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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
We should care more about creation and like you I don’t know why we don’t. In Christ and Creation: Our Biblical Calling to Environmental Stewardship (2009), Craig Sorley, says the following (and more):
• We care for creation because Christ created all things… (Col 1, John 1)
• We care for creation because God cares for creation… (Ps 65, Job 12)
• We care…because God is the owner, we are stewards… (Ps 50, Gen 2)
• We care for creation to bring mercy and justice to the poor… (Isa 58)
• We care for creation because it is God’s will that we do so… (Gen 1)
Well, if CRT (Critical Race Theory) is an abomination, because it makes white children feel guilty about racism, so is woke environmentalism, as it might make our poor white kids feel guilty about our consumer lifestyles.
Ha! Yes, good point. Interestingly, though, young people (even affluent White ones) are fearful about the future. Climate despair is real. The worst thing grownups can do is dismiss their fears.
Stimulating post! Led me also to consider that 2 different eschatological perspectives might hold influence as well as politics…
“According to (Mary) Hulst, one reason Christians resist creation care is a misled eschatology, rooted in the notion that the earth will be remade, instead of renewed. “If you believe that the world is going to be destroyed when Jesus returns, then you’re like ‘well, what does it matter that the weather is getting worse?’”” Hulst said.” (Calvin Chimes Nov. 2021)
“Biblical literalism typically encompasses conservative eschatology and dispensational theology, confirming the idea that humans have dominion over nature, and ideas about God’s sovereignty and continuous intervention in the world, all of which, arguably, could justify assigning a lower priority to environmental issues…”(Faithful Stewards of God’s Creation? Swedish Evangelical Denominations and Climate Change – Bjornberg and Karlsson March 2022)
The statement by Mary Hulst “… Christians resist creation care is a misled eschatology, rooted in the notion that the earth will be remade, instead of renewed.” intrigues me. Have we dragged our feet too long? Is it possible to slow down climate change —speed up renewal—enough that as “the end” nears, for instance, the poor won’t suffer the results more than the wealthy who may be able to afford relative comfort?
I experienced a different but similar dilemma dealing with my husbands Alzheimer’s disease. There was a pill that would slow it down but did we want to prolong the agony?
I’m usually an optimist; I plant trees knowing there may be an end sooner than later. But the future of the world God gave me to steward tilts me the other way. Is there still hope we can turn this around before the agony?
Regardless, Wes and I will continue to recycle, compost, drive our now one car, and plant a tree.
Yes, thank you. And the study delves into the question of eschatology in useful ways.
Thank you for the post, the stats, and the analysis.
I do see evidence that “we are worried we might have to make changes in the affluent lifestyles we feel we deserve.” We’re worried we might fall off our upward trajectory. Related is the fact we’ve made ourselves too busy with work and recreation; in business and personal life we tell ourselves that “we don’t have time for that.”
Also, when we do feel concern for harms others (and ourselves) will suffer due to climate change, we have paralysis in not know what exactly to do differently (fossil fuel propaganda contributes). We tend to dabble with small stuff that isn’t very consequential. Having a plan and clear sense of priorities can help take meaningful action. Saul Griffith’s book “Electrify: An Optimists Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future” makes it simple; we have a half dozen big purchases to plan over the coming decade or so. (EVs, heat pumps, rooftop solar, etc). This plan hits about 75% of the problem (if we also decarbonize all supply). I think his plan can give focus to goals like “net zero by 2050.” Maybe all NEW infrastructure is net zero by 2030, all EXISTING residential infrastructure is net zero by 2040, and all commercial/industrial by 2050. Saul makes the optimistic case that this plan can make our lives better: healthier (less pollution) and wealthier (because solar and wind plus batteries are/will shortly be cheaper than fossil fuels).
This is a plan I can support as long as it intentionally implemented with a concern for justice, so that the poor are not left behind in expensive, dirty infrastructure. It is a plan that can help our neighbor flourish and help restore creation. (And kudos to those working on other key facets of the problem, sustainable agriculture and ecosystem restoration for example.)
Thank you for this thought provoking post.
I believe that Evangelicals deny, or resist efforts to reverse, climate change because of a tendency to treat science with suspicion. “God is in control” but failure to recognize that God’s control “just maybe” involves human activity. Dominionism fails to recognize that “care less” dominion is sin. The “common good” is frequently considered by Evangelicals as a leftist, liberal, or socialist concept.
Yes, and God is currently working through people, as always. And right now the people through whom God is working are very often not Christians. (Not to diminish the real and significant contribution of many Christians.) God also works through the earth itself and its inbuilt powers of resilience and restoration. The solutions are real and available–and as of a couple years ago, actually make sound economic sense. All we need is will and imagination. There will be suffering, but everything we do can reduce that suffering.
Perhaps this could also be understood as a question of hope. For non-affiliated, those without a transcendent horizon, then the question of climate becomes something like expressing a hope for our common future. This is rather understandable. For conservative Protestants (and others) this concern for the future is shifted: actions are always proximate, mixed. Will we solve the crisis? Will mass actions work? Etc. For some it is also a question of priorities, something missing in the cited data; one may after all, believe climate to be important built instead look at other more direct issues, e.g. that of housing in our community.
There is also a suspicion of Big Plans®—and that also is not completely unwarranted. What we often miss in the climate or environmental conversation is the organic approach, what we could be doing now, here, how we could do this together as communities rather than as a frightened set of individual consumers.
Amidst this, perhaps we should also remember Martin Luther and his perhaps apocryphal comment, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”
I suspect it’s also a result of a too-often stunted sense of the gospel. A pastor once commented to me, “Why feed the hungry if they’re just going to hell anyway?” That kind of a small gospel exists in abundance. So, “Why save the earth or care about climate if people are going to hell anyway?” There’s less urgency to save the earth and more urgency to “save” people. I believe this gospel starts with Genesis 3 not Genesis 1/2. And falls short of the gospel of Christ, who holds ALL things together.
Powerful article. Painful, but powerful. Thank you.
All the comments are so gritty, too.
It stuns me to know that someone claiming to know Jesus would say, “Why feed the hungry if they’re just going to hell anyway.”
Today I read your well-intended blog, as well as today’s NY Times front-page opinion piece-“Emission Cuts Will Fail to Stop Climate Change. What to Do Then?” This article is based on an the views of a prominent scientist, predicting that if human production of CO2 were to drop to zero today, global warming would persist for another 100 years. Of course, as with Alzheimer’s and other incurable diseases, we have an obligation do the best we can with what we have. But with appropriate skepticism and intense study, additional or better cures may be found. Science is replete with examples of consensus becoming orthodoxy, and skeptics thereby becoming heretics.
Before labeling anyone as uncaring, unfaithful, or heretical let’s with humility admit that there is much we don’t know, and that we welcome alternative viewpoints!
Humility cuts both ways. I’ve been a practicing scientist (as an ecologist) for nearly thirty years. I can’t think of another example where scientists around the world have worked so hard to establish a scientific consensus or evaluate alternative theories with rigor. Indeed, the nature of the consensus itself is being studied. Are there scientists who are, for example, skeptical of the germ theory of disease or that the earth circles the sun? There are. At this point, skepticism on the basis facts of anthropogenic climate change is largely the same.
Scientists understand the stakes, nearly every scientific subdiscipline is earnestly examining this. They know how difficult decarbonizing the economy will be. They also know that the damage is baked into the system at this point (as you rightly point out). Its been studied and analyzed from every direction again and again. Humanity is playing to limit the damage at this point. It’s time for skeptics to have a little humility instead of hoping that the world’s top scientists are spectacularly wrong on this question while we continue to accumulate damage.
I appreciate the work that you and your fellow scientists have diligently been doing. I also agree with the diagnosis you have arrived at. But as a physician of 40 years, I would suggest that diagnosis gets you only halfway. As you would doubtless agree, our present remedies may be futile at best, and potentially harmful to the patient at worst. I noted earlier that we need to do the best we can with what we have, but I am one of those hoping that someone will produce additional creative solutions.
But back to the original question: Why do religious people seem to resist environmental stewardship? I would suggest that environmentalism is seen as a competing religion. Too often, the implied message is that the salvation of the world lies in true belief (in the environmental movement.) Many other analogies can be drawn. For agnostics, this is an appealing message. For Christians, it is a suspect message. Being critical of this wariness doesn’t help.
On the other hand, your blog posts are an effective way of pointing to the interconnections between God’s world and our role. I look forward to more of the same.
The answer likely lies in the fact that Environmentalism is a type of substitute religion for the “nones”.
The Reformed Churches traditionally were very careful in “guarding the pulpit”. The pulpit ministry was specifically for expounding on and explaining passages of the Bible. Therefore, discussing ways to take climate action would be for church committees or Para church groups to inform congregants through newsletter updates or perhaps a short ministry update at the beginning of a service. Same for issues like human trafficking, abortion, ect. Having been involved with a mainline church for a number of years, fighting for justice is what many think is the heart of Christianity, instead of the gospel message of Christ redeeming us.