Author’s Note: This is an unpublished piece I wrote in August, 2013. It is a reply to an article by Robert Martin in Online Opinion.
The climate change debate reached new heights of stupidity in Robert Martin’s Online Opinion article from last week. What began promisingly as a discussion of the realities of climate change soon made a swift descent from mere nonsense to contemptible nonsense, and this warrants a detailed response.
Martin argues that the godless are philosophically and morally ill-equipped to deal with the demands of climate change action. First, this is because “atheism is a selfish, short-sighted worldview” that provides no incentive to consider the fate of our planet. Second, the atheist’s penchant for self-enjoyment clashes with the need for sacrifice, thus rendering the atheist worldview insufficient. Martin offers a specifically Christian alternative based upon stewardship of God’s creation and Christian sacrifice. He assumes a kind of authority here, and claims that the Christians who disagree with him have got it wrong.
Martin manages to be accidentally correct about a few of these things, but only slightly. This is because he crashes badly into the obstacles of terminology. Except for the disparate number of gods believed in, the terms ‘atheist’ and ‘Christian’ alone don’t reveal much about the character of human individuals. A slightly longer conversation is required here. You can be an atheist and a secular humanist or an atheist and a nihilist. You can be a compassionate and tolerant Christian or a right wing loon. Such a wide spectrum calls for a little more discrimination. Atheism shouldn’t be denigrated because of the lyrics in John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ or the often caustic remarks of Richard Dawkins. All this was well pointed out in the forum, but the common reply lacked seriousness, too. The simplistic reply to Martin’s article is that it’s really the Christian worldview that impedes climate change action, given that some Christians would welcome environmental destruction as a precursor to the coming Apocalypse. This, too, is a cheap argument, which proves nothing about the ‘true’ nature of Christianity and creeps into the one-size fits all criticism which is easy to deploy but difficult to hold up.
I would venture that most atheists would prefer to be called humanists, and theirs is a rich and long ethical and philosophical tradition. Humanism takes human experience as its starting point and ethics, meaning and the search for the “good life” come from here. The philosopher A.C. Grayling elucidates the characteristics of a humanist life fully lived: “One is that good lives seem meaningful or purposeful to the people living them. Another is that they are lives lived in relationships, having at their core real intimacy – love, or friendship – with one or more others.” Integrity, personal responsibility and an appreciation of aesthetic value round out his list. Would the adoption of such a worldview impede or advance the cause of climate change action? Martin is right in a narrow sense – self-enjoyment and opportunity maximisation are intimately linked to a worldview where the absence of God is a starting point. But none of the above matters if we don’t have a functioning planet, where no human life is possible. Any thinking human individual recognises this, godless or religious.
Humanists, like Christians, and other human mammals, have children, live, fasten their love upon others and want the best for their children and grandchildren. When Martin suggests that “economic self-interest would trump any empathy for future generations,” I wonder if he is aware of just how insulting he really sounds.
Other insults, too, spill out accidentally. Martin goes on to argue that “it is a Christian worldview which gives an imperative for climate action.” You’ll notice, I hope, that Islam, Judaism and other religious traditions apparently do not require consultation, either. This is a mistake. The challenge of climate change is too big and too important to be making unnecessary enemies, or thinking that one sect holds the exclusive solutions, and no one else has anything constructive to add. Dismiss everyone and you’ll soon find yourself in a lonely position.
Robert Martin thinks that we are called to be stewards of God’s creation and therefore care for the earth. That’s fine. And wonderful. Many Muslims and Jews would agree. Buddhists, too, could no doubt articulate and share a common respect for the natural world. Many atheists and secular humanists seek the same goal because we think human civilisation matters and that it’s worth keeping. Our metaphysical and ethical quarrels might be irreconcilable, but that doesn’t mean we can’t cooperate on a few practical endeavours.
The real adversaries in this struggle are the agents of denial and scepticism, the “merchants of doubt” who profit from the destruction of the planet and wilfully foster ignorance and stupidity in the public arena. Let there be denunciations and criticism, but let it be directed at those who deserve it. The religious and atheist alike will find themselves fighting on the same side.
The number of Gods to which one subscribes seems a petty argument when we consider what is really at stake. Whether Robert Martin knows, or cares, I consider us allies in the struggle for the environment. I’ll ally, too, with any person who is convinced that the fate of our planet is not a matter of indifference.