Can Religion Professors Save the Planet?

This past weekend the New York Times ran a column—”Setting Aside a Scholarly Get-Together, For the Planet’s Sake“—about the American Academy of Religion’s new commitment to battling climate change.

In Oppenheimer’s piece we learn that the president of the AAR, Laurie Zoloth, believes we should take a “sabbatical” from our annual national meetings by simply deciding not to meet every seventh year.

The purpose of such a break from the rhythms of conventional academic life would be to lighten the carbon load on the planet, since these annual national meetings, attended by well in excess of 9,000 attendees, require significant national and international air travel, nearly a week’s stay in hotels—not known for their commitment to a “green” environmental ethic—as well as increasingly cavernous convention centers, similarly unknown for their dedication to energy conservation, locavore provisioning or sustainability.

More than that, we learn that Zoloth was responsible for pressing program chairs at this year’s annual meeting to focus their sessions on “environment, ecology or related issues.” Nearly a third of this year’s meetings sessions dealt with precisely those topics. A success for President Zoloth.

While I have been a life-long environmentalist, and a believer in the real dangers of man-made climate change, Professor Zoloth’s proposal, and moreover, the ethos from which it emerges, tells us everything we need to know about the malaise poisoning the study of religion in the university.

In place of open-ended questioning, unbridled curiosity and pursuit of understanding, Zoloth’s leadership would have us set about to solve one of the gravest problems facing humanity. What could be wrong with that?

I believe that most of this effort is misguided, however well-intended. But I’ll start with what’s right about it, even if it might be for the wrong reasons: The Times article lauded Robert P. Jones’ study of the correlation between religious affiliation and attitudes to climate change. (White Protestant men – the GOP base? – were most skeptical of human influence upon climate change, for instance.)

Now, while such information does advance understanding, such studies are almost never done under the auspices of the AAR, an organization made up of theologians and humanists. The Society of the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR), meanwhile, is populated mostly by empirical psychologists, political scientists, mainline sociologists, social psychologists and historians. The AAR, and the intellectual ethos it encourages, can hardly claim credit for the kind of useful information provided by Jones’ polling, since it eschews precisely the empirical methods and scientific ethos typical of the SSSR.

The real problem is that Zoloth has been drawn in by the challenge of her scientist colleagues at Northwestern, who apparently asked what the study of religion was doing about climate change.

Naturally, anyone would want to defend their discipline from the charge of being insensitive to a massive global problem. But, think again. Aside from volunteering religious studies students for enrollment in basic science courses, or organizing campus progressive political clubs to work harder to elect “green” candidates to public office, perhaps asking a religious studies professor to do something about climate change is absurd, or at the very least, peripheral.

Does such a challenge pass a preliminary test of likely utility? Must every discipline have some significant contribution to make to every social problem we face?

Maybe, as an academic discipline we ought to be show a little more humility. As much as we find it irresistible to pontificate, maybe there are times when a particular academic discipline needs to get out of the way and let those better placed get on with the work.

Am I being too harsh? Am I, in fact, countering my own proposal that we need “open-ended questioning, unbridled curiosity and pursuit of understanding”? Why shut the door on seeing how the study of religion can contribute to defeating climate change?

Well, two reasons come immediately to mind. First, as long as the study of religion is seen as a humanity or theology, and not social science, the kind of significant results obtained by social scientists will not be forthcoming.

Second, if we are to judge by reports of AAR papers and sessions responding to the challenge of Zoloth’s Northwestern science colleagues, the results cannot be encouraging. Oppenheimer lists, for example: “Strategic Essentialism as a Tactical Approach to an Eco-Feminist Ideology”; “The Staying Power Of Zen Buddhist Oxherding Pictures”; and “The Path Has a Mind of Its Own: Echo-Agri Pilgrimage to the Corn Maze Performance–An Exercise of Cross Species Sociality.” Worthy papers, in their respective areas, but not likely to halt the shrinking of polar ice caps.


I find it hard not to conclude, after all this, that the study of religion, as reflected in the policies of the AAR, has simply lost its way. If the AAR thinks the main way the study of religion should move forward is for it to hitch itself to the latest star in the universe of social causes, it has ceased being an academic discipline: it has ceased conceiving research projects and teaching courses that have an integrity of their own.

What are the main questions that the study of religion should address? Are there problems of religion in the same sense as there are sociological (not “social”) problems, as Peter Berger has shown, or perennial problems of philosophy, as Bertrand Russell insisted? I have argued elsewhere that there are.

Finally, as a political progressive of many years standing, I too care about issues like climate change. But, I wonder why we progressives lack the kind of social activist leadership to mount such campaigns.

Yes, there are many who labor in these vineyards, and who do so nobly. Think only of our public health workers fighting Ebola in West Africa. Real heroes. But, where are the great figures who can articulate a compelling vision around, say, climate change? Al Gore tried, but then disappeared, deciding to get rich as a media wheeler-dealer. Have other social activist leaders lost their focus too?

I worry about this because of the ease today of blurring the distinction between social activism and other occupations—in this case, the university. As long as one feels one can do social activism with the security of tenure from the classroom, then one never fully commits to one or the other. Hence, we get academics who are part-time activists, and activists who are full or part-time academics: our academic life grows corrupt as the leadership of our social movements grows distracted.

Martin Luther King, Jr. did not make that mistake. Even though his PhD from Boston University would have placed him in the academic stream, he decided to devote himself completely to the liberation struggle. Our nation is immeasurably better for King’s ability to see these distinctions so clearly: one wishes our own leaders in the AAR could share this vision.


[Note: this post has been updated with a link to Professor Strenski’s article in Method & Theory in the Study of Religion: “Why It is Better to Know Some of the Questions than All of the Answers.”]

Photo by @PdeMenocal


  •' Jim Reed says:

    Should religion care about climate change? What should religion care about? What is religion? It might be hard to come to any conclusions unless we can first establish the basics of religion, what is it? If we start from that point, then once we have established what religion is, the next question might turn out to be should we continue any farther down the religion pathway? Maybe the only way to make any progress in the religion area is to first obscure the basics of what religion is so that those points won’t get in the way of wherever we want to go next with it, especially since there is bound to be profound disagreement over what the direction should be.

  •' cken says:

    I bet most religious professors don’t even know there is no such thing a centrifugal force how then are they qualified to comment on the scientism of global warming.

  •' polistra24 says:

    Yes! When religion professors work in seminaries, they are EFFECTIVELY spreading their Satanic evil into the young minds of unfortunate innocent students who mistakenly believe they’re studying religion.

    If religion professors try to work among the highly specialized genocidal criminals of “Climate” “Science”, they will be out of their depth, rowing against the infinite arrogance of infinitely evil monsters like Michael Mann. They will be completely INEFFECTIVE.

    This won’t save the world, but it will put a noticeable dent in the warp-speed acceleration of raw bloody evil.

  •' aed939 says:

    Carbon is the primary dry weight mass of life (we are all “carbon units,” as they say in Star Trek), so CO2 can be seen as the compound of life in gas form. Restrictions on CO2 from the air can thus be seen as anti-life in the same way as murder, abortion, euthanasia, etc.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    This article has a great picture. Can religious professors save the planet? It can’t hurt to try.

  • not quite my point, but a good one

  • would you say the same for our Fatburger natures?

  • yep. we pay next no attention to such issues, not that that exhaust the syllabus of problems provoked by religions and the study of religion. consider this: do religions featuring a goddess really produce different sorts of devotees (e.g. more or less violent) than those featuring a deity in male form? These day most colleagues would say ‘yes.’ but check things out more thoroughly. you’d be surprised.

  • as i said, i think: encourage our students to enroll in basic science courses

  •' Andre M says:

    I can’t tell if this is a joke or not.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Religion is designed so that you can probably get any answer or conclusion you want since it is based on not considering the facts. Science does require looking for and using the facts, so it would probably provide a better method to study any religious issue than religion could. The only thing religion does better than science is lie, but they have had a lot of practice at it.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    How about politics? Are countries led by a woman more or less likely to start wars than countries led by men?

  • Yes, politics too. Ask th e Sikhs about Indirs Gandhi or the Palestinians About Golda.

  • We are also all meat. Does that mean protecting hamburger joints?

  •' Andre M says:

    Sorry, I actually meant aed939’s comment. Yours was funny.

  •' chris crews says:

    Ivan, I want to applaud you for engaging in this important discussion, but I can’t help but feel that your comment are both off base and ill informed. As someone whose academic and personal work is located directly at the intersections of the emerging field of religion and ecology, and who has presented work at AAR, including this year, on exactly this topic, I can assure you there are many folks coming from the social and natural sciences that are not only interested in this question–what is the relationship between religious thought and ecological issues–but who are also generating important scholarship and activism around climate change and other “green” issues, broadly construed.

    For example, the Religion and Ecology group within AAR has consistently brought together a broad mix of scholars and activists interested in, studying, and writing about this topic. At the recent climate march here in NYC, where I am based, communities of faith were central players in not only mobilizing people to stand up for climate activism, but to articulate this explicitly through their own faith perspectives.

    Furthermore, there are a growing number of cross-disciplinary initiatives like the Forum on Religion and Ecology (FORE) at Yale, The Center for the Study of Science and Religion (CSSR) at Columbia, The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS) at the Graduate Theological Union, and the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture (ISSRNC) that clearly show the relevance and growing interest in how religion and ecology interface.

    Furthermore, much of the literature on sacred landscapes in an international perspective, as well as the growing inter-connections between communities of faith and environmental activism–the greening of religion if you will–has been about explicitly articulating a new ecological politics grounded in diverse religious ontologies. And these movements in the major religious faiths (Abrahamic, Buddhist and Hindu) have paralleled the rise of a more politically engaged confluence of indigenous and earth-centered traditions (animism, Gaian politics, paganism, etc) calling for a new relationship with the planet–the Earth Charter, the Rights of Mother Earth, the politics of Pachamama, etc.

    One of the keynote speakers last year at the AAR was Wendel Berry, and his talk was precisely about connecting religious faith with ecological activism. One of the side event tours last year was a river tour of the Chesapeake Bay with local activists, scientists and Riverkeepers, talking about how religious communities, scientists and conservationists are working together to restore the local ecosystem and fight for better jobs there.

    So when I hear you say that academics need to pick the classroom or the street, or that somehow religion and ecology (or climate change specifically) might not have much to do with each other, all I can say is, huh? I would suggest that the problem is not that these issues are not relevant to the AAR community, or are not being addressed, but rather that many mainstream religious studies scholars–perhaps yourself included–are just not paying attention. Everywhere I look I see the intersection of religious activism and climate activism.

    Are we seeing two different worlds,or is something else at work here?

  •' Jim Reed says:

    That is great, but we see the world through the eyes of the exit polls, and the polls say the more often someone goes to church the more likely they are to vote conservative, and that means favoring the rich who are profitting from the current setup of sacrificing the earth for extra profit.

    If you can publicly express support for green causes that is good, but it doesn’t mean much unless you can get your fellow religious people to see the damage they have done by selling their soul to the party of the rich and they change their voting patterns and start electing more progressive candidates.

  • i was really writing more about the STUDY of religion, not religion itself

  • Dear Chris,

    You are doing good work, but it is work with the RELIGIONS, and as you virtually say “people of faith,” not the academic study of religion, even though on the AAR program.

    that is the kind of confusion in which the AAR excels.

    Now, i certainly respect your efforts to inform the religions with an ecological ethic/perspective. that they would adopt this, might actually be significant in getting the forces that be moved to do something about the environment. I also respect your desire to learn as much as you can about the religions and theologies in order to speak persuasively to people of faith. your activism is laudable. period.

    But, activism is not the same as academic scholarship. Academics should be congenital skeptics and critics — why Socrates was sentenced to death. Our presence in your groups would be annoying, disruptive and in the end stall your momentum to act. to be sure, we would be just as much pains in the butt to the Koch Bros of this world. Socrates didn’t make anyone comfortable. Universities are not in the business of making anyone comfortable — indeed, just the opposite.

    this is not to say that we in the university should adopt a phony detachment from grave wrongs. Racism is evil, the Holocaust did exist, women should not be treated as second class humans, etc, etc. I would submit anyone in my classes who said otherwise to withering interrogation. But, but, but: I am not in class to [reach or prophesy, but to nurture curiosity and questioninig, even if few of us get much hanks for the effort in a time moved by so many heated — and good — causes..

  •' Jim Reed says:

    I appreciate what you are doing here, especially the concept of universities not being in the business of making anyone comfortable. Hopefully you will continue to educate us on what universities do. I have the greatest respect for the UC system. My life’s biggest mistake was leaving there.

    We have had several professors and assistant professors post articles or responses here on RD. They have done a good job. There might be one thing missing though. Students. My question is would you (or any of the other professors) ever mention or recommend RD to your students, or even have it possibly associated with an assignment at some point? It seems like it would be fun to hear from a professor, and also hear from one or two of his or her students.

  •' Todd LeVasseur says:

    Ivan–hopefully the forthcoming round table I organized for JAAR (out next year), precisely on this issue, will allay some of these concerns you raise. Keep in mind that if our home does indeed go up 4C (a realistic possibility), there will be no university system, and thus no academic turf, to defend or worry about. Lastly, and with respect, but this statement from you, below, “activism is not the same as academic scholarship. Academics should be congenital skeptics and critics — why Socrates was sentenced to death,” can be seen as advocating for a position, or undertaking advocacy work.

  •' chris crews says:

    Many scholars working at the intersections of religion and
    ecology are doing exactly what you suggest is not happening, which is studying how religious views, values, ethics and beliefs inform
    everything from personal actions to international treaties. If I look
    around my shelves I can count at least 5 dozen books published in the
    past 10 years just in English that are explicitly about how religion and
    ecology, or spirituality and climate change, are interacting in the
    world today. These are not just interacting with people of faith, but studying their everyday religious practices and values as well.

    But more generally, I see two fundamental flaws in your argument, which I think speak to a deeper problem and confusion about politics and society today.

    First, the strict separation you seem to want to insist on between people “doing” religion and people “studying” religion is a weak one at best. Yes, there is an entire cadre of academic elite who hold a religious studies, or divinity or similar paper certificates of one stripe or another, but these are not the only people qualified to write about and study religion today. So this makes me wonder, what is your standard for who or what counts as a “real” study of religion, since you seem to suggest that AAR and others are confused about exactly what it is they seem to be doing?

    Second, it seems your criteria for an authentic scholar of religion, if I understand your argument correctly, is that they must be a dispassionate critic who keeps their hands clean and stands above the messy fray of daily politics–or in this case I guess climate activism. Yes, they can teach people to question things and be critical, but they can’t be an active advocate for this or that issue, since that would somehow violate an imagined neutrality–or in your words “congeniality”.

    This is a deeply troubling understanding of how power and ideology actually operate in education today. The modern university is one of the central organs of modern ideological reproduction, and arguably the most important for future elites. While those of us working in the university setting like to assure ourselves that we are teaching people to think critically–and in a handful of cases we are–but the fact remains that the vast majority of our work goes into reproducing and legitimating the existing social, economic, racial and political order–not challenging it.

    As a former classics scholar, and a political theorist, I find your invocation of Socrates a bit amusing here, since I think it actually undermines your point. Socrates was a public intellectual who not only openly challenged the state apparatus and its ideology, but who was willing to die rather than compromise his views (at least if we accept Plato’s narrative).

    Yet I submit if Socrates were here today to take your advise, we should expect him to politely make his case in the agora and then leave, perhaps making a few people uncomfortable in the process, but certainly not risking a cup of hemlock and death. But this is precisely what he refused to do.

    To put Socrates into our context, he should be in the center of the IPCC deliberations condemning climate change inaction and refuting the false academic teachings of unlimited growth and resource consumption taught in every business school and economics department today. And we should expect him to be executed–or perhaps deemed an enemy combatant or homeland security threat and disappeared into a CIA black site–for daring to challenge the status quo publicly.

    You say that “we should not adopt a phony detachment from grave wrongs” in the university, but by saying that academics should not be in the business of doing politics–even while we unconsciously reproduce the dominant ideology every day in our classes–you are by default advocating precisely this politics of “phony detachment”. The ideological power of the university reproduces the power structure which created–and protects–the primary causes of climate change, and as long as academics (religious studies scholars or not) continue to support and participate in this system, we are just as complicit in the politics that we reproduce. There is no “neutral” position an academic can take when it comes to climate. As Todd mentioned in his comment, when we hit 4C, kiss the future of a “congenial” university job goodbye.

  •' chris crews says:

    Actually only a handful of people see the world through the eyes of exit polls, but that is a minor point. If you look at the rise of evangelical greens and the growth of the creation care movement as an example, we are precisely seeing these ideas slowly percolating into the more traditionally skeptical or hostile circles of religious conservatives. The primary roadblock here, at least on my reading of the literature, is not religion per say, but political ideology. In order for the religious community to move more into the green worldview there needs to be a clean break with the gospel of wealth and the logic of dominion, at least in the context of modern Christianity. If that can be done, huge swaths of the religious public would have little brown theological ground to stand on when it comes to environmental issues.

  • Dear Todd,
    I would have been glad to be part of the JAAR Roundtable. Next time?

    Re advocacy: right. The analogy is not perfect. So, let me clarify. I didn’t mean academics need to ignore public events while being teachers. Rather, everything is game BUT,BUT BUT as long as we force students to think hard re their choices, never quite let them get comfortable with their choices, and certainly NOT just be shils for the latest PC POV. This makes it easy for students to suck up by mouthing the right slogans…

    I am sure that you have the experience of the dissident ,typically right wing, student or fundamentalist student hiding away in the back of the class, ignoring discussion, just hoping to get through because they have to take the course for credit to graduate. We do not want to encourage that kind of feeling in the classroom. Everyone should feel that they can speak and have their opinions respected as well as criticized.

    Most of the criticism of the right-thinking PC variety is usually aimed at the left-wing. But, it also applies to right wing dominated subjects.. The same self critical attitude would apply in other subjects, where larger political forces may dominate. Do teachers in Econ depts challenge the socalled “free” market economics?

  • Here’s the deal. The university is unique in that it is one of the only situations in which a safe place is provided for people to speak their minds into argue freely, and not fear retribution for their point of you. Argument, and relentless argument, yes. But retribution and judgment as little as possible. In this sense I like in the safe place that the university provides to the safe environment provided by the psycho analysts office. Some well-intentioned folk fearthat kind of openness, fearing that it might lead to a moral relativizing of things such as occurred with the Noam Chomsky’s defense of the Holocaust deniers.

    But I think it is worth the risk to keep the University as ideology free as possible. I do worry that all my colleagues are on the left — that is in the humanities. I do worry when I hear nasty backbiting of the rare colleague who might be right wing. The same would of course not be true in say, economics or in the sciences engineering and obviously the business school. But we should worry that we are so ideologically like one another. It is not healthy.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    I think there is a lot to be said for discussions on RD. We have been learning to discuss sensitive areas without always having the conversation degrade to insults. That is hard to do on the internet, but I see steady progress over the last 5 years or so. One key point is to remember that we must always keep our sense of humor.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    never quite let them get comfortable with their choices

    That sounds like the right approach. Then if any of the students turn out to be smart enough, they will also not let you get comfortable with your teaching.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    But the religion might be a house of cards, and what seems like a small change might accidentally collapse the entire structure.

  •' chris crews says:

    Perhaps, but I guess I have faith–no pun intended–that there is no inherent conflict between religious values and caring for the Earth. Yes, we can argue that certain interpretations of faith might not jive, but that is just one strain, rather than the whole shebang.

    So for example, based on my research on Young Earth Creationism or fundamentalist political groups like the Cornwall Alliance, we could say they will never embrace the Earth system science driving climate change research (billions of years, evolution, etc) or reject the belief that human dominion gives us the right to destroy the planet for the benefit of humanity. But both of those religious tendencies could disappear overnight and Christianity would still be intact.

    It’s not like we are asking people to embrace some global eco-cosmopolitanism which rejects all beliefs in a supernatural creator deity as a prerequisite to some new environmental future. If anything, the future is a mix of religious syncretism and inter-faith poly-vocalism.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    You would think Christianity would still be intact, but it might be more complicated than that. What is Christianity? I guess we should forget the young earth creationism part. Does Christianity depend on a literal heaven and hell? What about the second coming? We might have to also drop those parts. With no end times, rapture, second coming we might also end up questioning if Jesus is really historical. Can Christianity also do without the historical Jesus part? If that is not a requirement, it would solve a lot of the growing problems regarding Christian history. Now what is left? What is intact in the religion? Christianity started as a spectrum of beliefs anchored on one end by creationism and the rapture. Once they are chopped off, will the whole religion start to unravel until it becomes the same as secular humanism? It might still be too soon for anyone to understand that kind of question, so for now we might just have to say those religious tendencies could disappear overnight and Christianity would still be intact.

  •' aed939 says:

    What I mean is carbon is the main element of all life on earth. Removing carbon from the cycle is a form of population control, or biomass control because it reduces the growth of all life on earth. We could not feed 7.1 billion humans on preindustrial atmospheric CO2 levels–yields would be too low. Thomas Jefferson would have a “grow-gasm” if he could have experienced Monticello with our current 400ppm.

  • it depends what the religion whether it is or is not ecologically attuned. it gets phony to try to force an ethic on a religion that is not hospitable to it, or only remotely so. after all, religions are cultures, and like all culture — think languages, style of cooking, or their different cuisines — they are warped in different ways. Hawaiian has many fewer letters, few sounds in its language & alphabet than English, e.g. Wouldn’t it be futile to look for “s” sounds in Hawaiian? likewise for the Abrahamic religions and environmentalism. Maybe we should look for a basis for environmentalism elsewhere than in religion?

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Rather than environmentalism, we are really looking for a counterweight to Christian anti-enviromentalism. The question becomes will this force be another aspect of Christianity splitting the religion, or will it be from an outside force that can overpower Christianity?

  •' chris crews says:

    What we need to look for is not whether a given religion is “ecologically attuned”, since that’s trying to impose the modern idea of “ecology” onto ancient belief systems. Rather, what we need to do is look at how sacred texts and practices relate to other beings and to the natural world, and find associational links through those that can help mobilize people to care for the Earth. There is nothing “phony” about this, contrary to what you imply. The scholarship on the ecological potential of every major, and many smaller, religious identities is already well documented, and has shown many ways that existing traditions and ideas can promote an ecological ethic.

    Yes, all religions, like all cultures, are unique and different. But what is not different is that every religious system today or in the past was and will always be shaped by the natural world, and as such, views about nature, and guidance how to interact with it, are always already embedded in every practice and faith, regardless of whether or not it is made explicit. Religious diversity does not negate this basic fact. Need I point to Genesis and its various examples?

    I’m not really sure what the Hawaiian “s” example is meant to show, other than you believe there are no ecological values to be found in Abrahamic traditions. However, several decades of scholarship on these traditions, as well as the numerous and growing ecological manifestations within the three Abrahamic traditions, show, I would argue, that such a claim is false theologically and empirically.

    I think the confusion comes out in your last statement that we should look for an environmental basis elsewhere than religion. I would argue the point is not to ground ecology in religion, but rather to recognize that religious worldviews shape how we act in and towards the natural world. There are resources internal to all traditions that can help us re-think that relationship, which is why religion matters for ecological arguments. So unless you are ready to defend the stripping of ethics from the realm of religious functions, I fail to find this a convincing argument.

    But your general line of argument does make me wonder something. Are you convinced that environmental ethics can’t be grounded in religion (esp. Abrahamic ones), or do you simply feel there is no basis in religion to make such an argument? Or is your claim something else?

    This would seem an important question, given that more than half the entire planet ascribes to one religious framework or another.

  •' Eric says:

    “As long as one feels one can do social activism with the security of tenure from the classroom, then one never fully commits to one or the other. Hence, we get academics who are part-time activists, and activists who are full or part-time academics: our academic life grows corrupt as the leadership of our social movements grows distracted.”

    Is there social-scientific data to support this claim?

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