What Republicans Mean When They Compare Climate Change to Religion

Last week, Texas Republican Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal comparing climate change to religion. Smith argues that the “facts alone,” and not preordained ideological commitments, should inform U.S. climate policy. We need “open debate and critical thinking,” says Smith, which are fundamental to the scientific process and democratic deliberation. Smith couldn’t be more right, or more hypocritical.

Comparing climate change to religion has become a go-to GOP talking point during the run-up to next year’s elections. Painting climate science and proposed reforms as “articles of faith” allows Republicans to avoid criticism for their political inaction. It reduces a deeply consequential scientific consensus about global risk to the culture war rhetoric of cable news.

The strategy is not new. In a much-cited 2003 speech, science fiction superstar Michael Crichton took a break from dinosaur DNA to pontificate on environmentalism as “the religion of choice for urban atheists.” Emory professor Paul Rubin (also in the Wall Street Journal) and former Australian Prime Minister John Howard have both likened environmentalism to religion. More recently, so have writers for the American Thinker, Science 2.0, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The basic premise of these comparisons is that extreme environmentalists exhibit some hallmark features of religion: rituals and taboos (such as recycling or avoiding meat); apocalyptic beliefs (global ruin due to climate change); and ideals rooted in an Edenic past (Earth before humans).

These metaphors are powerful. They influence our perception of the news by providing familiar cognitive templates for sorting out complex issues. Linguistics researchers Dimitrinka Atanasova and Nelya Koteyko recently documented how religious terms like “crusaders,” “conversion,” and “recant,” dominate media coverage of climate change, diverting focus from the scientific analyses at hand.

There are indeed some parallels between environmentalism and religion, but these reflect more basic universals of human psychology and society. Rituals, ethics, ideals, and essential thinking are to be found in almost any human collective, whether under the roof of a church, mosque, sports arena, or national political convention. Simple metaphors miss this nuance, sometimes strategically. The recent GOP strategy is to point out superficially religious elements of environmentalism and, by way of loose association, assign ideological bias to the incontrovertible scientific evidence of climate change.

Lamar Smith’s op-ed is a textbook example of this strategy. He cherry-picks examples of climate scientists using religious terms, citing former U.N. climate official Rajendra Pachauri, who has likened sustainability to his religion and dharma. Pachauri did so as part of a charged emotional incident—he was resigning as chair of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change after a sexual harassment scandal—but even then, it’s not unusual to use religious terms to describe one’s commitment to a calling. Religious language is a common way to say that something is uniquely important to a person’s life. It doesn’t necessarily come with anti-scientific ideological baggage.

Smith’s most damning critique of Climate-Change Religion is that it ignores the facts, uncritically repeating disproven claims:

In its 2012 Special Report on Extreme Events, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says there is “high agreement” among leading experts that long-term trends in weather disasters are not attributable to human-caused climate change. Why do the president and others in his administration keep repeating this untrue claim?

According to Smith, science indicates that human activity does not influence weather disasters, yet the ideological of environmentalism ignores this fact. Out of curiosity, we went to the IPCC’s 2012 Special Report. We read, searched, and scanned, and could not find a single iota of support for Smith’s claims.

What we did find was the opposite. From the report’s summary Fact Sheet: “Natural climate variability and human-generated climate change influence the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, and duration of some extreme weather and climate events.” The report foresees further increases in extreme weather and climate events over the rest of the 21st century. Is Congressman Smith cherry picking data again? Or is he fabricating data whole cloth? Either way, Smith is engaged in the very anti-scientific thinking that he ostensibly derides.

Tu quoque,” says the climate denier, “You, too, are motivated by ideology instead of the facts.” Meanwhile, the world is burning.

  • Whiskyjack

    Analogies only work if there is a strong resemblance between the two items being compared. The climate change-religion analogy fails miserably because it neglects the massive amount of data that support those who see the climate actually changing. Religion, on the other hand, has absolutely no empirical support. There is a difference between choosing to believe and being persuaded by overwhelming amounts of data.

  • Evan Berry

    I want to thank the authors for bringing close analytical attention to this issue, which is something I have been thinking and writing about for some time. As a scholar of religion, there is more to this analogy than meets the eye, but what is “accurate” about the analogy is likely very different from what those conservatives who level it as a criticism mean when they do so. Science is primarily an epistemological referent that describes how knowledge is socially developed, tested, and put to use. So when Whiskeyjack or others use claims of knowledge to differentiate between religion and science, they overlook the emphasis placed here on the “function” of religion. This is a Durkheimian view of things that insists that religions are social processes by which moral norms are inscribed into communities through ritual processes. There has been a lot of great scholarship about how environmental movements ritualistically produce moral communities (e.g. Bron Taylor, Whitney Sanford, Belden Lane).

    The problem is, though, that the very same conservative voices that espouse this claim about “climate change activists” are, for the most part, themselves religious people. They do not, I assume, accept a Durkheimian theoretical view about what makes something religious. The ambiguous and misleading charge that “environmentalism is like a religion” requires two additional caveats in order for it to become anything like a salient critique. First, there have to be such things as “true” and “false” religions such that the “religion of climate change” can be described as akin to a cult. Second, the suggestion that “the religion of climate change” is a “false” religion requires some notion that religious assertions are not fit for the public sphere. In other words, the suggestion here seems to be that the “beliefs” of climate change activists are politically problematic because they intrude on the private religious commitments of others. I would also assume that most conservative opponents of climate change legislation would hesitate before taking the further step of invalidating climate change “belief” because of its specific religious character. Do they really want to suggest that public discourse is less legitimate when it is religious?

    A final word about climate change “belief.” The conservative critique of environmental religiosity is only a winning one as long as everyone, especially those in the media, concede that climate change is something in which people either do or do not “believe.” As a social theorist, I think that environmental movements are very much like religious movements–those similarities are the bread and butter of my own scholarship. However, those similarities ought not be confused with the fact that climate science is still science. People can “drink the koolaid” about various visions of the human future (stupidly optimistic or pessimistic ones, mostly), but people do not “believe” in the basic science of global warming. Those specific claims are predicated on knowing or not knowing.

  • Kyle Sager

    Andrew, I’m finding it useful to begin distinguishing between “conservatives” and “deniers.” Deniers are trying desperately to own conservationism and failing. Grass-roots conversation on climate seems to be productively crossing the aisle.

    I also am noticing the denial camp amp up use of “religion” rhetoric. I have found it useful to point out that those deniers are pretending to be conservative while basically badmouthing religion. There is nothing remotely compromising in their use of the word. They can try an tip-toe around what they just said all day long; won’t fix it. The language drips with derision suggesting, “Religion is bad.” I have a lot of conservative friends who always want to talk intelligently about the issues – They see it, too.

  • Craptacular

    “Either way, Smith is engaged in the very anti-scientific thinking that he ostensibly derides.” – From the article

    Rep. Smith is an elected corporate shill that knows those who believe him will not look up the facts and those that disbelieve him will not be heard by those that do. It allows Smith to argue against those that oppose him, rather than having to argue about the facts.

  • Jim Reed

    Do those conservatives who talk intelligently think the world is getting warmer due to humans through things like greenhouse gases? Or do they think more study is needed because they know lots of scientists that disagree with the other scientists who are studying it?