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They will answer, “Lord, when did we see you fleeing your home because of flooding or drought or wildfire, or suffering from heat exhaustion, or dying from fossil fuel pollution?”
He will reply, “Listen, you had the science. You had the news. You even had the theological principles. But you decided to turn away and chalk up your denial to your piety. So whatever you did not do for the least of the earth, you did not do to me.”
Yikes. That’s a provocative opening, I know. I’m feeling salty because I’m still trying to process the recent PRRI report on religion and climate attitudes in America, released October 4, with data gathered in June 2023. Unfortunately, this study confirms what a 2022 Pew Research Center study found: In the U.S., religion tends to get in the way of climate realism and action. (I wrote about that Pew study for the RJ back in February.)
As with the Pew study, PRRI found that religious leadership structures duly release well-meaning statements, and religious people talk a good game about “creation care” and “stewardship,” but many of the faithful are far more influenced in their climate views by their news sources and their politics than by theological motivations or faith communities.
Ultimately, I think this is a story about failed faith formation. See what you think.
What you see here is that the less religious an American is, the more realistic that person is likely to be about the actual climate facts. The more religious: the less realistic. Here’s the summary of this finding:
As importance of religion wanes, belief that climate change is caused by humans increases. Among Americans who say that religion is the most important thing in their lives, 39% say that climate change is caused by humans, compared with 56% of those who say religion is one among many important things, 65% who say religion is not as important, and 78% who say religion is not important. [emphasis added]
Let’s reiterate, once again, as Tim Van Deelen recently reminded us, that the science is “unequivocal” that climate change is happening, it’s getting more severe, and it is caused by fossil fuel emissions and human land use practices. The evidence of this mounts daily in people’s experience around the globe. And yet. Religious Americans remain more likely than non-religious Americans to be “deniers” or “naturalers”—a term I just made up for those who think that climate change is caused by natural patterns.
The breakdown of this data will not surprise you. White Americans are much more likely to be deniers/naturalers than any other group. The less educated you are, the more likely you are to be a denier/naturaler. The older you are, the more likely you are to be a denier/naturaler. And of course, there is an absolutely clear correlation between views on climate and news sourcing and political affiliation. The more conservative your news source, the more likely you are to believe that climate change isn’t real or is just a bunch of natural patterns.
In other words, the effectiveness of the conservative messaging juggernaut is just grim. Dr. Paul Djupe, a researcher from Denison University and an affiliate researcher for PRRI, remarked in a webinar on the study results that churches can’t possibly compete with the power of messaging from conservative media and the Republican party. We’ll come back to that observation in a minute.
The survey, interestingly, does try to get at religious ideas relevant to the environment. The survey asked about “dominion” and “stewardship,” for example. Here are the results:
I wish they had not asked about “dominion over American society,” which is not at all the same as “dominion over the earth.” (The Pew study actually did a better job on these principles.) Still, evidently, both Genesis 1 and 2 are alive and well with Christians, with stewardship coming out on top as a clear fan favorite.
OK, so how do we square the call to stewardship with all that reluctance to deal with climate change? I’m guessing it’s all about definitions. If you define stewardship as “wise use”—that is, you think stewardship means “we get to use what we want as long as it’s efficient and profitable”—then you get a nice, weak version of stewardship that affirms affluence and asks virtually nothing of you.
To explore another set of religious ideas, the study asked participants about their views on whether recent natural disasters indicate that we are in the “end times.” Turns out the number of people who believe this has actually gone down since 2014. Similarly, the number of people who believe “God will not allow humans to destroy the earth” has gone down since 2014. Why? Isn’t that odd considering that summer 2023 seemed to turn summer into “danger season”? Dr. Djupe thinks this finding might have something to do with the Covid pandemic, but I think it’s more likely that the slight diminishment in panic has more to do with increased awareness of clean energy solutions. “We’ll be fine!” people might be thinking. “Technology!”
More on panic. When asked if they thought climate change was a “crisis,” younger participants were much more likely to say yes. Even among Gen Z, those who call it a crisis only make up 34%, compared to 27% for all Americans. However, if you add people who believe “it’s a major problem” together with those who call it a “crisis,” then you get 63% for all Americans and 70% for Gen Z. What about political party and news source on this one? Here you go:
And chew on this:
Among religiously unaffiliated Americans, the belief that climate change is best described as a crisis increased by ten percentage points, from 33% in 2014 to 43% in 2023. By contrast, among white evangelical Protestants, agreement with this belief went down from 13% to 8% during same period.
So is there any way to get more conservatively religious people to do something, whatever notions they entertain about causes or end times? Well, perhaps. Roughly half of us, across all groups, feel we have a “deep spiritual connection with nature and the earth most days.” And everyone seems to want to “protect the environment” in order to help humans: “around eight in ten or more members of all religious groups say preventing human harm and suffering is an important reason to protect the environment.”
All right then, let’s get to work! Oh wait. The more religious you are, the less you want to take action:
Scores on the climate action scale increase with declining religiosity: those who say religion is the most important thing in their life (0.45) score lower than those who say religion is one among many important things (0.54), those who say religion is not as important (.58), and those who say religion is not important (.67).
What can we make of all this? As I mentioned, I do think we’re seeing evidence here of faith formation failure. Dr. Djupe is right: it’s enormously difficult to compete with the relentlessness, skill, and pervasiveness of right-wing messaging in the U.S., which has deep-seated stakes in denying climate change and delaying action. These stakes are both ideological and strategic, thanks to the fossil fuel industry’s very deep pockets, inescapable influence, and enormous power.
Even when “local trusted sources” in religious groups, like clergy or denominational leadership, feel compelled by faithfulness to contradict right-wing messaging, they struggle to get a hearing for any message amid the choppy cross-currents of American politics and economics, let alone for ideas or teachings that the faithful are not happy to hear.
I certainly don’t know the answer. I do know that many, many Christians and other religious folk around the world are indeed compelled by their faith to join the work of mitigating and adapting to climate change. They do this work with realism, determination, and hope. They have caught a vision: a “greener,” more joyful, more just, more beautiful way of living on the earth. They have come to believe that this vision resonates with God’s redeeming work in all creation. I can tell you from experience that there is great joy in being among them. Perhaps where fear, guilt, and duty fail, vision and joy can compel us all.
I highly recommend taking a look at the full PRRI study and the other resources provided. Here’s a link to the webinar on the findings. Here’s a link to a pdf of just the slides from the webinar: super helpful and quick to click through. For a very quick overview of the study, you can also read this article in Inside Climate News by Kristoffer Tigue.