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Atheism impedes climate change

August 26, 2013

This article originally appeared on On-line Opinion.

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.

This summer the words of Dorothea Mackellar’s famous poem could not have been more poignant: ‘the dome of heat’, bushfires, and floods.

In the aftermath of these natural disasters, questions arise as to what extent these extreme weather events are the result of human induced climate change. Whilst Australia has always experienced extreme weather events, it now seems that we are experiencing these extreme weather events more frequently – as predicted by the climate change scientists. It does seem that our climate is changing. This is no longer simply a scientific theory, but we are feeling and experiencing the beginnings of the change right now. We only have to recall the hot nights during the ‘dome of heat’ to realise that.

So how should we respond? How should we respond to the looming political, cultural (and even moral?) dilemma that is climate change?

Much current political debate on climate change has surrounded the cost of climate action. The fierce debate on the carbon tax is ample illustration of this. In this post I’m not discussing whether or not the carbon tax is the best or most effective method of curbing climate change. My observation is broader – that in Australia any effective climate change policy will require cost.

The main reason that climate change action in Australia is costly is because the energy demands of our economy are primarily built around fossil fuels. In Australia fossil fuels are a cheap and relatively easy way of generating power – ‘greener’ alternatives are more expensive. Hence any substantial and effective climate change policy will require cost. Ultimately this cost will be borne by the consumer through higher energy prices or higher taxes (depending on whichever climate policy ideology is adopted).  Fossil-based energy prices will rise (hence a carbon tax), or great investment in alternative energy production will need to be undertaken (requiring massive capital investment).

Hence we can now begin to see the difficulty of implementing effective climate change policies.  Any effective climate action policy requires cost, which goes against economic self-interest. In general, people are unwilling to pay a higher prices – if it’s cheap, it sells, if it’s expensive, it doesn’t. If self-interest were not such a major factor in the energy purchase process, then conceivably demand for green energy would be much higher.

A further difficulty in effective climate change action surrounds the delayed and uncertain effects of climate change. The full impact of climate change won’t be felt in our weather systems for many years to come. Climate projections envision scenarios in 2050 or 2100 – dates beyond many of our lifetimes. This makes the climate debate future oriented and less tangible. In the late 1990’s when the Y2K ‘bug’ projected imminent disaster to computer systems around the world, millions was spent on upgrading computer equipment. With the Y2K bug, the impact was tangible and imminent – swift and decisive action was required. The most substantial impacts of climate change won’t be felt for decades – swift and decisive action seems less necessary.

In Australia effective climate change action requires cost for future oriented impact, all which oppose short term self-interest.

So what has this discussion on climate change have to do with atheism? A few things and somewhat controversially I’m going to suggest that it is a Christian worldview which gives an imperative for climate action whereas the atheist worldview leads to the opposite. There are a few reasons why..

At its heart, atheism is a selfish, short-sighted worldview. Atheism drives people to live for themselves and live for today. In John Lennon’s Imagine, Lennon imagines an atheistic world where people live without heaven and instead, ‘live for today’. There is precious little in an atheist worldview to consider others, nor the future. The consistent message of atheism is to maximise our lives, our potential and opportunities now because this is the only life we get and we need to fill it with as much as possible. It is atheistic thinking which is driving the modern phenomenon of ‘spending the inheritance’. Why shouldn’t an atheist enjoy the money they’ve accumulated? The future in an atheist world is very short – to the end of our life, to the detriment of the inheritance and also to the detriment of the environment. I’m not suggesting that individual atheists can’t consider the future beyond their lifetimes (many key environmental supporters are atheists). I’m proposing that there is nothing in a consistent atheist worldview to drive one to consider the future.

Secondly, the atheist worldview impedes costly sacrifice – why should atheists sacrifice unnecessarily? Why force unnecessary suffering on myself? The atheist worldview wishes costless action and advocacy. This view was reinforced when I saw Richard Dawkins at the Global Atheist Convention last year. In a discussion with other prominent atheists he explained that he wasn’t as virulent in his criticism of Islam as compared to Christianity because “the threat of having your head cut off is somewhat of a deterrent” and “courage is a virtue but there are limits” [Four horsemen discussion -10 mins 30 secs in]. I was disappointed with Dawkins statement that someone so passionate about his beliefs wouldn’t be willing to die for them. But then again, there is nothing in an atheist worldview to sacrifice unnecessarily. Atheists believe in costless action – an atheist speaks his or her views until there is serious danger. Why should an atheist sacrifice?

The same applies to climate change: Given that an atheist seeks to maximise enjoyment and opportunity in this life, why sacrifice my job or standard of living for the sake of my grand-children? Atheists often wish to claim to want environmental action, but often what is advocated is costless action.

The only way that I see the atheist worldview providing motivation for action of the future is empathy for future generations/ that I feel better that the future is going to be better. But I’d suggest that economic self-interest would trump any empathy for future generation.

There is no rational reason as far as I can see that an atheist should view the world beyond their own lifetime. Costly environmental action where the benefits are to be reaped in the future is inconsistent with an atheist worldview.

Yet, the Christian worldview can give firm rationale and basis on which to take sacrificial action for the benefit of the environment.

The Old Testament book of Genesis provides a moral imperative to care for the earth. This book claims that the Earth was made by and belongs to God and we (people) have been entrusted to care for it. The Scriptures give a clear moral imperative for people to steward the earth.  Christians who claim that dominion over the earth means we can rape and destroy it have misunderstood and misapplied this stewardship. Humans are given dominion over the earth underneath a larger and broader imperative to ‘tend and care’ for the world. We don’t own the world, we are gardeners working for the owner. In this sense, climate change action becomes the imperative of the Christian: to ensure biodiversity, to protect the creatures God has made and to properly tend and care for his treasures of the earth.

Secondly, sacrifice is a Christian not a humanist virtue. Atheist Alain de Botton claims that ‘sacrifice’ is one of the virtues of the modern age. Yet it appears he has stolen this from Christianity because it doesn’t flow from atheism. Self-sacrifice is a virtue at the heart of the Christian message. Jesus laid his life down for his people and Jesus encourages people to love in this same self-sacrificial way (Jn 13:34). Jesus said that anyone who wants to be great, must be a servant (Mk 10:44). Sacrifice and service of others is profoundly Christian. Climate change action requires sacrifice. It requires putting the needs others, most notably future generations ahead of our own. This flows naturally from the Christian world-view.

I cannot see how atheists can rationally hold the tension between maximisation of opportunity in the present and simultaneously sacrifice for the future. As our sunburnt country gets more sunburnt, sacrifices will need to be made. The atheistic worldview, very popular at the moment, does not offer a framework or foundation for future oriented sacrifice. Instead this framework pushes in the opposite direction – spend the children’s inheritance to maximise my pleasure and opportunity now (and install another air-conditioner while we’re at it). Alternatively the Christian worldview offers a robust framework and foundation for sacrificial action for the benefit of the environment; a worldview which provides clear imperatives for environmental action and care. A worldview which believes along with the Psalmist that, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” (Psalm 24:1)

From → Ethics, Philosophy

  1. This is one of the most bizarre, generalizing, and bigoted posts I’ve seen on this site, Rob.
    I realise that you’re trying to be provocative with this, but it really just reads as sweeping and ignorant.
    The About section of this site reads: “…It is an attempt to be open minded and reach conclusions based on evidence-based reasoning.” No examples in this post of either open mindedness, or evidence-based reasoning.
    This is just plain dumb.

    • Hey Paul,

      Thanks for your comment and I do respect your opinion.

      However, why do you find this post bigoted?

      Just to clarify – it seems as though many people have misunderstood what I’m trying to say. I didn’t say that atheists can’t be good environmental citizens, I’m exploring ideas and the consequences of ideas. I think there is a genuine tension that atheism raises of simultaneously living for today and making sacrifices for the future. That’s the purpose of the article.

      I’m sorry that you think this is ‘dumb’, but I actually think there are some important issues to discuss here.

      Thanks again for the comment and I look forward to your further interactions.


      • Rob, look at this language:
        At its heart, atheism is a selfish, short-sighted worldview. Atheism drives people to live for themselves and live for today…
        There is precious little in an atheist worldview to consider others, nor the future…
        The atheist worldview wishes costless action and advocacy…

        … and several others.

        An atheist is a person that doesn’t believe in god(s). You’ve stereotyped everyone that doesn’t believe in god(s) as being selfish and disinterested in the welfare of the earth beyond their time of living in it.
        There is no factual basis to this at all. At least, none that you’ve presented. Have you done a survey somewhere to learn that atheists in particular are not interested in the long-term environmental welfare of the earth?
        You’ve leapt to conclusions about a group of people based on fallacious pre-suppositions.

        It would be equivalent to me saying something like, “Modern-day Christians hate and fear Palestinians and Lebanese people, because they are the descendents of the biblical Canaanites.”

      • Paul,

        Thanks and the quotes you have highlighted demonstrate exactly my point. Note I’m not speaking about individual atheists but the ‘atheist worldview’. This is a crucial distinction to make and has caused serious misunderstanding of my whole article. I haven’t intentionally stereotyped atheists but I’m trying to see the conclusions from the ‘atheist worldview’ i.e. the world that exists without any God or conscious future. The fact that atheists are interested in environmental action is, in my mind, actually inconsistent (and I also suggest irrational) with the atheist worldview and that’s an interesting question worth exploring.

        Thanks for clarifying and I hope my clarification helps you understand what I’m trying to say.


  2. You’ve explicitly stereotyped atheists, Rob, by asserting a ‘worldview’ that is wholly fallacious.
    You’ve made an assumption about apparent atheist philosophy based on a bigoted pre-supposition.
    Atheism means a lack of belief in god(s). Pasting some kind of philosophy of ego-centrism on top of this is like saying that black people are unintelligent.

    • Paul,

      Let’s step back a bit and I’ll explain to you my logic. It’s true that atheism means lack of belief in god(s) but this also brings other assumptions and conclusions which I’ve often read in atheist literature. I’ll make two statements and pose a scenario. I’m wondering if you could comment on each and say whether you agree or disagree with the statements and then how your agreements relate to my scenario.

      1. In light of the fact that there is no god and this life is all there is: then people should maximise their potential/opportunities/enjoyment?

      2. In light of the fact that there is no god and this life is all there is: then people should minimise their suffering as much as possible?

      Scenario – what should an atheist coal miner do? Should he support the closure of his coal mine in the aftermath of a carbon tax/ETS i.e. for future environmental benefit? He lives in the country where there is high unemployment and has no tertiary training and has little likelihood of quickly gaining other employment. Should he sacrifice his job to the immediate detriment to his lifestyle and family or not?

      Would appreciate your thoughts – for these are the issues at the centre of my article.



      • Rob, I’m prepared to step back a bit, but I suggest you might want to consider the same.
        I’ll address your points in a moment, but what they immediately demonstrate is a simplistic ignorance about atheist views and a false dichotomy of ethical thinking and behaviour. It’s what some folks refer to as the ‘straw man fallacy’.
        Think about how you would respond if you’d seen elsewhere an extensive blog post that read in summary as follows:
        Title: Christianity is our Most Significant Threat to Climate Change Action.
        There is little doubt that we are currently facing one of the most significant global threats in history. Over 95% of the world’s climate scientists agree that diverse and extensive data point to significant changes in the earth’s climate… [references and supporting statements discussed here…]
        An enormous amount of significant policy and decision making power on this issue is, unfortunately, in the hands the Western governments with Judeo-Christian ideals and political leaders that also happen to be Christian. I use the word ‘unfortunate’, because the Christian worldview actually presents an innate psychological resistance to taking action on this type of indistinct global threat. A key tenet of Christianity is that believers are welcomed into the kingdom of heaven and will be saved from whatever dire consequence awaits those that reject Jesus Christ as the saviour of humanity.
        Of course, I’m not saying that individual Christians are not capable of recognising the dangers of climate change and participating in policy and actions to address some of the problems. But at its core, Christian belief offers perpetual after-life protection for those that worship Jesus, regardless of what happens here on Earth.
        Furthermore, despite the recognition by some Christians that the earth is under a form of stewardship by humanity, the ultimate responsibility of what happens to the Earth is entirely in God’s hands anyway. Psalms 24:1 reads “The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness,
        The world and those who dwell therein.” After all, since The Fall, God has re-cleansed the world at least once. He can do what he likes with it. He can choose to save it. Or he can choose to cleanse it again. Or, he could choose to let all humanity, and possibly all life completely, to be destroyed. Regardless, you can bet that Christians will be banking on one of the first two options only. His love for humanity has already been demonstrated thoroughly and unambiguously through Jesus, so it makes no sense whatsoever for Him to allow all human life to be extinguished for good.
        But note that these aren’t just my distorted atheistic perspectives on Christian philosophy. Christians themselves admit openly that they are of the view that the world is under no threat from climate change, and that God not only can save the planet from ecological disaster, but that He is in fact already doing so (see: The Cornwall Alliance).
        Only those that understand that we have one earth and a very limited opportunity to protect it for our children and all future generations are truly motivated to take action on climate change. As long as we have leaders with their Christian beliefs of salvation, that task will remain so much harder.

        I’m interested in what your response is to this, Rob.
        Back on your points and hypothetical, rather than answer them directly, let me ask them of you instead, in this form:
        1. Think about how you assume the archetypal atheist might answer these questions. Did you get simple yes/no answers, or were they qualified and complex? Did they recognise the loaded-question aspect to using the word “should”?
        2. Substitute the premise in each with ‘Given that God is real and we shall enjoy his company in the afterlife…”, then tell me how the answers differ from your archetypal atheist?
        3. In your hypothetical, substitute ‘atheist’ for ‘Christian’, and answer the ethical dilemma yourself for that case. How different is that answer for the archetypal atheist?

        …for these are the issues at the centre of my article.
        Indeed. These are the issues at the centre of my criticism.

      • Paul, thanks for the time taken for your response here and I do apologise for not getting back to you sooner. I’ve been a bit off line lately, but should be back to normal now. I think your suggested appraisal of the Christian worldview is perhaps fair to some, but it is inadequate precisely for the reasons I outlined in my original article. I recognise that generally you’ve attempted to be fair in your argument, but you have caricatured slightly the arguments of Christians and the Bible. For example: “But at its core, Christian belief offers perpetual after-life protection for those that worship Jesus, regardless of what happens here on Earth.” That’s not entirely true, of course your eschatology impacts your view of today, but I don’t think that any Christian would assert this certainly in terms of the character development, being made more into Christ etc.

        I think that the Christian worldview does provide an ethic to care for the earth. Pitting the sovereignty of God against human command to stewardship doesn’t satisfactorily resolve the issue. Can you quote a respected Christian thinker who does this? (this would strengthen your argument that you’re not attacking a straw man at this point).

        I agree that there are some Christians who deny climate change – but my article was written to address them as well. I don’t think it is consistent biblical eschatology and I don’t think it correctly understands the message of the Bible. This is a crucial point – the Bible actually has a self-critiquing mechanism (something which incidentally atheism really lacks). The issue is one of interpretation.

        You actually haven’t answered the questions I put to you. Have I misunderstood key themes of the atheist movement? I still can’t see how you can simultaneously live for today and the future. What do you make of the rising movement to spend the inheritance?

        Thanks again for the interaction. Hope you’re going well.


  3. No worries on the timing, Rob. We’re all busy people. And I wish you well, too.
    My argument that Christianity is our Most Significant Threat to Climate Change Action contains a few ‘true-ish’ points, but it is indeed a deliberate caricature. A straw man. The intention was to point out that you can make an interpretation of any ‘world view’ (although I still say that atheism is not really a ‘world view’), and then cherry-pick and distort any features of it you like to fit with a pre-existing biased opinion. It’s a heckle of your original straw man!
    You’ve made this point: “Have I misunderstood key themes of the atheist movement? I still can’t see how you can simultaneously live for today and the future. What do you make of the rising movement to spend the inheritance?”
    The simplest answer to your question, Have I misunderstood key themes of the atheist movement, is yes. However, it is mainly because the question itself contains fallacious thinking. I and others have tried to make the point a number of times that atheism is not a ‘movement’. Atheism doesn’t have any ‘key themes’. It has a simple definition, which is just a lack of belief in god(s). That’s all it is. One can be a secular humanist as well as being an atheist. One can be a socialist dictator, or a Jainist and an atheist. One can be an environmentalist, a conservative politician, a freedom fighter, a pacifist, a vegan, or a butcher, as well as being an atheist.
    On the point of ‘living for today’, I can’t speak for John Lennon in describing what he meant exactly by this lyric in his song Imagine. Perhaps he has in fact commented on this somewhere. I like the song, but I don’t really care that much about it. It’s hardly a rallying cry for atheists worldwide. It’s just a song, reflecting the views of the bloke who wrote it. My own personal interpretation – and I accept this could be wrong – is that Lennon as a pacifist was simply contrasting his notion of a peaceful utopia with the idea of killing (and dying) for religious causes. If there’s nothing to kill or die for (ie., to make the world more pious and to get into heaven), then the world will be more peaceful. His ‘living for today’ doesn’t mean selfish hedonism. It means making the most of the natural world rather than being driven to commit violent acts in the name of religion with the notion of salvation in an afterlife.
    “What do you make of the rising movement to spend the inheritance?” Loaded question. I don’t know what your evidence is for this, but my guess is that such a movement is not a rising one. I’d refer you again to groups like the Cornwall Alliance. There is a resistance to climate change action, but it comes from quarters that have either vested interests in fossil fuel industries, or just an anti-science attitude. I don’t know for sure, but I would suspect that this movement is actually on the decline.
    Coming back then to your earlier questions. I didn’t answer them and I challenged you to answer them yourself, on behalf of both your stereotyped atheist, as well as a Christian. This is because any answers to these are not actually helpful to the issue of whether atheism is any factor in the climate change issue. Eg., you might infer that the answer “yes” to your 2 questions indicates that atheists are not interested in preserving the health of the planet beyond their own lifetimes. This is extremely simplistic, incomplete, and plain nonsense (which I assume you realise) and hence the questions are a side-track.

    • Sure, I agree that atheism is a ‘simple definition’ i.e. lack of belief in god(s). Yet all ideas have consequences. I’m trying to paint some of the consequences which I think flow naturally from that position. i.e. because there is no god – then this life is all there is – then…. we should maximise today and avoid suffering. This is what I meant about the atheist movement. It’s also the rhetoric I hear from various atheists etc, like ‘there’s probably no god, so stop worrying and enjoy yourself’. Can you see how the atheist claim here has been extrapolated to provide some existential statement of life?

      I disagree that ‘Imagine’ isn’t a rallying point for atheists. The Atheist Foundation of Australia used this on September 12 –

      How can ‘living for today’ not imply selfish hedonism? I’d suggest that making the most of the natural world is a form of selfish hedonism is it not? I’m suggesting that

      Thanks for the interaction. Look forward to more.


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