Evangelical Resistance to Climate Change


February 16, 2011

Kazmir commented on my previous post,

“Any speculations about why white American evangelical Protestants are so slow in catching up with the rest of the world on the issue of climate change?”

Good question. Such a good question that my reply is big enough to be a post.

First, let’s keep in mind that according to the Pew survey numbers, all American faith groups, including non-believers, are just barely getting it when it comes to climate change. Evangelicals — considered for the moment, with my apologies, as a mere statistical blur — are just a bit slower than the rest of us. This is a nationwide case of intellectual constipation.

But the figures are apparently worse for religious conservatives. Why? Is there something in the theological water? I mean, when a Pew survey finds that white American evangelical Protestants are more likely than any other group to approve of torture, and Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite blogs over at the Washington Post that this can be blamed on conservative Protestantism’s substitutionist theology of atonement (“God wanted Jesus tortured for the sins of humanity,” as she puts it), there is at least a superficial plausibility to that argument — though I suspect she’s wrong. But I can’t believe that substitutionism, or Biblical direct inspirationism, or an aversion to “works righteousness,” or anything else that one might possibly list as a theological hallmark of “white American evangelical Protestantism” directly inclines people to resist the idea that human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide and other substances are changing Earth’s climate.

So let’s exercise the first and greatest privilege of the ignorant, and speculate. The first thing that occurs to me is that many people who resist the science on climate are probably predisposed to do so by their resistance to the science on evolution, because they see the former as coming from the same source as the latter. Scientists have, they believe, already fallen once en masse for a load of crapola (i.e., evolution) driven by a destructive, anti-Christian hidden agenda — so why not again? One does see in the climate-denial discourse an emphasis on the idea that climatologists are not just in error but up to no good. The mainstream view on climate is, on this view, maintained through “fraud,” “lies,” “orthodoxy,” systematic efforts to punish dissent, etc., ultimately in the service of a “liberal” hatred for capitalism and progress. The scientists are pushing a Big (global-warming) Lie to provide a pretext for shutting down industry in the service of liberalism’s idolatrous nature-worship, which would regress us all to an organic-agrarian co-op lifestyle with attendant mass suffering, much of it scheduled, of course, to fall on the shoulders of working people, who resent (a) the extreme and growing wealth inequity of our country and (b) any implication, real or imagined, that “scientists” are a superior race whose dicta we must accept without question. So the climate-denial grassroots are angry and suspicious, not for totally invalid reasons, and these emotions take the highly unfortunate form of climate-science resistance. And the creationist narrative of mass evolutionary delusion may help prepare the way for belief in mass climate delusion.

I would add that a similar amateur-sociological account could be given of much “liberal” thinking. Many people who affirm evolution, studies show, don’t understand the science they think they are affirming (e.g., Andrew Shtulman, “Qualitative differences between naïve and scientific theories of evolution,” Cognitive Psychology 52 (2006) 170–194: “studies that have measured both participants’ belief in natural selection and participants’ understanding of natural selection . . . have found no signicant correlation between the two”); and I would bet, based on anecdotal observation, that much the same is true of climate change.

One might also throw into the mix, not just for evangelicals but for everybody, the observation that it is always nice to think that bad news is untrue. Dismissing climate change minimizes feelings of anxiety and helplessness.

Beliefs, as sociologists long ago discovered, tend to come in bundles or packages. This is partly because of how we obtain and maintain our beliefs. At one level, I think, lots of creationists are also climate denialists simply because the same radio shows, preachers, magazines, and other cultural sources they get their worldview from push both views. I have an old friend who believes, to a close approximation, whatever Rush Limbaugh says; if Rush started bashing evolution as well as climate change, I am pretty sure where my friend would go on the issue. And my friend is not even religious.

I’ve barely touched the question of class; I don’t know enough. The Pew data are from a straight-up survey by faith group, apparently, with no attempt to look at overlapping variables like class and income. It might only seem that this is a religion thing. Without better information, we can’t be sure.

As always, I will share PDFs of referenced articles not available publicly online —in this case, the Cognitive Psychology article — with all persons who write to me at lgilman [at] myfairpoint [dot] net. I believe that such person-to-person sharing for the increase of knowledge is within the legal limits of fair use; if not, death to fair use.

[Originally published May 4, 2009]