I may be a science journalist and, worse yet, an atheist, but I’m old enough to know that faith can be a force for good. Way back in the days of the Vietnam War, when I was just 13, an Episcopal priest took me and several other future draftees to the armed forces recruiting office in Philadelphia to protest. Rev. Scott didn’t have publicity or personal gain in mind; protesting slaughter was just his way of living out his faith. Did we end the war? Well, perhaps not. All I’m saying is the draft ended months before I was due to be called up.
Scott was one of three ministers who lived on the West Philadelphia block where we lived. The other two were black. Ours was one of the first to integrate, and it’s no accident that clergy on both sides of the racial divide led the way. Following the King assassination, Rev. Scott took a bunch of us to the National Cathedral in Washington for a reconciliation service. I’ll never forget tearfully linking arm in arm with thousands of people to sing “We Shall Overcome.”
How times have changed. Churches that used to follow the example of Jesus by helping the poor and the oppressed have either lost their way or lost their members. As progressive evangelical Jim Wallis notes, “Poverty has fallen off the national agenda.”1
Today, religious activism is, in the main, a desperate effort to fight progress through propaganda, politics and violence. It ranges from right-wing evangelical organizations to an increasingly grotesque Vatican to the various unholy alliances roiling Islam. Sex-obsessed, power-hungry and stunningly reactionary, Old Time Religion dreams of restoring an idealized past when it had the power to impose “God’s law” on everyone.
Let’s take a quick tour of the religious activist madhouse today. There’s the American Family Association, a media front for some of the most vicious bigots and reactionary evangelicals around. Sample headline from their website: “Is Satan Behind the Campaign to Let Gays Join the Boy Scouts?” Then, there is the Vatican. Faced with incontrovertible evidence that priests abused their sacred trust to abuse children, and that management conspired to cover up their hideous crimes, how has it responded? By filing lawsuits against contraception coverage and launching a campaign to persecute American nuns for paying too much attention to the plight of the poor and the oppressed and not enough to abortion. It would be comical if the consequences for so many were not so tragic.
And what can you say about Islam today? A religion that began as a genuine advance of tolerance and civilization over the prevailing cruelties has, in all too many instances, degenerated into stifling conservatism, outrageous privilege and vicious, inhumane and utterly depraved radicalism. Quick examples: in Saudi Arabia where the ruling class is closely allied with ultraconservative Wahabis, a prominent cleric recently pleaded guilty to beating his own 5-year-old daughter to death. He did this, apparently, in a rage over suspicions that she might not be a virgin. (As if that could be her fault.) The Islamic court essentially let him off with a weekend in jail and a fine.
Meantime, in the desert to the west, Islamists seized power in Mali and proceeded to take every drop of joy out of life. They banned music, television and any kind of games, and went about demolishing the cultural landmarks of Timbuktu. But they were one-upped by Islamists who seized a gas field in Algeria, taking hundreds of workers hostage. The crisis ended in a bloodbath, but it could’ve been much worse. From surviving hostages we learn that the terrorists were intent on turning the entire complex into a gigantic fireball that would have killed everyone for miles around.
There you have religious activism today. Is it any wonder that Americans are walking away from organized religion in record numbers? The so-called Nones have reached 20 percent in a recent Pew poll. For fans of Richard Dawkins and other New Atheists, this is as close to a divine sign as they get. Pop the champagne corks, it’s atheism ascendant. But not so fast. As Frank Newport of the Gallup Organization observes in his recent book “God Is Alive and Well,” “Despite the many changes that have rippled through American society over the past several decades, belief in God … has remained high and relatively stable” at more than 90 percent.2
There is plenty of religion left, and plenty of potential for good. What’s more, there is no reason for religions to act alone. Just as in the civil rights movement, people of various religions or none can come together to act. As I have written elsewhere, the times call for a Good Faith Alliance. But wait. Is there a single worthy cause that can bring all these disparate, disunited people together? Absolutely.
Climate change is upon us. The scientific data are in. Multiple studies produce the same terrible tracks. The latest, headed by a physicist who had been a climate change skeptic, produced a shocker for the deniers who funded it: climatologists had been telling the truth all along. In fact, to judge by recent melt rates in the Arctic, they may have undersold it.
You don’t have to read the studies. From melting permafrost to droughts to shifting growing seasons to visibly rising sea levels to the increasing fury of coastal storms, the evidence is all around us.
To be sure, some believers have responded. We have the Evangelical Climate Initiative, the Catholic Climate Initiative, Interfaith Power and Light and the Jewish Climate Change Campaign, to name a few. Even the Southern Baptists have taken a stand for stewardship.
But, as National Public Radio recently reported, calls from the pulpit have gone unanswered. Even though two-thirds of Americans at last recognize climate change as a threat, it ranks ninth among issues they told Gallup they want President Obama to focus on in his second term. It came in behind illegal immigration, a problem that, unlike climate change, has largely resolved itself.
How can this be? The answer, it seems to me, lies in religious fatalism. Asked about global warming, the popular website Answers from the Book puts it this way: “The Bible says that God is in charge of the Earth and there is nothing mankind can do to save it except, perhaps, pray.” Of course, some believers take the call to stewardship seriously, but many more just shrug and leave it up to God.
American theology is uniquely suited to environmental apathy. It has specialists: there are the dominionists, who believe that God gave man reign over the earth to exploit for His glory, and the dispensationalists, who believe that since the End Times are just around the corner we might as well “drill, baby, drill!” But more generally, American religion, like other enterprises, has evolved to satisfy the customer. Complacency is its hottest product line.
All this points up the need for deep reform in religion. Superficial ecumenism won’t cut it. To unite as a force for good, religious leaders must do more than buy into retail findings of science concerning rising temperatures or melting ice sheets. They must make a wholesale shift in their view of this world.
Whatever the ultimate nature of God or the Great Beyond, we must all embrace the key finding of science: that the world we inhabit operates according to natural processes alone. We cannot count on a miraculous parting of the dread C(O2). Any climate remedies will have to come from us. Whether you choose to view stewardship as a sacred obligation or a secular goal, what counts is that you commit. It’s a question of good faith.