Why Do So Many Christians Still Deny Climate Change?

Why Do So Many Christians Still Deny Climate Change? October 13, 2015

How in God’s green earth are so many people still denying the reality of climate change?

CC0 Public Domain
CC0 Public Domain

Yesterday, a graph was shared by several of my Facebook friends. The numbers don’t lie. It’s a powerful image, showing that of all the mentioned candidates for the cause of climate change, the evidence points to one single cause. The graph considers natural causes like the “wobbling” of the earth’s orbit, the temperature of the sun, and volcanic activity. Neither of these correlate to rising temperatures. What about human-causes? Neither ozone pollution, aerosol pollution, or deforestation emerge as primary suspects. The big numbers point to the emission of greenhouse gases as the real culprit. As the graph mentions, atmospheric CO2 levels are 40% higher now than in 1750.

But again, what’s with the persistent denials of climate change–and in particular the refusal to admit that we are the primary cause?

Willis Jenkins, in The Future of Ethics, puts his finger on the problem. He suggests that a major source of the denial comes from religion–in particular, from Christian theology. Many Christians have been trained to interpret sensitivity for ecological concerns as a direct threat to Christian faith. In the attempt to preserve a “Christian worldview,” the “secular” worldview of ecological concern is maintained as the enemy.  Jenkins explains:

Some faith communities use Christian ideas to deny that a problem exists. Avoidance strategies, to use Pierre Bourdieu’s term (1), protect a pattern of cultural action (a “habitus”) by refusing to recognize any problem for which it does not already carry the principle of a solution Avoidance counts as a response to climate change because it deploys theological tradition to delegitimize a problem that (the community implicitly thinks) would challenge its way of life. So denialism is a strategic cultural response to a perceived threat (46-47).

Jenkins then points out that denialism is “not as widespread as its loudness in North American culture would make it seem.” From the two most recent popes to the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), leadership of influential Christian denominations and ethics arms are coming to terms with the severity of the problem. And yet…

Nonetheless, despite what the official leadership may say, some religiously conservative groups do deny that climate change is happening. They are aided by explicit production of a denialist strategy within institutions such as the Acton Institute and the Cornwall Alliance. This strategy uses the idea of climate change to cultivate theological resistance to what it sees as the moral corruptions of environmentalist culture. Climate change becomes the symbol of a conflict between fundamental worldviews, perhaps even an item of belief in a competing green religion. In this strategy, Christ rescues the faithful from a corrupting culture that would use climate change to demean human dignity in the use of creation, perhaps by luring people into false pieties toward earth…Denying climate realities sustains a practice of faith.

However rationally this strategy protects a pattern of life, denials of climate change are deadly for Christian faith. Using theology to deny the moral significance of atmospheric powers does worse than distract public debate and make religion look silly; denial adopts a nihilist view toward its own tradition by supposing that Christian faith cannot confront the emergence of atmospheric powers–except by denying that they could cause problems.

When a community reacts to a new problem by denying that it exists, the community implies that its tradition cannot generate possibilities of moral agency adequate to changing conditions. Avoidance is the paroxysm [a sudden attack or violent expression of a particular emotion or activity] of a tradition that has lost its ability to improvise, that gives up interpreting reality for defending one peculiar (North American, energy-intensive) way of life. Unable to shape Christians for faithful life in the time of climate change, its last tactic is to bet Christian faith on the nonexistence of some reality. Static incompetence foretells collapse (47-48).

(1) The reference to Pierre Bordieu is to The Logic of Practice (Stanford University Press, 1990), 52-65.

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