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Environmentalism: The Established Religion of Western Society?

By E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D.

May 29, 2012

Last week Dr. Vaclav Klaus, an economist, the second President of the Czech Republic (2003–), whom The Times of London described as the Margaret Thatcher of Central Europe and who knows what it is to live under tyranny, said of believers in catastrophic anthropogenic global warming:
Their ideas are the ideas of ideologues, not of scientists or climatologists. Data and sophisticated theories will never change their views. We have to accept that they have succeeded in establishing the religion of environmentalism as the official religion of Western society, as the religion which asks for a radical transformation of the whole Western civilization.

Klaus has good company in describing environmentalism as religion.

Arizona State University Professor of Law, Culture, and Values Joel Garreau wrote in his New Atlantis article “Environmentalism as Religion,” “Ecotheologies loosely based on concepts lifted from Hinduism or Buddhism have become popular in some Baby Boomer circles. Neo-pagans cheerfully accept the tree-hugger’ designation and say they were born ‘green.’ And, most strikingly, Christianity has begun to accept environmentalism.”

Paul H. Rubin, Professor of Economics at Emory University, in an article also titled “Environmentalism as Religion” in the Wall Street Journal, wrote of “some of the ways in which environmental behaviors echo religious behaviors and thus provide meaningful rituals for Greens,” and listed
  • a holy day—Earth Day;
  • food taboos—organic, local, vegetarian;
  • sacrifice rituals—recycling various substances;
  • paradoxical beliefs—fearing global warming but rejecting nuclear energy;
  • sacred structures—recycling bins;
  • proselytism—passionate efforts to make converts to the faith.
“Some conservatives spend their time criticizing the way Darwin is taught in schools,” Rubin concludes. “… These same efforts should be spent on making sure that the schools only teach those aspects of environmentalism that pass rigorous scientific testing. By making the point that Greenism is a religion, perhaps we environmental skeptics can enlist the First Amendment on our side.”

The environmental movement intentionally infiltrates churches, targeting youth especially, through organizations like Interfaith Power & Light. But it’s not only liberals who are becoming religious environmentalists. Some professed evangelicals are doing so as well.

Books like Matthew Sleeth’s The Gospel According to the Earth, Jonathan Merritt’s Green Like God, Jim Ball’s Global Warming and the Risen Lord, and even HarperCollins’s The Green Bible, though they include much good, nonetheless subtly change the gospel from “Jesus Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, He was buried, and He rose again from the dead on the third day according to the Scriptures,” as Paul summarized it in 1 Corinthians 15:3–4, to something like, “If you love God, take good care of the Earth.” Now, it’s true that if you love God you’ll try to take good care of the Earth—and the Cornwall Alliance encourages Christians to do just that—but that’s not gospel; it’s law.

As Martin Luther long ago taught in launching the Reformation, the grammar of the gospel is indicative—it states what God has done. The grammar of the law is imperative—it states what God requires us to do. “Take good care of the Earth” is imperative. It’s a true obligation, but that’s precisely what makes it law, not gospel. “Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again from the dead” is indicative. It’s gospel.

Yes, the law is holy and righteous and good, but it cannot give life. Only the gospel can. By obscuring this distinction, even the evangelical “creation care” movement threatens to obscure the gospel and thus rob the Church of her greatest treasure.

By turning all kinds of environmentalist desiderata—recycling, not trespassing on the wilderness, eating only organic, seasonal, and locally grown foods—into moral imperatives, and then equating those moral imperatives with the gospel, the movement becomes precisely what the Apostle Paul warned about in Colossians 2:20–23:
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”
The grave danger to the Church of Jesus Christ is that, even when it stops short of embracing the pantheism and biological egalitarianism of so much of the environmental movement, so-called “Christian environmentalism” can become the new Galatianism—a false gospel of justification by works rather than by faith.

The Cornwall Alliance is working with pastors and theologians around the country to preserve the true gospel of Jesus Christ at the same time that we promote Biblical Earth stewardship and economic development for the poor. Your donation can help us with this crucial task.