Environmentalism as a Religious Idea

By George HandleyOctober 2, 2015

Inherit the Holy Mountain by Mark Stoll

IF YOU HAVE ever entered into a debate with a climate change denier, you know that no amount of “facts” or “information” will resolve the dispute. That’s because the debate in the end has nothing to do with facts, but rather with the narratives we use to frame our relationship to the natural world. This is why it is unfortunate that environmentalism seems to have been reduced to a movement largely concerned with translating scientific understanding into sound policy. While science is undoubtedly a central source of our understanding of the environment, it is a shame that we have ignored the role that the humanities — particularly theology, philosophy, and the arts — have played in cultivating an ethos of care for the planet. For what is really at stake here is not only the environment, but also the quality of our human community.

This state of affairs is especially unfortunate since American environmentalism itself, as Mark Stoll’s fascinating new book, Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism, makes clear, owes as much to religious and artistic thought as it does to the development of scientific understanding. In other words, environmentalism in its 19th- and early 20th-century iterations was astonishingly open about its values even while it maintained fidelity to the discoveries of science. Indeed, Stoll provides a history of how theology, the arts, and the sciences stimulated each other to deeper understandings of our relationship to nature. It is clear that such figures as Thomas Cole, Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Perkins Marsh, John Muir, and Henry David Thoreau drew the moral force of their arguments from the lessons they learned from theology, and were drawn to an ecological understanding of the world precisely because of — not despite — their metaphysical views and artistic impulses.

Stoll discovers, for example, that environmentalism’s major proponents during this period were in the vast majority indebted to Calvinist theology, either as Presbyterians or Congregationalists, a fact that gave environmentalism its persuasive tone, indeed its “moral and political center.” The takeaway from Stoll’s indispensable and game-changing study is quite simple but profoundly important: “a religious perspective gives the history and development of environmentalism a trajectory, unity, and power.”

Which begs the questions: Where is that “moral and political center” today? What might still give the environmental cause the kind of urgency and attention it deserves? And what might the role of religion be when, in the mouths of such “theologians” as Sarah Palin or James Inhofe, we hear religious justification for denying the very possibility of climate change? Why is it that environmental concern today is lower among the religiously active than among the religiously unaffiliated? Doesn’t it seem, then, that religion is the problem rather than the solution?

Stoll’s study provides a helpful guide to address such questions. In his history, it becomes clear that the past achievements of environmentalism in America — for instance, the conservation movement that resulted in the protection of national parks and wilderness areas, as well as major environmental legislation — owe a great deal to the religious rhetoric of early environmentalism, as well as to a confluence between religion, science, and the arts. We see this, for example, in John Muir’s passionate and poetic jeremiads on behalf of American wilderness. Indeed, what fueled the environmentalist fire was often a theology that transmigrated from a strictly sectarian context to the social and civic sphere, and facilitated a more ecumenical language of moral urgency; saving the earth was a matter of our own salvation, degradation was a sin. Stoll insists that the writings of Calvin were particularly influential since he conceived of Reform more as a communitarian and social matter than merely a question of individual salvation.

Not all Christians saw it that way, of course. Stoll points to an earlier version of today’s “culture wars” played out between the more communitarian and pro-environmental ethos of Northern theology, which drew from the experience of the New England towns, on the one hand, and the more libertarian and individualistic ethos of Southern theology drawn from the experience of the plantations, on the other. A disturbing implication of Stoll’s study is that the communitarian ethos is largely absent from the more vocal elements in American Christianity today, further deepening the divide between secular progressives and Christian conservatives.

Indeed, at least since Lynn White’s 1967 essay on “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” it is common to assume that Christianity is both too anthropocentric and too disinterested in the long-term sustainability of the earth to be useful. Stoll, however, traces two related ideas from early Puritan theology that not only helped shape the history of environmentalism but also persuasively overturn White’s argument. First, for Puritans the world was animated by God and served as a vital witness of God, second only to the Bible in its importance. For Calvin, God is in the world, and therefore earthly life is not what separates us from Eden, but rather the conduit back to God and the means, of finding ourselves in paradise, here and now. Second, because the world is dynamic and the creation ongoing, we need a method of reading it that stimulates empirical understanding and metaphysical hope in the same breath, akin to what Stoll calls the “Calvinist desire to truthfully render creation” in Dutch landscape painting.

According to this line of theological thinking, God’s presence in the world is uncanny. He is there and yet not there, but it is our eyes and imagination that make the difference. As Stoll puts it, “only humankind’s blindness prevented them from seeing God in every aspect of nature.” Art, then, is the method for regaining sight. Indeed, what makes Stoll’s study particularly pleasurable and insightful is his analysis of artists, such as Thomas Cole, who brought both their theological and budding ecological understandings to bear on the creation of art. The artist serves as the translator, the teacher who helps us to find ourselves once again in Eden. Cole wrote: “We are still in Eden; the wall that shuts us out is our own ignorance and folly.”

Perhaps because of the stunning impotence of many forms of American Christianity today in rising to the challenges of environmental degradation, it has become commonplace to criticize the Edenic discourse that informed the early encounters with the New World as the root cause of so many of our social and environmental ills. After all, this was a discourse that displaced Native Americans, one that sexualized and eroticized the landscape as a site of spoliation and exploitation. Stoll’s point seems to be that not all Edenic discourses are created equal — not all led to exploitation. That being the case, his book, like many important works of ecotheology that have emerged in the last 40 years (the works of Thomas Berry, William Brown, Sallie McFague, and John Haught come to mind, as does the impressive labor of such organizations as the Evangelical Environmental Network, Interfaith Power & Light, and Lutheran World Relief), provides a ringing call for greater awareness and more attentive concern for the natural world as a central tenet of the Christian life.


If there was ever any doubt about religion’s relevance to environmentalism, Stoll’s extensive evidence should put that doubt definitively to rest. Unfortunately, however, in environmental circles today religion continues to be neglected, if not willfully ignored. And this despite the fact that, as Stoll observes, the variety of religious motivation for environmentalism has only increased over time. Because his work is confined to a national frame of reference and mainly concerned with Christianity, Stoll makes only passing reference to the tremendous growth and diversification of religious environmentalism that have brought Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, and others together, not only in this country but throughout the world.

It is regrettable that this religious awakening is virtually unknown to scientists and humanists. Many scientists continue to act as if the world will finally “get it” once they are in possession of more facts, as if facts alone can move people to action. Environmental humanists might be closer to a solution because they at least seek to combine scientific understanding with the power of stories to shape attitudes and motivate morality. We could all use more scientific and humanistic literacy, to be sure, but the fact remains that the majority of the world, whether we like it or not, still identifies itself strongly with religious traditions and finds motivation in religion.

It, therefore, behooves anyone concerned about the earth to be more invested in, and aware of, this important aspect. But another implication of Stoll’s study is that religion’s relevance to the environment extends only as far as its openness to science and the arts. There is no doubt that religion has often proven its irrelevance to the environmental crisis, if not its danger to the health of the planet, even though Stoll does not explore this dimension of American environmental history. This tendency has its roots in religion’s suspicion of secularism in all of its forms.

That’s where ecotheology comes in. For what ecotheology has shown is that the secularity of the world is an opportunity rather than a threat to religion. For it is within the secular time and space of lived experience on this planet that religion proves its mettle and finds its most profound expression.

Sadly, the voices of ecotheologians do not predominate in American civic culture today. They are often drowned out by a form of Christianity focused on individual reform and on the so-called “social” issues of abortion, gay marriage, the Second Amendment, and other diversions from the gospel of social justice so powerfully preached by Old Testament prophets, as well as by early American Christians.

While the progressive left remains chiefly concerned with ending poverty, condemning greed and excess, and fighting for environmental health, Stoll argues that it unfortunately does not have a moral authority that “counterbalances and checks private enterprise, and it is difficult to see from which corner of society [such a moral voice] might come.” This is, indeed, an important conundrum, but I think it would be a mistake, which Stoll seems to make, to lament America’s pluralism and pine for a time when we could all agree on the true source of moral authority.

The loss of the center, then, might not be the chief problem. The real problem may come from our overspecialization. Practitioners in science, religion, and the arts have too often preferred to preach to their own choirs, and have shunned the responsibility of speaking across the many differences that separate us. Stoll insists rightly that “those who advocate converting everyone to the proper attitude toward the land community, or the earth, or the universe, in hopes of an environmental millennium, evince an optimism toward human possibility for which history supplies little supporting evidence.” We can’t return to an era of like-mindedness in religion any more than we can arrive at a future of perfect agreement.

It is true, however, that too little has been accomplished for the environment, and I suspect it is because too many have preferred to debate who is right rather than find a way to do what is good. We simply have not worked hard enough to identify common values. This is why we end up with debates where opposing sides deserve, or almost seem to depend on, each other. The rhetoric in such fights might look like courage, but it is really disguised cowardice: it speaks forcefully but without the slightest interest in genuine dialogue.

If we need evidence of what religiously motivated moral courage on behalf of the environment might look like today, one need go no further than Pope Francis’s recent encyclical on the climate. Like the Patriarch Bartholomew, the Dalai Lama, and other religious leaders, Pope Francis provides a language of understanding that is not merely sectarian or an attempt to broker an agreement; his is the language of moral urgency.

There is no reason to believe that moral urgency can’t translate across cultures. No one master narrative, belief system, or political platform will solve our problem, any more than any one nation can, but lazy cultural relativism won’t do either. We need private moral conviction more than ever, but this also requires us to learn to suspend disbelief in the face of different worldviews, values, and belief systems. Somehow we will need to learn to be monist and pluralist at the same time. We will need solutions that simultaneously embrace our differences as well as our singular fate as a human family on a shared planet. Can we do it? Only time will tell.


George Handley is Professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities and Associate Dean of the College of Humanities at Brigham Young University.

LARB Contributor

George Handley is Professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities and Associate Dean of the College of Humanities at Brigham Young University.


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