Climate Change: Environmentalism and Religion

Posted on | augustus 17, 2011 | No Comments

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I had a few minutes trouble, some hesitation about that ‘and’ in the heading of my article. There was a confusion of mixed feelings about the use of it – may be an ‘or’ could be more appropriate. Appropriate because Environmentalism with its current central focus on Global Warming and Climate Change arguably draws its credibility from science; facts, data and interpretation – we say Global Warming and Climate Change are real not because we just feel that way in our hearts but because it is supported by a huge body of evidence and cold hard science to back it up. Religion is mostly faith, a deep sense of spirituality that is central to our psyche and removed from observation, measurement and proof. So Environmentalism is at loggerheads with Religion and an ‘or’ looks more appropriate, may be a question mark at the end, better.

But I kept the title the way it is. Why I did that is the subject matter of my article today.

For fairness’s sake, it will be necessary to clarify my position first. I write my blogs from a personal perspective and try to say things that I think is correct – not dogmatically though. I do not see myself as either an environmentalist or a religious person. But since no conscious human being can live outside of a chosen belief system, which is a body of our consciousness, I shall share my belief system with you.

A belief system can refer to one or all of the following in varying degree of permutation and combinations:

1.       Life Stance – a relation which I consider as of ultimate importance. I consider a happy, healthy, peaceful and prosperous life of me and all fellow beings as of ultimate importance. The degree of altruism is naturally in decreasing order which is family>neighborhood>country>world.

2.       Religion – If religion is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of life and the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a supernatural (divine) agency, or human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, spiritual, or divine, I do not have a religion. This is in much contempt and frustration of my devout, traditional Hindu high caste Brahmin parents. That said, I do not subscribe to Richard Dawkins’s Militant Atheism; I hold that everyone is free to have his/her own spirituality as long as that is private to him/her. I am opposed to institutionalized religion, edicts, fatwas, politicizing of faith. In short, to me, religion is private – like sex.

3.       World View – a fundamental cognitive orientation of myself encompassing natural philosophy; fundamental existential and normative postulates; or themes, values, emotions, and ethics, the Weltanschauung is that the world is in a state of transition, where the core values of life, the paradigms of humanity are changing into a new one such that environment and our interaction with nature will be of supreme interest.

4.       Philosophy – I would say I believe in Humanistic Naturalism, i.e., I believe human beings are best able to understand and control the world through use of scientific methods in as much as that science is subject to falsification and there is scope of course correction in case of a mistake as opposed to infallibility of religion.

5.       Ideologies – If an ideology is a set of ideas that constitutes one’s goals, expectations, and actions, I am much inclined towards Gandhian Ideology which insists a simple, natural, sustainable way of life where every human being can live with dignity and hope.

Environmentalism (in absence of a unanimously accepted definition) holds environment or natural environment around us as of utmost importance in our lives. But like any belief system it has its own fundamentalists, in one extremity it alienates itself from human interests. Michael Crichton, the noted author and a contrarian once commented that Environmentalism is a religion, Nature is its God, we are sinners, sustainability is salvation and Al Gore is the savior.  This is interesting because Michael Crichton was both right and wrong.

He was right because Environmental belief can be very strongly based on faith, an infallible, unquestionable truth quite akin to religious faith and this runs the risk of moving towards  intolerance to its oppositions (coal burning pagans or diesel burning heathens) and the premise of an objective debate is lost. In recent past we have seen surge of movements to link Climate Change with Religion; Vatican listing pollution as ‘New Sin’, abuse of Nature as a ‘sin’ or Bishop of London saying that contribution to Climate Change is a ‘sin’. In Abuja, Nigeria a two day forum jointly organized by the British Council and First City Monument Bank Plc (FCMB) amassed 100 participants from Nigeria, UK and sub-Saharan countries including South Africa, about 60 of who had been faith leaders both from Christianity and Islam. It was resolved that in all religious teachings and holy scriptures taking care of Nature and human life was one of the main instruction of the Creator and human beings were declared guar…. Even Judiciary accepts the likeness between Environmentalism and faith, as in the famous Tim Nicholson case Judge Michael Burton ruled: “[A] belief in man-made climate change … is capable, if genuinely h…. Generally speaking, Environmentalism in some form cannot escape same foundation of belief like religion: there is one heaven (pristine unadulterated world of the past), one hell (the present polluting, destructive, greed driven growth), one God (Nature itself) and one Salvation (a sustainable life). While Abrahamic religions identify closely with Environmentalism, Hinduism bears the same closeness, though less known or vocal. In Hindu Religious Mythologies, the concept of ten Avatars, the ten incarnations of Vishnu are descent from heaven to save earth every time there is a crisis of the divine creation. Nine of the Avatars have already descended except the last one, namely Kalki. While you can do your own research about Kalki let me read from Wikipedia as to what this final and the greatest Avatar is supposed to be – “destroyer of foulness,” “destroyer of confusion,” “destroyer of darkness,” or “annihilator of ignorance.” He seems quite tailor made for Climate Change.

Michael Crichton was very wrong too. Religion being one of the belief systems, its similarity to any other belief system is very explicable. This makes his observation only trivial not a critical one. For example consider hypothetical comments like:

a)  Science is a religion; Empiricism, Predictability and Falsification are its Gods, subjectivity is scientist’s hell, objectivity is his heaven and Newton, Einstein and Stephen Hawking are its prophets (among many).

b) Economics is a religion; Demand, Supply and Market are its Gods, higher ISE Index is its heaven, lower ISE Index is its hell and Adam Smith is its prophet.

I hope you are getting my drift.

In debates like this, an interesting aspect of Environmentalism is often overlooked. In all the belief systems including religion the interrelationship remained either between one human to other or between one human to God, who is the Creator. Environment brings in a third kind of interrelatedness, one between human and Nature. Despite the apparent superficial similarity, this third relationship makes Environmentalism very different from religion. Human mind has evolved over a long enough period of time handling interrelatedness between one human to other. This acted behind formation of groups, sects, societies and culture. This interrelatedness was explicit, its value and importance long understood and used as a tool of societal and cultural evolution of man. Similarly, human mind also evolved over a substantial period of time dealing with events in its experience beyond its rational explanation and this culminated into imagination of a supernatural force controlling the events which slowly shaped into the concept of divinity and a divine creator of everything. This interrelatedness was also explicit, its value and importance understood and used as a tool of creating a moral and ethical standard and a code of conduct and answerability to a supreme creator, a final judgment. The third interrelatedness, the one with Nature was different from the first two in only as much as it remained implicit and its sub-conscious flow apparent only in folklores, personification of natural bodies like rivers, mountains and seas in fables and mythologies. The huge body of such literature suggest that Nature was always revered, thought as a benefactor and an element of sustenance. Nature came to stand next to God in our mind, vastly magnificent to be perturbed by puny actions of man.

When science and facts established that nature and humanity had co-evoluted and both could and did affect and modify each other, it is only normal that the inertia of human mind would continue with belief systems that fostered the first two interrelatedness.  While modern Environmentalism is founded more on science than culturally evoluted traits, many still view nature as benign almost motherly and green enthusiasts often point us to a calling to go back to nature.

Going back to nature? I find such stand utterly incredible. We just cannot go back to natural elements anymore. In fact Nature is relentlessly cold, unfeeling, harsh and unforgiving from a survival point of view. We had enough science to know that it permits no excess, no luxury and no free lunch. Its bounty and vast multitude are the results of a cold, dumb evolutionary process based on selfish reasons of survival. We can at best come to live with it intelligently, tap its resources carefully and manipulate our interactions with it smartly. End of story.

A true Environmentalist will acknowledge this as fact. Therefore, Environmentalism will stand very different from religion, where submission without a question is the last word. Climate Change is no retribution of Nature, no wrath of Gods – it’s simply a vastly intricate physical system gone wrong due to mistaken dealings of man in one part. Pollution had never been a sin, it was a mistake.

So it will remain Environmentalism and Religion. I do not think we can discount religion or ignore its tremendous capacity to move people any time soon, despite steady increase of non-believers/atheists. I do not think Environmentalism should be allowed to be politicized like religion either. Environmentalism and religion need not necessarily synthesize into an environmental theology. Institutionalized efforts to do so, is a huge waste of time and energy and not in the best interest of Climate Change movement. Rather world can benefit, in the wake of Climate Crisis, by coming together retaining each belief system’s power to influence people to regulate and moderate their views towards life just by honest persuasion. Something in that direction has, in fact, taken place in USA. A group was spearheaded by leaders of Harvard University’s Center for Health and the Global Environment in Boston, Massachusetts, and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), an umbrella group that encompasses 45,000 churches, and represents 40% of the Republican Party’s supporters. “It doesn’t matter if we are liberals or conservatives, Darwinists or Creationists, we are all under the same atmosphere and drink the same water and will do everything we can to work together to solve these problems,” said Eric Chivian, Director of Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. I would acknowledge Mr. Eric Chivian as a true Environmentalist.

AUTHOR: Pabitra Mukhopadhyay
E-MAIL: mukhopadhyay.pabitra [at]


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