Is Christianity Good for the Environment?

is christianity good for the environment?

I picked up the above flyer a month or so ago, at St Michael’s Church during the Artist-as-Family’s plant in day.

I was all set to go to the talk this weekend, but Patrick from Artist-as-Family just told me it’s been postponed. Apparently they’ve had a few cancellations from potential speakers for the event.

So – anyone have any idea who would be good to address this hot topic? And does anyone have any opinions about an answer to this question?

15 thoughts on “Is Christianity Good for the Environment?

  1. “Is christianity good for the environment?” Well those who are prone to delusional beliefs and magical thinking in one area are probably prone to delusional beliefs and magical thinking in other areas (see Stanford University neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky on religious thinking ) so more likely than not the answer is a resounding NO.

    And that’s without even starting to discuss christianity’s toxic anthropocentrism or the tangled sources of the extreme capitalism meme in late medieval european christianity.

    This is just another example of the way the parasitical religion meme tries to hijack every social issue that comes along. Given christianity’s history this is a particularly breathtaking attempt to get it’s snout in the trough.

    What is actually good for the environment is scientific method, an understanding of evolution and adaptation and clear thinking based on evidence followed by action. You only have one life and one world that now desperately needs to be looked after. Human beings need to adapt and big imaginary friends aren’t going to help.

  2. you are hilarious Ian! ‘big immaginary friends’ lmao!
    anyway, i must promptly disagree with you on this one, on two accounts, firstly I am surprised you dismiss eager involvement by a keen pastor and label it ‘hijacking of social issues’, counter poning scientific method to delusional believes. Scientific method is just as anthropocentric and arrogant as any religion, grossly limited by ‘factual evidence’ and overall unable to cope with major ecological forces like instinct and non-logical energy.
    I truly believe that at this point of time it doesn’t matter how you move or how you rise your concerns from abstraction to action, as we all live on the same land, you, me, the christians, the hippies and the punks.
    With all due respect of course.

  3. Ian:
    I’m interested in the point you raise about the possible human-behavioural effects of the idea that there might be another life, another world beyond planet Earth. It resonates – possibly – with the utopian concept of escaping this planet after we have ruined it, and colonising another. The denial of the finitude of our resources…

    And you’re right about things like “intelligent design” versus evolution – if God could create the earth in seven days, he could easily reach down and save us from our impending calamity, right? (Or maybe climate change is just his latest old-testament method of smiting us for our hubris?)

    (If I were debating on the NO side on this question, I could also mention the devastating effects of cultural erasure carried out in the name of missionary zeal – a religious movement which, although arguably well-intentioned at the time, clearly disconnected humans from our environment, a major step towards viewing the planet as a resource rather than as a series of relationships).

    There is a big difference however between these grand ideas, and the reality of St Michael’s Church itself. Pastor Francis and his small gang are rather humble, local Surry Hills folks who are mainly concerned with fostering community engagement and developing social connectivity, which is why they jumped at the chance to host the Artist as Family’s Food Forest project.

    I spoke with Pastor Francis at the plant-in-day, and from my impressions of him, I reckon he’d actually be very interested in an open enquiry into this question as to “whether or not Christianity is good for the environment”.

  4. Diego, you are right of course, it doesn’t really matter in the end what people’s motivation is in terms of dealing with climate change provided of course that they do actually do something real.

    I was responding to a more abstract question about christianity’s relationship to nature and although I would say I was a Darwinist I wouldn’t greatly disagree with the more Wallace/Lovelock/”Gaian” approach that you seem to be advocating. And I have no doubt that the fact that St Michaels is hosting Artist as Family is proof that they are on the right side of the campaign against global warning.

    Unfortunately, however, there is a well documented and link between christian fundamentalism and climate change denialism. Its scriptural basis is explained here although the conclusions would be deplored by progressive christians. Clive Hamilton also explores the links between corporations, christian fundamentalists, right wing politics and climate change denialism in a chapter of his book Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change – that probably should be on your book list Lucas, it’s an excellent if depressing read. He also discusses a range of denialist organisations including christian groups in a series of articles in ABCs The Drum earlier this year.

    Incidentally Diego, how are the wardian cases holding up? They in themselves are one of the greatest symbols of science, the means by which enormous numbers of plants were migrated around the planet in the 19th century and fundamental to the explosion of scientific knowledge about plants, I was delighted by the way you used them.

  5. I forgot to add this US research from the Pew Research Centre showing a direct correlation between shades of religious belief and climate change scepticism/denialism.

    Lucas, your post about St Michaels has popped up since I submitted my last one. I think that illustrates a fundamental issue about what is now happening, that well informed and well intentioned people are increasingly determined to face the grim reality in front of us and won’t be put off by the various forces determined to block change – hence the last election result and the swing to the Greens that was well beyond my wildest dreams. And even if I sound a bit hard line here that is because I was discussing history and science rather than specific people. In practice we have to work with the people that we actually meet, up here I am on committees with coal company executives and miners, people who run coal fired power stations, mining union officials and so on. And surprise surprise they are just as aware of the problem as you or me, its just that life has left them washed up on the other side but they are mostly just as keen to see something done even if we do wrangle over the details.

  6. ah! finally got to answer this!
    so, yes, i understood your angle Ian, of course you took the single event and used it as a spring board to herald higher arguments.
    I am not sure if i should align myself to Gaian theories that much thou, or rather, don’t really feel comfortable in pigeons holes, i’m rather more fascinated by the argument of Michel Serres at the moment.
    anyway, wardian cases, yes, they surely are happy in the museum environment, coping in their own little ecosystem rather well, as opposed to the other vegetation in the show, struggling to deal with dry air conditioning.
    Indeed it would be rather cute to send a couple of those back to the Kew Gardens, filled with the current botany of the colonies.
    Thanks Ian for your appreciation

  7. I emailed my mum to ask her to chime in on this issue. She works for the Catholic education department in Western Australia, and has done lots of study on theology and religious activism. Here’s her reply (she doesn’t spare me from criticism either!). The URL link she points to below is brilliant in relation to the Christianity/environment debate:

    Hi again Lucas

    I offer this nun’s offering as pretty good expression of the Catholic approach to your question

    I would say this is a good summary of the catholic approach and I agree with most of it… churchy language but we should be able to cope with people’s different use of language. I haven’t got time just now to contribute to your blog but I did forward it on to some people in here who may offer some responses.

    by the way
    did you realise how sexist and outdated and misogynist was your language when describing God in your contribution???
    No one should say ‘him’ when referring to God any more. God is not a person. It’s ok if you are quoting scripture (mind you much of the Wisdom literature refers to God/Spirit as feminine) but when speaking yourself, it sounds a bit ignorant and old fashioned to refer to God as he/him!
    Mum xx

  8. Hey Lucas – can’t resist this argument.

    Ian, you’re exactly right in saying that the there’s a strong link between fundamentalism and ‘climate change denialism’. When you have people dismissing science in one area (evolution), it’s hardly surprising that they can’t deal with it in other areas. The great majority of Christians are not fundamentalists, so I wouldn’t have considered this a big issue.

    I can’t help myself responding to a couple of your comments above:
    “This is just another example of the way the parasitical religion meme tries to hijack every social issue that comes along.”

    Christianity says that the world would be perfect except that people keep making bad decisions (which, let’s be honest, isn’t all that different to Gaian theory). Both start with a set of principles, and then apply reason to each issue which comes along in an attempt to determine the ‘best’ solution based on those principles. Yes, Christianity approaches each social issue this way. That doesn’t make it a hijack.

    “What is actually good for the environment is scientific method, an understanding of evolution and adaptation and clear thinking based on evidence followed by action. You only have one life and one world that now desperately needs to be looked after.”
    Any mainstream Christian would agree with all of that.

    “Human beings need to adapt and big imaginary friends aren’t going to help.”
    On the other hand, a Christian understanding of the responsibility of each individual to the planet, to the(global) community, and to each other may actually be exactly what the world needs.

  9. Barry, thanks for the very generous comments but your openness reminded me that I’ve resisted until now quoting the immortal words of Lindsay Tanner when asked about his religion – “No, I’m not at all religious, I’m an anglican”. And there is a sense in which your defence of christianity smacks of the no true scotsman fallacy even though you don’t actually say that no true christian would be a climate change denier.

    It all needs a bit of disentangling I suppose.

    Firstly I was responding to the actual text which asked “Is christianity good for the environment” which I understood to mean christianity the doctrine rather than christians or christianity seen as a social movement. Secondly because this is a global problem the nature of christianity world wide is more the issue than the comparatively progressive form of christianity practiced in Australia. On that basis I would think that the dominionist underpinnings of right wing american christian thought produces bad to very bad outcomes for the environment. The inherent anthropocentrism inevitably leads to an alienated and utilitarian approach to the environment with enormous potential for unintended consequences as we now know. While Australian churches mostly take a more progressive stand (the odious George Pell notably excepted) the fact that so many US christians are deniers unavoidably tarnishes other christians.

    I would add that a belief that somehow all we need is forgiveness from the deity also leads to problems if only because it encourages the delusion that somehow at the last moment perhaps everything can be put right and we will be redeemed. Unfortunately as far as environmental sins are concerned it is not so, last minute repentance is too late because nature doesn’t forgive and has no mercy.

    On the other hand individual christians, or christianity as a social movement, are quite different. I may be an atheist but I have plenty of christian indoctrination in my remote past. Leaving aside the fundies (who often have less real knowledge of christianity than us atheists), I am conscious that the mainstream religions all have progressive factions even if they are not in control. There are a variety of those christian thinkers that I find very sympathetic – the mysticism of Gerard Manley Hopkins or Thomas Merton, the activism of Simone Weil, Gustavo Gutierrez, Archbishop Oscar Romero, the social philosophy of John Shelby Spong or even Hans Kung – I suppose my early catholic education shows in that list. They represent those who have in a variety of different ways attempted to push christian thought towards greater social and environmental responsibility as an end in itself rather than as a marketing opportunity for the christian brand. The quakers for instance also have a great history in that regard and that, I think, is the issue, whether the activism is an outcome or a tool of christianity. It becomes a hijack in this case when promoting christianity is more important than slowing global warming.

    But overall, to an atheist like me it seems that those christians who would support your comments, and I have no doubt they are the majority, look less like “true christians” and more like christian-humanist synchretists. Does that matter? Certainly not to me, I think it’s an improvement that makes it much easier for me to get on with them and I’ll support them all the way as long as they want to take action although I bet they’d hate to be described that way.

    And it should be added that there are other mainstream religions and I doubt if most of them have the same alienated relationship to nature that blights the abrahamic religions – look at buddhism’s principle of compassion for all forms of life for instance, a doctrine that christianity would do well to adopt.

  10. Oh, and Diego… so, Michel Serres, the only french post modernist that even Sokal conceded had a bit of real scientific knowledge. I’ve only had a passing acquaintance with his work but I really enjoyed the way he he would find parallel ways of thinking in completely different world views, like comparing astronauts to human sacrifice if my memory serves me correctly. I’ve got to admit that is how I tend to think as well, you’ve got me interested, I’ll go and read more of him.

  11. Ooh, Ian, you’re close but you’re missing some crucial points. I suggest that you are seeing thing through the prism of your own world view – and yes, I accept the irony that this is coming from the Christian.
    Let me be clear: no educated, rational person with a good understanding of scientific method would be a climate change ‘denier’. They would certainly be a climate change ‘sceptic’, but would agree that the evidence makes anthropogenic climate change much more likely than not. This applies equally to Christians and non-Christians.

    American ‘Christianity’ is an unusual beast. It’s so tied up in notions of American exceptionalism (an inherently non-Christian concept) that it’s impossible to identify where the effects of one ends and the other begins.

    The belief that ‘all we need is forgiveness’ completely misses the point. Mercy and forgiveness are available, yes, but no ‘true Christian’ would think in terms of that being the goal.

    From a climate change perspective, I would have thought it a pointless discussion anyway. To the extent that one could isolate the effects of Christianity (which is clearly impossible) its effect is infinitesimal compared with the impact of industrialisation. I suspect you’re conflating the two, which suggests another interesting discussion.

    And a ‘true christian’ doesn’t believe that all wisdom is found in their own branch of Christianity, but is open to recieving wisdom from other sources to improve the wisdom within Christianity. This is not the same as saying that other belief systems are equally ‘correct’ (from a Christian point of view). There may be extremely misguided viewpoints out there which nonetheless contain *some* wisdom.

  12. Barry, it simply isn’t good enough for you to disown all the inconvenient christians who don’t conform to your own more rational variant especially when one group of them, the American christian right, is one of the biggest road blocks to climate change action – as I said, that’s the no true scotsman fallacy. Perhaps it is them you should be debating rather than me.

    I understand that mercy and forgiveness are not the goal but they were always presented to me as the get out of gaol free card – maybe that’s just catholic christians. The diversity of christian types is a wonderful example of evolutionary development to fill all available niches of belief.

    And I’m not conflating christianity and industrialisation because for starters I’m not blaming christianity for climate change, I’m simply pointing out that large groups of christian are opposed to taking action and that their opposition is comprehensible given some underlying elements of christian belief and some elements of the believer personality type. It’s indisputable that climate change is an unintended consequence of extreme capitalism enabled by scientific and technological advances. Even though there are writers (Weber for instance) find the roots of capitalism in christianity I tend to think it’s more a case of correlation rather than causation notwithstanding the claims of the american christian right that conflate christianity and capitalism.

  13. Thanks, Ian. Trust me, I debate them whenever I can.

    I suspect I haven’t made my point clearly. The fact that some Christians are dumb does not mean that Christianity is dumb. And while some Christian churches promote teachings about the environment with which I disagree, my argument is that this is not the fault of Christianity, it is the conflation of Christianity with other philosophies in those churches which cause the problem. So the question ‘Is Christianity good for the environment’ is not the same as ‘Are (all) Christians good for the environment.’

    The ‘get out of goal free’ position is what one teaches children, who are not equipped to understand the nuances of more complicated philosophy. It’s like when one learns equations of motion in high school physics, before learning at university that those are vastly simplified specific cases of Newtonian laws, which are themselves vastly simplified specific cases of general relativity. The vast majority of the (educated) population live their entire lives with a high-school understanding of physics. Many Christians live their entire lives with a high-school (or even primary-school) understanding of theology. That doesn’t make the teachings of ‘Christianity’ any more deficient than the teachings of ‘physics’.

    There’s an obvious correlation between right-wing philosophy and politics and climate change ‘denialism’. There’s also a correlation between right-wing politics and the ‘christian right’. Does that mean that Christian beliefs lead to climate change denialism?

    I also hope I’m not being rude in questioning your use of the term ‘believer personality type’. Your posts seem to indicate that you have your own strong belief system. Does this mean we are both of this type?

  14. Just caught a bit of Paul Collins on Late Night Live talking about the relationship of the Catholic Church to the environment. It sounded like he has a new book out, but I missed the details. Wikipedia tells me he has previously (1995) published this book: “God’s Earth : Religion As If Matter Really Mattered -An historical account of the relation of Christian religious thought and practice to present environmental crises”.

    Thanks Barry and Ian for an interesting discussion on this topic.

  15. …as an addendum to this, my mum just sent me through this link to a fellow who has made a full replica of Noah’s ark, following all the original instructions “as a testament to his faith in the literal truth of the Bible”. Incredible, frightening, bizarre!

    noahs ark

    Mum writes:

    There are apparently huge pockets of the US that still believe in creationism – against all evidence to the contrary and against all knowledge of human nature and psychology and history which shows we absolutely need to mythologise our history and beliefs…

    Have you read Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake? I was fascinated at the end to find that the new generation of humans devising rituals against all odds and manoeuvres to the contrary…

    I’d love to know if it floats and even sails!

    The ark, of course, is relevant to this discussion, as it was the original method of saving biodiversity during a massive rise in global sea levels…

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