By Thomas Sheahan, Ph. D.

As we reflect on Earth Day 2011 (April 22) and on passionate appeals that we support environmental initiatives almost too numerous to count, we should also reflect on a fundamental new reality.

Environmentalism has replaced religion for many of its adherents.

The ending “-ism” denotes a way of thinking, perceiving and structuring one’s life.  Every “ism” is based on underlying assumptions, principles and beliefs that tell its adherents what they ought to believe and do.  Providing ethical guidance for its members is a major part of what an “-ism” does.

Followers of Judaism who observe Passover as their ancestors’ liberation from slavery in Egypt – and Christians who commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ at Easter – have no problem acknowledging that these are matters of belief.

They would never claim that science provides absolute proof of authenticity – although many find in science valuable support for the validity of their beliefs. Those who can see an underlying compatibility between science and religious faith are comfortable in both realms.

Environmentalism likewise provides ethical guidance. But its followers generally recoil from the suggestion that it’s a religion. The traditional buildings and rituals are absent; moreover, many adherents come from a background of explicitly rejecting “institutional” religions.  Nevertheless, a careful examination of the basic assumptions shows that environmentalism indeed meets the criteria of a secular religion.

In environmentalism, “Mother Earth” (Gaia the Earth Goddess) replaces God as the object of special devotion, causing some of environmentalism’s subsequent assertions to be in direct opposition to fundamental teachings of Christianity and Judaism. Another cornerstone belief is that mankind is just one species among many; this view opposes the Judeo-Christian belief that God considers mankind to be very special.

Science appears to play a major role in environmentalism, but actually its role is distinctly secondary: Science is used subjectively, not objectively. After a set of beliefs has been established, various fields of science (and scholarly studies within those fields), are carefully sifted to select facts that support those beliefs. Facts and scientific fields that contravene or fail to support core beliefs are rejected or ignored.

That’s not the way science is supposed to work. However, it happens every day in environmentalism, as reflected in movies, magazines, blogs, television programs, newspapers – and legislative and regulatory initiatives.

In his excellent book, “The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religion in Contemporary America,” Professor Robert H. Nelson likens the contemporary struggle between those two secular religions to John Calvin’s struggle against the establishment of Catholicism 500 years ago.

Nelson’s book concludes: “It is time to take secular religion seriously. It is real religion. In the twentieth century, it showed greater energy, won more converts, and had more impact on the western world than the traditional, institutional forms of Christianity.”

For the believing environmentalist, there is a certain “Garden of Eden” narrative:  the beginning of evil came with the development of agriculture, when mankind rose above hunter-gatherer status and began to control and improve on nature to meet his needs. Thereafter came civilization and all its negative environmental effects and associations. The whole story hangs together within a religious framework.

In America today, the religion of environmentalism has the distinct advantage of being taught in the public schools, and receiving plentiful government funding. Some of its beliefs are fairly benign, such as sympathy for polar bear cubs. But other beliefs have had horrible consequences.

The chemical spray DDT is a powerful weapon against malaria. It wiped the disease out in the developed world. Sprayed on walls, DDT acts for six months or more with a single application, keeping mosquitoes out of homes, preventing them from biting, and killing any that land.

However, environmental activism and incorrect scientific interpretations led politicians to believe DDT harmed birds and fish, and the insecticide was banned in the United States in 1972. Since then, it has been largely purged from the disease control arsenal worldwide, even though malaria still infects a billion people in poor countries every year, killing up to one million.

Today, many environmentalists view the alleged dangers of using DDT as being worse than the misery and death caused by the disease. Since 1972, at least 20 million African children have died from malaria.

Throwing trash out of your car window is considered a sin by environmentalism. In other religions, allowing the preventable death of millions of children is a far greater sin.

This year Easter, Passover and Earth Day all came close together. Now may be a good time to ask whether environmentalism can be reconciled with traditional religions.

Most religious people who believe in God as Christians or Jews also want to protect the environment. They see ecological stewardship as part of their responsibility to God.

Indeed, that is the message of another excellent book, “Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition.” Published by the Acton Institute a decade ago, it is a brief collection of essays by Protestant, Jewish and Catholic scholars who have pondered how and why their own faith embraces care for God’s creation.

In all cases, these authors root their arguments in Scripture, abetted by an understanding of modern science. They stress that the word “dominion” used in the Bible does not mean people have a right to wreck the planet. Rather, it means mankind is a partner chosen by God to be a responsible steward of creation.

Emphatically, these Christian and Jewish authors do not regard mankind as just “one species among many.” And they don’t confuse “mother earth” with God.


Dr. Thomas P. Sheahen holds BS and PhD degrees in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is director of the Institute for Theological Encounter with Science and Technology, the leading Catholic organization that strives to bring faith and science together, and promote scientific education.