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For about six years now, I’ve been talking with all kinds of people about their frustration with the church’s sluggishness on climate action. I’ve talked with young people, clergy, activists, science colleagues, and regular layfolk who are bewildered and angry: Why aren’t Christians more concerned about the climate crisis—about environmental injustice, species extinction, food insecurity, damages from extreme weather and fire, threats to national security and so on and so on. Why don’t Christians seem to care?
Of course, those are big, general, impressionistic observations. What is “the church” we’re talking about here, and what do we mean by “addressing the climate crisis”? Depending on which corners of the church you hang around in, you might notice anything from heavy-duty activism to climate denial. So I’ve been wishing for a long time for hard data. What are the numbers on what actual church people are actually doing and thinking about climate?
Well, hooray for the Pew Research Center. They conducted a study in April of 2022 and released the results on November 17. The whole report is worth reading through carefully, but I will sum up a few things here. The findings, unfortunately, confirm the impressionistic frustrations I’ve been hearing—and feeling myself. Bottom line: In the US, religion overall actually seems to get in the way of taking climate change seriously or engaging in anything more than small, personal actions.
A few representative stats:
* Only “8% of all Americans are both highly religious and very concerned about climate change.” This one has haunted me since I read it. When you think about how many Americans are religious (about 75% have high or medium religious commitment, according to the study’s definitions †), that 8% number feels terribly small. Imagine if all religiously affiliated Americans understood the climate crisis as an urgent moral problem. Imagine!
* Let’s take a deeper dive into that 8% statistic. “Among U.S. adults who display a high level of religious commitment, 42% say climate change is an extremely or very serious problem; this group makes up 8% of all U.S. adults.” Interestingly, on the question of whether global climate change is an extremely/very serious problem, Evangelicals bring the average down among religious adherents, while “Historically Black” churches bring it up. In other words, Black Christians are significantly more concerned about climate than White Evangelicals. Interesting.
Now for the details on that claim that religion gets in the way of taking climate seriously.
* “Religiously unaffiliated adults – those who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or ‘nothing in particular’ – are much more likely to say climate change is an extremely or very serious problem (70%) than are religiously affiliated Americans as a whole (52%).”
* Of all religious groups, evangelical Protestants were the least likely to believe that global warming is caused by human activities (32%). In fact, the higher your religious commitment, the less likely you are to believe in anthropogenic climate change (39% for high vs. 70% for “low religious commitment”).
So the question, of course, is why? Why are the most religious people less likely to care about climate? You can guess the answer: politics. The survey analyzes from several angles the connection between people’s climate views and their party affiliation. No surprise: people’s political affiliation is a much better predictor of their views on climate than their religious commitment. My friends in Christian activism spaces will also tell you that misinformation campaigns, by fossil fuel interests in particular, are real, immense, and persistent. This misinformation is aided and abetted by political entities.
That raises the question of what people are learning at church about climate change. The answer: hardly anything.
* Among religious service attenders overall, 70% seldom or never hear a sermon addressing climate change and 78% seldom or never talk about climate change with members of their congregation.
It’s not as if we don’t have earth-related religious ideas. Genesis 1 and 2 are alive and well in people’s imaginations. The Pew folks had the good sense to ask people about two concepts: dominionism and stewardship. The study defined dominionism as the idea that “God gave humans the right to use the Earth, including the plants and animals, for humanity’s benefit.” Admittedly, that’s a fairly mild version of dominionism. Stewardship, meanwhile, was defined as “God gave humans a duty to protect and care for the earth, including the plants and animals.” Both concepts are strongly present for religious people, though dominionism wins out in those who are less concerned about climate.
* “Upward of half (54%) of all Americans (including two-thirds of religiously affiliated adults) say [that] dominionism mostly or entirely reflects their opinions.” Interestingly, 48% of American adults surveyed agree that both dominionism AND stewardship mostly or entirely reflect their views. We want to hold both Genesis 1 and 2 in tension? Well, that’s good.
What are we doing about it, though? Religious people, it seems, are happy to make theological claims about how God wants them to care for the earth. However, when it comes to doing something, we are only willing to engage in a few exercises of personal virtue. We’re not out there changing the systems.
* Christians as a whole are much more likely to participate in at least four personal activities related to the environment, like using fewer plastics or carpooling (43%), than even one civic activity, like contacting an elected official or donating to an eco-focused organization (21%).
The study explores in some depth the reasons why religious people downplay climate change or don’t bother to do anything about it. Partly it’s the old “God will fix it” principle. But another strong reason is that people are worried that anything we do to address the climate crisis will require more government regulation, curtail personal liberty, and affect jobs and the economy. (Note: renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuels and getting more so.)
I wonder if in many churches, no one wants to talk about climate because that means we will have to talk about economics. And we do not dare touch that topic. No way will we blaspheme against the gods of growth and power and wealth. No way. Not gonna go there.
All of this adds up, in my view, to a serious failure of discipleship in American Christian contexts (I will not speak about other faiths). We American Christians are happy to talk about stewardship, but it remains a toothless concept, allowing us to remain mostly concerned for personal freedom and economic prosperity (for ourselves). We are less likely than non-religious folk to take climate change seriously or engage in civic actions. We are shaped more by economic and political influences than by religious claims.
What to make of all this? I don’t know. There’s much good work out there now on the reasons people engage in climate avoidance, both active (denialism) and passive (apathy). Katherine Hayhoe’s recent book, Saving Us, has good material summarizing this work. The science is “unequivocal” and the evidence mounting daily in people’s experience around the globe. Yet we avoid dealing with the climate crisis because we fear suffering and loss, or because we perceive the climate crisis as a distant and slow-moving problem, or because we feel small and powerless against gigantic global forces like the fossil fuel industry, or because we are worried we might have to make changes in the affluent lifestyles we feel we deserve. Religious people have all those feelings, too.
But we also have the resources of the faith! We should know all about facing our fears with faith and partnering with God’s redemptive work toward a sweeping vision of flourishing for all people and all the earth. We should know about healing and repair and community. We should be eager and willing to do what Kyle Meyaard-Schaap calls “loving our neighbor in public.” So what’s really getting in our way here?
†Pew defines “highly religious” as “those who say they pray each day, regularly attend religious services and consider religion very important in their lives.”
This post is an extended version of a feature in the Dec. 3 Refugia Newsletter. You can subscribe here.
Image credit: episcopalchurch.org