Friday, April 12, 2013

Why religion shouldn’t play a role in environmentalism #2: It’s gratuitous

It’s gratuitous first in the basic sense that it’s unnecessary. I’ve asked a few religious environmentalists whether they would still be environmentalists if, hypothetically, they came not to believe in the existence of their god, and I’ve never received a sincere, satisfactory response (or for that matter any response that I can recall).

I’ve never really expected one, I suppose. I’m not anticipating an honest admission that Yes, the person’s activism really stems from their own decency, passions, and values. I’m also not expecting to hear what I think in the overwhelming majority of cases would be a dishonest reply: that their environmental commitments would become meaningless and immediately evaporate if they came to disbelieve.*

I don’t believe for a second that most of these people genuinely think – when they’ve been challenged on their rote religious attribution and taken a moment to consider the question – that they lack a morality independent of external commands. I think this religious decoration has simply become a culturally sanctioned habit of speech and of thought.

It’s also gratuitous in the sense that it benefits religion by falsely conflating it with morality. Again, there’s no reason for atheists and humanists to play along. It’s plainly contrary to humanistic goals, implying that the humanistic alternative doesn’t offer a real foundation for ethical environmentalism andor that it’s not sufficiently motivating. (Sometimes this is argued explicitly: You’re never going to win people over with dry science, they say, as if our only option is to dourly read them an IPCC report.)

I understand what’s in this faith-ornamented vision of environmentalism for religions, but fail to see why humanists should be willing to accept it. They’re not just bedazzling our Armani dress – they’re then declaring that without the bedazzling the dress is trash.

* But, if we were going to take the religious attribution seriously, I guess we would have to point out that the risk is certainly there. Religion is a fragile, fickle motivation for environmentalism. If people come to lose the beliefs – that they have a God-ordained responsibility to steward the environment and other living things or whatever – they might well lose the inspiration, perhaps even coming to see environmentalism as harmful. It’s also double-sided: if we were going to expect that following a different church or theology could lead people towards environmentalism, we would have to admit the possibility that a religious shift could just as easily lead them in the opposite direction.

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