Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Why religion shouldn’t play a role in environmentalism #1: Authoritarianism

I began a post about why religion shouldn’t play a role in environmentalism more than a year ago. It quickly took on a life of its own, becoming far too long for a single post (even one of mine). Watching an episode of Moyers & Company a few months ago really drove home one of the major reasons, and since I wanted to write about it specifically I decided to make it the first post in a series. I’ve alluded to or discussed most of these points briefly in the past, but they come sharply into relief when it comes to dealing with AGW and campaigning for environmentalism.

The show was “Ending the Silence on Climate Change,” and the guest was Anthony Leiserowitz, a research scientist at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. Overall, but for the brief discussion of ranchers, it’s a great interview and I recommend it (and feel a little guilty about using it to illustrate a wrongheaded approach). On one point, though, it was quite frustrating.

After Leiserowitz has summarized the different stances on AGW found in the US – what he calls the “six Americas” - Moyers asks him to respond to different kinds of deniers:
BILL MOYERS: Assume that I'm a skeptic [sic]. Not only a skeptic but a Tea Party Republican who goes to church every Sunday where my beloved pastor tells me that, reassures me that God created the earth 6,000 years ago and that if God wants to end the earth God will on God's terms, that this is out of our control. If you were sitting across from a good, disciplined believer like that, what argument would you make to me?

ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: Well, the first thing I would do is I would listen, I would really listen. Because I'd want to know really what are the depths of, not just their concerns about this issue, but what are their aspirations? What do they want for their children? What do they want for their grandchildren? What kind of community do they want to live in? What are the values that really animate and motivate them?

And I would try to find some way to then meet them where they are first. So let’s just take the religious side. There are wonderful activities going on by all of the world's major religions right now including the evangelical churches to say this is a moral and religious issue, okay.

From our worldview, from our standpoint, this is crucial both because we were commanded by God in Genesis to till and tend the garden, to care for his creation which when he created he kept telling us, "It is good." Okay, it is our responsibility they would say to take care of his creation, and that the kinds of things that we are currently doing to the planet are essentially violating that promise.

But moreover, we're also seeing the theme of social justice, that we've been commanded, they would say, to take care of the least of these: the poor, the sick, the powerless both in our own country and around the world. And many churches, in fact, have invested enormous resources, I mean, sending their young people abroad to do great works to try to help people who desperately need that help.

Their argument would be how can we in good conscience ignore a problem that's just going to push millions of more people around the world into those exact same kinds of circumstances we're trying to help them with, okay. So all I'm saying is that the faith community itself is not monolithic, it isn't homogenous. And it too is trying, currently, struggling to make sense of this new issue and what is the role of religious faith in answering it.

BILL MOYERS: What do you say to the secularist?

ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: I say let's engage on the science. Let me hear what your arguments are and then let's respond to them. And I would ask in turn that you listen to what the scientific community has to say. It's perfectly fine to have a great conversation with many people about the science itself because the science is so robust at this point. I mean, we have basically known for over 20 years now that, and it actually boils down, for all the complexity of the science it's really quite simple.

It's real, okay, climate change is real. It is mostly human caused this time. There have been climate changes over many millions of years in the past that had nothing to do with human beings. This time it's mostly being caused by our activities. Third, it's going to be bad. In fact, it's bad now and it's going to get worse.

Fourth, there's hope, that there are lots of solutions already on the table that are in fact already being implemented in this country, communities all across this country as well as around the world. There's an enormous amount of work that we can do right now with things that we have in hand.
I fully agree with the idea of listening to religious people and seeking to meet them at their best aspirations. Of course, we could find that some aspirations (for example, the glory of the impending Rapture) are fundamentally contrary to any positive program of action on AGW, in which case meeting them there is impossible. But assuming people who haven’t gone off that cliff, it is of course best to connect with people around shared positive hopes and wishes. This is true generally, though, and not specific to religious people. Any movements that want to address AGW and work towards biophilic and sustainable human cultures need to come from a humanistic and compassionate place.

But the next part of his response both contradicts the first and illustrates well the problem with the involvement of religion in environmentalism. He refers to some Evangelical churches that have a different, more “progressive” understanding of what they’re commanded with regard to life on this planet and social justice. There are several problems with this tumble into theology, not least of which is that theological disagreements aren’t resolved in light of reality, so all religious claims in this area have the same “validity.” There’s also the condescension involved in assuming that religious people can’t be convinced by a reasoned discussion of reality.

And many more… But most important for my purposes here is the authoritarianism inherent in this approach. It’s an authoritarian duplex, in fact – religious people are offered alternative religious authorities to whom they should defer, who in turn offer different interpretations of the deity’s commands. There’s no other way to describe this than authoritarian, and it’s exactly the opposite of the ethical-epistemic practices we should be promoting – critical thinking and questioning, skepticism concerning authorities, and a respect for reality. (There’s something especially perverse about this promotion of authoritarianism when it comes to this question of science.) As I’ve said before, believing is a political act, and support for the authoritarian principle and practices of submission to authorities have effects that go far beyond the realm of religion.

Of course, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of assuming that some image of blind obedience or belief represents reality. As Sartre describes insightfully in “Existentialism is a Humanism,” what appear superficially to be passive or unthinking patterns of behavior in reality reflect choices and commitments (why did you choose to consult with that particular religious figure or to view that particular phenomenon or event as a sign with that particular meaning?). People have personal and political motivations – conscious or not - for choosing to obey or believe who they do.

But this makes the case against authoritarian approaches even stronger. These promote the principle of authoritarianism as well as the acceptance of the notion that people are simply – in a realm beyond their capacity to make choices – submitting to authority. This supports the authoritarian claim that people are just obeying superiors, just following orders, when in reality the idea that we’re believing or obeying others or responding to external signs is a means of evading the responsibility for our own choices, which leads us to make more irresponsible ones.

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