanent planet. It is, frankly, a disposable planet — it is going to have a very short life. It’s been around six thousand years or so — that’s all — and it may last a few thousand more. And then the Lord is going to destroy it.

I’ve told environmentalists that if they think humanity is wrecking the planet, wait until they see what Jesus does to it.

…This earth was never ever intended to be a permanent planet — it is not eternal. We do not have to worry about it being around tens of thousands, or millions, of years from now because God is going to create a new heaven and a new earth.

Interestingly, as Falwell and MacArthur’s remarks show, the young-earth creationist view in particular devalues the planet and regards it as “disposable”. Perhaps these believers’ lack of appreciation for the true, vast tapestry of geologic history blinds them to what a glorious place the Earth is, and renders them less likely to care about its fate.

Statements like these are a dramatic illustration of how belief in an afterlife makes the theist more likely to view this life as unimportant, as I wrote in “No Heavens“. But these views are especially dangerous, because they impact not just these individuals or their followers, but the rest of us who must share the planet with them. We all live on this world together, and we are all connected by what happens to it. Sulfur emitted into the air in one country causes acid rain in another; fertilizer dumped into a river upstream causes toxic algae blooms that deprive fishers of their livelihood downstream; carbon emitted by the United States causes melting glaciers in India and Africa and global warming in the Arctic. We cannot solve the problem of environmental degradation in one place without solving it in all places, and we cannot do that until people around the world are united in purpose to work together.

As a result, the irrational and dangerous faith-based views of fundamentalist Christians and others who view the planet as theirs to abuse as they see fit can completely undermine the efforts of any number of informed, devoted people. These Christians are confident – suicidally confident – that Jesus is coming back soon and that this makes any major effort at environmental protection pointless, even a Satanic deception. Two thousand previous years of Christians have lived and died believing the same thing, but this does not give the ignorant, history-blind fundamentalists any reason to hesitate. But as the ability of human technology to reshape our environment grows ever greater, and as we draw ever nearer to a tipping point after which any action will be too late, it is increasingly urgent that we stand up to these dangerously irrational beliefs now and defeat them. The task that lies before us is large and grave enough without uninformed bigots nipping at the ankles of responsible people and hindering their way.

Thankfully, not all Christians are as arrogantly complacent as these three. There are many influential Christian individuals and organizations that have signed onto “creation care” initiatives like the Evangelical Environmental Network or the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. (Credit to Slacktivist for those links, who also points out that even a few apocalyptic “dispensationalist” Christians, like Jack Wyrtzen of Word of Life Fellowship, came aboard on the bizarre grounds that it’s God alone, not human beings, who has the privilege of destroying the Earth. Well, we’ll take what we can get.) Of course, this halting step toward rationality has been fiercely opposed by other, more conservative Christians, but the fact that there is such a movement at all is a hopeful sign. Not all Christians are content to sit by and cheer as the world careens toward destruction. There are good ones who understand the moral obligations in giving human beings a safe and clean environment, and who expect the planet to have a future and understand the need to protect it so that it will still be around for generations to come. Whether they – and we – will succeed remains to be seen.

UPDATE: After posting this article, I came across an example of the kind of fierce opposition that progressive, pro-environment Christians face from fundamentalists. The vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Richard Cizik, is a well-known environmental advocate who has spoken about the need to fight global warming. Now the leaders of several prominent conservative Christian groups, including well-known rogues’ gallery members like James Dobson, have sent a letter to the NAE demanding that they either silence Cizik or force him to resign. As usual, these sex-obsessed theocrats claim that protecting the environment is drawing attention away from what they believe should be the only priorities of Christians, namely bashing gays and outlawing abortion and birth control.

“We have observed,” the letter says, “that Cizik and others are using the global warming controversy to shift the emphasis away from the great moral issues of our time.”

Global warming is one of the great moral issues of our time, whether or not James Dobson, Gary Bauer or Tony Perkins want to admit that. I suspect that these people, if asked, would say that giving meat and drink to the hungry, sheltering strangers, clothing the naked, and visiting those who are sick or in prison are likewise “issues that draw warm and fuzzies from liberal crusaders”, whereas real Christians know that those things are just insignificant distractions from the really important moral issues, like making sure that gay couples can’t get health care.

So far the NAE’s president Leith Anderson has stood behind Cizik, but only time will tell how this plays out. This is not my fight and I cannot assist in it, but nevertheless, I wish Cizik and his allies the best of luck.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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