Climate change, faith… and the Golden Rule.

Generally speaking, our successive thoughts are connected, rather than disjoint; hence, metaphors such as “train of thought” and “stream of consciousness.” So it shouldn’t be surprising that while writing the previous LOTRW post, which dipped a toe into the sea of web material on AI and faith, my wandering mind turned to the similar (somewhat broader) question: how do people of faith currently see the problem of climate change? Is it time to take another look?

Again, to ask Google that question is to find oceans of material to swim in. But “nearshore,” as it were, I came across this: How Religion Intersects With Americans’ Views on the Environment, subtitled Responsibility for the Earth is part of many U.S. Christians’ beliefs, but so is skepticism about climate change.


Dated November 17, 2022, admittedly a while ago in internet years, the finding comes from the Pew Research Center. The results of their polling:

Most U.S. adults – including a solid majority of Christians and large numbers of people who identify with other religious traditions – consider the Earth sacred and believe God gave humans a duty to care for it, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

Okay so far…

But the survey also finds that highly religious Americans (those who say they pray each day, regularly attend religious services and consider religion very important in their lives) are far less likely than other U.S. adults to express concern about warming temperatures around the globe.

“Far less likely…to express concern?” Really? That seems puzzling on its face. The report goes on to provide a fuller picture:

…On average, people who are less religious tend to be more concerned about the consequences of global warming. For example, religiously unaffiliated adults – those who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular” – are much more likely to say climate change is an extremely or very serious problem (70%) than are religiously affiliated Americans as a whole (52%)…

The authors provide some further statistics by way of reinforcing this assertion and providing interpretation:

…a third of all evangelical Protestants say climate change is not a serious problem because there are much bigger problems in the world (34%). Nearly as many say it’s not a problem because God is in control of the climate (29%). Both of these explanations are more common than the belief that climate change is not happening, which 15% of all evangelicals say is their position…

…The potential impact of government regulations is another factor that may contribute to religious Americans’ views on climate change. Compared with religious “nones” (28%), more Christians (44%) – and especially evangelical Protestants (56%) – say that in the next 30 years it is extremely or very likely that the U.S. will overreact to global climate change by creating many unnecessary environmental regulations. And religiously affiliated adults also are more likely than the unaffiliated to anticipate a gradual loss of individual freedoms in the coming decades because of environmental regulations.

There are similar patterns on a question about the impact that environmental regulations could have on the economy. About half of Americans who affiliate with a religion say that stricter environmental laws and regulations cost too many jobs and hurt the economy. Evangelical Protestants are especially likely to hold this view; indeed, they are the only major U.S. religious group in which a majority take this position (66%). At the opposite end of the spectrum, two-thirds of religious “nones” say stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost (68%).

All these opinions are strongly tied to political partisanship, which emerges as a crucial factor in explaining views toward the environment and climate change

 As a Christian and as an atmospheric scientist I view all this with mixed emotions[1], but one takeaway that resonates is the idea that there are much bigger problems in the world.

Some might be hesitant about the idea of “bigger” here, but suppose we replace this with an alternate wording: there are many other problems in the world. Then there would probably be agreement among atheists and religious alike. The Pew Research Center doesn’t give a list. But any inventory might include (but certainly not be limited to): the uneven recovery of the world economy, public education, etc. following the global pandemic; threats to democracy; wars in Gaza, the Ukraine, and elsewhere; terrorism; immigration; US-China tensions; and vulnerability to natural hazards.

Upon reflection, perhaps atheists and religious alike would also agree that these seemingly diverse problems actually have a common moral or ethical root – unfairness, self-interest, fear, anger, complacency on the part of wrongdoers, desire for revenge versus forgiveness on the part of those wronged, etc., etc. It therefore makes little sense to attempt to resolve any individual problem by, say, gaining a momentary political advantage and taking the opportunity to ramrod problem-specific policy solutions through. Such approaches just build up the unfairness and resulting distrust and disunity that are the underlying problem. In short, most of the world’s big problems are ethical or moral or spiritual matters.

Enter the Golden Rule. Atheists and the religious alike might agree that if the Golden RuleTreat others as you would like others to treat you were more widely adhered-to, rather than merely quoted, many if not all of these global problems would become more tractable.

On the face of it, following the Golden Rule itself might appear to be the most problematic challenge of all. After all, it’s been with us in different languages and cultures for thousands of years. On a daily basis, it’s possible to see many instances from the global to the individual level where it is observed in the breach. But the opposite might be closer to the truth. Fact is, the Golden Rule is observed to a profoundly astonishing degree. A survey from Deseret News and The Marist Poll dating back to this same 2022 time period found that 92% of U.S. adults say the call to “do unto others as they would do unto you” is a “very necessary” or “necessary” part of their personal lives. That poll found very little difference between the irreligious (87%) and the rest of the population and also found that 96% of young adults 18-29 “supported the concept.”

Look back over your day. Suppose, in each circumstance (of the hundreds, perhaps thousands in your day) – each transaction, each conversation, each e-mail, each instance in your commute or at home – you’d deliberately and intentionally and consistently made an effort to treat others in a way counter to how you’d like to be treated. Suppose nations did the same – suppose they each adopted a overt stance, for example, of “(My Nation) first.” The result would be utter, complete chaos. It would also be short- lived – not just because of the destruction, but because each of us would find the effort of being so mean-spirited too exhausting and too stressful. We wouldn’t make it through the first half-hour. Subjectively, it’s not hard to imagine that fully incorporating the very smallest, most numerous transactions of our daily lives, the Golden Rule is being observed nearly to perfection (99%? More?) by eight billion people. The handful of exceptions are so striking (and considered so threatening to all of us) that they comprise each day’s headline news.

So, however we might want to promote world sweetness and light – whether with respect to climate change, or poverty, or polarization, or any single, specific issue  – the quickest, cheapest, most natural, least stressful way forward is to cling a little more tightly to the Golden Rule as we go forward. If the freedom we wanted most were not freedom of speech per se, or the right to bear arms, but the freedom to be responsible, we’d find most every other aspiration falling into our hands.

Just saying.

[1] (Full disclosure) I would define Christian as a “follower of Christ, or disciple of Christ” versus a member of a particular group or denomination. The “mixed emotions” include my continuing aversion to “Christian” embrace of political partisanship of any stripe. This seems to me to be anthetical to everything Jesus was and is and represents.

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One Response to Climate change, faith… and the Golden Rule.

  1. Bill:

    I was particularly struck by:
    “in the next 30 years it is extremely or very likely that the U.S. will overreact to global climate change by creating many unnecessary environmental regulations. And religiously affiliated adults also are more likely than the unaffiliated to anticipate a gradual loss of individual freedoms in the coming decades because of environmental regulations.”

    In fact, we’re already seeing that overreaction. Both the EPA and the D of Energy have mounted concerted efforts that a) curtail the choices in the marketplace, b) put an undue burden on those with low incomes, and c) reduce the reliability and affordability of our energy supplies. These will have no discernible impact on climate change and seem like nothing more than virtue-signaling power grabs. Further, the climate cult is doing its best to silence anyone who doesn’t parrot their apocalyptic claims. So while I’m not an evangelical, and not much of a Christian (after all, the Army did ask me to become a Druid chaplain(!) in 1970), I share some of their concerns.

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