Are We Falsely Making a Religion Out of “It”?

Milky Way: Detail - Spacious Skies

“Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look about you! Look below you! Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote a book with ink. Instead, He set before your eyes the things the He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that?” St. Augustine, 413-426 A.D.

On September 28, 2021, Stetson Law Professor Paul Boudreaux wrote an Op-Ed in the Tampa Bay Times about DeSantis’s recently appointed anti-vac Florida Surgeon General, “Dr. Ladapo, what if Florida did treat vaccinations ‘almost like a religion?’” He starts his Op-Ed with:

“Handpicked by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the new surgeon general of Florida, Joseph Ladapo, said last week that he rejects ‘fear’ and complained about those who advocate ‘almost like a religion’ for COVID vaccinations. After all, who would fear the coronavirus, which has killed one of every 500 Americans? And, really, who would believe with such zeal in a medical technique that has proven, over centuries, to be an effective means of protecting oneself and others from horribly infectious diseases?”

Professor Boudreaux is right on. When we are plagued by a virus that’s killed one out of every 500 Americans, we should be embracing vaccines with the fervor of a religion. Take a few minutes and read what he has to say. It’s amazing to me that when those who “anti-what’s best for us” can’t come up with a rational or scientific reason to be against solutions that work they fall back to pooh-poohing with, “Oh, you’re just making a religion out of it.” Wake Forest Professor and social psychologist John V. Petrocelli just released his book to help us understand folks who take positions like Governor DeSantis and Dr. Ladapo. It’s title: The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit. Worth a read.

Of course the anti-what’s besters don’t limit their “it’s like religion” critiques to COVID vaccinations. The same sort of “analyses” is pawned off on those of us concerned about our environment and taking care of our earth, the only home we will ever have.

So let’s continue along the lines of Professor Boudreaux’s good analysis and take a look at the “almost like religion” allegations about us tree-huggers. We ask the question poetically: Is Ecology Theology?

Apocalypse Never

I recently read Michael Shellenberger’s 2020 best seller, Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All. Shellenberger is journalist and author of several books. In 2008, he was Time Magazine’s “Hero of the Environment.” He’s the founder and CEO of Environmental Progress [“EP”], an independent environmental research organization. EP has two goals: lifting humanity out of poverty and saving the natural environment.

Lifting poverty requires developed nations to work with underdeveloped nations to lift them out of poverty. Shellenberger writes, “Rich nations should do everything they can to help poor nations industrialize.” He concludes that, instead, “many of them are doing something closer to the opposite: seeking to make poverty sustainable rather than making poverty history.”

He argues that achieving his environmental goals requires a global use of energy technology with the highest concentration of power and the least pollution: nuclear energy. He points out that wood is less power-concentrated than coal; coal is less concentrated than oil; oil is less concentrated than natural gas; natural gas is less concentrated than nuclear power. The greater the concentration, he reasons, the greater the energy efficiency and the less pollution. Nuclear is non-polluting; and he sees it as the prime energy source we must rely on to reduce fossil fuel atmospheric pollution, which Yale’s Climate Connections reported caused 8.7 million premature deaths in 2018.

He’s been a prolific writer and critic of solar energy. For example: Democrats Must Stop Sacrificing Good American Nuclear Jobs For Cheap Chinese Solar Panels. Among environmentalists, Shellenberger is a maverick. He’s criticized by environmental purists, particularly those who would like to save the world exclusively with renewables and fear nuclear energy. The purists are not likely to buy into his November 2020 Forbes article, “Why Biden Can Unite America With Nuclear Power – Or Divide It With Renewables.” Nuclear provides about 19% of America’s energy. For him, that’s not enough. Shellenberger sees renewables as an impossible global climate solution, not only lacking reliability but requiring 300-400 times as much land space as nuclear or natural gas plants – which is a destructive use of Mother Nature’s handiwork we need to protect. He sees the anti-nuclear movement as fear-mongering motivated in part by self-interest. He names prominent environmental groups that push to close nuclear plants while taking money from “natural gas companies, renewable energy companies, and their investors who stand to make billions if nuclear plants are closed and replaced by natural gas.” He’s written a series of Forbes articles over the past year, including his September 21, 2021 “Skyrocketing Natural Gas Prices Create New Opportunity for Nuclear Energy.”

His objectives in writing Apocalypse Never, and his other works, is to promote the idea of “positive, humanistic, and rational environmentalism.” He sees environmentalists who view our world as about to end because of climate change as purveyors of inaccurate, unnecessary doom and gloom, which results in the opposite of effective, lasting problem-solving.

Despite Shellenberger’s occasional stretching, or ignoring, a few fundamental facts to support his arguments, Apocalypse Never deserves a careful read and his arguments are worthy of open-minded consideration and debate – a process far beyond the scope of this blog.

However, there is a critical point for our discussion. Shellenberger’s final chapter is titled “False Gods for Lost Souls.” His criticism in the chapter centers around the idea that “many of the stories people tell about climate change don’t have much to do with science.” Explaining in a chapter section titled “False Gods,” he writes:

“Environmentalism today is the dominant secular religion of the educated, upper-middle-class elite in most developed and many developing nations. It provides a new story about our collective and individual purpose. It designates good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains. And it does so in the language of science, which provides it with legitimacy…. apocalyptic environmentalism is a new kind of Judeo-Christian religion, one that has replaced God with nature.”

Shellenberger concludes that most apocalyptic environmentalists are “unaware that they are repeating Judeo-Christian myths;” and they repeat the myths to give purpose to their lives, which championing saving the world from “environmental disasters” does.

A critique of his writing requires us to pose the question: Is science enough?

Is Science Enough?

We aren’t as much guided by rationality or the facts as we are by our beliefs, which cognitive scientists, like George Lakoff and Antonio Damasio, tell us frame limitations for our minds. When facts and rationality fit within our mind’s frames, as shaped by our deeply-held beliefs, we are comfortable; otherwise our beliefs, right or wrong, blaze the path for our direction. For all of us some of the time, and for many of us all of the time, beliefs trump reality. But neither Lakoff or Damasio answer our question: Is Ecology Theology?

As we continue, let’s remember our definitions: Ecologists study the nature of the natural world. Theologists study the nature of God.

A decade ago, I touched on the question and the answer in a blog, Revelation, the Other Volume. I wrote in December 2010:

“As we anticipate the coming 2011 New Year, it might be wise to reflect on the wisdom of Saint Thomas Aquinas, who wrote, “Revelation is in two volumes, the Bible and nature.” The first is ecumenical. The second is ecological. The first was penned by inspired men. It has an opening verse and a closing chapter; it can be picked up and set aside at will and there are a variety of interpretations and competing alternatives. The second is participatory, experiential, with an infinite beginning and end. The second volume was penned by the Creator himself, and it too can be ignored and misinterpreted, but its teachings cannot be escaped. The book binding for the Ecological Volume is the earth we stand on. Each new page is turned by what Homer poetically called the “rosy finger of dawn.” For a long time, we believed that the Ecological Volume had a solid cover, a binding that would never break, filled with pages that could never be permanently stained. Finally, we are coming to know better.”

Milky Way: Detail II - Clark’s Nutcracker, Canada, Nesting Higher on the Mountain

Israeli scientist Gerald Schroeder drove to the heart of the question in his The Hidden Face of God:

“There’s an ancient tradition that when Divine revelation comes into the world, only one part is given as prophetic writings. The words are only part of the message. The other part is placed within nature, the wisdoms inherent in the Creation. Only when we understand those hidden wisdoms will we be able to read between the prophetic lines and fully understand the message. With the help of science, we are learning to read between the lines. … The “how” of the universe is a matter of physics; the “why” of the universe is a matter of metaphysics. … Science doesn’t steal the wonders of the sky. The mystery that remains in the sunset is the riddle of why and how a mixture of seemingly inert, unthinking atoms of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and several other varieties can produce humans capable of having the subjective experience we refer to as beauty. … Science is no closer to answering those questions today than it was a century ago. … Both theology and science probe the nature of reality. …”

About two hundred and fifty years ago, “Common Sense“ author and revolutionary evangelist Thomas Paine wrote:

“The study of natural philosophy is a divine study because it is the study of the works of God in the creation. If we consider theology upon this ground, what an extensive field of improvement in things both divine and human opens itself before us! All of the principles of science are of divine origin. It was not man that invented the principles on which astronomy and every branch of mathematics are founded and studied. It was not man that gave properties to the circle and the triangle. These principles are eternal and immutable.”

What is nature but our Creator’s encyclopedia, the fount of all knowledge? What invention or discovery or creation of man has not come from knowledge gained from the pages of nature’s encyclopedia and from nature’s resources?

In January 2011, I wrote “Learning to See,” about the “secrets” of good photography, about expanding the vision of our mind’s eye. I questioned:

“After all, how can one stand high on a mountain, or in a blind on the Serengeti, camera in hand, and not become reverent and excited about being a part of the mystery, yet obvious harmony, of life? As one repeats these kinds of experiences, one slowly builds a realization that life is not a fearful, meaningless existence, but rather, a never ending, challenging exploration. It is one’s participation in this process that brings out our zest and enhances our understanding, our ability to see.”

So, let us return to the photo which sets the theme of this message, “The Milky Way: Detail.” Martin E. Marty pondered in Reflections on the Nature of God:

Through the ages philosophers, theologians, poets, and ordinary humans have taken the measure of their own lives by standing under a starry sky. They usually remark that the experience humbles and ennobles them. The human is quickly made aware that something bigger than his or her own little life is occurring.

Everything big and small on this planet, including each of us, is but a “detail” of the Milky Way; the Milky Way is but a detail of the billions of galaxies in the visible universe, and the universe is but a detail in the billions of universes that dot the “spacious skies” that bring a tear to our eye when we sing “America.”

Does not the question, “Is Ecology Theology?” answer itself?

Milky Way: Detail III - The Question Answered

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Another brilliant and thoughtful essay on critical issues of our times. A great read. Thanks, Richard

Here is my initial response Richard. On this page. Relational Reality.