Thursday’s Jambar featured an op-ed by Robert H. Nelson, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland. In his article, Professor Nelson posits the idea that environmentalism is a religion. His conflation of environmentalism as religion is based on the American philosopher and psychologist William James’ assessment that it is not necessary to “positively assume a God” in order to have a religion, and that “godless or quasi-godless creeds” also can qualify as religions. With this assessment in mind, Professor Nelson asks why environmentalism can be taught in schools but not the “embrace of Judaism and Protestantism.”
Professor Nelson has unwittingly answered his own question, which is evident in his usage of language like “embrace” and his faulty assessment of environmentalism as a religion. One cannot teach a public student to embrace beliefs. One can, however, teach a public student facts, and how to analyze those facts, and how to come to conclusions about those facts. This is called science. One cannot teach public students to believe, but one can teach public students about beliefs. We call this philosophy and religious studies. The former — to teach students *to* embrace a belief — belongs in the realm of religious institutions and families. The latter — to teach students *about* the various beliefs held and put forth by various philosophies and religions — is more in line with separation of church and state in public institutions.
Environmentalism is not a religion, regardless of William James’ description of religion not necessarily being defined by the assumption of a god. James’ description described religions as belief systems, which they are, and compared religions to belief systems that do not assume the existence of a god. Other examples of belief systems without gods, which also sometimes have fervent followers, might include Taoism, Libertarianism, Marxism or Capitalism. All of these particular systems describe the way a world or an aspect of a world (such as the economics or social order of a world) functions, or could function if the belief system were applied. But all of these are also theoretical or philosophical perspectives, and they are not grounded in fact so much as they are grounded in belief.
Environmentalism’s fervor, as close to a religious experience as it might be for some, generally arises out of facts about the nature of our environment and our impacts on it, rather than beliefs about our environment and our impact on it. While the fervor of some environmentalists might reach the heights and ecstatic displays as some religious persons, that fervor has grown out of the foundation of fact, not faith. If faith is involved in environmentalism, it mainly exists as a function to encourage those whose enthusiasm has withered in the face of a world where the facts about our environment — the damage we have done to it, its limited resources and its potential to reach a condition where life isn’t sustainable any longer — are so often ignored in favor of unsubstantiated beliefs that our environment is permanent, unchanging and will provide us with the resources we need to exist regardless of how we treat it. Can we really believe that when we can observe territories of the world that have become deserts due to environmentally detrimental treatment, usually spurred by the hands of various industries concerned with profit at any cost?
The reason why environmentalism can be taught in schools is that its concerns are responses to facts about our environment and the extreme, detrimental changes it has undergone in the recent past due to human practices. Environmentalism is not a religion, however much some of its more ardent activists might seem religious in their commitment to employing strategies to combat various threats to our environment. Environmentalism is a practical set of responses to facts many would rather dismiss, facts derived from investigation via the scientific method. To conflate environmentalism with religion based on several overlapping features displayed in some sectors of their populations is to ignore the differences that define and distinguish both environmentalism and religion.