I have a confession. It really bugs me when people say environmentalism is “just a religion”. I mean, it really really bugs me. The veins pop out on my neck and my teeth clench so tight my jaw hurts and I have to try really hard not to scream.
So I guess it’s about time I figure out why.
First, let’s review the “arguments” for eco-theology:
- Rick Santorum’s barely coherent position
- Michael Crichton getting things backwards – he claims that environmentalism mimics the Garden of Eden story, but it seems much more likely that the Eden story was inspired by early environmentalists, doesn’t it?
- This New Atlantic article is by far the most convincing and thought-provoking examination I’ve seen on eco-religionism, but that could be because it concludes that environmentalism is only a little like religion, and not an actual religion.
Does It Matter If Environmentalism Is A Religion?
It obviously matters to me – and it mattered to me on some visceral level long before I ever figured out why.
Let’s start by looking at what people really mean when they say “environmentalism is a religion”.
- Believing in climate change, peak oil, and melting ice caps is a choice, just like believing in Christianity or Islam; hundreds of years of scientific research, environmental studies, and evidence holds no more weight than The Bible, The Koran, or The Book of Mormon.
- Environmentalism is not compatible with Christianity, Judaism, Scientology or whatever religion I already am. Ergo, if I’m already religious, I can’t be an environmentalist.
- Just like with any other religion, I can pick and choose which rules I want to follow based on how conveniently they fit into my life.
All of a sudden, instead of climate change being a problem we all have to solve together, it becomes a problem for those people over there in that little environmentalist gang.
What’s A Religion Anyway?
There are zillions of arcane anthropological definitions of religion out there (and I feel like I’ve read most of them by now). But the meaning we really need to consider is the one generally meant by people in the western world in the 21st Century.
When they say “environmentalism is a religion” they aren’t referring to some obscure tribal religion practiced only in 17th Century Congo. They mean a religion like the ones we in the west are confronted with every day: Christianity, Judaism, Mormonism, Scientology…
Think of the religious people you know or the ways you engage in your own religion. Most of the religious experience can be defined by:
- Belief in some sort of supernatural, powerful being(s)
- A source of comfort in times of trouble
- A sense of belonging and community
- Gathering regularly to perform sacred rituals with sacred objects
- A set of rules for living, taken from a book that was written with divine inspiration long(ish) ago
- An ultimate reward for the devout that is not available to non-believers; a punishment for people who do not believe or do not follow the rules
- Belief in the religion’s gods and rules to the exclusion of any other
OK, So Environmentalism Is Not This Because…?
There’s no doubt there are some ways in which environmentalism is kind of like religion. It gives people a sense of purpose and shapes their world view. Some of us (ahem) tend to take the moral high ground and believe that anyone not concerned about the environment is either ignorant or evil. And, just like so many evangelical leaders and religious politicians, we are often caught preaching one thing and then practicing another.
But that stuff is less about being religious, more about being human.
When you take it apart, the eco-theology theory seems pretty weak.
Belief in some sort of supernatural, powerful being(s)
The enviroligionists (yeah, I made that up) would say
That’s Mother Nature. Gaia! She’s your goddess!
Yes, there are religions that do worship Gaia as a supernatural, all-powerful being.
But to your run-of-the-mill environmentalist, Mother Nature is not a supernatural being or a goddess. She’s not someone we pray to when times are tough. We don’t ask her for forgiveness.
Mother Nature is not a god; she’s a metaphor.
It’s a convenient collective noun for everything around us that is not man made: earth, oceans, plants, wind, animals – even people.
And guess what? It’s perfectly OK to believe in Mother Nature even if you believe in another God. Plenty of religious folk do.
A source of comfort in times of trouble
The truth is, the more I know about ecology, the more I research and read and write, the less comfortable I feel. Religion is supposed to make us feel better about our little lot in life, our place in the world. Prayer is supposed to be there for you, even if you’re hitting rock bottom.
The last thing I want to do when I’m at my lowest point is think about the environment. Knowing what our collective irresponsibility is doing to the world just makes me feel worse.
A sense of belonging and community
Because of the internet, I know there are others like me out there – people who want to change the way we treat the earth – and I guess this does give me a sense of belonging and community.
But within my local community, trying to live sustainably makes me an outcast. I’m the weirdo who doesn’t eat meat and who brings her own container to the salad bar.
Some people live for this weirdo identity. Not me. I don’t like being different than everyone around me. I don’t want people to look at me funny. I’d love to feel less estranged from friends, family, coworkers. But once you know something, you can’t un-know it, and I certainly can’t ignore all I know, so environmentalist and (moderate) outcast I remain.
Gathering regularly to perform sacred rituals with sacred objects
When’s the last time any of you gathered with other environmentalists? Never? That would be my answer.
As for sacred objects and rituals…
Michael Crichton argued that recycling bins are sacred objects and recycling is our sacred ritual. No disrespect to the dead, but that’s just idiotic. By putting a glass bottle in the recycling bin I am performing some sort of religious act? Does he really think I believe my soul will be saved if only I can add enough bottles to the bin? C’mon. Seriously?
What if a Catholic recycles something? Should she be excommunicated?
These items are functional, not sacred. They serve a logical purpose, not a mystical one.
(Side note: From now on, I’m totally referring to my reusable water bottle as “the chalice”.
A set of rules for living, taken from a book that was written with divine inspiration long(ish) ago
The sacred texts of most religions are ancient (or not-so-ancient) books that were written by people who claimed to have a direct line to the big G in the sky. The followers believe whatever was written down because it is supposed to literally be the word of God. These beliefs are usually filtered through the interpretation of leaders who claim a greater understanding of the text than their followers could possibly attain.
(This sounds suspiciously like college. Is education a religion?)
There is no Bible for environmentalists. (And if any of you say “What about An Inconvenient Truth” I’m gonna punch you.) We get our information from scattered reports, studies, and publications. Those publications don’t tell us how to behave, they tell us what is happening on our planet. Our “sacred” texts change from month to month as new information becomes available, science advances, and our own impact on the earth changes.
We don’t follow an ancient rule book and we don’t have someone telling us how to behave.
We read, we interpret, we make up our own minds.
Yes, there are some basic rules most environmentalists follow. Recycle, compost, avoid destroying wildness, don’t rape the earth so corporations can profit… but ask any environmentalist how they know this stuff or how they came to the conclusion that they should be living how they live, and they’ll cite hundreds of sources, one different from the next.
These rules are not morality, by the way. We don’t think it’s righteous to recycle, we think it’s practical. We don’t believe it’s evil to drive a Humvee, just stupid.
An ultimate reward for the devout that is not available to non-believers; a punishment for people who do not believe or do not follow the rules
Quick, name three religions in which the followers are blessed, chosen, and will be saved, while everyone else on Earth is left behind. OK, now name three in which everyone sinks or swims together, no matter how they behave as individuals.
First task was easy right? Second task, not so much. That’s because, in general, that’s not how religion works.
I don’t get to go to eco-heaven just because I worry about the planet. And that Humvee driver isn’t going to Hades just because he’s charging around town on 14 MPG. Either we succeed at saving enough of the earth that humanity can still exist, or we fail. And if we fail, in the worst case scenario, the human race ceases to exist. Unlike religious groups, environmentalists don’t claim to know what happens next.
Belief in the religion’s gods and rules to the exclusion of any other
Religions tend to be an exclusive club. Sure, anyone’s welcome to join, but please leave your previous religious beliefs at the door. Other gods are not welcome. Allah is not cool with you hanging out in a synagogue every Saturday, and Pat Robertson even gets freaked out if you do yoga.
Nope, in general, religion isn’t big on sharing.
On the other hand, environmentalists welcome everyone to the fold. We don’t give a crap what god you believe in. Every single person on earth is welcome, regardless of when, where, how, and who you worship. Because we know we really can’t succeed until everyone is on board.
If It’s A Religion, You’re Doing It Wrong
The truth is, for some people, environmentalism comes dangerously close to our modern Western way of engaging in religion. It’s something they kind of believe in, without giving it much thought. It’s something they’re for, but they don’t really practice it. They identify themselves as environmentalists, without ever having really considered what that means.
Environmentalists can’t afford to fall into the worship trap. We need to be vigilant, asking questions, informing ourselves, changing our opinions when it’s warranted, and always taking action when we think we can help.
Have faith in whatever religion you want, but when it comes to the earth, question everything.
Hi, I’m Jane, founder and chief blogger on My Five Acres. I’ve lived in six countries and have camped, biked, trekked, kayaked, and explored in 50! At My Five Acres, our mission is to inspire you to live your most adventurous life and help you to travel more and more mindfully.