Friday, December 22, 2006

Can Christians Be Conservationists Without Science?

Red State Rabble is reporting an Ashville Citizen Times article discussion on the growing number of evangelical Christians who are becoming active environmentalists. I remain significantly dubious about Christians as Conservationists. It is not that I wouldn't welcome such a significant political bloc to the cause of environmental conservation (environmentalism could really use the muscle); it's that I doubt the level of commitment. Too many of our most critical environmental issues derive from a science that evangelicals almost wholly reject and would require economic lifestyle changes of such magnitude that the conservative Christians would never stand for it. Michael Caddell comments on the story at Red State Rabble and hits one of the major issues right on the mark:

Yada, Yada, yeah it's a good thing handing out low energy light bulbs and setting up aluminum can recycling trash bins in the parking lot, but it's a far far cry from what needs to be done nationwide...Try federalizing the automotive industries; forcing hybrids or electrical cars into mass production, defunding the Pentagon for funding village by village wind, solar electrification projects and watch those tongue talking, wailing "pro-lifers" scream for blood, flags and guns against the encroachment on their grossly indulgent, cluttered life-styles.

As did David Orr in several pieces from Conservation Biology last year, which I commented on previously (see above). Even if some evangelicals see environmentalism as God's calling, they are far outnumbered by conservative Christians who see no problem in wedding economic gain with their own biblical interpretations:

…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 additionally troubling for me is that there is no recognition of environmental science underpinning this so-called "green" movement of conservative Christians. The Ashville Citizen Times articles quotes the Rev. Austin Rios as saying “It doesn’t matter whether you believe in creation or evolution, caring for the Earth is something we agree is right." I'm sorry, but it does matter, particularly if you want to tackle environmental problems beyond simply replacing energy efficient light bulbs. From my previous post, Christians as Conservationists:

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.

I would also add that archaeology is now suggesting that many of those civilizations collapsed from environmental degradation, most probably because they had "faith" that their gods would provide for them or return to take them to a better way of life. True conservation needs to be rooted in science. Evolutionary science. Without that, it doesn't really matter how many light bulbs you change.


Anonymous said...

So, you're saying that even though I recycle, eat organic, use baking soda to clean my sink, and am planning to replace my carpet with bamboo flooring, it won't really help anything becasue I don't believe in evolution? Can you be any more supercilious? Your idea of what science is might be a little too narrow. People can believe in a Creator and still understand the water cycle, grasp the concept of peak oil, and want to limit the amount of pollutants in their childrens' bodies. If you want to draw a line where there is none, go ahead, but please think about this the next time you want to call a Christian 'closed-minded'.

Christopher O'Brien said...

Jen, thanks for leaving a comment. Those are all wonderful activities that certainly contribute to helping the environment. My argument was not to deny that these help but to suggest the following: 1)these are not the primary environmental problems this world faces - loss of habitat, species extinction, unconrrolled development, global warming, dependence on fossil fuels, an assault on public lands, uncontrolled population growth - these are but a few; 2) these larger and more ominous problems have a scientific basis, rooted in evolutionary theory, that the Christian Right constantly works to undermine, discredit or lie about; as Orr points out, Christians are unwilling to accept these larger problems in part because they are unwilling to sacrifice financial gain to achieve conservation goals ("too much regulation" ! is the excuse you hear constantly); 3)I would further argue, as Orr mentions but doesn't emphasize, that the Christian disrespect for science that doesn't agree with their worldview is also at the heart of why they dismiss larger problems affecting humanity. I'm sorry, Jen, but there is a major line to be drawn between true conservationism and some Christians throwing cans into the recycling bin and calling it good (not much difference between that attitude and simply waiting around for the Rapture). You don't make the argument, but I suspect you think Carl Baugh's fake evidence is probably good science; or the intelligent design movement's popularity campaign should also be considered science because limiting its definition to data gatheriing, hypothesis formation and testing leaves out too much valid speculation for your spiritual comfort. My apologies again, but the vast majority of Christians I encounter can do nothing more than regurgitate the falsehoods and misconceptions about evolution they've gotten from their pastors or priests. You need to take a good, honest look at the world outside of your Christian bubble before you yourself can be considered "open-minded".

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