Garden of Eden by Hieronymus Bosch (left panel of Garden of Earthly Delights)

Garden of Eden by Hieronymus Bosch (left panel of Garden of Earthly Delights) Wikimedia Commons

In his famous 1967 Science magazine article, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” the medievalist Lynn White blamed “the Judeo-Christian dogma of creation” for instilling in Western society an ethic of exploitation of the natural world. As God says in Genesis 1, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion…”

In the years since, there’s been plenty of push back, of course. From popes and patriarchs on down, ecologically minded Judeo-Christians have claimed that God was really vouchsafing responsible stewardship — a mandate to care for Creation as if it were our own back yard.

Still, you’ve sometimes got to wonder whether White wasn’t on to something. Like when you read Dennis Prager’s latest column over at RealClearPolitics, wherein the conservative radio host assails environmentalism as the “religion of our time.”

This is the antithesis of the Judeo-Christian view of the world that has dominated Western civilization for all of the West’s history. The Judeo-Christian worldview is that man is at the center of the universe; nature was therefore created for man. Nature has no intrinsic worth other than man’s appreciation and (moral) use of it.

To be sure, Dennis Prager is easy to dismiss. Back in 2006, former New York mayor Ed Koch called him a bigot and a schmuck after he spoke out against Rep. Keith Ellison, (D-MN), the first Muslim elected to Congress, using a Qu’ran to take his oath of office. 

But as the bad news of climate change continues to pile up — most recently in this week’s report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — it’s fair to ask whether denial and inertia are the only reasons for the pathetically weak response of our political system.

Over at Bloomberg View, columnist Clive Crook lays the blame on the “gross tactical incompetence of the climate-science community…and its political champions.” He thinks they’re too partisan and alarmist for their own good. Maybe so, but I wonder whether the underlying problem is not, as Lynn White would have said, deep-seated Judeo-Christian resistance.

Categories: Ethics

Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life.

3 Comments

  1. Is “Judeo-Christian” even a real thing?

    In the overwhelming majority of situations people use the term to really describe views of mainstream Christianity but want to sound less exclusionary.

    Biblical views of the environment depend on translation. A right to environmental rapine can easily be considered a duty to preserve the world from the same passages.

    Koch was right, Prager is a schmuck. How is intentional environmental destruction considered a moral use for people? Man’s appreciation for the environment does not also include appreciation for places we don’t pave over?

  2. samuel Johnston

    I agree that the Copernican revolution has not come for the faithful. The monotheistic God theory places the responsibility on the creator to fix the outcome. Even worse, Christianity sees the destruction of the world as the necessary prelude to a heavenly eternity.
    The apocalyptic environmentalists movement plays into this narrative and reinforces it. To address environmental issues we clear reasoning concerning what we can do, its costs, and a assessment of the probability of success. Romanticizing the subject has already caused great harm in preventing the wise allocation of funds and wasting time, money and support on windmills, ethanol, and other distractions. As the Jesuits say, the perfect is the enemy of the good. The U.S. still gets most of its electricity from coal fired plants. Nuclear is not without problems, but it does less immediate harm and buys time for more radical technologies to develop.

  3. These are good questions to ask. It would be nice if there was one clear-cut answer. Is it because of a lack of leadership in church, the negativism and bad public image of those in the environmental movement, more information and education on climate change, Information provided in simpler language, the seeming partisanship of the environmentalism, or our addiction to consumerism. In many ways, it’s interesting that both Christians and environmentalist suffer similarly in the public eye. We’re both seen as dogmatic, negative, legalistic, and guilt-driven.

    As an aside, I think that in general Christians don’t play well with others.The environmental movement is diverse. It’s much more diverse than most churches. I think this is something that makes some Christians uncomfortable. We think that sitting at a table and agreeing on something with a bunch of atheists, or wiccans, or (fill in the blank) is a compromise of our faith.

    Personally, I think it would help if we had more conversations. We have become a society and a culture that has lost it’s ability to dialogue. How about if we had more conversations about climate change and the importance of creation? Not simply in the context of church, but in the context of our neighbors and friends. It’s too easy to simply pin this on Christian leadership. How many of us (including myself) have had conversationswith people at our churches on this topic.

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