Atheism impedes climate change
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)