Sceptics often say that environmentalism is a religion rather than a science. It was the late Michael Crichton who stirred this one up originally, writing: “environmentalism is in fact a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths.” Fair enough: just like Marxism, which predicted a paradise to come after the end-time collapse of captalism, much of environmentalism undeniably draws its inspiration from 19th century millenarian Christianity. There is a catastrophic reckoning coming; there are saints and sinners. We’re all going to BURN in the post-Six Degrees world. And so on.
And, in this increasingly secular slice of Northern Europe, in particular, to call anything a religion is to belittle it.
But what if it is a new religion? Environmentalism certainly acts in the same way as many of the great non-conformist religions did. Those religions were passionate. They were about leading a more moral life. They were about taking action collectively rather than individual action. They held meetings regularly, gathered on commons and played loud music together. They too were derided as a bunch of feckless, dangerous, sandal-wearing wastrels.
I should say at this stage that I don’t have a religious bone in my body – though I once wrote a book on new religious movements that came out in paperback with a nice quote from Matthew Taylor’s dad on the front cover. I wrote it following the Waco siege, and what I came to realise when writing it was that it wasn’t that cults had become madder in recent decades, rather that we had become increasingly intolerant – even scared – of religious behaviour. This trend of suspicion and fear manifests itself intellectually in the radical scientific positivism of Richard Dawkins, for whom all believers are both deranged, and reducible to fundamentalists and Creationists. It manifests itself in the way we have conflated Islam with terrorism. And so on and on.
Religion has been around as long as human society; ideas of the sacred have been a crucial way in which we understand the physical world around us. From a historical point of view, what’s really odd is the aggressive secularism that’s taken hold in this small piece of the world.
But anyway. It turns out that the legal system is one step ahead. In yesterday’s Guardian blog, Andrew Brown points out that environmentalism is on the verge of accidentally being accorded the status of religion:
Is committed greenery entitled to the same protections as a religion? The question has come up with the appeal against the judgment in the case of Tim Nicholson, the former head of sustainability at Grainger, a property investment company, who claims he was dismissed in part because he took his green convictions seriously and the company did not. After a 2007 change in the regulations, he may be protected under the anti-discrimination law in the same way that a religious believer would be, providing only that his philosophical beliefs are cogent, serious and “worthy of respect in a democratic society”.
So there you go.
But thinking about environmentalism as if it were a religion is an interesting way to go. So far, it has to be conceded, religion looks a lot more successful at achieving its aims worldwide than the environmental movement has. The Pope still draws a bigger crowd than any Franny Armstrong video. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so shy of those elements of quasi-religious conviction that float into environmentalism.
The big difference is that environmentalism is of course, based on modern science, rather than old books and prophets. This is a secular religion, above all. But if it’s going to succeed, there has to be an element of faith there too. That sort of all-in this together faith that there is a possible future that is the other side of the apocalyptic vision. As Mark Dowd, Campaign Director of the church-based environmental campaign Operation Noah comments in theGuardian online today:
I believe virtue and example are contagious. Look at what happened recently with the launch of the 10:10 campaign, which the Guardian is backing. No sooner had Ed Miliband signed up to cut his own carbon emissions by 10%, than we were being told the whole Tory front bench were getting ready to endorse the pledge. Within 24 hours, the entire cabinet had also jumped on board and Liberal Democrats announced they were looking at moves to make this a resolution which would bind the whole party.
I see the aforementioned Matthew Taylor is also musing on the positives of religion in his most recent blog.
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