The Apocalyptic Battle Between Science, Religion, Republicans, the Environment, and Those Dreaded Neo-Hippies

A tiny segment of the global population has been waging an effective war against environmental awareness for years, warping hundreds of millions of otherwise sane individuals into believing that pollution is little more than a liberal, left-wing bogeyman.

This most recently came to light with the publication of Christine Todd Whitman’s new book, “It’s My Party, Too: The Battle for the Heart of the GOP and the Future of America” (Penguin Press, 2005), in which the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency (and a former favorite politico among scores of conservatives) describes how the Republican-led U.S. government has systematically gone about crippling the EPA’s usefulness. Whitman was not loved by Democrats or environmentalists, but she makes a strong case for herself as being the lesser of many evils. In fact, under the pressures of an anti-environment administration and powerful corporate lobbyists, she stood her ground until forced to resign.

On Sept. 15, 2003, best-selling fiction author Michael Crichton, with his prestigious Ivy League anthropology and medical degrees in tow, did his part to confuse the issue. In his speech before the Commonwealth Club, he stated that pro-environment thinkers are steeped in mythical beliefs, that “second hand smoke is not a health hazard to anyone and never was” and “evidence for global warming is far weaker than its proponents would ever admit.” He goes on to equate environmentalists to a fundamentalist religious cult (which, not coincidentally, is also the theme of his anti-global-warming-theory novel, “State of Fear”)

The comparison of environmentalism to other religious systems is valid—particularly the idea that modern environmentalism contains aspects of age-old mythic structures, even variants of Judeo-Christian concepts such as of Eden and Judgment Day. I wouldn’t consider pulp-writer Michael Crichton the most literate authority on these matters, but he notes an abundance of interesting parallels between religious and environmental beliefs.

And Crichton’s base argument is also sound—he wants to take the politics and myths out of science and environmental conservation, in an effort to have people from all aspects of the political system participate in scientific studies and practical conservation efforts. Regrettably, right-wing industrialists have latched onto Crichton’s philosophical thoughts and science-fiction paranoia to bolster their case against environmental conservation in general.

Christian writer Regis Nicoll vehemently attacks environmentalists in “The New World Religion: Environmentalism and the Western World” using Crichton’s words as proof positive. He takes the concept a step further by implying it’s thoroughly un-Christian to care about the environment too much. After all, if the world is a polluted wasteland, it’s a just punishment for mankind’s Original Sin: “According to the biblical worldview, things like our planet’s wellness are the way they are not because man has broken shalom with creation, but because he has broken shalom with his Creator.”

Nicoll’s argument—like Crichton’s broad summarizations and unfounded conclusions—stoops to setting up straw men to easily knock down. For instance, claiming that most environmentalists believe the Earth was once a utopian paradise that man has destroyed gives the author an easy target. He sets the straw afire by pointing out the untruth of pre-industrial utopia: a high infant mortality rate, prehistoric massacres, plagues, etc.

But few environmentalists believe in “Edenic utopia”—it’s the Judeo-Christians that tell tales of Eden. The environmentalist commoner is instead fighting to keep the environment stabilized; perhaps revert it to optimum conditions. Sending the masses out to live in the woods on idyllic grower co-ops is not the standard pro-environment message. No one’s saying that eating organic food is going to keep society at peace. In reality, Crichton and Nicoll are both attacking some 1960s-based Earth Goddess fringe element that they see as an enemy. But they couch their arguments to include the entire mass media (paranoia?) and any non-Christian that likes organic veggies and dislikes second-hand smoke.

Has environmentalism truly become a new religion? Maybe for a very small sect of people, but not many. A more valid argument would be this: Science has replaced religion. Science is the new religion. That’s why there’s been such long-standing animosity toward science by the major world religious structures. Environmental “beliefs” (some might even say “facts,” but lets go with Science as religion analogy here for moment) are a meager piece of the science puzzle. Any fundamentalist attack against environmentalism is likely a covert attack on science itself. This is understandable, of course, since religion and science both attempt to explain the same thing (the meaning and cause of life, the universe, and everything), and their conclusions are in constant conflict.

Did Christianity replace Greco-Roman beliefs in gods and monsters because Jesus was “true” and Zeus was “false”? No. The story of Jesus was more believable, his conclusions and teachings were more sensible and relevant, and the New Testament applied to a broader range of individuals than the Old Testament or Hellenic belief systems. There’s a limited amount of fact propping up all religions, so what it all boils down to is how well the story is told, how many people the story applies to, how much of the universe the story explains, how hard it is to prove the story absolutely false, and how warm and fuzzy it makes people feel (or scared shitless, so long as a warm-and-fuzzy alternative path to redemption is available).

Modern science—with its empirical evidence, evolving arguments, and careful studies—has all mythic/supernatural religions beat, hands down, in most of those categories. It tells a damn good story, it changes like a chameleon every time an aspect of it is proved false, it attempts to explain everything that’s asked of it, it grows and develops with time instead of depending on winged creatures and men walking on water in far off times and lands, and it tells a more believable and immediately useful tale than anything found in the tomes of old. And every religious person and institution knows in its secret heart that if science (or a competing religion) makes more sense and is more provable than itself, then eventually the moral support system being propped up by the religion will fail and people will be momentarily devastated and the institution will loose its power and go broke.

So every religion has to fight for its survival, even if it means mocking all of its competitors senseless, and chief among modern religious competitors is—don’t doubt it for a second—science. Regrettably, science fails in the key category of offering individuals a warm-and-fuzzy alternative path to redemption, which is why religion keeps crying checkmate and trumping the fearsome intelligentsia. Religion provides humanity with a purpose, salvation, and a moral structure; science is more existential, and simply reports the facts and makes careful conjectures, without offering immediate hope for heaven and the afterlife. (God is your daddy; science is your well-read uncle. The problem is, dad hasn't actually visited in at least 2,000 years, and your uncle is paying all the bills.)

The environment might not be as hot a topic as, say, evolution, and most Christians have managed to rationalize large chunks of modern science—especially in the realm of medicine (other than Christian Scientists)—but at a time when the right-wing political ideologues have scooped up the Christian vote thanks to moral issues, it’s to be expected that right-wing crusades will likewise gain precedence in Christian thinking. So suddenly we’re reminded that God made the Earth, and therefore the left-wingers in America must be crazy for wanting to do God’s job of protecting the Earth. This has nothing to do with multinational corporations trying to save millions by not having to properly manage waste, no. It’s a religious issue!

By the end of his article, Nicoll does come around by saying, “Unarguably we must be world stewards whose actions are responsible and sympathetic to the environment.” But he does so grudgingly. It’s not because of science, he’s saying, that we should protect the environment, but instead “because the cosmos and everything in it is a product of divine intention” (i.e., God probably doesn’t like toxic waste, either, but let’s not get worked up about it, because he hates gays more).

Crichton, being a better storyteller, begins his speech by saying “I believe it is important to act in ways that are sympathetic to the environment, and I believe this will always be a need, carrying into the future. I believe the world has genuine problems and I believe it can and should be improved.”

Both men, however, then go about setting up alarmist scenarios that hint at crazy, environment-based religions trying to mind-wipe the world. Crichton seemingly does this to attack the entire left wing of world politics, but his arguments are inventive and wide-ranging enough to be justified and appreciated as a Devil’s Advocate perspective; also, he’s right in believing that wrapping the environmental movement in only one political ideology and sprucing it up with myths is a dead end.

But Nicoll has his own end: to attack science in general and all non-Christians. It’s also important to note that Nicoll worked for the nuclear power industry for 30 years, which sheds a varying light on his biases.

However you look at it, there's only one simple verity: Unless the Christian Judgment day comes within our lifetimes, fixing the environment must be a priority. A cleaner environment, coupled with modern medicine, will allow everyone to live longer, healthier lives.

If you don’t believe in the benefits of a cleaner atmosphere, try sitting in a locked, air-tight garage with a running car for a few hours (you get bonus points if you have a friend emitting second-hand cigar smoke beside you), then sit by a river in a National Park, and then tell me which experience made your lungs feel better.

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And now, just for fun . . .

Check out
"What Was God Thinking? Science Can't Tell," in which Nobel-prize winning physicist Eric Cornell discusses why the sky is blue and where and when Intelligent Design ("ID"), religion, and evolution should be used in the classroom. (This essay was originally published in Time Magazine, adapted from a speech Cornell gave earlier while accepting a prestigious science award).

Read “Methods Muslims use to attack Christianity.” It's a great piece, because with some simple twisting of the author's logic, you can use his arguments to defend any belief against anything...

And wallow in the popular-media-ignored dirt (the mud, filth, and veracity) on lovely, kind, soon-to-be-sainted Mother Teresa, courtesy of Free Inquiry magazine. The conversation between Christopher Hitchens and Matt Cherry quickly evolves into a freeform discussion on secularism, worldwide humanism, and religion in America. ("American fundamentalism has one huge problem," says Hitchens. "Which is that the United States is nowhere prefigured in the Bible. It worries them a lot, they keep trying to find it there, they try to interpret prophecies to refer to the United States, but they can't succeed—even to their own satisfaction—in getting it to come out right.")

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Links:


Non-Religious.com
The Atheist Handbook
"Calling all Pagans: It's time to fight back!"

4 comments:

KL said...

Came upon your blog by accident. Very interesting blog. I've added you as a link to my blog (hope you don't mind). Though the posts are bit long, but I'll get time to read them.

Alexa said...

The environmental war is all about money. If big oil gave money to the Dems they'd be gutting the EPA too.

Lucas Brachish said...

A fellow named David at the website "A Physicist's Perspective" posted an interesting and highly literate reaction to part of this post:

Christianity, historical truth, and relevance/usefulness
He doesn't agree with me at all, but he makes some interesting points. Check it out.

Not Crunchy said...

I found my way to you via a link to a link to a link. It's very late at night so I can't read your post in detail (I'm half asleep - will read this carefully tomorrow), but had to comment. Though you are a million times more detailed and eloquent than I am, I have been addressing similar issues over at not-crunchy.blogspot.com, though it recently got completely away from environmentalism. A lot of Evangelical Christians have been reading and commenting (I am not an Evangelical by the way), which has been an interesting trip for me. I have been surprised at how they are overwhelmingly pro-environment. I'm going to link to you from my blog. Thanks for all your work on this topic.