THE BLOG
07/31/2013 11:47 am ET Updated Sep 30, 2013

Why Christians Can't Take Climate Change Seriously -- Even When They Say They Do

A couple weeks ago, on Real Time with Bill Maher, Anthony Leiserowitz, Research Scientist and Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, made an appearance.

For Leiserowitz, when it comes to what Christians think (or don't) about the changing climate, it's not all doom and gloom. A shift has occurred. The religious no longer tenaciously deny the threat of anthropogenic (human-caused ) climate-change.

As it turns out, half of American evangelicals now take it seriously. A simple search on Google confirms an alignment evangelicals have with the rest of us.

Never missing a chance to point out a laughable incongruity, Maher quips, sagaciously and comicality, that this change of heart is a bit of a surprise. Why should devotees worry about the intense calamities now regularly walloping us? After all, they expect to soon have a "meet and greet with Jesus," better known as the Rapture. (Interject audience laughter here.)

Maher's quip, however, isn't just for sh*ts and giggles. While the scale has tipped towards Christians no longer denying climate-change, Leiserowitz adds that there remains a small group of believers actually looking forward to destructive climatic events as a prelude to an Armageddon-like, divine judgment. "The End Times."

Now follows the big question to be answered: Is there really a big difference between believers who welcome the horrific effects of climate-change and those who want to try to curb them?

Perhaps emotionally, but not theologically.

That is, although Christians and other assorted believers now say they take climate-change seriously, and want to do something about it, they really can't take it that seriously deep down inside. At least with the solemnity and finality as the rest of us.

This is because, in the world-view of the religious, there is a theological escape-hatch that will engage so as to avoid the most catastrophic of predicaments.

The escape-hatch, as a sort of cognitive levering, is triggered by the weightiest of biblical doctrines: the Doctrine of Original Sin (the Fall); Soteriology; Eschatology; and God's sovereignty.

A quick run through the doctrines show how they work to elude the consequences of climate-change:

First is the Doctrine of Original Sin. You know, God created Adam and Eve, and Eve ate the fruit offered by the Serpent, better known as the Great Deceiver: Satan. The Fall led to the earth being an, initial, unstable environment. As a result, these climatic turbulences, have been, and continue to be, the theological consequences of a fallen and imperfect world.

Result: To somehow think we can correct climatic instabilities is a denial of God's judgment against human disobedience.

Soteriology -- the doctrine of salvation -- naturally follows from believing in original sin. There is only one answer to Adam and Eve's disobedience. It's repentance from our sin and the acceptance of Christ's death on the cross. Common North American parlance puts it as being "born again."

How does this doctrine retard, as the theologian Paul Tillich would put it, "ultimate concern" in climate change? It was more implicit in the initial suspicion, through evangelical lens, against climate-change.

When scientists back in the '70s were starting to worry about the environment, they were seen as engaging in a secular form of salvation -- to save the planet -- and, as such, were an affront to God.

Emphasis should rather be on the salvation of souls.

Even for evangelicals who no longer have these suspicions against the scientific community, evangelicals can't override the deep circuitry of their beliefs that the ultimate goal is to change the "hearts" of those still in rebellion towards God.

Eschatology - the Doctrine of Future Events. For most North American Christians, our earth plays a central part, not only in the End Times, but in the Bible's promise for the "New Heavens and Earth."

For them, the Book of Revelation is God's playbook to how things will work out for humanity. The increasingly devastating climatic events are "signs" of inevitable truths, and they demonstrate that Christ's return is imminent.

But secondly, eschatology envisions, after Armageddon and God's judgment, God's promised restoration. Everything will be recreated in, as mentioned, the New Heavens and Earth.

As promised in scripture, the lion -- though perhaps driven to extinction in this present, fallen world -- will be recreated (and domesticated) in the next, where it will "lie down with the lamb." (Maybe for many Christians, who still reject evolution, T-Rex will join in celebrating with the lamb too, although I readily admit I'm not exactly current on their thoughts here.)

Result: can it really be thought that holding to a view like this will really hold the same urgency as those who think that a species, after millions of years of evolution, once extinct, is the end of things?

God's Sovereignty: In the religious mind, God is ultimately good and his judgments righteous. Just as Job demonstrated in the Old Testament, even though the worst of calamities might befall us, God remains loving and just. Biblical narratives like these play out too easily for the faithful.

When it comes to being devastated by hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, land-slides, earthquakes, and other assorted disasters, there's never any shortage of Christians who say: "Well, I know that God is good and this somehow fits into his plan." Or, "God will give me the strength to move on from this disaster."

God's sovereignty threads into the other doctrines, especially when it comes to terrible events that affect us: "We live in an imperfect world. But as one of God's children, I know he loves me and that he will 'wipe away every tear.' All that he asks of me is to remain faithful."

***

In contrast to those without a theological trap-door, and assorted religious soothers, the differences are palatable. Without religious beliefs, while courage, fortitude, and optimism are also possible, the finality, importance, and urgency for radical change in our environmental policies will have no comfort with some escape-hatch that'll kick in if we fail.

If we fail, it's all over. It'll be gone forever. No second chance. Millions of years of evolution will be overwhelmed by the actions of a few generations of selfish humanity.

God save us from ourselves.