Evangelical Christians and Climate Change Skepticism

Wm Briggs reports on a “forthcoming Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society paper “Making the climate a part of the human world”, in which University of British Columbia geographer Simon Donner argues that religion is the cause of global warming denial. ” (Pre-publication copy here)

Simon Donner’s Views

Donner’s Summary is

“Ongoing public uncertainty about climate change is rooted in a perceived conflict between the scientific evidence for a human role in the climate and a common belief that the weather and climate are controlled by higher powers.”

This is backed up by a number of studies of religions, both ancient and primitive religions from various parts of the world. This includes from Fiji and Papua New Guinea. I can find no reference to the major religions of Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism. There is only one biblical reference, from the Old Testament book of Job, but none from the New Testament – the stories about Jesus and his disciples. Neither is there a distinction between Catholicism and Protestantism, nor a split between evangelical and liberal protestants.

The Religious Sceptics in USA

The majority of the religious sceptics in the USA are the Protestant Evangelicals. Their type of Christianity is centred on biblical study, both individually and corporately, to perceive the revealed word of God and the interpretation for current circumstances. There are the specialists – the ordained pastors – who provide interpretations through sermons. However, this is just the lead for personal study and reflection.

Collectively, these evangelicals are not unified body theologically. For instance, a quick comparison of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Assemblies of God websites will quickly demonstrate the point. Nor are there strong ecumenical links between the major churches, as found in Britain.

This bible-based view of Christianity comes directly from the Reformation. In medieval Europe the Bible was handwritten and only available in Latin. With most people illiterate, reading of the Bible was limited to a few dedicated scholars, with interpretation highly centralised and strictly controlled. Any deviation was treated as heresy, often punishable by death. A combination of the advent of printing and translation into the vernacular suddenly made the word of God accessible to a much wider population. It soon became evident that the established religious orthodoxy was, in many places, unsupported from the sacred text and in some cases fundamentally at odds with that text. It was this need to study that changed public worship so dramatically, with teaching replacing the Mass as the centrepiece.

Politically, access to the Bible democratised understanding and the questioning of authority and centralised power. This gave a scholarly impetus to the development of modern science, and also the Liberal political philosophy of John Locke and the Scottish Enlightenment that in turn heavily influenced the Founding Fathers.

An Alternative Thesis

Evangelicals have as their primary resource the Bible and the interpretation of God’s purpose from within their local congregation. Your average church member will have quite a detailed knowledge of the Bible, being able to quote much of the primary doctrine and some major passages. Generally they also “cherish and defend religious liberty, and deny the right of any secular or religious authority to impose a confession of faith upon a church or body of churches.
(Southern Baptist Convention). The scepticism towards climate change comes from its presentation. It comes across as a core doctrine that is agreed upon by a consensus of leading scientists. But the truth cannot be perceived by the lay person, but only revealed by impenetrable computer models to scientific experts. Any deviation or questioning of core doctrine is treated with contempt and as a heresy. Yet the high scientific standards that these experts are supposed to follow has been found wanting. There are two areas where this is demonstrated most.

First, the poster hockey stick of a decade ago – showing global temperatures were dramatically higher than at an time in the last millennium – was investigated by the Steve McIntyre. He showed the results were as a result of a number of elements including cherry picking data; giving undue weighting to favourable results; excluding some unfavourable data points; failing to apply proper statistical tests. A book charting this episode is found here, and my comparison of an exchange following a savage book review is here.

Second is the Climategate email release, which showed that the core scientists were a fairly small group, that they viewed the science as far from settled, and they adhered to lower standards of scholarship than was the public perception.

The Inferences from the Donner Paper

Donner has either little understanding of mainstream Christianity in the USA, or he deliberately misrepresents what it stands for. In so doing, he not only completely misses the point of why religious Americans are sceptical but does so in such a way that will make them more antagonistic. The fact that peer review should allow through a paper that clearly does not have proper argument to support the thesis shows a failure to of that process. That a person with no qualifications or prior publishing record in the field of sociology or theology should be allowed to publish on the subject in a journal specialising in the weather shows how far climate science is straying beyond its area of competency. For Christians who unsure of the global warming arguments, clear evidence that a climate scientist not knowing what they are talking about will make them more sceptical. They will be more likely to accept the sceptical comments that the science is flawed, whether the theory, the computer models or the statistics.

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