The latest issue of National Parks has an article by Peter Illyn, executive director of Restoring Eden, a ministry working to help Christians appreciate nature and make meaningful changes consistent with an environmental ethic. I believe the intended message is that Christians, evangelical Christians in particular, must take a more active role in environmental conservation and protection because love of the Creator goes hand-in-hand with love of the Creation. As Illyn suggests:
For those with a religious faith, it’s really a simple concept: If we love the Creator, we must take care of creation. It’s a philosophy that puts environmentalists and evangelicals in the same boat—awkward companions to say the least. Although their divergent belief systems have led them to view each other with a fair degree of mistrust, they have much in common.
Reading this reminded me of a series of articles appearing in Conservation Biology last year. David Orr, an ecologist at Oberlin College, in an article entitled “Armageddon Versus Extinction” (Orr 2005a), writes exquisitely regarding the negative effects of conservative, evangelical Christian belief systems on science in general, and biological conservation in particular. A particularly strident belief in end-times philosophy, biblical literalism, and an eagerness to deny any science that counters Scripture have coalesced well with conservative goals of reducing constraints (particularly environmental ones) on business and development. Right-wing conservative Christians have been placed in positions of power in environmental regulatory agencies across the nation, and the effect has been to take down whatever thin veils of environmental protection existed, outsource those responsible for ensuring environmental regulation, and to restrict science unless it favors unconstrained economic advance (or particular scriptural views). The relationship between conservative Christian evangelicals and conservation biology is not altogether clear. In fact, it’s quite schizophrenic. As Orr notes,
On one side, belief in the imminence of the end-times tends to make evangelicals careless stewards of our forests, soils, wildlife, air, water, seas and climate.
Yet there is also the other side, expressed currently in National Parks by Peter Illyn, which sees significant scriptural precedence for environmental conservation, species protection and ecosystem restoration. The problem, as Orr notes, is that right-wing conservatives have played to scriptural inerrancy and an end-times philosophy to gain evangelical support and open the door to a “grand larceny” of our nation’s resources. And many Christian evangelicals have enthusiastically jumped at the political opportunity:
…by becoming an active political force on the extreme right wing of U.S. politics, conservative evangelicals have made an unholy alliance with the vendors of fossil fuels, climate changers, polluters, sellers of weapons, the military, imperialists, exploiters, political dirty tricksters who assume that the ends they’ve chosen justify whatever means they use, spin artists, those willing to corrupt scientific truth for political gain, and those for whom law and the Constitution are merely scraps of paper…But against the example of Jesus who refused to be tempted by the prospect of holding political power, conservative evangelicals are now complicit with the political forces sweeping us toward more terrible violence and the avoidable catastrophes of climate change and ecological ruin.
But in accepting a greater political role, these same Christian conservatives (I would throw conservative Catholics into this mix as well) have abandoned scriptural integrity (at least with regard to views on the environment) in favor of quenching a lust for power. Whether knowingly, or being unwittingly duped by the politically slick who effectively stroke evangelical egos, conservative Christians are “aiding and abetting” forces of environmental destruction.
Orr’s comments naturally drew fire from Christians who consider themselves conservationists and who pointed out a number of evangelical organizations concerned with environmental protection (Johns 2005; van Dyke 2005, Stuart et al. 2005 and several others in those issues). Responses also tended to emphasize the fact that many evangelical Christians are not conservative. Fine…great. I think it is fair to say that no matter the particular characteristic or the group of people to whom we refer, us scientific types are always assuming a Poisson distribution and are concerned with a couple of sigmas around the mean, NOT the tails. There’s no expectation that a given population is completely uniform…we’ll leave make-believe black and white distinctions to FOX news.
But if you consider conservative Christians as a group, it is very, very, VERY difficult to consider them, especially in this day and age, to be pro-conservation. I have no doubt Christian organizations exist that are sincerely concerned with protecting “God’s Creation” from unconstrained human growth and resource exploitation. The problem is that these groups are few and more importantly, they currently have no voice in the national debate on this issue. In many respects this is not their fault; the current conservative media machine dominating the airwaves did not arise overnight and neither will successful opposition to it. But there is something running through their counter-arguments for which they can be faulted. Despite attempts by moderate and “environmental” Christians to distinguish themselves from their conservative cousins, they are still hamstrung by a backdrop of apologetics that makes their case for preserving God’s creation appear forced at best, and at worst, insincere, perhaps even phony. It is not at all clear that they wish to distance themselves from the conservative take-over of Christianity so much as they want to maintain Christian unity. “Wait, Wait” they cry, “Christianity is not a bad thing”. I’m sorry, but let’s be blunt: Christianity in the hands of conservatives IS a bad thing.
In Orr’s first article he makes it very clear the time may be past for a tolerant approach to the conservative Christian assault on the environment. Using Sam Harris’s book, The End of Faith (2004) as a springboard, Orr writes:
In his view [Sam Harris] religious faith – unmoored from fact, data, logic, and the procedures of verifiability – poses a mortal danger to civilization. His book is rather like a stern reprimand for foolish and dangerous religious thinking that has pervaded human cultures and now, with dispersion of weapons of mass destruction, threatens to undo civilization entirely. This is not the time, Harris writes, to preach tolerance of views that are patently disgusting, violent, and dangerous on a global scale, but rather a time to call fundamentalists – Muslim and Christian alike – to account.
This confrontational approach did not sit well with the “environmental” Christian respondents to Orr’s piece. They preferred a strategy of “Christian discourse” with their conservative brethren. That in itself is suggestive of a position more in line with defending Christian unity than advocating biological conservation. In a response article (Orr 2005b) Orr parries this notion beautifully:
Fourth, Stuart et al. say they are most disturbed by my call “for confrontation rather than dialog with evangelicals.” But I did no such thing. What I did was to ruminate a bit on the costs and benefits of various strategies without settling on any one in particular…There is a deeper issue, however; Stuart et al. are afraid, I think, of being impolite, of giving offense. But what particular style of Christian discourse would they propose? Would it be that of Moses who shattered the Ten Commandments at the feet of the backsliding Israelites? Or that of the Old Testament prophets who called wayward people to task with unsparing honesty? Or that of Jesus? How was it that he proposed to “dialogue constructively” with money changers in the temple?...
As much as I would like to see a Christian force behind environmental conservation (we can after all, use all the help we can get), I do not see that Christian conservationists are sufficiently distancing themselves from conservatives. Until that happens, the term “Christian conservationist” remains somewhat of an oxymoron.
There is another problem I have with the concept of conservative Christian conservationists. None of the respondents to Orr’s article defended science as the means for identifying and implementing conservation efforts and environmental protection. Turning back to the current National Parks article, Peter Illyn writes the following:
My faith tradition teaches that humans are unique in all of God’s creation—only we are made in the image of God, and we alone have the divinely given capacity of self-awareness and of free-will. We alone create art and music, build tools, and construct language. Humanity has an exceptional place in the created order, but we seem to have forgotten that we were created last and designed by God not to be independent of the rest of creation. We were made from the dust of the Earth, we are still connected to the Earth, and we will return to the Earth. This is the epiphany of interconnectedness.
If Illyn invokes this as a religious metaphor, that’s great…but the view does nothing to aid in conservation goals. If it is intended to a statement of science, then we have serious problems that really lie at the heart of differences between science and religion for approaching environmental preservation and sustainability. Our “interconnectedness” with the rest of the earth is rooted in our shared evolutionary history and ecological relationships with every aspect of every ecosystem across the planet. Humans may have the cognitive ability to create oral, written and artistic facades of uniqueness that serve to convince us of a special position within the hierarchy of life, but we are still ecological beings. We suffer from pandemics of disease; we must find and use resources and structure our social lives around those resources; when those run out, we must find more; we must compete, fend off attacks, raise our young to compete in the world and successfully raise their own offspring. And, a la Eric Pianka, we are as subject to vagaries of population pressure as bacteria in a Petri dish. Our archaeological past tells us that the human species has survived only because technology mediated its effect upon us or increased the efficiency with which we extract resources. But technology has not altered fundamental principles of competition, resource extraction and depletion, reproduction…or mortality. Technology has only changed the scale at which humans function within ecosystems. And make no mistake…along the way, there have been casualties, lots of casualties. The archaeological record is replete with extinct civilizations (it’s what keeps us archaeologists in business!)…most of whom exhibited “faith” in some kind of god or deity. But extinction ignores religion.
Illyn’s article and those responding to Orr are full of biblical platitudes, but none help the advance of conservation. None acknowledge science, particularly evolutionary theory, as a basis for understanding environmental protection. And none offer to assault the powerful conservative Christian community head-on for being scripturally defective. Until environmentally concerned Christians are willing to sacrifice Christian unity for the objectives of environmental preservation it will be difficult to broadly paint Christianity as anything but a foe of the Creation.
Johns, D. M. (2005) Orr and Armageddon: building a coalition. Conservation Biology 19(6): 1685-86.
Stuart, S. N. et al. (2005) Conservation theology for conservation biologists – a reply to Orr. Conservation Biology 19(6): 1689-92.
Van Dyke, F. (2005) Between heaven and earth: evangelical engagement in conservation. Conservation Biology 19 (6): 1693-96.
Orr, D. W. (2005a) Armageddon versus extinction. Conservation Biology 19(2): 290-92.
Orr, D. W. (2005b) A Response. Conservation Biology 19(6): 1697-98.