Reflections From A Secular Humanist

A Humanist View of Religion’s Role in Environmental Protection

Harry Elger

Harry Elger


According to NASA, greenhouse gas emissions and mass extinctions are making the Earth less inhabitable. As role models of ethics and morality, shouldn’t religions be stronger supporters of environmental protections? Are profit-motivated assaults on the environment justified morally and ethically?

As a former Christian, it’s hard to fully acknowledge the geological magnitude of the slow-motion train wreck of civilization-ending climate change and the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s 4.52 billion year history. Five previous mass extinctions were 66, 200, 251, 375 and 444 million years ago when 76 percent, 80 percent, 96 percent, 75 percent and 86 percent of all species died. The current mass extinctions are almost entirely resulting from profit-based denial and under-responsiveness to greenhouse gases, climate change, rainforest destruction, ocean acidification, meat production and drift-net-fishing.

Are religious people, 70.6 percent of whom are Christian, hoping for miraculous solutions? Are prayers and “the will of God” options or excuses for environmental apathy? There are daily opportunities to prioritize long-term frugality rather than excessive self-indulgence, immediate gratification and hedonistic waste of finite resources.

Environmental protections are being deregulated with the support of conservative Christians who ignored long-term environmental consequences. Support for unregulated profiteering that destroys Earth’s ecosystems raises questions about the meaning of, “I would do anything for my children.”

Over 300 Christian theologians attending the American Academy of Religion signed The Boston Declaration condemning the abuse of the Christian faith by many conservatives. Besides environmental negligence, they said evangelical Christianity routinely expressed hatred for people of color, immigrants, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, women, girls, people of other religions and the poor.

World Bank researchers described how global meat production is responsible for almost half of all greenhouse gases. Meat provides protein, iron and other nutrients, but isn’t it also uniquely correlated with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, record-setting global pollution and the horrific suffering and death of millions of sentient animals? Will history show that meat consumption was the key contributor to the deterioration of our health and planetary ecosystems? What is religion’s response to climate change, rainforest annihilation, ocean acidification, accelerated rates of resource depletion and unimaginable cruelty in animal agriculture?

EPA Secretary, evangelical conservative Scott Pruitt replaced EPA advisory board independent scientists with oil representatives. EPA employees protested his appointment. About 1.2 billion years of petroleum, oil, coal and gas has been released into Earth’s atmosphere over the past 200 years. For 800,000 years, CO2 levels ranged between 180-300 ppm (parts per million). CO2 levels have now exceeded 400 ppm.

Global climate extremes relentlessly set new records. The years 2000-2010 included 10 of 11 warmest years on record. The Earth itself will probably survive climate changes, but all or most of the human population and other species may not. This is not speculation, it’s already happening. Is this because of “God’s will” or human negligence, greed, irresponsibility, religious apathy, moral immaturity, etc.?

Over 90 percent of global warming isn’t in global air temperature, it’s in the oceans. Oceans are more acidic now than during the last mass extinction 66 million years ago. Aquatic life is becoming extinct at an accelerated rate. Oceanic plankton produces more than 50 percent of Earth’s breathable oxygen. Jacques Cousteau warned, “If plankton die, we die.” Will we continue ignoring the importance of pollinators, rainforests, oxygen-producing plants and environmental tipping points at the risk of our own extinction? As with never-ending mass shootings, do we need more “thoughts and prayers” or rational legislation?

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