Does Good Faith in God Mean Bad Faith in Climate Change?
It should come as little surprise that the majority of Americans—93%—believe in anthropogenic climate change. In contrast, only 56% say they believe in God “as described by the Bible.” Most consider it a simple fact of life that the planet is transforming because of our actions. Yet, 7% of Americans deny the existence of climate change. This proportion is not insignificant, especially as it is the equivalent of nearly 24 million people. With new natural disasters striking every month, it’s difficult to continue pretending climate change is a myth. In 2021 alone, the Pacific Northwest suffered from record-breaking heatwaves, deadly floods ravaged the German countryside, and Texas froze over. Collectively, these events led to nearly 1,000 avoidable deaths. It’s obvious: climate change is here and it is here to stay.
However, in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, a surprisingly substantial subset of the population revealed an abject lack of trust in science and the government. This may, in part, stem from the prevalence of false information that easily drowns out science’s logical message. When voices denying climate change are the loudest in the room, action is delayed or refused. We cannot afford to wait any longer. While climate denial is not the same as climate indifference, distinguishing between the two is key. One can be aware of climate change’s existence and impacts, yet not do anything about it. Compared to overtly denying climate change, this is less dangerous, if solely because such persons are usually quiet about it.
So then, who really are climate change deniers? The majority have little to no expertise in climate science, even if they have extensive scientific knowledge in other fields. In addition, many have financial ties to industries that benefit from ignoring climate change, such as fossil fuels, plastic production, or banking. Older generations are wholly less receptive to techniques addressing climate change. Typically, this is because they tend to be more fiscally conservative. Tackling the climate crisis will come with a large and immediate price tag that they may not be prepared to pay. Plus, Baby Boomers and beyond will not directly experience the worst long-term impacts of the climate crisis. This simple reality detaches them from the gravity of the situation. As a result, their more immediate financial concerns take priority over the future of the planet.
One’s economic beliefs aren’t the only predictors of climate change denial or inaction, however. There is growing evidence suggesting that religion plays a surprisingly significant role—even more so than age. Only 4% of Baby Boomers are atheistic or agnostic, compared to approximately 21% of Generation Z. When we look past age differences, there is a clear correlation between religious viewpoints and climate change denial: although “62% of religiously unaffiliated U.S. adults agree that the Earth is warming primarily due to human action, only 35% of U.S. Protestants do – including just 24% of white evangelical Protestants." Believing in miracles and/or life after death is also highly correlated to underestimating the risks of climate change. Of course, this raises the question: Does religion itself predispose people against climate science?
In the United States, this seems to be true. North America is the world's only high-income region where one's religious beliefs commonly trump their scientific beliefs. In short, many see their religion as having epistemic authority over science. As the American cultural identity heavily emphasizes group belonging, the origin of this belief is clear (if still flawed). For many, their religious affiliation is one of their main sources of identity, friendship, and community. It is an important way to fit in. But that can also lead to groupthink, with group members unquestioningly adopting the majority view. Or, even if they disagree, they may be deterred from doing so openly out of fear of the social risk of speaking up. Humans have a tendency to amplify similarities in the group they are a part of while simultaneously magnifying the differences between groups. As a result, this variety of the classic “us vs them” mentality can overshadow one’s ability to think for themselves. People who might otherwise accept the facts of climate change are predisposed to reject it if the majority of their group does so.
Conflict between political parties makes clear the harmful reality of groupthink. Membership in the Republican party is associated with decreased likelihood of believing in climate change; only 56% of Republicans believe in anthropogenic climate change. However, this may be more than just an effect of groupthink. Despite a constitutional separation of church and state, the split is (in reality) closer to a crack than a chasm. This prevalence of religion in politics can have harmful effects on a variety of issues—not just climate change. Often it results in further polarization of an already broken system and a lack of constructive discourse.
Plus, faith is frequently at odds with science. For instance, the origin of the human race is still a frequent source of dispute. Are we a product of evolution or were we created in our present forms by a higher power? Moreover, traditional and fundamentalist religious views are often highly committed to the idea of human dominion and domination over nature. It is second nature for persons subscribing to those beliefs to see the earth as something to be used solely for our human benefit. If it is God’s will, it cannot be exploitation. This feeds into the evangelical notion that humans simply cannot be causing climate change. Global warming is all part of His plan and claiming that it is caused by humans is challenging His control. Such persons believe the fate of the planet is in God’s hands. We are simply humans who are ultimately subservient to a higher power. Said higher power created any natural disasters for a reason; He will save us and carry us to heaven if we have faith in Him.
In that respect, it is simple—if not necessarily easy—to understand why so many people of faith do not acknowledge the existence of anthropogenic climate change. However, it’s not as straightforward an equation as “religion = climate denial.” Despite the correlation, it is difficult to determine the direction of causation. Does classical religious tradition cause certain communities of faith to take politically conservative stances on climate change? Or, does one’s belonging to a right-leaning community draw them to fundamentalist and anthropocentric religious traditions? Political and religious philosopher Adrian Bardon believes this to be the modern-day equivalent of the classic “ chicken or egg?” quandary.
Still, we do not have time for endless debate—we need to act now. The future of our planet depends on it. For those of us without absolute faith that a higher power will save us from our own destruction, our future depends on our action too.