• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Getting God to do their dirty work

We live in world where the cynical manipulation of people’s fears and anxieties often overrides informed public debate. Principles and beliefs seem to have become negotiable commodities, and all too often the search for truth gives way to doing ‘whatever works’. In recent decades religious figures have, at various times, embraced the authority of science, therapy and the environment as a way of communicating their messages. Indeed, the old statement ‘our faith demands…’ has increasingly given way to the claim that ‘the research shows…’. If Christian fundamentalists can reinvent their dogma in the language of ‘creationist science’, how long before atheist scientists seek to justify their moral crusade in the language of religion?

Well, Lord May, president of the British Science Association, has risen to the occasion with his call last week to mobilise religion as part of the crusade against global warming. May said that mainstream religions should play a key role in convincing people to become more aware of environmental issues and to change their behaviour in order to ‘save the planet’. By making this opportunist demand for the effective rehabilitation of God, an atheist moral entrepreneur has shown that it is possible to debase both religion and science at the same time.

May’s call to use religion to promote the cause of climate change awareness is the logical conclusion to a project – environmentalism – which in every respect is a moral crusade. Back in September 2003, the late American writer Michael Crichton characterised environmentalism as a powerful new religion. He was possibly thinking of the Lord Mays of this world when he said that ‘environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists’.

Old-fashioned religious themes are continually recycled by greens. Some environmentalists may joke about ‘green sins’ but they are deadly serious when they denounce evil polluters and deniers. In this contemporary urban religion, the carbon footprint symbolises human transgression, though absolution can be gained through carbon offsets. Green judgements on our diets, our procreation habits and our everyday behaviour are possibly even more intrusive than the pronouncements of medieval religious figures. Old-fashioned prophecy and divination have given way to speculation and alarmist warnings based on computer models. And the medieval inquisition that targeted heretics and witches has got a new lease of life in the current crusade against sceptics and so-called deniers.

Many intelligent observers of today’s green theocracy argue that it represents an answer to humanity’s need for religion. No doubt we all need to believe in something, but the current embrace of religion by Lord May and other green-leaning atheists is driven by simple opportunism rather than a genuine crisis of belief. The attempt to recruit God to the anti-climate change campaign is driven by a desire to influence all those people who currently are not responding to the moral crusade to save the planet. The turn to God is underwritten by a strong feeling of contempt towards both religion and the public.

Many environmentalists believe that ordinary people are too selfish and too stupid to pay attention to the lofty message about saving the planet. Leading green commentators bemoan people’s short-termist and irrational behaviour. One British eco-columnist wrote about how ‘depressed’ he felt about ‘the epidemic of mass denial’ in Britain, where ordinary people simply refuse to take climate change seriously. ‘Up to a point, laws can be passed to combat climate change, and offenders who don’t conform can be punished’, he casually observed, before noting that, in the end, people will have to understand ‘the dangers and threats we face’ (1).

Activist-scientists like May seem to believe there are two ways of influencing the public: by making fear appeals or using a form of moral blackmail. Apocalyptic warnings about the future of the planet have become the bread and butter of the crusade against climate change. These alarmist messages are promoted in the most simplistic and emotive terms. ‘I liked it. It does emotionalise the debate, but it seems that it has to do that’ – that was the verdict of Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, on Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth. American environmentalists often give a deeply contemptuous assessment of their audiences. According to one green activist, ‘the “issue” of climate change must be defined for Americans’ in ‘uncomplicated, black-and-white terms’ (2).

And what could be more black-and-white than a divine commandment? Religion is seen as the ideal tool with which to convey a simplistic, good-and-evil message to a public that is apparently made up of simpletons. Lord May may have been talking about fundamentalist religions when he said that ‘under stress you reduce complex doctrines to simple mantras’. But that also captures his own approach to public communication.

In a sense, what May and his fellow green religionists are trying to do is rehabilitate a caricatured version of God. They want to mobilise a God who can both influence and scare ordinary folk. From this standpoint, God is imagined to be some kind of classic bogeyman. ‘A supernatural punisher may be part of the solution [to tackling climate change]’, May is reported to have said. He is also quoted as saying: ‘Given that punishment is a useful mechanism, how much more effective it would be if you invested that power not in an individual you don’t like, but in an all-seeing, all-powerful deity that controls the world.’

May’s seeming desire to sanctify environmentalism and stigmatise transgressors was immediately taken up by Andrew Brown, editor of the ironically titled ‘Belief’ section of the UK Guardian. ‘I have argued before that greenery will only succeed if it takes on some of the characteristics of some religions’, noted Brown. One characteristic he alludes to is the coercive dynamic of moral pressure. In short, adopting the green religion is not an option that ‘adults freely choose’. ‘If you are a convinced green, you will certainly not bring your child up to believe that they can decide once they are 18 whether the environment needs saving’, argues Brown, before concluding that adults, also, should not have this choice (3). So, no room for any faint-hearted liberals in this new green religion.

Tolerance for other, competing views has never been the hallmark of the environmentalist crusade. Time and again, the critics of the politics of environmentalism are dismissed for daring to question the wisdom of ‘The Science’. Their questions are dismissed with the phrase: ‘The debate is now over.’ Or as David Miliband, in his former capacity as the UK secretary of state for the environment, said: ‘The debate over the science of climate change is well and truly over.’ Now, intolerance of dissident views on the issue of climate change is underwritten by religious dogma. Religion promises to endow greens’ hostility towards critics, sceptics and deniers with the legitimacy of the sacred word.

Back in 2003, when Crichton characterised environmentalism as a religion, many greens regarded it as an insult to their cause. That was then. Today some environmentalists want their views to be officially recognised as a religion. Recently, Tim Nicholson, head of sustainability at the UK property investment company Grainger, appealed against his dismissal from his job on the grounds that his employers did not respect his strong environmentalist convictions. He sought protection under the law in the same way that other employees seek redress against discrimination on the basis of their religion. It can be only a matter of time before campaigns are launched to gain official recognition that sustainability is a holy doctrine.

The degradation of belief

Manipulating religious convictions in order to force people to alter their behaviour is not only disdainful of the public – it is disdainful of belief, too. It reveals a simplistic, functional understanding of how religion works. Since the nineteenth century some secular thinkers have regarded the decline of religion as a big problem from society. Although they themselves were not believers, they regarded religion as a force for stability and were concerned about how people would behave if they lacked faith. Such concern about moral confusion and the erosion of discipline often leads thinkers to conclude that society needs some kind of a religion. This outlook was clearly expressed by the well-known American cultural commentator Daniel Bell in the late 1970s:

‘What holds one to reality, if one’s secular system of meanings proves to be an illusion? I will risk an unfashionable answer – the return in Western society of some conception of religion.’ (4)

Bell used his words carefully. His phrase ‘some conception of religion’ suggests a pragmatic conceptualisation of the problem. Not this or that religion, but any religion is preferable to the secular uncertainties facing society, he argued. As far as Bell was concerned, it did not matter what people believed, just so long as they gained some meaning from it.

For Bell, religion had an important function: providing some kind of moral order in society. However, once religious belief is perceived from this narrow and simply functional perspective, it can be mobilised to serve a variety of ends, some of them honourable and many of them dishonourable. Using religion to try to change people’s attitudes towards the environment is only the latest attempt by mainstream activists to harness the power of God to realise their secular objectives.

The functional model of religion overlooks the historic process through which a system of belief emerges, the experiences and community interaction that belief systems are built on. Real religions – as opposed to artificially created ones – are organically linked to the lives of people. Religious beliefs are internalised through the customs and practices of everyday life. Such beliefs help people to make sense of their world and give meaning to life. The idea that religion and God can be invented because ‘we need it’, or because a moral crusade needs the authority of some supernatural being, fails to comprehend the historical, social and cultural contexts within which religion emerges. It also debases the idea of religious belief. Religious belief involves intuition, spirituality, faith and reason. For better or worse, the world’s religions need to be seen as some of the most important moral, intellectual and cultural accomplishments of human civilisation. To treat religious conviction as some kind of tool of public relations degrades this historic form of belief.

But the corruption of religion is not the only outcome of today’s cynical attempt to invent a new green God. When so-called atheists, scientists and secular thinkers demand that their views should be treated as sacred, they degrade the status of scientific reasoning, too. Science emerged through an intellectual struggle to free humanity from the tyranny of sacred dogma. Belief in science is unlike pre-scientific belief. A belief in the power of science to discover how the world works should not be taken to mean that science itself is a belief. On the contrary, science depends on an open-minded and open-ended attitude towards experimentation and the testing out of ideas. Indeed, science is an inherently sceptical enterprise, since it respects no authority, other than evidence. As Thomas Henry Huxley once declared: ‘The improver of natural knowledge absolutely refuses to acknowledge authority as such.’ ‘Scepticism is the highest of duties’, said Huxley, ‘blind faith the unpardonable sin’. That is why Britain’s oldest and most respectable scientific institution, the Royal Society, was founded on the motto: ‘On the word of no one.’ And that includes the green God.

The proposed marriage between phoney religion and phoney science represents the worst of both worlds. It both corrupts religion and gives rise to a new religion of corruption, where ideas are turned into sacred texts with which to hector and blackmail the public. Those of us with genuine convictions – whether scientific or religious – have a common interest in challenging this debasement of religious belief and scientific reasoning.

(1) If half the nation is in denial about the threats we face from climate change, what hope is there?, Guardian, 4 July 2007

(2) Power, program, and practical considerations: Objectives, Gristmill, 30 April 2007

(3) Will we establish a green religion?, Andrew Brown’s blog, Guardian

(4) The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, by Daniel Bell, Heineman (London), 1979

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