Perspectives on Climate Change: Atheism Does Not Impede Climate Action, But Religion Might

Perspectives on Climate Change: Atheism Does Not Impede Climate Action, But Religion Might

Perspectives is a series of collections of articles highlighting the diversity of opinions, ideas and — yes — perspectives young people in Australia have about complex, serious and/​or light-​​hearted topics that everyone should be talking about. We draw on existing members of our writing team, as well as guest writers from all walks of life and levels of education, to examine how they connect with each month’s topic. For August 2013, the topic is climate change.

Robert Martin, the director of the City Bible Forum, has written a piece in On Line Opinion, in which he argues that atheism impedes action on climate change. As we here at the Young Australian Skeptics are publishing a series of perspective pieces on climate change, I thought it timely and appropriate that I weigh-​​in on Martin’s post.

To his credit, Martin begins by accepting that anthropogenic climate change is real. As an aside, whilst I agree, I find myself wondering what kind of argument from fine-​​tuning this is? Something as simple as fluctuations in atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide could lead to climate change so severe it threatens our species with extinction? This doesn’t support the theistic argument that the universe was fine-​​tuned by God to support the existence of life. Indeed, unable to reconcile our tenuous existence with the belief that God not just created the universe for us, but is presently watching over and protecting us, many religious people who accept climate change is real still deny the reality of the consequences of it being left unchecked. They just can’t accept that the God they believe in would allow catastrophic climate change to destroy us all1.

Worse still are the religious people who view the apocalyptic predictions of climate change as a sign of the end times. The type of people that gleefully look forward to the destruction of civilization and can’t wait to bring it on. I’ve said it before, perhaps it’s worth saying again, because it goes to the heart of why religion impedes progress in general, and progress on climate change in particular:

The destructive power of religion comes from displacing one’s concern for wellbeing in this world to wellbeing in an imaginary one, the latter of which always comes at the expense of the former.

Indeed, a recent study by Barker and Bearce, which investigated whether or not the religious belief in the end times impedes climate change action, found:

A belief in the Second Coming reduces the probability of strongly agreeing that the government should take action by more than 12 percent. In a corresponding manner, a belief in the Second Coming increases the probability of disagreeing with government action to curb global warming by more than 10 percent.

With this as the subtext of this discussion it is simply farcical that Martin has asserted:

It is a Christian worldview which gives an imperative for climate action whereas the atheist worldview leads to the opposite.

Note that to refer to the “atheist worldview” is to misunderstand atheism, because atheism is not a complex system of beliefs, it is merely the belief that there exists no evidence supportive of any god’s existence. Whilst this single belief may form part of a wider system of beliefs constituting a worldview, it is not a worldview in and of itself.

The crux of Martin’s argument is twofold. First, atheists are selfish. Second, they are at best amoral and at worst immoral. Let’s deal with the charge of selfishness first:

In general, people are unwilling to pay a higher prices — if it’s cheap, it sells, if it’s expensive, it doesn’t. If self-​​interest were not such a major factor in the energy purchase process, then conceivably demand for green energy would be much higher… At its heart, atheism is a selfish, short-​​sighted worldview. Atheism drives people to live for themselves and live for today. In John Lennon’s Imagine, Lennon imagines an atheistic world where people live without heaven and instead, ‘live for today’. There is precious little in an atheist worldview to consider others, nor the future.

Notice first that Martin begins by saying, “in general,” so his argument reveals itself as having nothing to do with atheists specifically after all. In his attempt to make this argument about atheism Martin conflates atheism with the evils2 of unbridled capitalism, such as greed, parsimoniousness, and a general lack of empathy. Given that he has previously conflated atheism with communism, an incipient pattern of conflating atheism with anything deemed to be immoral appears to have emerged.

The conflation is wrong but so is the assertion, because the reality is the reason expensive things don’t sell as well as cheaper things is that people are unable to pay higher prices, not that they’re unwilling to. This is clearly evidenced by the fact that there is greater uptake by consumers of solar panels when governments subsidize the cost of their installation.

On the charge of a lack of moral responsibility paralyzing atheists when it comes to action on climate change, Martin had this to say:

The atheist worldview wishes costless action and advocacy. This view was reinforced when I saw Richard Dawkins at the Global Atheist Convention last year. In a discussion with other prominent atheists he explained that he wasn’t as virulent in his criticism of Islam as compared to Christianity because “the threat of having your head cut off is somewhat of a deterrent” and “courage is a virtue but there are limits”. I was disappointed with Dawkins statement that someone so passionate about his beliefs wouldn’t be willing to die for them.

Being willing to die for your beliefs is a good thing? This sounds familiar…

Of course, to “die for your beliefs” could mean any number of things. What beliefs are we talking about? After all, not all beliefs are equal. It is true that atheists generally don’t think their lack of belief in God is worth dying over, and given they don’t believe in life after death, they tend to be rather fond of the one life they do have. However, I know many atheists (including myself) who would die to save people they love from the same fate. Some things are worth dying for, but beliefs rarely make the cut. Not all of us are keen to go the way of Socrates.

Yet Martin won’t let this point go:

The atheist worldview impedes costly sacrifice – why should atheists sacrifice unnecessarily? Why force unnecessary suffering on myself?

If ever there was any doubt Martin is religious in the true sense of the word, his masochism lays it to rest. It is simply not the case that only avowed atheists don’t wish unnecessary suffering on themselves. This is something all sane people seek to avoid. The masochism of the religious would be bad enough on its own, but it is often combined with sadism. You see this sadomasochistic tendency in the aftermath of natural disasters, when disgraceful religious opportunists inevitably take to the airwaves purporting such disasters to be punishments from God. And it’s not only the radical fringe that makes such claims. A case in point illustrated by the late Christopher Hitchens:

[Take] the Church of England… everyone thinks it’s the mildest of all, it not only calls itself a flock, it looks very sheep-​​like. However, the bishop of Carlisle [at the time bishop Graham Dow]… said that the floods in northern Yorkshire… were punishment for homosexuality. Now, to connect meteorology to morality seems to me, I have to say, flat out idiotic whichever way you do it. If there was a connection between meteorology and morality, which religion has very often argued that there is, I don’t see why the floods hit northern Yorkshire – I can think of some parts of London where they would have done a lot more good.

To end on a rare point of agreement, Martin is correct in highlighting short-​​sightedness as a key challenge to effectively combating climate change:

A further difficulty in effective climate change action surrounds the delayed and uncertain effects of climate change. The full impact of climate change won’t be felt in our weather systems for many years to come. Climate projections envision scenarios in 2050 or 2100 – dates beyond many of our lifetimes. This makes the climate debate future oriented and less tangible.

But apparently still not less tangible than the return of Christ? The atheist position is that there will be no Second Coming, no second chances, and no second life, let alone an eternal one. This is it. And this is the impetus that drives non-​​believers to protect our environment, so that others may experience life as we have. It is true that not all of us, whether believers or non-​​believers, possess empathy for others, let alone for future generations we will never meet. But most of us do, and we consider people who don’t to be sociopaths. Empathy is no more a religious conception than morality, which just to be clear, is not at all.

If we are to truly accept our collective moral responsibility to protect the biosphere, and to secure the continuation of our species, we must first understand that there is no God to help us avoid the consequences of not doing so.

The time has come to clean up our minds that we may better clean up our environment, or to put it more polemically, as a good friend of mine once said of religion, “bag it and bin it.”

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by tjblackwell]

  1. This is not the only case of the false sense of security religion creates, but it is an important one. []
  2. Perceived or real. []