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Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Is Environmentalism a Religion?

I heard an interesting argument in this vein today, and I want to explore it. So first of all, let us be rational about this, and determine what it is we mean by religion. That is, picking two concepts such as Environmentalism and Christianity, what criteria can we select to promote either of these two concepts to "religion-hood"?

First, however, I must make it clear what Christianity and Environmentalism are, or rather what their members are. Christians are anyone claiming to be such, which includes Mormons and fundamentalists. (It doesn't make sense to call a Muslim "Christian!", so what a Christian is should be left to who declares themselves one.) Now, who constitutes an Environmentalist is a trickier notion. Are hippies environmentalists? Are people who just care about not destroying the environment, environmentalists? (That is, people who would vote to nationalize a Park but don't have any moral issues about chopping down trees for paper (just not all trees!).) For the purposes of this post, I think I'll pick Al Gore as an example of environmentalism, and consider hippies on a similar level as I consider fundamentalist Christians.

Now I will make my list, and briefly mention how Christianity and Environmentalism do or do not fit the list. The Black Belt Bayesian has, fortunately for me, created most of this list after accusation of the Singularity being similar to a "Rapture of the Nerds", which, upon examination, is absurd. So, let's discuss Christianity and pull out criteria that we might use when classifying Environmentalism as a religion. I'll start off with BBB's list.


  1. Rationalism: That is, how rational are followers of Christianity? Is it a Christian tenant to improve the state of your mind, and study ways to make you a better thinker? Are you behooved to seek evidence and reason, and reject faith? When conversing with others, are you going to resort to rhetorical tactics and in general bad reasoning? I submit the answers to these questions for Christianity are obvious (not very, no, no, yes). Applied to Environmentalism, eh, I'm hesitant. How rational is Al Gore? How rational are the hippies? On average, I think they're about as rational as Christians (giving up a faith doesn't magically make you rational, by the way), so the real question to answer is whether or not the system encourages rationality or not. Again, Christianity and other things we already classify as religions like to tell you that you can't use your brain, that some things are just incomprehensible, that curiosity is bad. (It was Eve's Curiosity, that marvelous woman, that led to what Christians believe is, get this, Original Sin! A bad thing!) Environmentalism can easily be a dogmatic view of the world, but I don't think it encourages irrationality, as it does use some science even if the science is mixed with less-than-honest reporting and peer review. But consider Greenpeace, who are motivated to strange action through their beliefs, leading to their own deaths in some instances. Is their dogmatic state of mind responsible, encouraged by Environmentalism? Yes, I think it is. So until I see an actual increase of quality in the science being done in the name of the environment, I'm going to have to mark this down as a point in favor of Environmentalism as a religion.

  2. Naturalism: This should be obvious. While some hippies might use spiritualistic arguments to back their actions, the whole environmental movement is based on real-world evidence that humans can cause irreparable damage to organisms on this earth, and it's humans who have got to stop it. There is no spiritual entity involved other than perhaps a sort of one (Nature) used as argument for why you should care. Anyway, I don't think Environmentalism fits with other religions here.

  3. Uncertainty: Environmentalists have actually changed their minds: first it was global cooling, then global warming, now mostly "climate change". Whether that's actual mind-changing or just better PR remains to be argued, I guess, but I think if clear, unquestionable evidence arose that the earth isn't going to have severe climate change in the near future, or if it does, that the change clearly cannot be attributed to anything humanity has done, many environmentalists would back off on their stance with climate change. Many aren't fatalistic, they aren't certain the world's screwed, which is why they want to try and fix it, even if perhaps in the grand scheme they don't reach their goals. Christians on the other hand rely on faith and have a firm belief in the coming of the savior to save us from sin, so forget about trying to avoid the evils prophesied in Revelation. I don't think Environmentalists act on faith to the extent a religion would.

  4. Humans: This is related to naturalism, so again, a characteristic of religion is mystical higher powers influencing our lives, human incompetence, and human inaction to solve our problems. Environmentalism is about getting humans to act and solve our problems, it is not trying to rely on some Mother Earth who will one day rise and destroy humanity for its sins unless we all recycle. Sorry, Environmentalism doesn't fit religion for where humans are concerned.

  5. In-group Perks: If you're an environmentalist, can you expected to have certain benefits due to your membership or successes? With Mother Earth reward you for recycling? Now, Al Gore might be of the opinion that environmentalism benefits the rich and is good politically, but what about average environmentalists, are they in it for themselves and other environmentalists only? While they may be largely motivated selfishly, wanting their own clean habitat, I think they still care about other lifeforms and other humans, even if they're willing to sacrifice other humans' wishes for another oil rig in Zion National Park for the benefit of all the species living there and all the humans who have yet to experience its beauty. Also, the laws they propose do not discriminate between people with an Environmentalist Club badge and average folks. So no to this for Environmentalism.

  6. Rituals, Worship, Holy Writings, Songs: I'm unaware of any "You must read and respect this to be an Environmentalist" books, and if any do indeed exist, I also doubt that they're taken as gospel and if someone properly challenged such a book people would listen. Environmentalists have their protests, though I don't think you can make a direct comparison between protest and ritual. Now, it seems like environmentalists in some way worship Nature as this perfect thing which we can only make worse, not better, and that counts against them. On the whole scale, though, I think these three criteria combined probably favor a part-religion value.

  7. Revenge/Punishment: What happens if you're not an Environmentalist? Do you go to Hell? Will Mother Earth swallow you up for not respecting Her? I don't know of any people claiming this, while Christianity on the other hand does revolve around punishment and revenge and things-will-happen-to-you-if-you-don't-do-as-we-say thinking. At worst environmentalists can say "If you don't help, the world will be a worse place for you and your children." So they of course use fear to motivate, but at the level of religion, and in such an absolute way? Nah.

  8. Personification: Here we have some comparison, and I don't know the proportions, but I do think environmentalists on average personify Mother Nature to the extent Christians personify God, and this counts against them.

  9. Tithing: If you're an Environmentalist, are you expected to give up a significant portion of your income and/or time for your cause? I don't think so, not to the level religion has with tithing, church, etc. Plus the donations environmental groups do take are probably more efficiently spent than what religions do with their money. Environmentalists don't need to build extravagant cathedrals or temples or churches every several blocks.

  10. Sense of Community: I don't think this applies to either Environmentalism or Christianity. If a sense of community implies a religion, I don't see how one cannot argue that therefore humanity is religious by default unless you're a hermit, since we are social beings.

  11. Legal Influence: Christians propose laws, Environmentalists propose laws, but I don't think this is a mark of religion. If it was, anyone who had a special interest they wanted to pass as a law would be considered religious, even atheists who want laws decoupling religion from law!



I could go on, but I think I've touched upon the core aspects of religion, and I think I can conclude that I don't consider Environmentalism to lie in the same category as other concepts I call religions. Sure, there's some overlap, as should be expected, but there's not enough to make a solid connection. If I replaced Environmentalism with Islam or Hinduism, it's clear Islam and Hinduism match these criteria picked from Christianity much more narrowly than Environmentalism does.

While some people may, after looking at all this, still think "But is Environmentalism a religion?", I still would tell them "No." It's one of those things like "Is Pluto a Planet?", in which case you go over aspects of what constitutes a planet, and then decide if Pluto matches those aspects closely. If it doesn't, it has no business being called a planet when such a name invokes inferences about its size or shape or orbit or what have you that aren't there. If we start to call Environmentalism a religion, people will associate it with these other aspects of religion like ritual, worship, prayer, etc. even though those are not to be found. So please, no, Environmentalism is not a religion.


Posted on 2010-06-07 by Jach

Tags: language, nature, religion

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