Is climate activism the new religion? Regardless, there is much the Church could learn about loving our enemies from those on the frontlines of campaigning for change, says George Pitcher
Just as the more strident atheists have been accused of forming their own religion, so we’re becoming accustomed to a new religiosity among climate-change activists. Calling them the Green Movement, as they are formally known in some parts of the globe, lends them less of the character of a political ideology than a re-emergent pagan cult.
The New Atheists had their high priests in the late Christopher Hitchens and Professor Richard Dawkins. They looked forward to a faith-free nirvana, a promised land envisioned in John Lennon’s hymn to secular heaven, Imagine; future generations of children liberated from the jackboot of religious oppression.
Now, religious expression (it’s argued) finds its ideology in the environmental threat to humanity. The greens have found prophetic voices in the estimable George Monbiot and Greta Thunberg.
They have their threatened apocalypse, in humanity’s self-destruction, though their own brand of eschatology does appear very much to resemble the sandwich-board wearing prophets of doom, just with “The End of The World Is Nigh” replaced with “[fill in number here] Days to Save the Planet”.
Just Stop Oil described the disruption of their banquet as “impeccable action design” which “we very much enjoyed”
The global-warming faithful have their own iconography for worship too, from wind farms to carbon footprints; their own version of evil satanic forces in the shape of fossil fuel multinationals and a vision of an Armageddon in which these powers of darkness must be defeated if we are to be saved.
If you think any of this is going a bit far, just watch the responses to the paragraphs above on social media. They will have all the self-righteousness of true believers taking on heretics.
A fault in our stars
There is, admittedly, an inherent fault in stating these observations. Militant atheists might ridicule religious beliefs while developing their own. And environmentalists may unconsciously emulate religious practice. But it ill-behoves those of us with theistic faith to censure that.
Otherwise we set ourselves something of a bear-trap, in which our argument develops like this: “Look, they’re making their arguments like people of religion, so obviously they must be talking nonsense… oh wait.”
We who confess a religious faith might like to attend to the beam in our own eyes before identifying the mote in theirs.
That’s not really a helpful observation, though. Where I think there are more fruitful lessons to be learnt from the religious fervour of atheism and environmentalism is less in pointing at their idolatries and much more in exploring religious tolerance and inclusion.
For and against
The polarising nature of atomised social media is well documented for promoting the presumption that if you’re not for me, you’re against me. But the Church was managing that perfectly well for the two millennia before such platforms were invented.
Almost immediately, in historical terms, after the death and resurrection of the Christ, the argument was on as to who could or couldn’t be Christians (as we later called ourselves) – whether it was a movement for Jews (Peter) or for all Gentiles (Paul).
And, before we run away with the idea that St Paul is thus the hero of history, for all his pluralism he was very specific about who could be in the club and how they should behave when they were in it. Just ask the women.
Environmentalists may unconsciously emulate religious practice. But it ill-behoves those of us with theistic faith to censure that
Depressingly, our inheritance from those first disciples shows how little we’ve improved. If anything, we’ve got worse. Let me offer the briefest buffet of tasty, divisive opinion still going strong in Christian communites: You can’t be a priest because you’re a woman. You can’t be a married priest because you’re gay. You can’t get married in church to someone of the same sex. You can’t be a church if you don’t stand up for trans rights.
And that’s just sex and sexuality. Less visibly, there are tides and subtle undercurrents. I’m struck by how we fetishise religious denomination. For example: I need to be somewhere with a more Catholic tradition. Or: Jesus only speaks to me through the Bible.
As I say, motes and beams. But, beyond that, what can we (and the atheists) learn from environmental campaigners?
For a start, we could behave a bit less like party politicos after the Uxbridge by-election, where a proposed ultra-low carbon emissions policy delivered a surprise Conservative victory. A leading Tory called Labour “the political wing of Just Stop Oil”. For goodness sake. We should all agree that there are greater issues at stake here than winning a few votes.
The final point is to witness how a counter-demonstration against a gathering of Just Stop Oil (JSO) this week was greeted. Two activists – somewhat posh boys, who may or may not have been petrolheads, with a slightly ruder slogan that “Just Stop It” – flew loud rape alarms on helium balloons into the JSO meeting so they couldn’t hear themselves think.
Despite the interruption, JSO described the disruption of their banquet as “impeccable action design” which “we very much enjoyed” and called it “a perfect metaphor for the urgency of the climate crisis”.
Welcoming your enemies, or those who disagree with you, was meant to be our idea. Maybe we – atheists and faithful alike – can learn something here from the climate cultists.