The justification for burning heretics was perfectly simple: dissent threatened the survival of society.
Nothing was worse than anarchy. This is a viewpoint most people in the West today find pretty much incomprehensible. It is a self-evident truth to them that morality must be a matter of individual choice. And if you believe that, the arguments around the Tim Nicholson case are very difficult to resolve. If there is a moral imperative to preserve the human race, or as much of it as possible, collective consequences must follow. It is not enough for us to do the right thing. Others must as well. If you don't believe that, then there is no point in agitating for success in Copenhagen.
But if collective consequences follow, others must be forced to do things against their will by our moral imperatives. This is exactly the quality that is supposed to be so very obnoxious about religion.
The idea that morality is and must be a matter of individual choice is taken as axiomatic in these debates. It is thought true in the sense that it is held to describe a fact about the world. Very often the same people who believe this will also believe, and maintain with equal vehemence in other contexts the belief that morals are merely opinions, or at least that there couldn't in the nature of things be moral facts: true or false statements about whether something or someone is good or bad.
This was neatly if not nicely expressed by one of the commenters on Tim Nicholson's article here, who said
You may believe less flying and driving, and more wind farms, and so on to be moral imperatives. I don't. You are entitled to your beliefs, and should not be persecuted for them. But they are just beliefs. You want to argue the politics of how to respond to climate change: great. But you can stop wrapping your proposed solutions up in 'moral imperative' cotton wool.
These are not the only confusions which the Nicholson case raises. Many people who are upset by the court's equating a scientific opinion with a religion belief suppose that science is true and rational, religion is false and irrational, and that this division of the world is itself factual and rational. If this is how the world appears to you, then there is no question that climate change is not a religion. That would mean that it wasn't really happening, and that we were free to ignore it. Both supporters and opponents of environmentalism can often agree both that it might be a religion and that would be a bad thing. This is why, in general, the people who maintain that environmentalism is like a religion are opposed to it; while those in favour deny it is anything like a religion. (A further complication is supplied by right-wing Christians like Daniel Johnson who maintain that religion is a good thing, but environmentalism is a false religion.)
But can this sharp distinction between truth and falsity, fact and value, actually describe the world? The unexamined assumption is that we can split the world into a sphere of facts and a sphere of opinions and that the facts will speak for themselves. And, as a matter of fact, that is false. I'm not caliming here that there are no facts, or that there are only opinions, or that science is only socially constructed. I just need to point out that fact and opinion are not two distinct substances.
Myles Allen wrote yesterday: "I don't ask anyone to believe in human influence on climate because I do, or because thousands of other scientists do. I ask them to look at the evidence."
There is a strand of atheism, or perhaps of anti-theism, which redefines "religion" to include all forms of collective faith, chiefly communism. Although this may have originated as a rhetorical move in order to deny that the communists who killed millions of Christians were actually atheists, it does express something deeper: a conviction that compulsion in the name of any belief is itself immoral. Now whether anyone actually truly and consistently believes this is another question. What matters in this context is that lots of people believe that they do believe it.
Climate change makes that position entirely incoherent. Because it is a global tragedy of the commons, individual action cannot be enough. I cannot ensure the survival of my grandchildren, nor even yours, without compelling you to behave in ways that science tells me are necessary. Not to act, not to coerce, itself becomes immoral.
There is a further twist to the argument. Compulsion will be needed but compulsion alone won't do it. People aren't made like that. They need to believe in what they are forced to do. They need idealism, and that will also mean its dark side: the pressure of conformism, the force of self-righteousness, huge moral weight attached to practically useless gestures like unplugging phone chargers. They need, in fact, something that does look a lot like religion. But we can't engineer it. It can only arise spontaneously. Should that happen, the denialists, who claim that it is all a religion, will for once be telling the truth, and when they do that, they'll have lost. I just hope it doesn't happen too late.
Nov 6, 2009 5:17pm AEDT Updated Fri Nov 6, 2009 7:32pm AEDT
In a speech to the Lowy Institute today Mr Rudd launched a strongly worded attack on the Opposition and climate change sceptics worldwide for holding up countries' efforts to combat climate change.
"It is time to be totally blunt about the agenda of the climate change sceptics in all their colours, some more sophisticated than others," he said.
"It is to destroy the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme at home and it is to destroy agreed global action on climate change abroad.
"The clock is ticking for the planet, but the climate change sceptics simply do not care."
His attack came as Climate Change Minister Penny Wong confirmed the Government could not accept all of the Coalition's proposed amendments to the scheme due to budgetary constraints.
Negotiations over changes to the scheme are continuing between the Government and Opposition and it will go to the Senate for a vote in the final parliamentary sitting week of the year.
Mr Rudd accused those who question climate change science of "holding the world to ransom".
"Climate change sceptics, the climate change deniers, the opponents of climate change action are active in every country," he said.
"They are a minority. They are however powerful and invariably they are driven by vested interests [and are] powerful enough to so far block domestic legislation in Australia."
Quoting several Opposition frontbenchers at length as proof of scepticism and a "do-nothing" attitude within the Coalition, Mr Rudd accused the Opposition of political cowardice and a "failure of logic" in so far refusing to pass the scheme.
"The tentacles of the climate change sceptics reach deep into the ranks of the Liberal Party and once you add the National party it's plain the sceptics and the deniers are a major force," he said.
With only around a month to go until the Copenhagen climate change conference Mr Rudd said if no countries acted on climate change the world would be locked in a permanent stand-off.
"As we approach Copenhagen, it becomes clearer that the domestic political pressure produced by the climate change sceptics now has profound global consequences by reducing the momentum towards an ambitious global deal," he said.
Mr Rudd also singled out Malcolm Turnbull in his speech, taking the Opposition Leader to task over his push to hold of passing ETS legislation until after Copenhagen.
"What absolute political cowardice," he said.
But the Opposition Leader refused to rise to Mr Rudd's bait
"I'm not going to run a commentary on, or take the bait from Kevin Rudd, who's obviously given this extraordinary speech in order to create a fight," Mr Turnbull said.
"Now the fact is, and he knows this as well, we are in good faith negotiations with the Government on the amendments we've proposed, and those negotiations should continue.
"He ought to calm down and concentrate on the negotiations; they have the potential to save thousands of jobs and produce a more effective environmental outcome."
Earlier today Senator Wong said the recently released updated economic forecasts showed there would not be as much revenue from carbon pollution reduction scheme (CPRS) up to 2020.
"We have said consistently that we expect any amendments to the CPRS must be economically and fiscally responsible and environmentally credible," she said.
"In light of budget impacts released on Monday, it is clear that carte-blanche acceptance of the entirety of the Opposition's current proposals does not pass these tests."
The Opposition has put up several changes to the scheme including more compensation for heavy polluters and the exclusion of agriculture.
Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull has to take the outcome of the negotiations back to the party room, which will decide whether or not to support the scheme.
But the Nationals and some Liberals have already said they will not support it regardless of any changes made.
The Government has committed Australia to cutting its emissions by 5 per cent of 2000 levels by 2020.
Reported by Samantha Hawley
“Nelson compellingly argues that religion is a powerful force in economic and social life, . . . even if that fact is seldom recognized by most academics and policy makers. The dominant religious influences are secularized versions of Catholicism and Protestantism, not because the leading scholars are piously trying to advance their faith by other means, but because their intellectual horizons have been shaped by worldviews that have framed their consciousness. He convinces me that unless these presuppositions are acknowledged, examined, broadened, and revised, the economic and ecological crises that the world now faces will not be understood or met at their deeper levels.”—Max L. Stackhouse, Princeton Theological Seminary
“Robert Nelson argues that environmentalism is a religion. . . . This provocative thesis raises hard and embarrassing questions about the bases of environmentalism that every serious student of the subject must confront.”—Dan Tarlock, Director of the Program in Environmental and Energy Law, Chicago-Kent College of Law
"Anyone who wants to understand twenty-first century politics should begin with The New Holy Wars, which makes clear the fundamental conflict between how economists and environmentalists see the world.”—Andrew P. Morriss, H. Ross and Helen Workman Professor of Law and Business, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
The present debate raging over global warming exemplifies the clash between two competing public theologies. On one side, environmentalists warn of certain catastrophe if we do not take steps now to reduce the release of greenhouse gases; on the other side, economists are concerned with whether the benefits of actions to prevent higher temperatures will be worth the high costs. Questions of the true and proper relationship of human beings and nature are as old as religion. Today, environmentalists regard human actions to warm the climate as an immoral challenge to the natural order, while economists seek to put all of nature to maximum use for economic growth and other human benefits.
Robert Nelson interprets such contemporary struggles as battles between the competing secularized religions of economics and environmentalism. The outcome will have momentous consequences for us all. This deep book probes beneath the surface of the two movements rhetoric to uncover their fundamental theological commitments and visions.
Robert H. Nelson is a professor at the School of Public Policy of the University of Maryland and a Senior Fellow of The Independent Institute. Among his previous books is Economics as Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond (Penn State, 2001).
Edited by David M. Lodge and Christopher Hamlin
“Ecology has experienced a major paradigm shift over the last half of the twentieth century. This shift requires major rethinking of the relation of religion and environmental ethics to ecology because our scientific understanding of the nature side of that relationship has changed. This book is the first, to my knowledge, that is meeting this challenge head on, and it is doing so in an exemplary way.” —J. Baird Callicott, University of North Texas
“Everything on Earth is becoming unbalanced—escalating populations and consumption, global warming, extinction, troubling ecosystems that by nature are fluxing, evolving, often disturbed, even chaotic. What can and ought we conserve, preserve, sustain on this planet in jeopardy? Here science and religion join in urgent dialogue, a seminal search for answers as we face an open future, with promise and peril.” —Holmes Rolston, III, Colorado State University
For many years, ecologists and the environmentalists who looked to ecology for authority depicted a dichotomy between a pristine, stable nature and disruptive human activity. Most contemporary ecologists, however, conceive of nature as undergoing continual change and find that “flux of nature” is a more accurate and fruitful metaphor than “balance of nature.”
The contributors to this volume address how this new paradigm fits into the broader history of ecological science and the cultural history of the West and, in particular, how environmental ethics and ecotheology should respond to it. Their discussions ask us to reconsider the intellectual foundations on which theories of human responsibility to nature are built. The provisional answer that develops throughout the book is to reintegrate scientific understanding of nature and human values, two realms of thought severed by intellectual and cultural forces during the last two centuries.
CONTRIBUTORS: David M. Lodge, Christopher Hamlin, Elspeth Whitney, Mark Stoll, Eugene Cittadino, Kyle S. Van Houtan, Stuart L. Pimm, Gary E. Belovsky, Peter S. White, Patricia A. Fleming, John F. Haught, and Larry Rasmussen.
“Christians in environmental studies can use this book as an additional source of opinions on moral and ethical questions.” — Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
“. . . [T]he authors firmly believe that religion has much to offer to modern environmentalism. They pragmatically argue that we need to engage with American Christians specifically, simply because of their prominence. More important, the authors genuinely believe that Christianity has the potential to contribute to a renewed environmental ethic; they unanimously dismiss Lynn White’s infamous thesis that Chirstianity is essentially the cause of ecological degredation.” — BioScience
“Contributors to this volume address the question of how the new paradigm of continual change in ecology (‘flux in nature’) fits into the broader history of ecological science and the cultural history of the West, and, in particular, how environmental ethics and eco-theology should respond.” — Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment