THE BLOG
05/21/2010 12:48 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2015

Green and Atheist: The Incompatibility of Religion and Environmentalism

We all know there are all kinds of things that religion is incompatible with -- democracy, science, social equity, rational debate, blind justice. But it is sometimes thought that being an environmentalist is compatible with religious belief. That you could divorce irrational beliefs about imaginary friends, the subordinate role of women, and the importance of neoconservative government from rational concerns about the state of the planet. Sorry, can't be done.

To be a greenie concerned about the future of the planet, you have to, well, be concerned about the future of the planet. Religious people, even putting aside the Left Behind loonies, aren't really concerned, because they have an imaginary friend who will look after them if they are good and pray hard and wear the right clothes and don't cut their hair. Only atheists understand, deep down, that there is no divine Lone Ranger out there coming to the rescue; that if we don't save our own planet, no one else will. It is odd that the Libertarians among the religious, so big on self-reliance for individuals and communities, don't apply that principle to the Earth as a whole.

And religious people wear blinkers that prevent them from being greenies. To be a greenie means to wholeheartedly embrace the concept that we are part of the natural world; that we are just one species among tens of millions that have evolved over billions of years (one of the more abundant species, sure, and one of the most destructive, but there are certainly no special arrangements applying uniquely to our species); and that we are very closely related to many of those species, quite closely to many others, and related to all of them to some degree. Greenies really understand the proposition that all these species are in it together, that we are all cousins, that we all come from a common ancestor, and that all have either a complete right to exist or no right to exist, not some of one and some of another.

To be a greenie means to be fully aware of the complexity of ecology. The intricate web of life ties together the fluttering of a butterfly's wings in China with a hurricane in Florida; keeps the Amazon rainforest and the African desert functioning; is affected by an oil spill off the coast of Louisiana or acidity on the Great Barrier Reef; provides fertile soil and clean water and clear skies, free of charge; is best helped by those who understand that these ecosystems have evolved naturally over tens of thousands of years, not by those who think the Garden of Eden was a real place and that the Biblical Flood was a real event. Unless you really feel, in your bones, that you are part of the grandeur of life, as dependent on functioning ecology as an ant or an eagle; unless you really feel the wind and the sun and the smell of marshland or grassland rather than driving in your air-conditioned car from your air-conditioned house to your air-conditioned megachurch, blissfully unaware of being part of nature, blissfully believing that you are somehow above all that, that you have have shucked off your animal nature because you clutch an old book that says something about your species being created on a different day and being given dominion over the others; unless you really feel part of the natural world, then you can't really help.

Except perhaps to help fend off some of your brethren who believe that hurricanes are God's punishment for sin; that if we choose to cut down every last tree, it will bring on the End Times; that oil spills don't matter. Maybe you can run interference while atheists get on with trying to save the planet.

Anyone disagree?

Check out David Horton's new Watermelon Blog.