The Case for Faith in Environmentalism
God save the climate
We looked like college students in the classroom for the first time on the final exam.
On Christmas Eve, 2016, my hardly religious family and our non-worshipping friends occupied an entire pew at our local church. We joined in on carols where we could and stood respectfully (awkwardly) where we couldn’t, our attendance motivated more by Christmas tradition than faith.
If forced to identify my own religious philosophy, I’d call it a diluted version of Buddhism. The awkward dogmas of Christianity and the destructive politics of evangelicals turned me off to the dominant western philosophies, forcing me to look East for a religious home.
And Buddhism-Lite worked great for me.
Practicing the philosophy reintroduced me to the importance of pondering existential questions, and it gave me a framework for the perplexing moral quandaries that plague modern life. I’m not sure I would be anywhere near as happy as I am now without a daily meditation practice.
But Buddhism — at least my version of it — had a flaw.
It didn’t offer hope.
It gave me a way of thinking through conflicts, judging morality, and living happily, but it didn’t offer me hope.
In Buddhism, there are no miracles. No higher power is coming to save you. And death is just another fold in the samsaric cycle — no blissful heaven awaits.
But on that Christmas Eve service, I realized Christianity and “faith in a higher power” could offer hope, which I sorely needed.
I was a young environmentalist who had just watched his country’s supposedly democratic process offer up a morally illiterate, scientifically illiterate, and nearly literally illiterate man as its next leader. Optimism about the future was in short supply.
But standing in that church pew with a plastic goblet and a scentless candle, I felt hopeful. It wasn’t hope based on evidence. It was hope based on knowing that there are things we don’t know — and that some of them are good. Humanity had conquered seemingly insurmountable adversity before, and we could do it again.
Candles and carols. Verses and parables. I found that I didn’t have to accept any of it as based in reality to benefit from it.
But what does this have to do with activism?
“Rebellions are built on hope.” Or so goes one of the cheesiest lines from the Star Wars saga.
Hope is an essential ingredient in activism. With hope, a goal can be attained, a good can be saved, a plight can be sustained. And with enough hope, there is no “too late” for a cause. The fight can be fought to the very end.
Now some may incorrectly take this “hope” as an excuse for inaction — if God is watching over us, then everything will turn out okay, right?
But the “God will save us” attitude is a recipe for apathy, an when perverted to the greater degree, it may become a tool for the corrupt. My own Congressman once used the Bible as evidence that climate change is not a real threat, and I’m hard-pressed to believe that he was acting as God’s conduit rather than a megaphone for his corporate donors.
However, those who believe that God’s existence absolves them of Earthly responsibilities have certainly widely missed the purpose of religion — and appraising a philosophy based on a distortion of it is unfair (for the sake of this article).
I’ve departed from the thesis of this article, though, and I’ll return to the question of why hope, and therefore, religion, may be helpful to environmental activism.
I was assigned to write this article for a class. One of the readings for this class was an article called “The Case for ‘Conditional Optimism,’ on Climate Change.”
The title would suggest hopefulness. Maybe even celebration. But reading it will make you feel the opposite.
The article starts by presenting a case for pessimism and why, as my professor put it, we are going to “hell in a handbasket.” The closing half presents a case for optimism, but it’s not truly optimism as much as it is saying, “well, we might not be totally doomed.”
Readings like this are, unfortunately, the status quo for students of the environment.
Other offerings in this class included a lecture on the threat of coal ash ponds, a lecture on oceanic destruction caused by hypoxic zones, and a lecture detailing the massive losses in freshwater mussel diversity.
And the readings are more of the same. One lengthy read from the NY Times Magazine was tersely titled, “The Insect Apocalypse Is Here.” And yeah, it lived up to its name.
But the dreariness is justified. To say we are staring down an unprecedented crisis is, unfortunately, not hyperbole. The problems are real.
Which brings me back to religion — and its provision of hope.
The hope doesn’t have to be based in logic, it just needs to be enough to keep the gears of activists turning even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
Religion offers us Moses parting the Red Sea, oil that lasts eight days, and a savior that rises from the dead. Religion tells us that just when things are darkest, humanity can still find a way. The fight should be fought to the last breath.
Climate change, the once “problem of the future,” is coming to fruition. It’s real now. Our planet is suffering increasing floods, droughts, and fires, and there is no indication of the crisis slowing.
A miracle — given by God or science — may be in order.
The environmental movement needs some hope. And religion, believe it or not, could supply it. At least it did for me.