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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Green Religion

Aug 21, 2019

When people stop believing in God, they do not become irreligious – they simply find new gods to worship.

Everyone is religious. Christians are religious. Hindus are religious. Muslims are religious. And believe it or not, atheists are also religious, as are secular humanists and others. Everyone has a set of beliefs and values that they live their life by. If a person does not believe in and worship the one true God, then they will find another god.

Often that god is self – or some cause that people devote their lives to, or some belief that they commit themselves to. They will give themselves over to some ultimate explanation of life, some moral cause, or some purpose greater than themselves.

Such belief systems, philosophies, or worldviews serve “to interpret the universe for them, to guide their moral decisions, to give meaning and purpose to life, and all the other functions normally associated with religion” as Nancy Pearcey puts it. Thus there is such a thing as secular religions.

In the West today we find countless people who have rejected Christianity but have not stopped being religious. They have simply substituted other gods for the God of the Bible. They still want their life to have meaning and purpose. They still have a sense of making atonement of some kind for their various failings and shortcomings. They still have guilt feelings that they seek to deal with.

Thus they will often find substitute religious causes to join. These groups have secular versions of biblical themes such as some sort of beginning, a fall, sin, redemption, and eschatology. These counterfeit religions give these folks a sense of meaning and fulfillment. That is because they are in fact made in the image of God, and if it is not the true God that they worship and follow, then they will make up their own.

One of the big god-substitutes of today is the green religion. Many people who have rejected more traditional religion have embraced environmentalism as their big picture belief system. It gives them a sense of belonging and purpose, and it assuages their guilt. It has its own version of the biblical story line.

So it has a view of beginnings (an original pristine Mother Earth or Gaia); a fall (mankind, or at least Western man’s abuse of the environment); sin (capitalism, “unclean” energy sources, using plastic bags, not recycling, using nuclear energy, etc); salvation, redemption, or atonement (just reverse the above: socialism, wind power, banning plastic bags, recycling, banning nuclear energy, etc); and eschatology (meeting climate change goals, population reduction, and the like).

Many commentators have pointed all this out. Let me mention just one important thinker who was making this case in the early 1980s. In 1983 American sociologist Robert Nisbet wrote an article in the American Spectator entitled “Modern Man and the Obsession”. In it he said this:

As an historian, I am obliged by the record of the Western past to see Environmentalism — of the kind espoused by the Commoners and the Ehrlichs — as the third great wave of redemptive struggle in Western history; the first being Christianity, the second modern socialism.

The appeal of Environmentalism, in its more extreme manifestations at least, becomes irresistible to that permanent cadre of political and social radicals Western society has nurtured ever since the French Revolution. This cadre has never been primarily interested in the protection of nature, but if such a movement carries with it even the possibility of political and social revolution, it is well that the cadre join it; which, starting with the late 1960s, it did.

In its more militant and aggressive manifestations Environmentalism has become a social movement devoted increasingly to political, social, and economic ends. More and more, in both structure and aim, Environmentalism resembles other fundamentally revolutionary movements in Western religious and political history.

Good points. But this article was based on part of a book he had penned a year earlier. In his 1982 book Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary, Nisbet had incisively made this case that environmentalism has become the third great redemptive movement in human history, following Christianity and Marxism.

Image of Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary
Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary by Robert Nisbet Amazon logo

Indeed, said Nisbet, it has its notions of sin, guilt and redemption, its sacred texts and its venerated leaders. And like all false religions, radical environmentalism has its share of zealots. He is well worth quoting from. Consider his opening paragraph:

‘From the Gospel of Capitalist Efficiency to the Gospel of Utopianism’ would serve very well as subtitle here. It is entirely possible that when the history of the twentieth century is finally written, the single most important social movement of the period will be judged to be environmentalism. Beginning early in the century as an effort by a few far-seeing individuals in America to bring about the prudent use of natural resources in the interest of extending economic growth as far into the future as possible, the environmentalist cause has become today almost a mass movement, its present objective little less than the transformation of government, economy, and society in the interest of what can only be properly called the liberation of nature from human exploitation. Environmentalism is now well on its way to becoming the third great wave of redemptive struggle in Western history, the first being Christianity, the second modern socialism. In its way, the dream of a perfect physical environment has all the revolutionary potential that lay both in the Christian vision of mankind redeemed by Christ and in the socialist, chiefly Marxian, prophecy of mankind freed from social injustice.

Consider the issue of sacred texts in the movement:

All mass movements must have their sacred texts: the New Testament for Christians, the Manifesto or Capital for socialists. It is perhaps too early to identify authoritatively the sacred text for all environmentalists in their struggle for the millennium, but at the moment it would appear to be Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962. Carson’s prediction of earth’s doom unless all chemical fertilizers and pesticides were banned immediately had, for the preservationists, the same electric quality given off two thousand years before by Christian preachings and, more than a century before, by Marx’s Manifesto. It was a short step from Carson’s dithyramb of desolation to the position that what is really corrupting of man and earth is technology itself, and nowhere more odiously than within the capitalist industrial system.

He mentions how the early environmentalists were quite different from what they are today. He concludes this way:

In less than a century, however, environmentalism has become, without losing its eliteness of temper, a mass socialist movement of, not fools, but sun worshippers, macrobiotics, forest druids, and nature freaks generally, committed by course if not yet by fully shared intent to the destruction of capitalism.

Taken over the long run, the sin of environmentalism as we know it so stridently today lies in the created myth that nature has become. We are lulled into the belief that nature is benign, above all innocent. The ridiculous conception of human nature that Rousseau and his descendants advanced is matched by the conception of nature as mild in stream and forest. But one would do better to think of nature as Mount Saint Helens, a raging tornado, an unending drought, an earthquake, incessant visits of locusts, ants, and lice, and regular attacks of everything from famine to smallpox. That is how our forefathers saw nature. Only in an age of high and ubiquitous technology is it possible to think differently.

Let me finish by saying two things. One, there is no question that many of the radical greens can properly be called religious zealots. Just think of how fervently and religiously they push their cause, tout their beliefs, and recruit followers or disciples. I have known many who have made a religious faith out of their environmentalism.

Indeed, I think of one individual who used to be a keen Christian, but she seems to have thrown all that away as she has latched onto a single-issue leftist/greens agenda item. She still has religious zeal and commitment, but sadly it seems it is now all for this political agenda, and not for the cause of Jesus Christ.

Two, yes of course, Christians are called to be good stewards of the environment. This is the world which God has made, and we are meant to exercise responsible stewardship over it. We are not to worship planet earth, but we are to care for it. An earlier article discusses this further, and offers some helpful books on the matter: billmuehlenberg.com/2009/11/12/recommended-reading-on-the-environment-and-climate/

As those titles make clear, there are many ways we can be good stewards of the world we live in without succumbing to the utopianism, anti-humanism, nature-worship, and religious mysticism of the radical greens.

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9 Responses to Green Religion

  • Great article, Bill. Thanks. Yes, I often hear the phrase the ‘greens religion’ from conservative commentators. It seems to me that as people turned away from believing in the one true God, the next goal to give themselves to was to ‘save the planet’. It was their ‘call’ to give value something higher than themselves, to work tirelessly for the salvation of the planet for the coming generations. Yes, sounds like a ‘religion’ to me. Yet, somehow, I keep thinking of the Golden Calf.

  • Thanks Bill, timely for me, as I have been thinking about this stuff for a while, having come upon an example close to home recently.

    As I see it there is always a lot of hope generated within a new movement.
    We have seen this e.g. with Socialism making rules for everyone to live by,
    with “Education will solve the problems”,
    with the capitalism; throwing money at things,
    with democracy letting the people choose what is right and wrong,
    with meditation; looking for the truth within, etc etc,
    and indeed every ideal that one can think of.

    But they all fail.

    Environmentalism will fail.
    It will fail for exactly the same reason that all the others have failed.

    They have all failed because they are humanistic, because they refuse to admit the fundamental problem of the unsolvable corruption of human nature.

    The Hebrew nation could not live up to the rules of God, so they made more and more rules, drowned in them, and still failed to achieve either a clear conscience, or a righteous nation.
    They got so close, but they failed; full marks for trying. Well, sorry, not full marks!

    Even their own books talk about the need for a new heart, and a new spirit, both of which are gifts of God, Ezek. 36.26 but mostly they did not properly find out how to access those gifts.

    In Jesus, we are able to access both the problem and the solution.
    We are finally able to face the fact of our own sin, of our own corruption, of our own absolute inability to do anything effective about it.
    We are also, by the grace of God, able to enjoy the magnificent pardon for all our sins, and enjoy the gift of a new spirit within us that not only desires not to sin, but is empowered to live by a new rule of a relationship with the Holy One.

    Environmentalism is a hope for many, but a false hope and in the end a sour hope, disallusion.

  • Dear Bill ,

    Thank you for the excellent article.

    When people turn against our dear Lord Jesus Christ they will believe in ANYTHING.They do this in a desperate attempt to fill the emptiness. That is why environmentalists are so zealous but their enthusiasm is all in vain because only Jesus can satisfy the longings of the human heart. As St Augustine said ‘Our hearts are made for you O God and they are restless until they rest in You.’

  • This article just turned the lights on for me. Now I understand what this is about. It also brings more understanding to the looney left. All the activism is simply “works” to be a “good person” which we all know there is no goodness other than Christ.

  • As believers in Jesus part of who we are is to not be greedy or gluttonous and includes not only our food (the one i struggle with 🙁 ) it includes our natural resources, water, trees, animals, oil, gemstones etc. Yet our first responsibility is to do what God’s Word calls us to and too imitate Jesus in all things.

  • Agreed, when as a young man about 35 years ago I began to seriously read the Bible and I was struck by the OT laws regarding the care of animals & the land. The environment matters of course but when it is taken to extremes things get crazy (And the same can be said of Capitalism, Socialism etc). And as you point out things become worshipped and adored instead of the Creator & Redeemer.

    We cannot serve both God & money & neither can we serve both God & nature. But by serving God, both money & nature may have their rightful and functional place in this fading world subject to decay and still in great need of redemption despite technological advancement there is “nothing new under the sun.”

  • Thanks, Bill and all commenters.
    I am currently reading Rupert Darwall, who wrote two books on the climate change scam, tracing its history “The Age of Global Warming: A History” https://www.amazon.com.au/Age-Global-Warming-History-ebook/dp/B00D5RJ0W4/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=rupert+darwall&qid=1566557736&s=digital-text&sr=1-2‘ and then how the environment movement was politicised in “Green Tyranny: Exposing the Totalitarian Roots of the Climate Industrial Complex” https://www.amazon.com.au/Green-Tyranny-Exposing-Totalitarian-Industrial-ebook/dp/B07FZ9C5HT/ref=sr_1_1keywords=rupert+darwall&qid=1566557736&s=digital-text&sr=1-1
    I am reading them in the wrong order but both are thoroughly researched, well-footnoted documentaries, giving valuable insights into the roots of environmentalism.

    He even traces the spiritual origins among the German theologians like Nietzsche [who lost his faith, such as it was, and led astray the west into thinking too much of man and not enough of God (thus the so-called “God is dead” theology, following the lines of Hegel and Feuerbach)].

    So Neitzsche’s “uber-mensch” or “superior-man” became the society which could solve all of its problems internally. Later politicians like Mussolini and Hitler took up this theme into nature worship, libertinism, and ultimately the superior race business that led to the horrors of WW2.

    Yes, indeed, the many-headed hydra which is false religion…
    Bruce K, it’s not capitalism that throws money at everything, but governmentalism (the revival of Plato’s philosopher-kings).

    A wise old pastor once summarised the Ten Commandments thusly:
    A Worship God
    B Love People
    C Use Things

    And don’t mix them up.

  • thought you might appreciate this….and no its not a joke!. A friend has been talking about this happening or being proposed for months now. It really defies belief (the daily mail do a much more catching headline but all I could find was msn !)

    https://www.msn.com/en-nz/news/other/swedish-professor-suggests-cannibalism-could-help-fight-climate-change/ar-AAGUTfY

  • Thanks Gavin – yes nutjob deluxe!

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