Real Zombie Apocalypse

According to a report published by the Public Religion Research Institute, reported today in The Atlantic, half of Americans think that Climate Change is a sign of the End Times, the Biblical Apocalypse.

There's a moment in the Doctor Who season finale this year, where the Earth is (predictably) teetering on the edge, and the Doctor says "Don't call the Americans! They'll only pray." THAT is how the rest of the world sees us, and it's because of this type of nonsense.


A 2014 Pew Research poll found "61 percent of Americans agreed that the earth's temperature is rising, and of that group, 40 percent attributed the warming to human activity."

And according to a recent
Harris Interactive poll, 68% of Americans believe in Heaven and 72% believe in miracles. So why clean up your mess here, if a.) it can be fixed by the wave of God's hand or b.) you're going to a better place anyway. In the same poll, of course, fewer than 50% of the respondents believe in Darwinian Evolution.

What are the implications of this stunning display of American opinion, on any efforts we might want to make to dig ourselves out of the ecological, political, and social hole we're in by any sort of
grass roots, bottom up action?

Is Climate Skepticism Religious?

There's an interesting story on Scientific American. Posted Dec. 22nd, the article is titled "What Have Climate Scientists Learned from the 20-Year Fight with Deniers?" The article tells the story of Benjamin Santer, who was responsible for the original IPCC statement in 1995 that "The balance of evidence suggests a discernable human influence on climate change." Santer has been vilified and hounded by climate change opponents since then, according to the article. Although he's apparently a very private person, Santer decided "Climate scientists don't have the luxury of remaining silent."

The article goes on to discuss the ways climate change has been turned into a political debate. One interesting element is the idea that it's everybody's fault: that "all 7 billion of us" are equally, "collectively responsible for industrial greenhouse gas emissions." The implication, of course, is that we can only change the situation by radically changing our lives -- every single one of us. That's hard.


In reality, a study by the
Union of Concerned Scientists has found that nearly half (48%) of the atmospheric CO2 contribution since 1854 has been made by twenty organizations. The largest contributors have been the former Soviet Union and China (each considered as a whole), followed by Chevron, Exxon/Mobil, Saudi Aramco, BP, and Shell. Another seventy organizations account for 15%, so in all we can trace nearly two thirds (63%) of all the carbon pumped into the atmosphere to 90 organizations.

That's not to say that we aren't all partly responsible. Nearly everybody in the developed world is a customer of one or more of these organizations. We heat our homes and drive our cars with their oil and gas. But it does at least suggest that as a society we may have some leverage on the issue. That we may be able to develop technology that would allow these 90 organizations (or their successors) to provide us with needed energy more cleanly than they have since 1854. There may be efficiency trade-offs involved in this -- which may be why for-profit corporations haven't yet done all they can. At the very least, it's a different problem (calling for a different solution) than the "we're all equally to blame" scenario.

The article continues by observing that climate scientists have learned a lot about their opponents by studying the creationist response to evolution in American politics, and also by understanding the tobacco industry disinformation campaigns of the 1990s, when "tobacco companies ran media campaigns that equated smoking with freedom of choice" and regularly obscured scientific findings showing that smoking and second-hand smoke cause cancer and other serious diseases. It's been well-documented that cigarette manufacturers actually lied about the results of their own research on the issue -- although ironically just this week climate skeptics commenting on Google executive Eric Schmidt's recent remarks about climate got into a side-argument in which they
reiterated the claim that second-hand smoke wasn't really dangerous.

Which brings us to the main issue: core beliefs. If climate skeptics are also arguing for the safety of second-hand smoke and
claiming that HIV/AIDS is not a real disease, what should climate scientists do to get their message through? Is there any hope of a sincere dialog? The article concludes that "people's belief in climate change often correlates with their ideology and their religious and cultural beliefs." The author tries to tie up the article and bridge this gap by suggesting that religion and science are compatible. He concludes (no kidding, in Scientific American) by quoting a Brown biology professor's assertion that "God is not the antithesis of scientific reason but the reason why it works in the first place."

I have trouble not believing the argument about scientific evidence of climate change is already lost if you start with start it with, "I'll give you your religious preconceptions, but…" Because if you really believe, then climate change isn't a problem because:

  1. God made the earth and can fix it if he chooses to,
  2. This isn't really our home. We (those who count, at least) are going somewhere more important.
  3. The Bible says we have dominion and can do what we want with nature.
Of course there are other traditions within the same religions that say we are stewards of nature and have some type of responsibility. Sometimes religions even acknowledge the social responsibility issue and the idea that environmental impacts (climate or otherwise) don't effect everyone equally. Last spring, the new Pope Francis made a Biblical case for addressing climate change, saying "If we destroy creation, creation will destroy us." The problem with religion is, which tradition are you going to subscribe to?

Even with the Pope's statement, though, I'm still concerned by that first step of caving on religion. Seems like it's at least necessary to draw a line and say
this discussion is in the realm of science. Invoke a separation of church and state for what basically amounts to a discussion of public affairs. We could argue that in order for people of all faiths (and none) to have a discussion about this, we have to keep arguments from faith out of it. But if your basic world view is informed by faith and you're told it has no place in the discussion, don't you then just spend your time not believing in the discussion? Maybe even trying to derail it? And using skeptical arguments if the faith argument has been ruled out of bounds?

Most Scientists are Atheists

Scientists, says Catholic priest Robert Barron in a Youtube video posted last week, rarely understand what serious, smart people mean when they use the word God. That may be quite true. But it's equally true that most average people who follow these serious, smart people also don't know what they mean when they use the word. And let's recognize that Western religion is pretty much all about following the lead of serious, smart theologians. Martin Luther may have believed everyone should think it through for themselves, but most of his followers ditched that in the first generation.

And it's precisely because these serious, smart people don't bother to explain to the rest what they mean by God, that the rest keep on doing amazingly ignorant and bad stuff in God's name. That's the responsibility of those serious, smart people.

Also, it's just a bit too easy to say, "no, you just don't get the God I'm talking about." This God not only can't be measured in any scientific way, but can't be experienced at all. Because now the priest is misrepresenting the scientists and philosophers. They aren't saying that god needs to be measurable in a laboratory to exist, but that God needs to be experienced empirically. If a God can't be experienced at all, then it's Spinoza's God. It's not one that you can get up in front of a congregation and say the Nicene Creed about. So if that's the one you're arguing for, take off that white collar.


A lot of professional philosophers have not specialized in the philosophy of religion, he says. But it's a pretty safe bet anyone who has studied philosophy, even as an undergraduate, has read David Hume. Saying they need to be specialists in the philosophy of religion in order to "adjudicate these complex questions about the existence and nature of God" is the same as saying you need to be a specialist in Middle Earth to decide whether Hobbits exist. There's no evidence for them outside the book, much as we'd all like to believe they're hiding somewhere just out of sight of us clumsy big folk.

He claims to find the historical arguments against God to be "remarkably weak." That's interesting. But isn't it really an argument from authority? Isn't he really saying "if you just trust me, you don’t have to bother your little head with reading Hume yourself"? If you want to compare personal opinions, I find
his argument to be one I've heard again and again. It's the argument you'll find in William Ellery Channing's Discourse on the Evidences of Revealed Religion, and the argument against it is still the one made by Hume in his essay "Of Miracles," and also in Dr. Charles Knowlton's 1833 letter to the Boston Investigator, written in a Cambridge prison cell where he was imprisoned (due to a criminal complaint by religious authorities) for publishing a book on birth control.

Barron goes on to say it's really all about academic politics. Junior scientists and philosophers are browbeaten by their Department Heads. Even many Philosophy departments at Catholic Universities tend towards atheism, he says. But is this because of the success of atheist leaders in enforcing their beliefs, or the failure of theists? Who historically has been more prone to abuse the threat of punishment? No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

His final argument is that in scientism (if not in science), "newer is truer." And he has a point. Science advances by seeking new evidence and improving its hypotheses. Other types of knowledge, he says, don't progress this way. The arts, for example. Today's playwrights are not necessarily better than Shakespeare, just because they're newer. Okay, sure. But the arts are not claiming to instruct us on the origin, design, and purpose of the universe. He's trying to get away with something here: equating religion with philosophy. No, I would not say that Michel Foucault is a better philosopher than Aristotle because he's newer. But that has
no bearing on evaluating religious claims to truth and authority. It's sleight of hand.

And then there's the real final argument: "the denizens of today's Philosophy  lounges" are no match for Wittgenstein or Husserl. And these guys were friendlier to religion than the current denizens. QED. Really? That's what you saved for last? Your best shot? Barron admits he hates (yeah, hates) the arrogance of Daniel Dennett. Well, duh. The four horsemen are easy to dislike. And you're right, an opinion poll proves nothing. But don't think those objections get anywhere near proving your argument.

The Religious Backgrounds of Environmentalists

I just listened to Jan Oosthoek's latest podcast, in which he interviews Mark Stoll about Stoll's new book, Inherit the Holy Mountain. I haven't read this book yet, and as an atheist it's not the first book I might naturally be inclined to pick up. But as a historian, I have to be curious about the way religious beliefs, organizations, and thought structures influenced people. And, listening to the podcast, I thought Stoll made some interesting points I'd like to read more about.

Oosthoek begins the interview by citing Lynn White's 1967 essay which Stoll says is overly critical of religion as an anti-environmental force. Oosthoek says religion seems too anthropocentric to be really environmentally focused. Stoll reminds us that Reagan's Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, was an anti-environmentalist and a devout Christian. But that's not the only religious approach toward nature, Stoll says. John Muir was from what we'd now call a fundamentalist tradition.


Stoll wonders how people like Muir "got from A to B." But I wonder, did Muir really leave his background behind? Or just his religious beliefs? Although it was new information to me, I wasn't particularly surprised Muir was from a fundamentalist background. So I wondered whether the real point is that people's early religious exposure teaches them ways of thinking and acting that stick with them when they become environmentalists. Even if they leave the religion behind.

Stoll notes that religion can be cited as a source for both environmentalism and capitalism. Protestantism produces exploitation and also conservation. "You could sort-of tell what sort of environmentalist a person would become by knowing their denomination," he says. But is this a function of their particular affiliation, or of their historical moment? The first group of 19th-century environmentalists were Western New England Congregationalists, and then they vanish at the end of the 19th century. Then the Presbyterians create the National Park System, and dominate environmentalism until the 1960s. But is this causal or just coincidental? Doesn't this development parallel the relative dominance of these denominations, at least among a certain type of intellectual likely to become an environmentalist?

Lynn White blames Calvinists for the worst abuses, Stoll says. Calvinism has a reputation for hostility to nature. But Calvin himself was "more effusive about nature" than he ever was about humans. Passages in Calvin remind Stoll of Emerson. The Calvinist Puritans, Stoll says, were the only people interested in sustainability and social justice. He connects the New England village described by Brian Donahue with religion. The New England village then becomes the prototype for the Conservation movement, Stoll says.

Oosthoek found it interesting that early environmentalists embraced both religion and science. But isn't the question, in a completely religious society, how religious you are
relative to your peers? Is it really relevant that science first existed "within" religion? Everything existed within religion, including the farming styles described by Donahue. But does that mean all these traditions spring from religion? Or just that they coexist with religion during their infancy?

Stoll locates the beginning of religious rejection of science in the 1960s. Oosthoek asks about  global warming denial; Stoll says Creationism paves the way for all this type of fundamentalist rejection of science. Stoll says many environmentalists are hostile to conservative Christianity -- or at least have no idea how to engage with it. But is this the chicken or the egg? In 1972 Southern Baptists released a statement supporting the environment, but Stoll says they were put off by environmentalists' rejection of them and acceptance of neo-paganism and "earth worship." By 1980 there's a split between environmentalists and fundamentalists. And the religious are more connected to libertarianism and suspicious of government, Stoll says. This seems to locate the "fault" for this rift with the hippies and to ignore the big changes in conservative religion that began in the 80s. It almost sounds a bit like the statements you sometimes hear from Christians that they are the persecuted minority in our culture.

The part I thought was most interesting was Stoll's statement that Calvinist tradition relies on a "super-literal interpretation of the Bible." This is a problem, he says, especially in religions that
also value an educated ministry. Seems to me this is because these educated religious folks are more exposed to the conflicts between religion and science than others. But again, the interesting thing for me is how these religious social structures and habits of mind remain relevant in the story. Black Baptist churches become organizing centers for environmentalism. But is this about organizing movements, or about the religion? The church could be an "organizing center" for these issues simply because that's how black communities organize.

Finally, there's the question of upbringing vs. adulthood Stoll mentions near the close of the interview. Most of the environmentalists he cites had lapsed from their religions by the time they become environmentalists. This suggests that there's something they learned while part of the religions that influenced both the causes they later embraced, and the methods they used in their activism. But doesn't it also raise the question of why people who
stayed in the religion didn't become significant environmentalists? There's something complicated and fascinating going on with these folks, and with "bridge" groups like the French Huguenots Stoll mentions. This may be an interesting area for someone coming from my perspective to study -- how people leave religion and use some of the skills and structures they learned there in their later pursuits.