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Today’s post features the second instalment from Erin Wilson on the place of religion in the climate change debate. 

In part one, I talked about some of the ways in which conservative religious actors construct science as the enemy of faith. Here I want to look at this assumption of the opposition of faith and reason from the scientific angle. In much the same way that conservative religious actors can construct science as the opposite of faith, so too can scientists construct faith as the antithesis of reason. Such is the approach of so-called new atheism, discussed previously by Terrell Carver. Science, after all, is based on reason and evidence. Religion, surely, is based on emotions, spirituality and is largely irrational.

Such an approach, however, sets up a false dichotomy between religion and science, between rationalism and spirituality and emotion. This dichotomy has existed in the social sciences for some time, yet is becoming increasingly untenable as we begin to recognise that what we understand as rational is based on a cultural privileging of a particular type of knowledge, a cultural privileging largely based on the ideology of Western secularism. Further, this view that science and religion are diametrically opposed ignores the significant historical influence that religion had on the emergence of scientific methodologies and approaches. In short, it ignores the intimate relationship that has existed between science and religion for many centuries. Arguably, both science and religion have at their foundation the same goal – to understand the universe and how it operates better. They simply take different approaches to the same question.

If climate change is constructed as primarily the domain of scientists, then religion and faith have no part to play in the discussions around how to deal with the challenges that climate change will bring. Yet not only is faith not diametrically opposed to reason, neither is climate change a purely scientific affair. Climate change affects and interacts with every part of our lives. Consequently, it should not just be left to scientists, economists and politicians to decide how we respond to and deal with climate change. Debating how we respond to climate change should include community groups, artists, writers, actors, dancers, academics, lawyers and yes, even theologians and religious leaders. Not only do each of these groups of people possess insights that can contribute to shaping how we respond to climate change, they are also able to translate the at times lofty and opaque scientific language of climate change into mediums and experiences that enable a more personal, intimate and lived connection with the consequences of climate change. An art work or piece of music that attempts to represent the consequences of climate change can have far greater impact than a dry recitation of the scientific projections and statistics about how climate change will affect sea levels, crop growth, health and so on.

In the same way, religion, through prayer, ritual, meditation, theological teaching and ethical reflection, can contribute to helping us develop strategies for coping with and responding to climate change. Such attitudes represent the very essence of the post-secular turn, discussed in our first two posts, applied to real practical, political, social, economic, ecological and moral challenges. As Richard Wollin has observed, religion may be the only other comprehensive belief system strong enough to challenge the dominance of self-centred laissez-faire consumerism that has contributed so much to the problem of climate change. “The religious values of love, community, and godliness help to offset the global dominance of competitiveness, acquisitiveness, and manipulation that predominate in the vocational sphere. Religious convictions encourage people to treat each other as ends in themselves rather than as mere means”.[1]

Religion offers us moral insight on the issue of climate change, by suggesting frameworks for assessing who is responsible for the consequences of climate change and how they should take action to meet their responsibilities. It also offers us guidance for how to think about and respond to climate change, as well as numerous ways in which to make the experience and consequences of climate change more real and intelligible for individuals and communities. Finally, science and religion have long had a close connection that has only relatively recently come under question.[2] It is perhaps time we remembered these interconnections and, as Mike Hulme has also suggested, draw more on the substantial resources available to us from within religion in our responses to a changing global climate.


[1] R. Wollin. 2005. ‘Jurgen Habermas and Post-Secular Societies’ The Chronicle of Higher Education. Vol. 52, no. 5, (2005), p16

[2] R. Harrison, ‘ “Science” and “Religion”: Constructing the Boundaries’ The Journal of Religion, vol. 86, no. 1 (2006), p88

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