Environmentalism as Religion

Unwitting religiosity makes the environmental movement less effective.

Posted Aug 14, 2020

At least from the time I was pursuing my Conservation of Natural Resources merit badge (today called Environmental Science merit badge) as a requirement for becoming an Eagle Scout, I have been an environmentalist. Back in the 1960s, being an environmentalist seemed like just good common sense. To pollute our air and water and to use up scarce, non-renewable resources was obviously stupid. Why wouldn't everyone want to be an environmentalist?

Today, the answer seems less straightforward than when I was a Boy Scout. In the United States, if you call yourself an environmentalist, many people assume that you are politically liberal. Maybe even a radical leftist.

"Tree-hugger" became an epithet for an environmentalist who conserves and protects every species of life mindlessly and unrealistically instead of prudently. And strong environmentalists began to assume that anyone who opposed their efforts aimed to make profits by poisoning and destroying the environment. Such a polarization would suggest that an environmentalist is a member of the crazy left and a non-environmentalist is a member of the evil right.

Unknown creator, Wikimedia public domain
Portrait of a Manichaean
Source: Unknown creator, Wikimedia public domain

In a previous post, "The Unsavory Psychology of Two-Party Politics," I use the term "Manichean" to describe such polarized, black-and-white thinking. Manichaeism was an ancient Persian religion that viewed the world as a struggle between the forces of light and darkness. Of course, environmentalists view themselves as part of the forces of light, and non-environmentalists as forces of darkness. And non-environmentalists see things the other way around.

In another previous post, "What Mythology Reveals About the Mind," I suggested that familiarity with religious myths can help us understand deep psychological principles. That suggestion was borne out yesterday when I listened to a podcast in which Michael Shermer interviewed environmentalist Michael Shellenberger. During the podcast, Shellenberger made a point that had occurred to me long ago: Environmentalism has become a substitute religion for many atheists, agnostics, and other non-religious. It allows us to be part of something larger than ourselves that gives our life meaning.

But then Shellenberger made a more specific claim that hit me like a bolt of lightning: Those most passionate environmentalists have, probably unwittingly, incorporated imagery from Christianity about the ancient past and the distant future. From Genesis, they have borrowed the myth of the Garden of Eden, when the world was in balance and harmony before humans began misbehaving. These environmentalists idealize nature as a system of beauty, peace, and harmony that humans have only recently begun to destroy with technology. This mythical view ignores the devastation of the environment by indigenous peoples as well as the brutal conflicts within and between pre-human species.

Wikimedia Commons PD-Art
Folio 10 recto of the Bible of S Paolo fuori le Mura, Frontpiece for the Book of Revelations
Source: Wikimedia Commons PD-Art

From the Book of Revelations, these passionate environmentalists have borrowed an apocalyptic vision of the end of the world as we know it. Unless we change our evil ways, we will destroy all life on the planet by polluting and changing the climate.

The great thing about religious fervor is that it can energize us to action. I directly observed such energy when I attended Al Gore's three-day Climate Reality workshop in Pittsburgh and I wrote about this experience in a previous blog post on the benefits of political behavior.

But the downside of religious fervor is that leads to decisions based on emotion rather than an objective assessment of reality. In his podcast interview, Michael Shellenberger suggested that the apocalyptic vision of environmental activists not only clouds their thinking, but also alienates would-be partners who are put off by that vision.

John A. Johnson
My button from the original Earth Day, 1970
Source: John A. Johnson

If we are to conduct wise, prudent stewardship of our natural resources and effective strategies for dealing with climate change, environmentalists need to move away from a psychology based on Manichean religious psychology and adopt an objective, scientific perspective on the environment.