“Saving the Planet” Sounds Strangely Religious: A Response to Ivan Strenski

Religion professors most certainly cannot save the planet, but they would be remiss not to try.

This week Ivan Strenski argued here on RD that the American’s Academy of Religion’s direct engagement with climate change is evidence that “the study of religion, as reflected in the policies of the AAR, has simply lost its way.” As a scholar whose training and research concentrates on the intersection of religion and the environment, I am all too familiar with claims that marginalize the role of religious studies in addressing ecological issues.

Dismissive claims of this type generally rely on two arguments, both of which are present in Strenski’s formulation. In the one, scholarly pursuits are compromised by their proximity to “activism.” This seems to me a strange echo of positivism, in which the pursuit of knowledge is haunted by the specter of dispassion. Feminist scholars of religion will have certainly heard this type of concern, as will those whose work takes up issues of racial justice or anti-militarism.

But how is scholarship compromised by activism? The Academy has developed rigorous methods of peer review designed to ensure that standards of scholarship are upheld. Many activist scholars conduct first-rate research, and many scholars who are nothing like activists generate unpublishable prattle. To critique AAR President Zoloth’s call for a sabbatical without reference to the incisive lecture through which this call was delivered is to artificially separate activism from scholarship.

Strenski takes the case of Martin Luther King, Jr. as exemplifying the need to partition activism and scholarship, and perhaps it is true that the great Reverend Doctor was able to achieve more from the pulpit than he would have been from the lectern, but I dare Professor Strenski to proffer the same choice to Cornel West, and ask him to decide between intellectual purity and activist efficacy.

While there may be some for whom activism interferes with scholarship, for others, activism and the academy coexist easily.

A second type of argument against the engagement of religion scholars with environmental issues invokes the discipline’s uneasy relationship between humanistic and social scientific methods of inquiry. By eschewing “the empirical methods and scientific ethos typical of the [Society for the Scientific Study of Religion],” Strenski imagines an Academy uncontaminated by plural forms of data and unburdened by having to engage “every social problem we face.”

Full disclosure: I served on the steering committee that helped design the Public Religion Research Institute poll on religion and climate change, and I did so as a good faith member of the AAR. My understanding of our discipline diverges sharply from Strenski’s: religious studies differs, on the one hand, from theology in that it brings to bear a variety of methods useful for understanding religions in critical context—and on the other hand, it differs from the other disciplinary approaches to religion in that it ‘takes religion seriously,’ refusing to dismiss the sacred as illusionary.

Must we ‘render unto Caesar’ the empirical facts of this world and be contented with our texts?

Perhaps Strenski is correct that our primary duty as scholars of religion is to understand the religious world. Changing that world is secondary, but this does not mean we are permitted to ignore the shifting material conditions outside the pages of dusty tomes and forego the empirical methodologies so critical in understanding those conditions. I would assume that Zoloth’s scientific colleagues did not mean, when they asked her “what the study of religion was doing about climate change,” that she should become a climatologist. Their question, re-framed, might be: “What do scholars of religion have to contribute to our understanding of this transformative, historically unprecedented global phenomenon?”

If the best answer we can summon is that such matters are “peripheral” to our discipline, then we have failed.

So what can religion professors do to “save the planet”? Put in such blatantly eschatological terms, perhaps they can start by explaining to our various publics the ways in which discourse about climate change draws on religious vocabularies and theological frames.

Climate change, as Mike Hulme has said, “is not so much a discrete problem to be solved as it is a condition under which human beings will have to make choices.” It is on this point that Strenski’s frustration with President Zoloth’s sabbatical proposal is misplaced. The sabbatical, that most honored ritual in academic life, is not an instrumental practice; those who observe it do not locate its primary meaning in its utility for restoring agricultural fecundity.

Skipping the conference every seventh year would, in essence, reduce the carbon footprint of the AAR by less than 15 percent, which is in the grand scheme of things a materially insignificant emissions reduction. Scholars of religion should use less carbon-based energies in the future, but this is not unique to our field, nor even to academic vocations. Such changes in praxis are to be expected in all quarters of society. Neither is the sabbatical a communications tool by which the Academy can champion its green credentials.

Zoloth’s Presidential address focused on the theme of interruption, framing the sabbatical as a method of cultivation, a way of shifting focus from business as usual to those things that matter most. What matters most—in real terms, politically, morally, democratically—is not an agenda to be set exclusively by the dictates of disciplinary inertia.

The agency of scholars of religion is not confined to the same kinds of activist tactics readily available to everyone (e.g. direct action, petitions, boycotts, etc.). Instead, there are a number of important questions about climate change that scholars of religion are uniquely suited to address, and these questions cut straight to the core of the discipline.

For example, how do culturally rooted value claims about justice and the common good interact in the context of climate change? Do divergent ideas about natural causality impede political solutions? Scholars of religion would seem well positioned to translate and mediate such cross-cultural moral dialogue. Quite tangibly, the discourse around climate change is premised on radically different visions for the future, visions rooted in deep traditions of thought about progress and teleology that are well known to philosophers of history and philosophers of religion. A public critical analysis of these issues would be a great benefit to political culture, especially here in the United States.

And then there is the important idea of the Anthropocene, a new historical epoch in which human activity is the primary agent of geological change. The scientific validity of this term is appropriately the domain of geologists, but its moral significance and its bearing on human self-understanding are most certainly humanistic questions, to which scholars of religion should feel compelled to respond.

In the toxic tenor of our public debates, climate change activists are labeled as “prophets of doom” and many are preparing for the “climate apocalypse.” Who better to help make sense of these curiously religious frames of reference than we professors of religion, “saviors of the planet”?