Why are some evangelicals hostile to environmentalism?

Belief matters. Convincing people of that statement is often difficult. After one becomes convinced of that statement (as I am), one wonders why it is not obvious to more people. Beliefs determine our actions; our chances of interacting appropriately with the world correlate pretty highly with how consistently accurate our model of the world is. If I do not have correct beliefs about the meanings of street signs or about what automobiles can do to people, I might think it proper to march out into rush hour traffic.

Or I might cause global warming, while denying that it even exists.

The word “environmentalism” indicates a certain kind of concern with the negative impact that human beings can have on the natural world. Since one’s religious views will often determine how one understands the relationship between humankind and nature, whether or not environmentalism is even seen as legitimate will largely depend on the religious views that one has accepted. If one is motivated by the dominant religion in one’s culture, then even as a non-adherent, one may have an attitude which ultimately originates in religious beliefs.

It has been claimed that Evangelical Christianity is particularly hostile to environmentalism. In fact, early empirical research on the subject identified that, of all of the indices of religiosity that were measured, “only religious fundamentalism consistently predicted environmental attitude and actions” (Emerson, et al). But others disagree. Many other indices of religiosity — church attendance, frequency of prayer, etc — were not found to be strongly correlated with environmental attitudes. Nor was it found that environmental attitudes were significantly different between American Christians or American non-Christians.

Why might there be a relationship between anti-environmentalist attitudes and Evangelical Christianity? The Lynn White Hypothesis (proposed by Lynn White in his The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis) states that this is due to a particular kind of theological view about the relationship between humankind and nature. White argued that the Judeo-Christian creation story provides a view in which humans have mastery and dominion over nature. Importantly, that Genesis 1:28 historically motivated an anti-environmental stance (at least in certain parts of Christianity). Furthermore, at least some Evangelical Christians apparently believe that this world is unimportant because it is about to be destroyed. For at least some Christians, the imminent apocalypse makes concerns about the environment moot.

However, there are other Evangelical Christians who respond to environmental concerns with a much more nuanced reading of Genesis 1:28. They believe that, as human beings, being stewards over the Earth is a responsibility. As faithful believers, they believe that they are expected and charged with caring for the Creation which God made. And, thus, we have the concept of “Christian Stewardship”.

The Evangelicals who take the view that they should be “stewards” of the Earth have the right idea, but for the wrong reason. Importantly, the only reason that they do the right thing is by sheer accident.

————————————

Emerson, M., Mirola, W., & Monahan, S. (2010). Religion matters: What sociology teaches us about religion in our world. Pearson.

7 Comments

  • Jaime Wise
    December 23, 2012 - 12:07 pm | Permalink

    I think you hit the nail on the head there, I remember hearing arguments between evangelical friends over this very issue. Do you know of any studies of the relationship between Anxiety and both of these interpretations?

    • Dan Linford
      December 24, 2012 - 9:55 pm | Permalink

      I’m not exactly sure what one would mean by “Anxiety” or what sorts of questions you’d ask about its relation to environmentalism and religion.

      If you mean the human emotion, it seems that there are some very good reasons to think that particular world views will produce either more or less of just about any emotion (depending on the world view) in the person that one is talking about. These emotions can range from the very positive — feelings of elation or the “transcendent” — to the extremely negative — post traumatic stress disorder or suicidal thoughts. I’ve personally known people whose religious experiences have been on both ends of that spectrum. Certainly, anxiety can be a strong emotion that can be coupled to religious experience, and probably for people on both ends. I don’t know if that answered your question at all.

      • Jaime Wise
        December 26, 2012 - 9:52 pm | Permalink

        It does actually. Thanks for responding. I’m preparing for a discussion on religion and psychological disorders, so my brain is wandering in that direction lately.

        • Dan Linford
          December 26, 2012 - 10:59 pm | Permalink

          Ah, okay. Well, there has been quite a bit written about the psychology of religion. I tend to read more about the evolutionary psychology of religion, but I know of a few classic works that relate to mental pathology and religion.

          You should take a look at the work of Emile Durkheim and Peter Berger, particularly with regard to the concepts of the nomic and the anomic (as well as Berger’s concept of the Sacred Canopy). Friedriech Nietzsche had somewhat of an opposing approach (take a look at “The Gay Science”) though its largely tangential. And, of course, there’s Marx’s ” A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (with the now famous line that “religion is the opiate of the people”). These provide sort of an eclectic variety of views on way in which religion can either provide mental benefits or mental harms to people.

          • Jaime Wise
            December 27, 2012 - 12:47 pm | Permalink

            Wow, thanks for the suggestions! That helps a lot.

  • Dona
    January 6, 2013 - 12:29 am | Permalink

    I think this is a fascinating discussion. In my “Women’s Spirituality” class, we read many texts that focused on the link between religion (as a masculine-dominated culture) and attitude toward nature (a traditionally feminine concept). One really excellent discussion of Christian responsibility was a piece called, “Woman, Earth, and Creator Spirit.” I can’t remember the others off the top of my head, but I’ll post them if I come across them!

    • Dan Linford
      January 6, 2013 - 1:54 am | Permalink

      That sounds excellent Dona. I would definitely want to deconstruct the way in which conceptions of nature are apparently gendered. And, of course, gendered terminology about nature has shaped entire religious traditions; concepts like “Mother Earth”, “Gaia”, and “the Goddess” being ubiquitous in Modern liberal, female-centric religions, while a mechanical, “watchmaker” conception being ubiquitous in post-Enlightenment, traditionalist, male-centric religions. All of that is fascinating; it’s interesting that some neo-pagan groups (specifically, ones with women principally in authoritative roles) re-conceptualize their spirituality to focus on the creative power of the Feminine Divine (i.e. the creative power that women have in virtue of their being the sex which can uniquely produce offspring) so that women can more strongly relate to God (or to the Goddess), while post-Enlightenment conservative religions which put men in positions of authority understand God as some kind of artisan, watchmaker, or mechanic (ala natural theology in 16th through 19th century Protestantism and the Creationism/Intelligent Design movements in the latter half of the 20th century in the United States). Societies throughout history have projected their Earthly (often political) concerns onto their supernatural or transcendent conceptions; here we see that gender and the authority given to each in the binary (as gender has been traditionally constructed in the West) is yet another of these sorts of concerns which molds how people come to invent their mythology.

      More generally, I find the discussion of male dominance in traditional religions to be fascinating. It’s also something that I’ve observed. I’ve taken anthropology-style observations of religious gatherings, both by myself (I’ve observed Cru meetings, UU meetings, and protests by the Religious Right) and twice for my sociology of religion class (at the Wesleyan Church and at a Catholic Mass). What I saw while making those observations confirmed what I had read in the sociological literature; in all of the Christian groups I visited, men had positions of power and women had subservient roles. During services, there were always a select group from the congregation who had roles performing music on stage. These music groups were often mixed-gender, but men performed the roles which required greater skill (playing instruments) while women performed roles which required less amount of skill (such as singing in a choir). Though I didn’t have very much data, if I could venture a hypothesis, I’d expect that women perform these kinds of lesser-skill roles precisely because they are seen as subservient in the community. Roles requiring more skills and which are solitary (for instance, being the only person playing a particular instrument) would be reserved for men, who the community expects to be more adept at performing such an important task. Meanwhile, in the extremely progressive UU meetings, not only did women have positions of authority (the reverend was female) but the music which I saw performed was played by a woman on a piano (note: this is a single woman playing an instrument).

      There were other aspects of the observations that I made of the Cru meeting which provide interesting insights into gender construction in the American young Evangelical community, but I wrote an entire blog post about it so I’ll just link to that: http://skepticfreethought.com/libere/2011/09/21/an-atheist-goes-to-a-cru-meeting/

      Unfortunately, the atheist community (which is otherwise pretty radically liberal) has its own issues with sexism (if you don’t know about this, google “Elevatorgate”, “Atheism+”, or the “Women in Secularism” Conference). Unlike traditional religious groups, however, where women form the majority of the congregation and men are in positions of authority, there is no one who can assert the authority of a priest and the “congregation” is mostly male. That also indicates something important about the socially constructed role of gender in religion; in our society, it’s overwhelmingly men who both reject religion and join groups about it (in fact, it’s far too often white, middle to upper class, educated men). Unfortunately, that has also led to at least certain parts of the atheist movement being a “boys club”. However, unlike some religions (particularly those of a more conservative bent), there are many in the atheist community who are working very hard to change that; my friend Melody runs a conference in DC which focuses specifically on the intersection of the Feminist and atheist movements (called “Women in Secularism”). I’m glad to say that I attended last year. I’m also glad to say that these issues coming to the forefront in the atheist community actually helped me to see the proverbial light; I owe much of my personal Feminism to being involved in this community.

      As an aside, it should also be said that the atheist movement has a long and sad tradition of forgetting its own history… Feminism was actually largely born out of the 19th century Freethought community, with the work of people like Elizabeth Cady Stanton (the mother of First Wave Feminism). One of the few men to speak out in support of First Wave Feminism was my hero Robert Ingersoll (google him immediately if you don’t know who that is!) In fact, almost all progressive movements since the 19th century have been strongly associated with non-theists; women’s suffrage, abolition, labor, etc.

      I’m rambling now, so I think I’ll end the comment there…

  • Leave a Reply