It's tempting to say that religious people don't care about climate change. However, there are places where religion and climate change can come together.

There is a common ground where religion and climate science can meet for the greater good of humanity. Photo: Shutterstock

It’s tempting for liberals to say that religious people don’t care about climate change. After all, the loudest voices about Christian doctrine and climate change denial come from evangelical Protestants, who don’t exactly have a great track record when it comes to caring for the environment.

However, the truth about religion and climate science—and the truth about religion in general—is more nuanced.

Let’s start with a breakdown of religions in America. Of the 70 percent of Americans who identify with a religion, the vast majority are Christians. Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics are the two largest religious denominations within Christianity. About 2 percent are Jews, 0.9 percent are Muslims, and other religions like Buddhism and Hinduism make up even smaller percentages of the religious population.

Civics Lesson: Religion and Climate Science

The major religions in America have statements about the importance of addressing climate change.Religion is not the enemy of climate science. Every major faith has a statement on why its adherents should care for the earth and care about climate change. Each one of them arrives at their belief via the study of the Bible, the Torah, or other holy texts.  

The Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation states, “We and our children face a growing crisis in the health of the creation in which we are embedded, and through which, by God’s grace, we are sustained. Yet we continue to degrade that creation…Thus, we call on all those who are committed to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to affirm [our principles of Biblical faith] and to seek ways of living out those principles in our personal lives, our churches, and society.”

Catholic Pope John Paul II wrote The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility. In it, he said, “Respect for life and for the dignity of the human person also extends to the rest of creation, which is called to join man in praising God. We cannot interfere in one area of the ecosystem without paying due attention to both the consequences of such interference in other areas and to the well-being of future generations.”

The Central Conference of American Rabbis adopted a resolution on climate change, which states, “Humankind has a solemn obligation to improve the world for future generations. Minimizing climate change requires us to learn how to live within the ecological limits of the Earth, so that we will not compromise the ecological or economic security of those who come after us.”

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at what religion has brought to the table when it comes to climate change issues, and then we can see where religion and climate science intersect.

First of all, not all religious people—even among very conservative evangelical Christians—believe climate change is a myth or that there’s no reason to care about the environment. In fact, religious people in general are actually very pro-environment, particularly when you talk about climate change in terms of caring about humanity.

The problem is that climate change has become a political issue rather than an issue of humanity in general. Sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund calls it the Al Gore effect: “If I’m a Republican, I must refuse to believe anything said by a Democrat about climate change; and if I’m a Democrat, I must refuse to believe anything a Republican says.”

The only way to correct this is to depoliticize climate science. Ecklund says that “Religious communities put people on a higher pedestal than they do animals and the created earth.” If that is indeed the case, then by reframing climate change as a humanitarian issue, we can bring a mutual understanding of its harmful effects and how they affect people.

It might not be obvious from the dialogue around religion and climate science, but religious groups have been active on environmental and climate issues for quite some time.

Since the early 1980s, climate change and climate justice have been part of World Council of Churches programs. The Alliance of Religions and Conservation has brought leaders of faith communities together around climate change. One way in which ARC has been successful in bringing together diverse religious leaders is by respecting and giving specific attention to the way each faith tradition sees the world and their position in it.

In 2015, Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic church issued an encyclical (a very high-level teaching document) on the environment and climate change. In it, he urgently appealed for a new dialogue, which should include not only religious leaders but scientists and lay people, about how humanity is shaping the future of our planet.

His wish has come true, at least to an extent: Buddhist, Muslim, and Jewish leaders have directly referenced the Pope’s encyclical in their own efforts to communicate how their congregants should care for the earth.

Religious orientations can certainly differ from secular ones, and we can’t ignore these distinctions when discussing religion and climate science. Many religious people don’t believe there’s a conflict between faith and science for themselves, but they do believe this is the case for other people. Scientists sometimes have trouble recognizing how important people’s beliefs and values are in forming opinions on topics like climate change, and therefore can be a bit tone-deaf when it comes to religion as a factor in the way people see the world.

If we are to be successful at bringing religion and climate science together, we need to understand that faith deeply colors people’s perspective on many issues, and climate change is certainly not the least of them. Not only that, but even different denominations within the same faith can have profoundly different views of climate change and other aspects of climate science.

Respecting people’s religious beliefs and framing the discussion in a way that appeals to their values and sense of morality could help to erase some of the climate skepticism among conservative Christians.

Ultimately, where do religion and climate science intersect? Both scientists and the vast majority of religious people believe we have a problem with climate change and it’s only getting worse. Both camps agree that it is creating a humanitarian crisis, and if we start from that common ground, communities of faith could become great allies in the fight against climate change.

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