Environmental Secularism?

The latest Katherin Kersten article in today’s Strib pretty much took my breath away. Essentially, she says that “people of faith” who claim to care a lot about the environment don’t really believe in God. It’s just New Age Counterculture in different guise. I’m so deeply offended by the piece I want to print it here in full, though I won’t resist the temptation to offer snide comments of my own in parentheticals. I’m sorry for the faded text that appears below. That happens when I cut and paste text in here. You can see the piece here, though you’ll miss the pithy, righteous commentary.

Last update: February 07, 2007 – 9:24 PM

A recent issue of a magazine from one of Minnesota’s Lutheran colleges features a picture of the campus pastor, wearing a beanie with a propeller on it. He is leading what the magazine calls a “congregation” of students in a dedication “service” at the foot of a giant new wind turbine that provides power to the campus.

At one point the pastor asked the students to raise their own miniature pinwheels. I could almost imagine them all being suddenly borne aloft by a gust of prairie wind during the closing verse of a great old Lutheran hymn.

Scenes like this are becoming commonplace, as environmentalism and religion intersect in ever increasing permutations. Last week, Catholic and Lutheran leaders joined polar explorer Will Steger and several scientists to lobby the Minnesota Legislature on what the religious leaders called the moral imperative of addressing climate change.

Wind turbines at Christian colleges, solar panels by church steeples and religiously inspired prairie restorations — all are fine things. Christianity and Judaism teach that human beings have an obligation to be good stewards of the natural world and its resources.

Sometimes, however, it seems something more is going on. We see it in the apparent eagerness of some “people of faith”‘ (Why the quote marks? Why question their faith?) to embrace worst-case environmental scenarios. We hear it in their crusading zeal as they proselytize others, for example, to attend a screening of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” in the church basement. (When they should be proselytizing others to deny civil rights to homosexuals!)

Environmental issues are complex, and often involve data that are open to different interpretations. Yet in some religious circles, if you raise a skeptical question about, say, global warming (a highly debated subject), you are spurned as if you’ve committed heresy. (The same thing happens in the scientific community. Why can’t people be more open-minded, like in the political and fossil fuels community?)

Robert H. Nelson, a professor of environmental policy at the School of Public Policy of the University of Maryland, has often rubbed shoulders with environmental true believers. (Rubbing of shoulders obviously makes him an expert, just like that guy who was rubbing Ted Haggard’s shoulders was an expert on conservative evangelism.) In his view, contemporary environmentalism, in its extreme forms, has become a “secular religion.” Nelson likens it, in important respects, to Christian fundamentalism of the sort derived from the Protestant Calvinism of America’s Puritan ancestors. (Even accepting Nelson’s claim at face value, he’s talking about Earth First and like-minded organizations, not a group of people at the local church.)

Today’s “environmental gospel” is best understood as “Calvinism minus God,” says Nelson. In essence, it retells the biblical creation story in secular dress: Human beings were created in harmony with the world, but then were tempted into evil. Now they spread corruption and depravity, and, as a result, face disaster and perhaps the end of the world. (Humans do spread corruption and depravity, but mostly it’s the fossil fuels that the anti-warming constituency is worried about.)

As environmental true believers see it, the Earth was originally a pristine Garden of Eden. Then the Fall intervened. Human beings embraced science and technology, and pridefully disrupted God’s Creation. (Uh…actually it’s mostly the sheer number of humans that’s the problem. And I think most of the anti-warming constituency views science and technology as our way OUT of the warming issue.) At the same time, human greed led to material addictions — an echo of the Puritans’ deep skepticism about money and wealth, Nelson points out. Today, many environmentalists regard an excess of consumption as one of the modern world’s greatest sins, he says. (So…excess consumption is a good thing? Don’t MOST people in the world today view excess consumption as a problem, even if we as a country haven’t quite figured out how to get to a small consumption footprint?)

The result? Human beings now face retribution — flood, famine, drought and pestilence. These, Nelson notes, are the “traditional instruments of a wrathful God imposing a just punishment on a world of many sinners.” (At least they left out the locusts, Katherine. Besides that, yeah, when climate changes dramatically, funny things can happen to the Earth. Personally, I love how the potential magnitude of the impacts warming make it a subject for her ridicule, whereas the potential magnitude of allowing gay marriage, that “marriages will suffer”, is advertised by Katherine as the greatest moral imperative of our age. Let’s see…Flood, famine, pestilence and drought =’s joke, decline marriage rate =’s profound crisis. Got it.)

Only a great moral awakening can save humankind. Who will redeem us? God’s holy, self-appointed instruments — his environmental prophets. (And the Democrats, some Republicans, most scientists, and it seems, many “people of faith”. Only social conservatives like KK stand in the way.)

The environmental gospel has a strong appeal, especially for contemporary men and women who are turning away from traditional religion. (Only “contemporary” people, meaning gay-tolerant people, who spurn our real God could possibly care about the enviornment. I don’t even believe in God and that’s one of the most offensive, mendacious things I’ve ever read.) The green crusade satisfies the universal human hunger for meaning. At the same time, it asks little of believers: no tough commandments about forgiving your neighbor or not coveting his wife. Instead, it offers rituals like recycling and (for those who aspire to sainthood) biking to work. The larger society will pay the serious costs of redemption. (So those Lutherans praying to that wind turbine have chucked all the other commandments, all the other tenets of a spiritual and holy life they live in service of God? They went to a Lutheran college so they could join the eco-ethic? People who care about warming all covet their neighbor’s wives? WTF? Interesting how the critique against the Dave Foremans of the world is suddenly being used to tar your average Minnesota Lutheran who happened to hear something about a scientific consensus and wants to speak up.)

There are more sensible approaches to environmental problems than the environmental gospel. (Listening to the scientific community and cutting fossil fuel consumption immediately come to mind.) Without viewing human beings as inherently wicked, (Enviornmentalists and eco-concerned religious groups believe that?) or environmental problems as a righteous clash between good and evil, citizens and leaders could tackle environmental issues as public policy challenges whose solution requires a careful weighing of scientific data and the costs and benefits of various responses. (Yeah, they could. Too bad the Bush Administration waited till 2007 to officially acknowledge that human-influenced warming even existed.)

Katherine, you give it all away with your last line: Costs and benefits. Cutting fossil fuels hurts the industry and the market that funds the think tanks you and Robert H. Nelson flack for. You talk up the church when it helps advance the agenda to bash homosexuals, which keeps the GOP in power. But when the church threatens the agenda of the people who made you, you throw the church under the bus.


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5 Responses to Environmental Secularism?

  1. Brien says:

    Religious hypocrites are so often blind to their hypocrisy. I don’t know whether this woman is just a hack for the right-wing or just stupid but this kind of stuff plays for the kind of people who are convinced that theirs is the ‘one true religion’ so she’s done her job, sadly.

  2. stanton says:

    Political and social agenda wrapped up in the trappings of theology? Turnabout is fair play.

  3. Collins says:

    All I can say is: damn.

  4. kelly says:

    This reminds me of your post a week or so back. Maybe this is the way American politics can regain some kind of rational footing? Everyone but the religious is pretty much there on warming. The Republicans are f’ed….. (whose gonna pay the tab without traditional energy or defense industries growth?)

    Warming makes gay marriage seem petty when we are fighting for the survival of the planet. From a cost benefits perspective, it might be hard to rally even but the most rabid abortion opponents.

    Fascinating….. and I can only ‘pray’ it will become true.

  5. cliff says:

    Wonderfully naive and forced metaphor in general. And i love how she portrays (projects?) the environmental gospel as a fundamentalist reaction to a lost Christian god. As opposes to religious fundamentalist who can’t – or at best, won’t – search for human answers to human problems. Yeah, she condescendingly smirked at the burning witches in a past lifetime or two. Coward.

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