Thomas M. Doran is the author of the Tolkien-inspired Toward the Gleam (Ignatius Press, 2011), The Lucifer Ego, and Kataklusmos (2020). He has worked on hundreds of environmental and infrastructure projects, was president of Tetra Tech/MPS, was an adjunct professor of engineering at Lawrence Technological University, and is a member of the College of Fellows of The Engineering Society of Detroit.
Most public voices, especially the loudest voices, keep hammering at a disingenuous two-track narrative. But there is a third and better way.
When it comes to planet Earth, climate change, the environment, the popular narrative describes two tracks: those who know the world is in peril and are committed to transforming human societies to meet this threat, and the science deniers or those too greedy to care.
Who wants to be a troglodyte or Scrooge?
Indeed, there are environmental threats, greedy people, and science skeptics but, in fact, there’s a third track that’s rarely articulated, even within Christianity, a track that’s consistent with Christian beliefs and compatible with historical and scientific evidence.
The dominant track today could be called practical atheism, promoting policies that have the effect of reducing the status of human beings in relation to other living things, and defining human rights without reference to a Creator or an eternal destiny. Many Christians and other believers acquiesce to this culturally dominant track to the degree that they support organizations and causes that promote such policies.
Some assert this dominant track promotes humanism. If so, it’s a human-disparaging version of “humanism”, not the classical version.
The third track, the track of faith and reason, encompasses those who value science and desire to be responsible stewards of planet Earth while giving priority to human needs and human suffering. They assert an eternal destiny and human rights that derive from the Creator. The words of Jesus give direction as to how faith and reason understand the natural world and humankind:
Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they?…Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them.” (Mt 10: 28) “Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Mt 10: 29)
Practical atheists and reasoning believers can agree on many environmental measures but there are important differences between these perspectives when it comes to humanity and planet Earth.
Practical atheism asserts that environmental policy, social justice, and world security can only be achieved by adopting social and economic systems regulated by experts. Faith and reason assert that human beings have an eternal destiny, that liberty is a gift of the Creator, and that environmental stewardship, social justice, and world security are, in the first place, outcomes of good formation and individual virtue.
There’s a difference between scientific certainty—the speed of light, the law of gravity, the chemical equation for water—and a consensus at the present time based on models or probabilities (i.e., Earth’s climate in 30 or 50 years). Practical atheism may advance desired policies by representing scientific consensus to be the same as scientific certainty. Faith and reason acknowledge the difference between scientific certainty and consensus science, valuing consensus science while considering informed contrary views because many now-esteemed scientists became famous by challenging the consensus of their day.
Practical atheism suggests that if we detect a pollutant in the environment it is necessarily dangerous. Faith and reason understand that because we can now detect pollutants in the environment in amounts a million or more times lower than we could 50 years ago, detection by itself doesn’t necessarily signify danger to humans or the environment; that is, detection increasing requires context.
Practical atheism suggests that free markets are environmental threats. Faith and reason consider the evidence that water, air, and habitats in representative governments with free markets are cleaner than top-down, autocratic societies. Thus, pushing energy production, the mining of rare-earth metals for batteries and solar panels, to autocratic states is environmentally counter-productive. An example of this is Germany, phasing out nuclear energy and coal, ostensibly an exemplar of environmental responsibility. Germany is increasingly dependent on environmentally murky Russia for its natural gas supply.
How much sense does this make when we know that environmental sloppiness in one country affects other countries?
Practical atheism increasingly promotes policies with the effect that the minutest environmental impact is more consequential than human needs. Faith and reason hold that human needs should take priority over modest environmental impacts.
Practical atheism discounts technology advancements when considering the impact of big infrastructure projects to meet diverse water needs. Faith and reason adherents know better than to put blind faith in technology while recognizing we can now treat and convey ocean water to parched and fire-stricken communities with a modest impact on the environment.
Most public voices, especially the loudest voices, keep hammering at a disingenuous two-track narrative, a contest between the caring science-affirming and the greedy science-deniers, a narrative that doesn’t square with the evidence. Why wouldn’t believers and their leaders pay greater heed to a faith and reason approach to planet Earth?