‘We need a supernatural being to punish eco-sinners’

The flurry of commentary in response to Lord May’s speech on climate change revealed greens’ authoritarian desire to chastise ungreen heretics.

Nathalie Rothschild

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As far as marriages of convenience go, the proposal by an atheistic, former chief scientist to the UK government that religious leaders should join the crusade to stop global warming seems a peculiar one.

According to reports from the British Science Association Festival, taking place this week in Guildford, England, Lord May, president of the association, urged religious leaders to take a frontline role in convincing people to combat climate change. Apparently, speaking just before he made his presidential address, Lord May asserted that ‘religion had historically played a major role in policing social behaviour through the notion of a supernatural “enforcer”, a system that could help unify communities to tackle environmental challenges’ (1).

According to a second news report, Lord May suggested ‘religion may have helped protect human society from itself in the past and it may be needed again’. ‘A supernatural punisher may be part of the solution’, he continued (2). A third news report quoted Lord May as claiming that ‘punishment was much more effective if it came from “some all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful deity that controls the world”, rather than from an individual person’ (3).

It is perhaps understandable that a person who has spent five years advising a government in permanent disarray starts believing that an invisible, supernatural being has better chances of inspiring the public to take action than real-life politicians do. But would Lord May, a mathematical biologist and avowed atheist, really promote religion and evoke the wrath of God in the name of saving the planet? Yes and no.

Reading the transcript of his speech, rather than the various news reports, it seems clear that Lord May thinks mainstream religion can play a role in combatting climate change, but he is not exactly calling for a ‘supernatural punishment’ from on high. However, when asked if religious leaders should be doing more to persuade people to combat climate change, he did reply ‘absolutely’ (4).

Considering that Lord May agrees with reports that ‘we are already exceeding the ecological footprint which Earth could sustain’ (5), this opportunism on his behalf is not entirely surprising. He warns that ‘the interwoven problems caused by population growth, climate change, sustainable supplies of food and water, and threats to biological diversity now threaten our existence on this planet’ (6).

And as someone who believes we are facing imminent catastrophe that can only be thwarted through drastic means, Lord May argues that desperate times call for desperate measures. And if that means mobilising priests, mullahs and rabbis to spread the urgent message to their millions of followers that the planet must be saved, so be it.

Still, while media reports focused on Lord May’s ‘appeal to religion’, his actual speech did not dwell too much on the role of religion in combating climate change. Instead it addressed what Lord May termed ‘the major unsolved problem in evolutionary biology’, namely ‘how cooperative or altruistic behaviour among animals evolved’ – a problem quizzed over by Darwin, Lord May said, and still unresolved today. May wanted to stress this question’s ‘relevance to solving the looming environmental difficulties which confront us all’ (7).

Since global cooperation is required, said Lord May, for solving the ‘interwoven problems’ of overpopulation, environmental damage and so on, understanding how cooperative behaviour among human societies emerges and evolves is pressing. He went on to explain that scientific experiments on cooperation based on game theory have shown that when some form of punishment for ‘cheats’ is introduced, people are more likely to achieve a set goal. However, this can also give rise to various conflicts and complications, he continued, many of which could be avoided ‘if the enforcer were some omnipotent deity… How helpful it is if the “punisher” of departures from societal “norms” is an abstract but all-seeing, all-knowing supernatural entity.’ (8)

In other words, Lord May suggests that where there is unquestioning respect for authority – for a deity and for those who derive their power from a divine force – people are more likely to comply to rules, regulations and norms. But he is also quick to point out that if this is the only answer to how cooperative behaviour can be maintained, it is ‘very Bad News’. Authoritarian systems may be good at preserving social coherence, Lord May says, but they are not good at adapting to change. He warns of the rise of intolerant ideologies that are likely to resist societal and environmental change, hence disrupting the possibility for cooperation.

In other words, while religious leaders can be useful to the environmental cause, in that they can preach its messages to large numbers, the wrong kind of religion is bad for the planet. It’s not that Lord May is suddenly extolling the virtues of religious faith; he’s just suggesting that religion-lite, mainstream religion, can function as some form of viral marketing for the environmentalist cause.

It is telling that several media reports chose to highlight the part of Lord May’s address that dealt with the historical role of religion. Many green-leaning commentators clearly believe that saving the planet requires authoritarian measures from on high, so they leapt on May’s seeming demand for ‘punishment’ of environmental transgressors. The undertone of the media reports was that if religions, thanks to their authoritarian structures, can scare people into going green, then, in the name of saving the planet, religious leaders should be encouraged to spout the green cause. In short, the situation is so dire and the public are so stupid that saving the planet requires threatening the masses with punishment by some higher being if they don’t recycle/stop flying/eat organic, etc.

Just as Lord May and his media supporters seem willing to cash in on the reach of religious leaders, those very religious leaders are, in turn, increasingly keen to adopt the green cause in order to gain credibility in a world where religion has lost its footing.

From the Benedictine monk who encouraged participants at a Greenpeace festival to give eco-confessions in a booth made out of recycled material to the bishop who said flying abroad for a holiday is a sin against the planet, many religious leaders today are preaching the virtues of green living (9).

And it’s not just Christians. In the US, Jewish leaders are planning a ‘climate healing shabbat’ (10) and the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago has launched a Green Ramadan campaign. ‘Ramadan is the month where you change your lifestyle, so it makes a lot of sense to use the month to change our behaviour in terms of consumption, environmental consciousness and stewardship’, said Zaher Sahloul, chairmain of the council (11).

In the end, greens who are keen to capitalise on the large following of religious leaders, and religious leaders who are eager to preach the word of environmentalism, all display a distinct lack of faith in their separate creeds’ potential to inspire the masses.

Whether retributions for sins against the planet are being promised by policymakers, environmentalist campaigners, scientists or supernatural entities, it would be a step forward in the evolution of cooperative behaviour if people got together to stand up against these green authoritarians and their eco-punishments.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi looked at why religions are in search of eco-salvation, asked whether floods in the UK were punishment for our eco-sins, and called the reaction to the cancellation of Planet Relief a crusade against open debate. Rob Lyons called Live Earth a global pulpit of pop sanctimony. Josie Appleton talked of unleashing nature’s terror. Brendan O’Neill asked whether carbon-offsetting is eco-enslavement and Nathalie Rothschild was unimpressed by Virgin Atlantic’s attempt to shame its passengers into onboard eco-penance. Or read more at spiked issue Environment.

(1) Leading scientist calls on religious leaders to tackle climate change, Guardian, 7 September 2009

(2) Maybe religion is the answer claims atheist scientist, Telegraph, 7 September 2009

(3) Fundamentalism will damage society, says top scientist, Independent, 7 September 2009

(4) Maybe religion is the answer claims atheist scientist, Telegraph, 7 September 2009

(5) ‘The Evolution of Cooperation: Darwin’s Unsolved Problem and its Relevance to Environmental Concerns’, Lord May, British Science Festival presidential address

(6) ‘Darwin’s unsolved problem: the tool to overcome environmental change?’, British Science Festival press release

(7) ‘The Evolution of Cooperation: Darwin’s Unsolved Problem and its Relevance to Environmental Concerns’, Lord May, British Science Festival presidential address

(8) ‘The Evolution of Cooperation: Darwin’s Unsolved Problem and its Relevance to Environmental Concerns’, Lord May, British Science Festival presidential address

(9) See Priest offers festival-goers the chance to confess their green sins, The Times, 30 August 2007 and How to holiday without sinning, BBC News, 24 July 2006

(10) Jewish Leaders call for “Climate Healing Shabbat” at Noah/Rainbow Torah-time, Oct 23-24, Shalom Center

(11) Muslim leaders urge ‘green’ Ramadan, Daily Herald (Chicago), 22 August 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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