As things so often do, it began with Genesis. God commanded the first man and woman to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Gen. 1:28, KJV).
Now here was a commandment humans would obey.
In an influential 1966 paper, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) historian Lynne White Jr. accused Judaism and its offspring, Christianity, of promoting a purely instrumental view of the natural world. Judaism differed from earlier religions in positing that the cosmos had been “planned . . . explicitly for man’s benefit and rule” with humans alone “made in God’s image.” When Christianity arose, it supplanted a Greco-Roman animism in which “every tree, every spring, every hill, had its own . . . guardian spirit,” further intensifying the dichotomy between man and nature.
Lest we forget on which side of that dichotomy we belong, Romans 1:25 condemned as “unrighteous” any who “worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator.”
For centuries, then, most Christians held nature in what amounted to unconscious contempt, persuaded that “no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes” and inclined to dismiss any effort to value the creation for its own sake as “idolatry of nature.”
At a 1966 American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in the nation’s capital, White delivered “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” a jeremiad whose echoes rumble down to the present. Reading White today is startling; his treatment of environmental issues sounds contemporary. His diagnosis: “the roots of our trouble are so largely religious” that “we shall continue to have a worsening crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man.”
White’s J’accuse struck a chord among Christians across the ideological spectrum. The result was a slow, quiet process of introspection. While secular observers looked the other way, diverse Christian thinkers—liberals, moderates, and not a few evangelicals—forged a greener view of human beings as stewards, tasked with protecting and preserving God’s creation. Reagan-era Christian Right leaders, including the late Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Gary Bauer, and others opposed this movement, in part because they associated environmentalism with the radical Left. Yet in 1994’s Caring for Creation, Max Oelschlaeger offered an infectious metaphor for stewardship. With time, his book’s title morphed into “Creation Care,” the tagline of a movement whose champions include megachurch pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren.
In 2006, the iconic Harvard biologist (and Academy of Humanism fellow) E.O. Wilson published The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, addressed to an imagined evangelical minister. In evocative language, Wilson described current threats to the biosphere, countered traditional Christian arguments against environmental concern, and implored his Christian interlocutor to join him in defending biodiversity. It’s powerful stuff, as you’ll see in our excerpt. Yet one wonders whether Wilson inadvertently aimed his book at a dwindling faction that clings to evangelicalism’s back bumper. From pews to pulpits, where the environment is concerned many evangelicals are already on Wilson’s side.
Not that the old “dominionist” view is dead. During a debate at a December 2007 “values voter summit,” liberal theologian Jim Wallis asserted that “the environment is clearly on the mainstream of the evangelical agenda.” Opponent Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, shot back, “The Bible says the earth is for human betterment.”
Secular humanists may find this surprising, but Wallis’s side is winning. Last spring, twenty-five old-line Christian Right leaders demanded that the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) dismiss its vice president of government relations, the Reverend Richard Cizik, for speaking out on environmental issues. NAE executives refused, affirming Cizik. Maybe they had their eyes on a 2007 Ellison Research survey in which 64 percent of self-described evangelicals called for immediate action against global warming.
When Free Inquiry editors started work on this feature, we expected that explicit defenders of the old-school dominionist model would be easy to find. It turns out that they’re an endangered species. A search for book-length Christian antigreen rebuttals found just two: Prospects for Growth by economist E. Calvin Beisner and What Ever Happened to the American Dream by financial advisor Larry Burkett. Each is more political than religious, citing familiar and long-discredited right-wing attacks on the science of global warming, subordinating ethical and scientific concerns to the privileges of property ownership, and so on. Indeed, one observer of this field, Richard T. Wright, says Christian anti-environmentalism has no existence apart from right-wing politics.
Perhaps that illuminates our experience in soliciting a widely known Christian fundamentalist, Creation Care opponent, and critic of secular humanism (whom I won’t name) to write an essay embodying the opposition view. To our surprise, the resulting article shunned religious argument in favor of a pugilistic denial of global warming whose dependence on junk science might have embarrassed Rush Limbaugh. We opted not to publish it.
Another sign of the headway Creation Care has made within the Christian establishment is this issue’s endorsement of a stewardship ethic by P. Andrew Sandlin, a distinguished and deeply conservative California cleric and activist. In a first for Free Inquiry, Sandlin’s writing is steeped in the vocabulary of faith. Though he tempers his environmentalism with a conservative take on private property rights, his embrace of the stewardship agenda is unmistakable.
If one UCLA historian opened this extended discussion, we turn to another to conclude it. Alexander Saxton argues that notwithstanding individual Christians’ new concern for nature, institutional Christianity may be incapable of contributing to the resolution of our global crisis. He suggests that no traditional religion can outgrow the divisive legacies of privileging humans over nature and believers over nonbelievers, and that the propensity toward faith that served humans well until the past century now threatens our welfare.
“No new set of basic values has been accepted in our society to displace those of Christianity,” Lynne White lamented in 1966. Will such a displacement be necessary before human societies can act meaningfully to restore the balance of nature? If so, can secular humanist values offer a worthwhile starting point? Or are humanists and Christians already joining hands to change tomorrow? With those questions in mind, we present a most unusual dialogue.
Special thanks to Free Inquiry Associate Editors R. Joseph Hoffmann and D. J. Grothe for their assistance in developing this feature.
- Beisner, E. Calvin. Prospects for Growth. Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1990.
- Burkett, Larry. What Ever Happened to the American Dream. Chicago: Moody Press
- Grizzle, Raymond E. and Christopher B. Barrett. “The One Body of Christian Environmentalism.” Zygon 33, no. 2 (1998): 233–53.
- Oelschlaeger, Max. Caring for Creation: An Ecumenical Approach to the Environmental Crisis. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994.
- White, Lynne Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” Science 155:3767 (March 10, 1967, 1203–07), containing the text of an address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s national meeting in Washington, D.C., on December 26, 1966.
- Wilson, E.O. The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
- Wright, R.T. “Tearing Down the Green: Environmental Backlash in the Evangelical Subculture.” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 47:80–91.