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Faith and Reason Environmentalism

Most public voices, especially the loudest voices, keep hammering at a disingenuous two-track narrative. But there is a third and better way.

(Image: Nagy Arnold/Unsplash.com)

When it comes to planet Earth, climate change, the environment, the popular narrative describes two tracks: those who know the world is in peril and are committed to transforming human societies to meet this threat, and the science deniers or those too greedy to care.

Who wants to be a troglodyte or Scrooge?

Indeed, there are environmental threats, greedy people, and science skeptics but, in fact, there’s a third track that’s rarely articulated, even within Christianity, a track that’s consistent with Christian beliefs and compatible with historical and scientific evidence.

The dominant track today could be called practical atheism, promoting policies that have the effect of reducing the status of human beings in relation to other living thing, and defining human rights without reference to a Creator or an eternal destiny. Many Christians and other believers acquiesce to this culturally dominant track to the degree that they support organizations and causes that promote such policies.

Some assert this dominant track promotes humanism. If so, it’s a human-disparaging version of “humanism”, not the classical version.

The third track, the track of faith and reason, encompasses those who value science and desire to be responsible stewards of planet Earth while giving priority to human needs and human suffering. They assert an eternal destiny and human rights that derive from the Creator. The words of Jesus give direction as to how faith and reason understand the natural world and humankind:

Look at the birds in the sky; they do not so or reap, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they?…Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them.” (Mt 10: 28) “Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Mt 10: 29)

Practical atheists and reasoning believers can agree on many environmental measures but there are important differences between these perspectives when it comes to humanity and planet Earth.

Practical atheism asserts that environmental policy, social justice, and world security can only be achieved by adopting social and economic systems regulated by experts. Faith and reason assert that human beings have an eternal destiny, that liberty is a gift of the Creator, and that environmental stewardship, social justice, and world security are, in the first place, outcomes of good formation and individual virtue.

There’s a difference between scientific certainty—the speed of light, the law of gravity, the chemical equation for water—and a consensus at the present time based on models or probabilities (i.e., Earth’s climate in 30 or 50 years). Practical atheism may advance desired policies by representing scientific consensus to be the same as scientific certainty. Faith and reason acknowledge the difference between scientific certainty and consensus science, valuing consensus science while considering informed contrary views because many now-esteemed scientists became famous by challenging the consensus of their day.

Practical atheism suggests that if we detect a pollutant in the environment it is necessarily dangerous. Faith and reason understand that because we can now detect pollutants in the environment in amounts a million or more times lower than we could 50 years ago, detection by itself doesn’t necessarily signify danger to humans or the environment; that is, detection increasing requires context.

Practical atheism suggests that free markets are environmental threats. Faith and reason consider the evidence that water, air, and habitats in representative governments with free markets are cleaner than top down, autocratic societies. Thus, pushing energy production, the mining of rare earth metals for batteries and solar panels, to autocratic states is environmentally counter-productive. An example of this is Germany, phasing out nuclear energy and coal, ostensibly an exemplar of environmental responsibility. Germany is increasingly dependent on environmentally murky Russia for its natural gas supply.

How much sense does this make when we know that environmental sloppiness in one country affects other countries?

Practical atheism increasingly promotes policies with the affect that the minutest environmental impact is more consequential than human needs.  Faith and reason hold that human needs should take priority over modest environmental impacts.

Practical atheism discounts technology advancements when considering the impact of big infrastructure projects to meet diverse water needs. Faith and reason adherents know better than to put blind faith in technology while recognizing we can now treat and convey ocean water to parched and fire-stricken communities with modest impact on the environment.

Most public voices, especially the loudest voices, keep hammering at a disingenuous two-track narrative, a contest between the caring science-affirming and the greedy science-deniers, a narrative that doesn’t square with the evidence. Why wouldn’t believers and their leaders pay greater heed to a faith and reason approach to planet Earth?


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About Thomas M. Doran 80 Articles
Thomas M. Doran is the author of the Tolkien-inspired Toward the Gleam (Ignatius Press, 2011), The Lucifer Ego, and Kataklusmos (2020). He has worked on hundreds of environmental and infrastructure projects, was president of Tetra Tech/MPS, was an adjunct professor of engineering at Lawrence Technological University, and is a member of the College of Fellows of The Engineering Society of Detroit.

7 Comments

  1. Very few if any homilies or sermons are directed at stewardship or subsidiary much less patriarchy that defines the roles, responsibilities and authority of individual Christians (and good pagans) within their sphere of influence. The two track narratives exists only because the Church has joined the debate on one side of pagans or the other side of pagans at the expense of the charter given to us as stewards of the earth.

  2. Jesus’ words in Matthew 10 are about his disciples, not about “humankind”. I do wish more Catholics would learn the difference between the church and the world. A good start would be to think about the meaning of the words we find in Scripture, instead of using them as props for whatever we wish to advocate.

  3. This essay ends rather anti-climactically by not going further in its intended purpose to highlight having faith and reason play in one’s thought and action on the ongoing climate emergency that we humans collectively face. Why could the author not mention the social teachings of the church on this matter which is clearly based on faith and reason? Why could he notinvite his readers to take up and read – and live in faith by applying – the 2015 encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Si, On the Care for Out Common Home?

    • The word count for papal encyclicals from 1878 to 1978 averaged between 4,000-10,000 words. Pope Francis has averaged 30,000 per encyclical, and Laudato Si pencils in at 43,000 words. While all of the 16 Documents of Vatican II combined come in with a total of only 103,014 words…

      Without in any way discounting the response of Laudato Si to a most complex and even cultural situation, is the document’s lasting influence too-much compromised by being accelerated to influence the (political) Paris Climate Accord? Still the work of too many different hands—a stamp collection?
      How, in a more distilled way, to clearly affirm the more distinct moral (not ideological) message, that: (a) given incomplete science and “modeled” trajectories, and (b) given imperfect public and private policy options, (c) the Catholic Social Teaching (CST), nevertheless, urges near-term prudential judgments/actions much more respectful of our common home, of vulnerable populations, and of future generations? In response to likely and irreversible ecological tipping points, a stitch in time saves nine, perhaps?

      A too-utilitarian approach toward the natural ecology also cheats us of a more sacral sense of wonder and stewardship toward what is, after all, God’s creation. (194 words!)

  4. The answers to the questions posed in the article are not very complicated. Practical atheism is pervasive even in the minds of those who think of themselves as believers, and it is never an innocent oversight.
    I believe God personally allowed me a long period of outright atheism in my youth in order to learn from the experience. Atheism is not limited to a disbelief in God’s existence. It includes those moments we abuse Him and define Him down to our preferred image, which includes every time we sin where we, temporarily at least, redefine Him as a Being excusing our self-serving proclivity. One can even be the highest of prelates and engage in this behavior publicly.
    Human ideologies are created to create gravitational momentum where moral displacement becomes ready made for millions. The fantasy of animal rights, a phenomenon that cannot exist among non-organizing creatures, is a displacement for avoiding the proper understanding and coherent questions regarding our moral obligations for honorable and caring husbandry. Secular progressives tend to distrust if not hate the very word morality. It’s hard to find chest thumping “animal lovers” who actually treat their own pets decently.
    On a larger scale, moral and guilt repression has been brewing collectively among a billion or more pro-aborts throughout the world for decades. What better way to expiate this repression than to exaggerate environmental concerns exponentially as to make such things as population control, especially abortion, actually seem benevolent? We used to have a Catholic religion that understood such things as moral displacement. Our Lord spoke about it, or was He too subtle? Today we witness numerous prelates rushing up to microphones quick to display a complete absence of Catholic wisdom on public policy.

  5. There is no climate emergency, crisis, or catastrophe at present, and there is none on the horizon. Thinking so is, at best, being misinformed, and at worst, it is being manipulative and dishonest. Doomsayers have been predicting the end of the world for the past 50 years, and it hasn’t happened yet. We have a spiritual responsibility to neither participate in nor propagate falsehoods. Honor truth, not propaganda, and go faithfully and fearlessly about your business.

  6. Climate change is a result of junk science based on flawed computer models and a reductionist mindset promoted by deluded doomsters with an ecological purity complex!

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