Christianity, Environmentalism, and Long-Term Strategies for Success

Following the death of Jesus, there were many arguments among early Christians about what path the new religion would take going forward. It is my belief that two of these arguments determined, more than any other, the future survivability and later impressive success of Christianity in the world.

One of the major early arguments–framed in the Bible as a dispute between Peter and Paul–was whether this new movement was still Jewish, or whether it should expand to encompass Hellenic peoples and practices (and thus necessarily lose much of its Jewish character). As is perhaps obvious, the argument resolved in shedding most of Christianity’s Jewish roots and embracing Greek and Roman thought, culture, and customs.  In so doing, the early religion broadened its reach beyond an insular minority, utilizing and adapting prevailing philosophies and religious symbols, in essence assimilating itself to the dominant culture.

The second argument does not directly play out in the Bible, but traces of its effects can be found in later arguments over the canon. Early on, there was a tension between those who called themselves Gnostic Christians, who believed that the most important duty of a Christian was to contemplate the mysteries of the divine and understand them thoroughly (and intellectually, in specific), and those who for lack of a better word I’ll call “Soterioriffic” Christians, who believed that understanding was far less important than faith and belief in the salvific power of Jesus and the religious practice in general.

While there is plenty of textual evidence that Jesus at least cared about understanding on some level (he often expresses frustration with the apostles being thick-headed), this argument settled out against the Gnostics in favor of a Christianity that was primarily concerned with being saved. This had the effect of making the religion much more accessible to the lower classes and slaves, who tended to have less education than the higher classes. Removing understanding of philosophy as a prerequisite for being Christian went a long way towards making the new religion take off in its Hellenic habitat.

Christianity could have easily developed in each case in a different way, either as a Jewish sect or a mystery cult (or both), but I am given to doubt whether such a Christianity would have survived to the present day in any form other than a historical or marginal curiosity.  Making the strategically superior choice each time pretty much guaranteed the survival of a robust Christianity (one with which we struggle to this very day).

I think the lessons from this have applicability in other social movements. Take environmentalism, for instance; there are many issues that fall under the umbrella of concern for human impact on the environment, from species loss to air and water quality to biome depletion. However, most of those issues have taken a back seat, having been overshadowed by Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW).  Looking back at the strategic lessons of early Christianity, this choice of emphasis seems to me unwise.

Unlike most environmental issues of note, AGW is fairly abstract; it is not clear immediately upon finding out what it is why people in general should be concerned by it. Dead animals or toxic fumes or trees getting cut down are concrete, easy to understand topics, whereas in order to fully grasp the threat of AGW, it takes some effort to get educated on the issue. Even worse, in order to actually judge the merits of the arguments for AGW and possible response measures requires significant education in climatology. As the Gnostics found, the higher the education requirements for participating in the movement, the more difficulty one will have in convincing others of the urgency or necessity of one’s objective.

The other strategic error in my mind is that environmentalists chose to double-down on AGW long before there was decent evidence to show that they were right; in the intervening period, there were many good faith reasons to doubt the conclusion, leading to many reasonably concluding that the threat from AGW was overblown, opening the movement to charges that its stridency was driven by an agenda darker than simply preserving the climate equilibrium for human habitation. Had the movement instead focused on an area where the science was immediately more solid, such as ocean acidification, they could have taken aim at the same fossil fuel emissions from a stronger scientific footing.

Right now, despite easy targets and easy appeals, environmentalists struggle with their agenda by emphasizing difficult arguments and abstract problems. Meanwhile, Christianity, having made effective strategic choices, is still going strong. Decisions about what to emphasize and how accessible to make a movement can be the difference between success and failure.

[Since the move to Patheos, the Author section has gotten screwed up. Original article by Elemenope]

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  • David Evans

    I don’t agree that there was in recent times a lack of decent evidence for AGW. The trend of human-produced CO2 was clear in the Hawaii measurements by 1990 at the latest, and the physics behind the greenhouse effect was understood long before that. If the environmentalists made a mistake here is was not to foresee the success that AGW deniers, funded by the fossil fuel industry, would have in muddying the waters.

    • Danny wuvs kittens

      I don’t think anyone who’s passed 5th grade science doubts that, but there are more things to answer.

      Here are my main problems with climate change. Do I deserve to have these opinions? Perhaps not, but I won’t be convinced until advocates start trying to answer these questions.

      Is increasing heat and melting icebergs etc. the result of co2 emissions or just the natural cycle of the earth? Its hard to know just based on written records. Man didn’t start recording temperature until around 100 years ago.

      Is the increasing heat going to be an apocalyptic problem? What casualties can be expected from not doing anything about climate change? Which brings me onto my next two questions:

      Won’t the earth self-correct? If it gets 150 degrees in some places and new york floods, won’t that drastically cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, thus lowering the temperature? This might sound a little shitty, but a lot of the solutions being proposed to combat climate change are just as shitty, and could really hurt industry, which means higher prices and fewer jobs.

      Is there really anything we can do about it? If you have 10 light bulbs and you replace them with florescent ones, will it really make a difference? Even if old bulbs were outlawed and florescent was required, people will still use air conditioning, cars, etc. People will still exercise(and thus produce more CO2). People will still eat meat. If you take all these things away, then scientific work up to this point will have been wasted. Researching new technologies will be pointless. Our whole species will be better off dead.

      That’s my 2 cents.

      • Chris P

        Obviously you have not read enough or understood enough about the subject that has been discussed for decades.

        “Is it going to be an apocalyptic problem” – If you had bothered to read National Geo or New Scientist you would know that it already is, unless you consider bleached coral, dead people, diminishing species, lower crop yields, diminished water supplies……. minor blips on the road that you can easily fix!

        Scientists have already worked out most of what you have described. Why you think factories that use less energy have higher costs I don’t know.

        We are running out of fossil fuels and need to cut back anyway.

        Please go read some more articles from Scientific American, New Scientist and National Geographic. Even in a afternoon at the library (and not listening to Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter) you would find what you need to know.

        It’s a major problem that needs to be fixed.

        • Elemenope

          Please go read some more articles from Scientific American, New Scientist and National Geographic. Even in a afternoon at the library (and not listening to Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter) you would find what you need to know.

          It’s a major problem that needs to be fixed.

          This is kinda my point in a nutshell: any movement that requires for persuasion that someone pick up a popular science journal or go to the library and check out some dry books on climatology is already operating at what is possibly a crippling disadvantage.

          • Relles Natas

            With reference to your statements about Christianity having been largely an either/or proposition Nope, what do you think of Christ’s own use (attributed to him at least) of the complex analogy/metaphor/parable to transcend education levels and impart his deeper concepts to peasants, fishermen, herders, laborers, slaves, and the urban poor– most of which things he had experienced himself? And by the same token his frequent claims that he was doing this very thing so that the shiftless classes– the wise and rich– would remain blind fools in his world despite their education, only because they did not have the practical tools learned from practical knowledge to relate to his truths?

            Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has said “With the wrong metaphor we are deluded; with no metaphor we are blind.”

            Along similar lines, Steven Pinker argues that with some subjects, “… we have no mental tools to grasp them intuitively. We depend on analogies that press an old mental faculty into service, or on jerry-built mental contraptions that wire together bits and pieces of other faculties.”

            Now, I realize I invite the usual rural bias and class contempt when I admit that for most of my life (except the years I spent at college) I have farmed and raised livestock, as well as worked various construction trades. But even though 2,000 years had elapsed between the life of Christ and my own brief time as his disciple thirty years ago, still seeds had to be spread on the ground, the sun and rain still had to make them sprout, and the harvests still had to be brought in– as they still do, and the nets on fishing boats too.

            Those who work with cattle, horses, pigs, or sheep still know what shepherds knew then. And whether you are working with timber and stone or lumber and concrete, construction is still construction– the same laws of physics determine your need for strong foundations, load-bearing walls, adequate roofs. So because of my life experiences, Christ’s teachings were very real and clear to me, and many of them still hold significance for me, such that analogy and metaphor characterize my method of thinking to a degree most would consider a fault.

            Like this: 1920 was the first US census when more people lived in cities than in rural areas, and that milestone has just been passed in 2010 for the entire planet. The loss of experience means the loss of metaphorical understanding based on those experiences, as much as the well-planned “simplification” of vocabulary and grammar in Newspeak by Big Brother meant the gradual disappearance of pesky ideas based in words and complicated sentence construction.

            If Pinker and Haidt are correct, as I believe they are, then what is needed are effective analogies/metaphors/parables capable of exploiting the shared experience base of our rapidly changing global population in order to impart the “big picture” necessary for understanding the scope of the problems we humans face without the need for years of structured scientific education. This is the conclusion I have reached, and I’m working on it.

            • Elemenope

              If Pinker and Haidt are correct, as I believe they are, then what is needed are effective analogies/metaphors/parables capable of exploiting the shared experience base of our rapidly changing global population in order to impart the “big picture” necessary for understanding the scope of the problems we humans face without the need for years of structured scientific education. This is the conclusion I have reached, and I’m working on it.

              I certainly agree with this. Neil Postman once (somewhat derisively) described social scientists as constructing narratives rather than doing science. I think, contrary to him, that ultimately all science is about constructing narratives, and the stories that it tells (whether they be simple ones subtended mainly by mathematics, like the behavior of electrons in atoms, or complex qualitative ones like the equilibria of ecological systems) are emphatically for human consumption at some level; otherwise they’d be literally useless. What scientists have to figure out is how to translate those highly technical narratives that they normally traffic in into a narrative vocabulary that is more accessible to most peoples’ areas of common experience.

          • Jabster

            I certainly agree with this and I think the second point is that scientists in general are very bad at presenting their ideas in a people friendly way and are especially bad at public debate. The recent debacle over the University of East Anglia and “Climategate” shows just how media ignorant scientists can be.

            What is needed is more people of the like of Brian Cox in the UK (ex-member of 90′s pop band D:Ream no less) who can present scientific ideas to the general population.

        • Danny wuvs kittens

          Oh, because if someone doesn’t accept global warming their mouth MUST be on Glenn Beck’s dick amirite? Only racist, anti-gay, pro-choice, pro-creationism, people who keep assault rifles under their pillow don’t believe in climate change.

          National Geographic and New Scientist are both magazines(natgeo also has a tv station and a website) with advertisements. They have to keep a certain level of conformity or else they risk losing their advertisers(and their jobs). 100% paid magazines don’t have as much of a problem, but they still can’t afford to lose too many subscribers.

          In case you haven’t noticed, the (I hate using this word) media has heavily accepted global warming. Corporations are now making commercials that don’t advertise a product, instead, they show how they are cutting back on CO2 emissions.

          Turn on Oprah, the Today show, whatever, and you’ll see tips on how to reduce your carbon footprint.

          Almost universally though, are positive programming that gush over stories of people doing “their part”.

          From small scale youtubers to narrower interest stations like discovery to news supergiants, they’re always talking about the latest electric car or newest energy source or how the local boy scouts are collecting cans and making go carts out of them.

          Its fucking everywhere. I saw a video game news channel that normally did stories on the latest FPS doing a story on a FACEBOOK game that encouraged kids to recycle. A FUCKING RECYCLING GAME. The message wasn’t “oh lets not waste things” or “its good to recycle things to lower costs for consumers”. It was “lets save the cucklefucking planet by throwing cans in a green bin!”

          Its propaganda fucking everywhere.

          If either one of those magazines you mentioned put out an article that said “is there really enough evidence for climate change?” they would immediately lose advertisers.

          Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. As I already said, if global warming is seriously fought, it will hurt industry and scientific advancement badly. We need to know for Goddamn sure before we take the drastic actions to stop it under current climate change hypothesis.

          In case you aren’t familiar with history, science has always been an unstable field. Since we’re constantly learning new things, old things are constantly being challenged.

          How do I know that electric cars aren’t 21st century leeches and bleeding? There isn’t convincing evidence for it.

          • Yoav

            The science behind climate change is very solid and based on a lot more then temperature reading from the last century but on things such as ice cores that allow scientists to study the conditions over thousands of years. buying carbon credits or driving a hybrid is not going to do the trick, we need a massive shift away from fossil fuels. This will require time and a large investment in research so we can’t just wait until sea level have risen enough to convince you that the problem is bad enough. I think the original post has a point that climate change may not be the best way to rally support and other reasons to shift away from oil may be easier to convey, such as air and water pollution or the way oil is financing some rather unpleasant dictators.

          • Revyloution

            Danny Wuvs Kittens.

            Even if you won’t accept the overwhelming evidence that points to CO2, let me give you two good reasons to buy that CFL, drive a hybrid, and use less energy.

            Rolling blackouts, and high gas prices.

            We are entering a period of shortages. Energy is getting more expensive to produce, and resources are scarce. Just the simple conservation tactic of checking your tire pressure once a week can save millions of barrels of oil in that week. (According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “every pound per square inch of tire underinflation wastes 4 million gallons of gas daily in the U.S.” Survey information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that 27% of the cars on the road have a significantly under-inflated tire.)

            Even if you don’t believe what all the climate scientists are telling us, even if you trust a retired weatherman more than a PHD graduate in climate, doing all the things to conserve energy just make sense. It will save you money in the long run, preserve large ecosystems, have less smog, and you never have to worry about global warming.

            • nazani14

              Agreed. However, I do see that environmentalists could gain traction by simplifying the message. My suggestion for a simple and direct message: You’re going to effing STARVE!

            • Danny wuvs kittens

              Yeah, fair enough. I’m all for conservation.

              Tire pressure? I check mine weekly, among other things. I also use florescent bulbs, just because(when you buy them from a hardware store instead of places that rip you off) they save money, and they don’t have to be replaced as often. This is really helpful for lights that are difficult to change.

              The things I do object to are things that are significantly less efficient, very troublesome to use, just to be more energy efficient.

              Electric cars are extremely inefficient. I would not use one even if I won it. The batteries are EXTREMELY expensive, and electric cars don’t have as much of a use as gas powered. Drive to work and back. Drive to a friends house. Drive 60 miles to pick up a crib you found on craigs list? Hell no.

              You’ve got to buy a second, gas powered car for that.

              Oh, and biodegradable everything. Some of it is nice, most of it is inefficient and inferior.

              I’m all for energy technology advancement. I use an electric weed trimmer, and I love it. Gas is messy and a pain. Batteries are easy to use, and, while I only have 15 minutes of cutting time, that’s all I really need.

              When energy savings are a priority, and it becomes so important that all other traits take heavy losses, then its a problem.

            • Revyloution

              What you have to remember with the electric cars is the ‘early adapter’ model.

              When gas powered cars were first introduced, they were very inferior to a horse drawn cart. The early adapters who bought them poured in money to the auto companies, so that they could do more R&D and develop better cars. Then came the second, larger wave of early adapters, and cars improved again. In a short while, this influx of cash and public interest created a car industry that greatly rivaled the horse and buggy technology. Electric, hybrid, or other alternative energy cars are in that first stage of early adoption. Those people who just have to have the best and newest are funding the research to create the easy, reliable electric cars most everyone will be driving in 10-20 years.

              A similar argument can be made for the biodegradable products. Sure, many suck today, but they are working on improvements. Have you had a chance to use the disposable forks and knives made from potatoes? I actually prefer them to the old plastic ones.

              When you talk about “When energy savings are a priority, and it becomes so important that all other traits take heavy losses, then its a problem.”, I think I would need some examples. Most large industry is regulated by the governments of the world. The regulations are there for safety, environmental protection, and to influence consumption. The taxes on tobacco are a good example of regulation to influence consumption. Higher taxes typically result in lower consumption of cigarettes. Energy policy is based on the same thing. We currently subsidize coal, gas,hydroelectric and petroleum at a much higher rate than we subsidize solar, wind, geothermal or other new alternatives. I think a sensible route would be to switch that subsidy metric, and give more to the new sources to help the old sources die off more quickly. The downside would be higher prices, which would encourage more efficiency from consumers (the worst part of this idea is that it unfairly disadvantages the poor, some welfare might be a consideration to offset this)

  • Revyloution

    The real differences between the growth of AGW/environmentalism, and Christianity are facts. That alone will make the biggest difference in how far and widespread they grow as memes. Look at evolution. As much noise as the creationists like to make, evolution is widely accepted science with a dwindling camp of deniers. Climate science is having an even faster track than evolution. With melting iceburgs, rapid extinctions, rising sea levels, etc, climate change will be a clearly obvious fact with little chance of denialism surviving. The real question is, can we do enough to halt, or reverse it?

    • Danny wuvs kittens

      Nah, its just because evolution is in the schools and colleges. Facts aren’t shit. People believe what they want to believe, and what they’re persuaded to believe. Its shitty but its true.

      • Revyloution

        “People believe what they want to believe, and what they’re persuaded to believe. Its shitty but its true.”

        I only accept half of that. People only believe what they are persuaded to believe. There is no ‘want’ about it. All humans are easily manipulated, and Ill happily include myself in that statement. My point was that all (real) universities teach evolution. Creationism as a legitimate concept is dead. Were just trying to stamp out the last brush fires. Just like heliocentrism before it, or flat earthers before that, false ideas hang on for a bit after their expiration date, but they eventually die off.

        • Danny wuvs kittens

          I agree that people are easily persuaded, but to say that many people aren’t affected by what they WANT to believe, well, I just don’t think that’s right.

          False ideas past their expiration date…I think I can agree with that, but I don’t know if its all there is too it…I’m just open to that idea.

          I know when I deconverted, and from other people’s deconversion stories, most people hold on tight when they feel their belief dieing, especially when it will be life-changing, for better or worse.

          I think…I might do some in-depth study on climate change, to see what evidence there is. I don’t want to hear from Al Gore, and I don’t want to hear about temperatures, but some of the ice things people have brought up make me want to re-open it.

          Whether or not we should do something about it instead of letting it self-correct, I don’t know. Maybe I can decide from looking deeper into it.

          • Revyloution

            Al Gore is a putz. A politician who found a convenient tool to keep him in the public eye. He’s also a fraud because he lives a lifestyle that consumes thousands of times more energy than other people in his income bracket.

            A good resource is It’s a website that has multiple real climate scientists as contributers. It’s pretty opinion free, and just sticks to the actual studies that have been done, and are being performed.

            As for what people want vs what they are persuaded, that can lead to a free will vs determinism discussion. And those go on for pages. Ill just leave it at:I think free will is an illusion, we are just deterministic beings that react to our environment. Very complex beings, with very complex movement, but no more than that.

            • Sunny Day

              LOL WUT?

              So if Al made more money it would be ok?

              I suppose the guy who does a similar job and gives most of the proceeds to charity is an even bigger monster?

            • Revyloution

              Hey Sunny, I don’t think I made myself clear. I think Al is a putz because he preaches a low carbon footprint while living a lifestyle in direct opposition to what he says. Hypocrite is the word I should have used. Warren Buffet is far richer, but uses far less energy (he’s lived in the same fairly modest home for the past 30 years).

              It’s the blatant hypocrisy that drives me nuts with him. When I put in the ‘income bracket’ line, I was referring to the simple fact that higher income typically conflates to higher consumption.

            • Yoav

              Never been a fan of Al Gore. Just one more slimy politician trying to ride other people work. With his level of hypocrisy he may as well try to get a televangelist job.

            • Sunny Day

              Somehow I doubt his writing a sternly worded letter and mailing it in would have had the same effect.

            • Revyloution

              Did you watch Inconvenient Truth? It was awful! Pop science at its best. I think it did more to separate the left from the right on the issue of climate science. Then again, there might be nothing that can be done to drag them kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

              I just think there could have been a better poster boy for CO2 reduction. It’s easy for the deniers to point at Gore and say “You want me to reduce my energy consumption? Great! Ill only use half as much energy as Al Gore! Thats TWICE what I’m using now!” (actual quote from a fundy I was talking to about buying CFL’s at Home Depot)

              In a perfect world, Bill Nye would have made the movie. He would have spoke to Congress. The interviews would have been conducted at his small, energy efficient home. He would have driven to speaking engagements in his small car. Sending a world changing message always works better sans hypocrisy.

            • Sunny Day

              I get it now, you just don’t like Al.

            • Revyloution

              I think that was the general gist of where I was headed by calling him a putz, fraud and hypocrite. Yes, I don’t like Al.

              Just keep it in context. I wasn’t just blatantly attacking Mr. Gore. I was trying to help Danny Wuvs Kittens understand the reality behind climate science. He said “I don’t want to hear from Al Gore”. When trying to educate people, I get this quite a bit. People don’t trust him, and I feel they have a good reason (because of his hypocrisy) . When Im talking to climate skeptics who bring up Gore, I let them know that I don’t like him either. I tell them that he’s a politician with a political agenda. Then I point them to the real science. It’s a conversational tool I use to help people understand the real science by bypassing the politics. My distaste for Gore doesn’t extend beyond that. I don’t wage campaigns against him, and I don’t really think he is any worse off that most of the politicians in the US.

              My goal is to always promote facts. Get past the opinions, and get to the science. Far too much of our public discourse avoids those important details.

            • Danny wuvs kittens

              I’ll be checking that website out for sure after my torrent finishes downloading. Thanks for the link.

  • Konrad

    I totally agree. The focus needs to be on things that can be more concretely visualized. Because no one wants to breath polluted air, drink polluted water or live in a garbage dump. A focus against the out of sight, out of mind idea is what is needed. IE if you don’t want it in your backyard then you shouldn’t accept it being inflicted on in someone else.

    Personally I’m still skeptical about the evidence for human caused global warming. But I’m also willing to deffer to scentific opinion and say lets do something about it anyway. But mostly on the above principle that I don’t want to live in a polluted environment and can assume that this applies to the majority of other humans and animals.

    And yes this does mean that things will cost more. After all one of the reasons that it is cheaper to produce things in parts of the developing world is directly due to the lack of adequate environmental protection in thous countries. Here my personal opinion is forget free markets, if you are producing things cheaper by allowing every company that sets up shop to pollute the air and water indiscriminately then there should be an environmental impact tariff imposed on every single one of your exports.

  • VidLord

    “Take environmentalism, for instance;”

    Funny how you take a completely different subject and try to spin your own ideas on the environment – it’s completely unrelated! Gnostics Tree huggers… come now.

    What if “nature” eventually has the sun expand and destroy the earth? Would AGW become EIM (Earth Is Melting)?

    • Elemenope

      Er, what? It was a point about strategy dealing with social movements. Christianity was a social movement (a successful one). So is environmentalism (a somewhat less successful one). My point was that learning how certain non-ideological factors affect how a social movement historically was adopted by the general population can inform how best to establish an effective social movement now.