Knowing Your Opponent: Climate-Change Denial on Religious Grounds

Knowing Your Opponent: Climate-Change Denial on Religious Grounds July 30, 2019

Henry & Co, Unsplash.com, CC0 Licensing

Let’s begin with a story. In 2013, the Pew Research Center released survey data that was widely misrepresented among atheists, because of how easily it tickled our horror, disdain, and general assumptions about religious believers. 33% of estadounidense (U.S. citizens) don’t believe in evolution? Another 24% believe that evolution was a divinely guided process? Oh, the scientific ignorance! Oh, the poorly educated sods who walk and vote among us!

Well, no, not exactly.

The problem with survey data is that people are given specific options to choose from, in this case something to the effect of:

  • “humans and other living things have evolved over time … due to natural processes such as natural selection”,
  • “a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today”; or
  • “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time”.

Loaded options, that is: options that serve as far more than assessments of basic scientific know-how. These ones in particular also invite self-declared allegiance to specific strains of social discourse–and with them, specific cultural “tribes”. As such, even if you might answer with far more technical accuracy if simply given an evolutionary tree and asked to describe humanity’s development along it, if you’re given a choice between two things you might simultaneously agree to be true (e.g. “natural processes” + “guided by a supreme being”), you’re going to err on that which best reflects your tribal allegiance: not just that which best reflects your understanding of the science.

Which matters–it really, really matters–when we try to address climate-change denial in the secular world.

Shooting Fish in a Barrel

I’ve been a bit preoccupied this past week with fiction-writing tasks, both leading up to the publication of two short stories in August, and in relation to the next novel and short-story projects. (Juggling creative energy between fiction and non-fiction is something I’m still struggling to perfect.) But one of my current works-in-progress depicts the end of the world from the perspective of 16 or so non-human animal species, so I’ve also been doing a lot of research that keeps me bumping into climate-change discourse online.

Therein, one of the most grating bad-arguments-from-the-right-side has been variations on a comic by Joel Pett in 2009, which has a man at a climate summit boldly stand up and ask “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?”

Oof. Cute and devastating, right? I mean, how can people possibly argue against making the world a better place, irrespective of whether or not they believe humans played a role in how much our environment seems to have deteriorated?

But here again we have the fish-in-the-barrel problem, of making our opponent seem comically obvious and pathetic. Here again we have the assumption that, when asking people to “believe” the science, this is all we’re ever asking of them.

Meanwhile, for many religious folks, active resistance of climate-change couldn’t possibly make the world a better place.

How in blazes can you make the world a better place, after all, if you’re acting as though it wasn’t made by a supreme being in accordance with its supreme plan?

Climate Change as a Repudiation of Faith

Now, not all spiritual folks are against environmental advocacy–and those who are in favour of it have a pretty strong notion of stewardship of the Earth that allows them to believe a god is watching over all and expects them to help themselves.

(Hi, religious humanists! I see you!)

But a great many others are confronting a difficult ideological schism right now. And for others still, “confronting” is too generous a term: they’re flatly refusing to engage with it.

When I was trying to complete a PhD in literary science during the Victorian era, I saw the same struggle play out in other generations, around contemporaneous socio-scientific crises. (You might be amused, or maybe disheartened, to learn that people were panicking about an over-populated Earth in the 1840s, too!) One of the most frustrating issues for Christians of the era was that of industrial pollution and attendant class-based suffering. After all, obviously Victorian modernization was in keeping with their god’s plan, or it wouldn’t have happened. But then… what was the role in this plan for all the waste that industrialization created, and the disease and suffering that came with it?

Remember, too, that germ theory of disease, care of Ignaz Semmelweis, didn’t start to enter mainstream acceptance until the 1860s. Even then, major scientists of the period–atheistic and otherwise!–still entertained notions of “spontaneous generation” of airborne infection, which religious circles regarded as a consequence of sin. So if something needed to be amended about heavily industrialized society, it was simply on the spiritual level: Once everyone was made right with their god, the physical ills of this amazing urbanity that their god had permitted to exist would pass away, too.

Moreover, was it sad that many in the lower classes were struggling and dying to feed the machines of modern industry? Yes, but this was also a spiritual blessing: an invitation for the poor to practise and demonstrate humility before the rich, who in turn were given the opportunity to practise Christian charity upon their lessers. How glorious the potential for “miraculous” intervention when social systems were kept so utterly precarious!

(This is also from whence we eventually get texts like Charles Monroe Sheldon’s 1896 In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?, a starkly pro-capitalist book that targets society’s most affluent, not to move them to deconstruct existing power structures but, just as Biblical Christ is always giving counsel as if society’s “masters” should have all major decision-making power, to use their economic heft to compel more Christian behaviour from their employees and communities at large.)

Same Opponent, Different Century

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. Prosperity gospel has not much changed–but neither has a broader thread of cultural allegiance to the idea that there exists a god and therefore a PLAN, in which everything that is happening is as it should be.

Some religious folk thus welcome climate change–how can they not, when it’s “obviously” a sign that their relentlessly imminent end-of-the-world is nigh?

Meanwhile, others–the fierce dissenters–are chafing at this secular presumption that a “better world” can ever be brought about by pursuing egalitarian social upheaval, reducing consumption, and seeking a reversal of industrial society writ large.

Don’t we secular people get it? What possible space is there for a god and its miracles if the world isn’t always in crisis? If everyone has what they need–if we humanists have our way with the world and “make it better” on the surface–then when will the average person ever feel so lost and broken as to drop to their knees and seek the one truly needful thing? The redemption of their souls in preparation for eternal life?

Oh, my dear fellow Marthas. We are not fighting scientific ignorance unto itself, when we seek to make this world fairer for all, and our environment more sustainable.

We are fighting nihilism. We are fighting folks–some secular, some simply out to maximize profit before it all goes to hell in a handbasket; but also some absolutely driven by their religious beliefs–who do not want this “better world” of which we speak.

Because in that world, there is no room for their brand of belief–and therefore, no room for their tribal allegiances.

And when you threaten someone’s tribal allegiance, you threaten them.

But so be it, humanists of every stripe–so let’s knock it off with this assumption that our notion of a better world is universal. It’s not. It’s a horror show to many of our fellow human beings, and we simply have to let it be as much… because every generation has its nihilists–and every generation, too, has far more pressing problems to address.


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  • Major Major

    I guess that ultimately I would be disappointed that a minority of humanity would drive us to worse lives overall for want of “bringing the kingdom of god” or “making a few more dollars”.

  • jkcmsal

    Chills reading this as it brings back a lot of memories. Your post brings out an important point by presenting a particular religious perspective (everything is God’s plan ==> climate change is acceptable/desirable) as motive for positions. Many people are profoundly motivated by deeply held beliefs. Just saying they are anti-science is way too simplistic and hinders understanding and dialog.

    Really appreciate the historical perspective.

  • I’ve heard it said that asking a US conservative one of the standard shibboleth questions like “do you accept evolution?” or “do you accept AGW?” is internalized as something like, “Am I someone who would reject Jesus Christ, my lord and savior?” The answer, of course, is no.

    That is, people interpret it as a membership question, not an opinion question.

    That highlights how difficult it is getting reliable poll results.

  • Sophotroph

    Well, yes. We can’t continue fooling ourselves that the common man will wake up one day and be capable of democracy. There simply isn’t enough time or money to effectively deconvert everybody, then help them acquire a worldview that accords with reality.

    If we’re to solve certain deadly dilemmas, those peoples’ positions will have to be made moot. We must combat climate change even if public opinion never accepts it, or there won’t be a public.

    But how do we do that without violence? And if we can’t do it without violence, what then?

  • guerillasurgeon

    There seem to be two religious justifications that I’ve heard at least for ignoring climate change. One is that God will not allow climate change to end the world, and the other seems to be that as the rapture is almost upon us it doesn’t matter. Because the only people left on earth of course will be all us evil non (insert Christian sect here) who will be too busy killing raping and plundering because we are not (insert Christian sect here) and therefore don’t have any moral compass. It’s interesting how people manage to get their religion to support their views, but then as someone said – people take their morals to their religion rather than from their religion. Something which I think holds more than a grain of truth. Particularly with the prosperity gospel people. Mind you, their morals seemed to be fleecing the poor so they can buy personal jets. And who’d want to give up a personal jet for something as minor as climate change.

  • “…but also some absolutely driven by their religious beliefs–who do not want this “better world” of which we speak.

    Because in that world, there is no room for their brand of belief–and therefore, no room for their tribal allegiances.”

    That’s every Bible class I ever attended on the “Old Testament” after the “conquest of Canaan.” It goes like this: 1) Thankful nation of Israel follows the god, and he causes them to prosper. 2) They get comfortable, and don’t bother to follow the god any more. 3) The god causes another nation to conquer them. 4) They repent, and the god causes the conquering nation to be defeated by someone else, and the Israelites return to Canaan and continue thankfully following the god. Return to step 1.

    Now I realize why that’s so important to them. And I’ve heard it in a number of sermons, too — people become more religious when things get bad — or scary: I remember a short-lived surge in attendance after 9/11. But the idea that was always pushed was that when things were going well, people didn’t think they needed the god called “God.”

    I’ve actually heard people say that God wouldn’t let us all die, wouldn’t let us destroy ourselves. But even when I was a believer, I pointed out that there had been massive die-offs of the human population, even in Europe and America, and even in the 20th century (WWI plus the flu).

    And they don’t even seem to remember the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969, or how people’s lungs burned after a day outdoors in Los Angeles in the 1960s.

    On the other hand, my 91-year-old mother doesn’t believe the climate is changing. She’s pro-choice and has voted for a Democrat in every election since 1976. (Notwithstanding she voted for Nixon in 1960, 1968, and 1972.) But she’s seen cold years and hot years and figures it’s more of the same. And she does figure that God will take care of things, though I’ve never heard her claim that the trials we go through in life are good. She’s more of a Stoic in that regard.

  • Oh, I like this phrasing: “That is, people interpret it as a membership question, not an opinion question.”

    I’ve been using “tribalist”, but “membership” has some definite perks as a rhetorical device. Thanks for sharing, Bob!

  • I remember reading, as a teen, Mad magazines from the 1970s that included spoof commentary about oil reserves running dry and the impact of acid rain on the environment. That extreme rhetoric weighed on me as we entered our own climate-change discourse, because I wondered if folks who had experienced earlier waves of related panic would thus be more indifferent to the urgency of later crises. Your mother’s example seems to illustrate that point perfectly, Lerk. We need to be ever so much better at mastering the rhetoric of urgency, if we’re to handle the issues currently on hand as a united front. Thanks for sharing those experiences with religious rhetoric, too!

  • Hah! I’ve never had a personal jet, so I can’t speak to that urge myself–but it is striking how much we still focus on individual sacrifice when more than anything we need to be transforming the political sphere such that corporations are compelled to change their environmental impact en masse. And… sadly, that’s a far more Herculean task than getting a billionaire or two to give up their jets. Pragmatically speaking, I’m not hopefully. Humanistically speaking… well, I have to be, right? Thanks for sharing, guerillasurgeon!

  • Great questions, Sophotroph! I’m scratching my head, though, to imagine how even violence would achieve our main results. What violence do you have in mind?

    Honestly, sometimes I think nothing less than a mass coronal ejection event will help us course-correct as a species. I mean, I *hope* it wouldn’t take that kind of dire natural disaster, but… then I’m reminded of the state of our discourse. So, all brainstorming is welcome at this juncture!

  • Thanks for reading and commenting, jkcmsal! It’s hard to have to rap knuckles among fellow humanists, but I think it’s better to be chilled by the reminder that we’re /not/ all seeking the same ends here, than to fruitlessly struggle to bring everyone aboard the same lifeboat. Warmest wishes to you and yours.

  • Disappointment is completely fair, Major Major. We are not the most rational of species–much as we are *so close*, at our current level of sentience, to being able to envision what that far more reasonable world might look like.

  • Major Major

    I know this is a little late, but your blog reminded me of this video I came across:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rv7VoVV_BP8

  • Chris DeVries

    This is why social progress is the cause of increased secularism, and not the reverse. A world in which inequality is hurting so many people is a world that “needs” religion (or perhaps a world where the messages of hope religions bring to the masses are more readily accepted). I’m not arguing that our goal should be to eliminate religion in the world (though I generally think that, done the RIGHT WAY, this is probably a good thing overall), but instead, we ought to be fighting this religious nihilism that is harming people worldwide. Mother Teresa herself was a member of this grotesque cult of pain, deliberately keeping dying people in worse condition than could have been achieved had they received proper medical attention, just because she felt that experiencing such pain brought people closer to her God. It’s obscene…but the best way to reduce the impact of these kinds of messages is to actually have functional governments that do lift people out of poverty and give them hope…in THIS world. Then they don’t need to long for the NEXT world, in which all of their tears will be dried and their suffering will turn to ecstasy.

    THIS is the important ideological battle that, waged properly, will help to create more sustainable societies. Religious fundamentalism in American governance has created this sort of self-fulfilling prophecy – “government is TOO BIG, taxes are bad because government can’t be trusted with YOUR money (see note below*), so vote for ME and I’ll make sure nothing gets done!” – this is the kind of message behind the propaganda of SO MANY GOP candidates, and it really plays well to a crowd of people who truly believe that humankind is sinful and can’t do anything right, so creating a better world is a ludicrous pipe dream.

    I think serious climate change is a done deal at this point…some prevention can still have an impact down the line, but mitigation is equally important. How will we deal with the millions of refugees whose homes are underwater, or whose countries have become barren wastelands? This mass migration will make the Syrian refugee crisis look insignificant…planning for it now will make it easier to deal with when it happens.

    *I live in Manitoba, and we’re having a provincial election in about a month. The Progressive Conservatives (which we still have as a provincial party, currently in government) phoned me up the other day and delivered a longwinded speech on how successful they had been at reducing taxes and FIGHTING against Trudeau’s ridiculous carbon tax (and some other stuff too that I don’t remember). After the guy finished and asked if they could count on my support in the election, I said:

    “No. Taxes are good. I like taxes. We need HIGHER taxes. Otherwise, how are we going to solve the myriad problems in our society like climate change?”

    Then I said goodbye, and hung up. I’ve never understood why people hate taxes. Do they not understand that taxes are exchanged for…STUFF!? Stuff they NEED? Like health care…and road repair. Do they really not want safe roads and modern medical facilities? Bizarre.

  • Chris DeVries

    This ​is ​why ​social ​progress ​is ​the ​cause ​of ​increased ​secularism, ​and ​not ​the ​reverse. ​A ​world ​in ​which ​inequality ​is ​hurting ​so ​many ​people ​is ​a ​world ​that ​”needs” ​religion ​(or ​perhaps ​a ​world ​where ​the ​messages ​of ​hope ​religions ​bring ​to ​the ​masses ​are ​more ​readily ​accepted). ​I’m ​not ​arguing ​that ​our ​goal ​should ​be ​to ​eliminate ​religion ​in ​the ​world ​(though ​I ​generally ​think ​that, ​done ​the ​RIGHT ​WAY, ​this ​is ​probably ​a ​good ​thing ​overall), ​but ​instead, ​we ​ought ​to ​be ​fighting ​this ​religious ​nihilism ​that ​is ​harming ​people ​worldwide. ​Mother ​Teresa ​herself ​was ​a ​member ​of ​this ​grotesque ​cult ​of ​pain, ​deliberately ​keeping ​dying ​people ​in ​worse ​condition ​than ​could ​have ​been ​achieved ​had ​they ​received ​proper ​medical ​attention, ​just ​because ​she ​felt ​that ​experiencing ​such ​pain ​brought ​people ​closer ​to ​her ​God. ​It’s ​obscene…but ​the ​best ​way ​to ​reduce ​the ​impact ​of ​these ​kinds ​of ​messages ​is ​to ​actually ​have ​functional ​governments ​that ​do ​lift ​people ​out ​of ​poverty ​and ​give ​them ​hope…in ​THIS ​world. ​Then ​they ​don’t ​need ​to ​long ​for ​the ​NEXT ​world, ​in ​which ​all ​of ​their ​tears ​will ​be ​dried ​and ​their ​suffering ​will ​turn ​to ​ecstasy.

    THIS ​is ​the ​important ​ideological ​battle ​that, ​waged ​properly, ​will ​help ​to ​create ​more ​sustainable ​societies. ​Religious ​fundamentalism ​in ​American ​governance ​has ​created ​this ​sort ​of ​self-fulfilling ​prophecy ​- ​”government ​is ​TOO ​BIG, ​taxes ​are ​bad ​because ​government ​can’t ​be ​trusted ​with ​YOUR ​money ​(see ​note ​below*), ​so ​vote ​for ​ME ​and ​I’ll ​make ​sure ​nothing ​gets ​done!” ​- ​this ​is ​the ​kind ​of ​message ​behind ​the ​propaganda ​of ​SO ​MANY ​GOP ​candidates, ​and ​it ​really ​plays ​well ​to ​a ​crowd ​of ​people ​who ​truly ​believe ​that ​humankind ​is ​sinful ​and ​can’t ​do ​anything ​right, ​so ​creating ​a ​better ​world ​is ​a ​ludicrous ​pipe ​dream.

    I ​think ​serious ​climate ​change ​is ​a ​done ​deal ​at ​this ​point…some ​prevention ​can ​still ​have ​an ​impact ​down ​the ​line, ​but ​mitigation ​is ​equally ​important. ​How ​will ​we ​deal ​with ​the ​millions ​of ​refugees ​whose ​homes ​are ​underwater, ​or ​whose ​countries ​have ​become ​barren ​wastelands? ​This ​mass ​migration ​will ​make ​the ​Syrian ​refugee ​crisis ​look ​insignificant…planning ​for ​it ​now ​will ​make ​it ​easier ​to ​deal ​with ​when ​it ​happens.

    *I ​live ​in ​Manitoba, ​and ​we’re ​having ​a ​provincial ​election ​in ​about ​a ​month. ​The ​Progressive ​Conservatives ​(which ​we ​still ​have ​as ​a ​provincial ​party, ​currently ​in ​government) ​phoned ​me ​up ​the ​other ​day ​and ​delivered ​a ​longwinded ​speech ​on ​how ​successful ​they ​had ​been ​at ​reducing ​taxes ​and ​FIGHTING ​against ​Trudeau’s ​ridiculous ​carbon ​tax ​(and ​some ​other ​stuff ​too ​that ​I ​don’t ​remember). ​After ​the ​guy ​finished ​and ​asked ​if ​they ​could ​count ​on ​my ​support ​in ​the ​election, ​I ​said:

    “No. ​Taxes ​are ​good. ​I ​like ​taxes. ​We ​need ​HIGHER ​taxes. ​Otherwise, ​how ​are ​we ​going ​to ​solve ​the ​myriad ​problems ​in ​our ​society ​like ​climate ​change?”

    Then ​I ​said ​goodbye, ​and ​hung ​up. ​I’ve ​never ​understood ​why ​people ​hate ​taxes. ​Do ​they ​not ​understand ​that ​taxes ​are ​exchanged ​for…STUFF!? ​Stuff ​they ​NEED? ​Like ​health ​care…and ​road ​repair. ​Do ​they ​really ​not ​want ​safe ​roads ​and ​modern ​medical ​facilities? ​Bizarre.