Finding religion in new places

oceanThis weekend I was contemplating the similarities between the modern and older nanny states.

Forgive me for the pejorative term, which refers to the attempts of some people — whether they are Puritans or public health activists — to enforce limits on individual freedom. They lobby for regulations about what you can drink, smoke, eat, drive, say, etc., on the basis that personal behavior has significant ramifications for the community. And, of course, as the nanny state grows in scope and size, the definition of personal behavior is further limited and feeds further restrictions.

Attempts to regulate what people can eat or drive are rarely compared with previous attempts at similar regulations enforced or drafted by religiously-controlled societies. I think it would be interesting to see some of the religious undertones fleshed out in more than opinion pieces or books. Sometimes we limit our discussion of religion in ways that hurt our understanding of larger, complex issues such as capitalism, rule of law and multiculturalism.

Which is why I was elated to see a casual religious reference in a New York Times article about carbon credits. The article was even in the Week in Review section, which I had previously thought completely useless. Environmental reporter Andrew Revkin writes about a carbon-cutting plan in which companies estimate their output of greenhouse gases and then try to offset them by paying for projects that absorb an equivalent amount. They plant trees or fertilize the ocean with algae:

As long as the use of fossil fuels keeps climbing — which is happening relentlessly around the world — the emission of greenhouse gases will keep rising. The average American, by several estimates, generates more than 20 tons of carbon dioxide or related gases a year; the average resident of the planet about 4.5 tons.

At this rate, environmentalists say, buying someone else’s squelched emissions is all but insignificant.

“The worst of the carbon-offset programs resemble the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences back before the Reformation,” said Denis Hayes, the president of the Bullitt Foundation, an environmental grant-making group. “Instead of reducing their carbon footprints, people take private jets and stretch limos, and then think they can buy an indulgence to forgive their sins.”

“This whole game is badly in need of a modern Martin Luther,” Mr. Hayes added.

There are many religious angles to pursue in modern environmental movements. I’ve been contemplating the similarities between religious folks who talk about the imminent end of the world and environmentalists who occasionally speak in somewhat similar fashion about certain doom for the planet. The angle mentioned by Revkin is even more subtle, but I think it’s provocative and interesting and helps the reader contemplate the issue in a broader context. Nicely handled.

Reader John Hoh noted the article’s accompanying illustration, titled “Repentance and Redemption.” It has a man weeping before a confessional booth saying, “Forgive me, for I have S.U.V.’d.” The man in the booth — who is not dressed like a priest — is taking a money bag, handing over a piece of paper, and says, “Go thy way, thy sins are offset.”

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  • http://www.geocities.com/frgregacca/stfel.html Fr. Greg

    I’ve been contemplating the similarities between religious folks who talk about the imminent end of the world and environmentalists who occasionally speak in somewhat similar fashion about the certain doom for the planet.

    Well, the, uh, APOCALYPTIC picture painted in the New Testament Book of Revelation in many ways looks like a planet upon which environmental disaster has become routine and global warning is run rampant.

  • Irenaeus

    There are many religious angles to pursue in modern environmental movements. I’ve been contemplating the similarities between religious folks who talk about the imminent end of the world and environmentalists who occasionally speak in somewhat similar fashion about the certain doom for the planet.

    Have you read Michael Crichton’s speech on this? Go here (http://www.michaelcrichton.com/speeches/index.html) and click on the speech entitled “Environmentalism as Religion.” It’s right on. (The other pieces there are really good as well.)

    And although I know many will find reference to him noxious, Rush Limbaugh has been saying this for years…

  • http://www.bcartfarm.com Jim Janknegt

    Jimm Akin has a blog about indulgences and the environmnetal offsets including some links to help folks understand what the Catholic Church actually teaches about indulgences:

    http://jimmyakin.typepad.com/defensor_fidei/2007/04/a_reader_writes.html

    Jimmy says indulgences have NEVER been for sale.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    People may say indulgences have never been for sale, but they might have a hard time convincing folks about why the Reformation started if not for the common anger at the sale of, well, papal indulgences. Luther wrote his letter to Cardinal Albert of Hohenzollern, the Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, protesting the sale of indulgences in his jurisdiction. He included the 95 Theses and invited him to a disputation.

    There is the saying attributed to Johann Tetzel, a papal commissioner for the sale of indulgences, which is translated as “As soon as the coin in the coffer springs, the soul from purgatory springs.

    Though Rome could have responded a bit more quickly, I think they would say — and Akin would probably say — there was never any selling of indulgences. Instead, it was the combination of almsgiving with the sale of indulgences that led people to misinterpret what was going on. In other words — sometimes the indulgence-granter would require the penitent to do something to show proper penitence — say, give money for the building of St. Peter’s. It was such almsgiving that permitted the indulgence-granter to have cause to grant the indulgence. But there wasn’t a direct link in that the penitent could show repentance by other means.

    I think that this doesn’t necessarily negate the comparison to carbon offsets in that a business or individual might also say that their own carbon offset activity is proof of their repentance and indication that they should receive a societal indulgence.

  • R Schenk

    Economists, who often have been at odds with environmentalists, have long recognized that environmentalism can be viewed as a religion. In a highly entertaining essay in his Armchair Economist (1993), Steven Landsburg writes about what he considered religious indoctrination at his daughter’s preschool:

    “As environmentalism becomes increasingly like an intrusive state religion, we dissenters become increasingly prickly about suggestions that we suffer from some kind of aberration.
    The naïve environmentalism of my daughter’s preschool is a force-fed potpourri of myth, superstition, and ritual that has much in common with the least reputable varieties of religious Fundamentalism.”

    Another economist, Robert Nelson, after recognizing that environmentalism is a secular religion, has tried to analyze economics as a competing secular religion. In his Economics as Religion: from Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond, he writes:

    “Indeed, the conflicts between economic and environmental values that dominated many of the policy outcomes during my years at the Interior Department are best understood as new variations on earlier religious disagreements among followers in branches of Jewish and Christian religion.”

    However, I rarely see any appreciation in the press of the importance of secular religion, and viewing policy issues in these terms is often enlightening.

  • Discernment

    That picture. Where’s it from? Where is it a picture of?

  • Eli

    Okay, a bunch of things:

    First of all, to implicitly conflate caring about the environment with endorsing a nanny government seems to be taking things a bit to the extreme. While I’m not at all a fan of either nanny government or, really, rabid environmentalism (as religious environmentalists seem to now be against them since they might allow “business as usual” for all those big bad corporations) I really don’t understand how buying carbon offsets is an example of either.

    Second, to imply that personal behavior *doesn’t* have significant ramifications for the community-at-large seems overly simplistic. Since the health of a community is directly correlated to the health of its individuals it makes sense that there’s a pretty solid connection between the two.

    Third, the Week in Review is sort of like the US Weekly of the NYT and I actually have to admit that it’s one of my favorite sections after the Book Review section. Can we please agree to go a little easier on the Week in Review section next time?

    Fourthly, to me carbon offsets seem to be a way to try to help maintain an environment that is a pretty important part of our lives. The drastic increase in global CO2 levels is pretty well documented. Whether this correlates to global warming is another matter entirely. Practically speaking how is going carbon neutral really all that different from trying to eat better or working out at the gym when we are talking about our overall health? While it’s true that eating healthier and going to the gym may be seen as a sort of repentance for simply being alive and aging – are they also a sort of “indulgence” since the food costs more and the gym commands dues?

    Fifthly, to try to compare those that believe in an eschatological framework of the world, like PreMill Dispensationalists, with religious environmentalists is again I think a bit of a stretch. While it’s true that both may be trying to “save” the world, with one you get a Waco and the other you get Earth Day.

    Finally, while I initially thought that this whole carbon offset thing was pretty laughable and more of the same from eschatological environmentalists, I now wonder if it’s really such a bad thing after all if it’s just trying to make the planet a bit healthier?

    Oh, and one other thing. What’s the deal with all those missing bees?

  • Greg

    “Fifthly, to try to compare those that believe in an eschatological framework of the world, like PreMill Dispensationalists, with religious environmentalists is again I think a bit of a stretch. While it’s true that both may be trying to “save” the world, with one you get a Waco and the other you get Earth Day.”
    As an amillenial Lutheran I am no fan of premillenialism, dispensational or otherwise. However, we cannot blame David Koresh on dispensationalism. His millenarian fever was of a different sort. Perhaps though you were refering to Bill Clinton. Was it his southern baptist dispensationalism that led him to order the slaughter of the innocents at Waco?

  • Eli

    No. Actually his millenarian fever was directly related to an end times apocalypticism with him as the self-appointed Lamb who could open the Seven Seals and his followers believed that he was the actual the 2nd coming. While he may have gone up to 11, the Branch Davidians viewed the world through Revelations and were in fact premillenial dispensationalists who thought they had their own in-house JC.

    But I also have to agree with you that Reno and the ATF had no idea who they were dealing with and the tragedy and slaughter of the innocents at Waco was at its base, to borrow a line from Cool Hand Luke, a failure to communicate.

    From the divine Mrs. MZ’s beautiful post yesterday on confession and forgiveness I think it’s also so important to understand the forum you’re operating within. While Koresh answered only to God, the Clinton administration had to answer to the American people. When people are operating from such divergent paradigms it makes more sense how so many innocent children could end up in the crossfire.

  • Greg

    Again I am shocked that Eli could see Koresh as a dispensationalist. It is my understanding that the Branch Davidians were a cultic perversion of Adventist thought. While adventists and dispensationalists are both premillenialists there premillenialism is distinct. All premillenialists are not dispensationalists. Koresh was not a dispensationalist.

  • Eli

    Here’s a reference Greg. Hope that helps.

  • Greg

    Eli thank you for the fine link critical of dispensationalism. I reject dispensationalism and am always in the look for good arguments against their position.


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