I joined Restoring Eden as a participant observer in 2016, soon after they carried out a series of citizen science projects in the rural, white coalfields of Central Appalachia. As a religion scholar, I wanted to understand how this small environmental organization rooted in American evangelicalism integrated science, environmentalism, politics, and relatively conservative Christian faith—elements that are often juxtaposed. While observing how they adapted their work to a residential area of Birmingham, I noticed a surprising set of connections that emerged precisely because of how they integrated them to fit local conditions.
From 2010 to 2014, Restoring Eden partnered with Christians for the Mountains, Appalachian coalfield residents, and health scientists to recruit and train young Christian volunteers from across the United States to go door to door collecting the first household-level data on the community health effects of living near a mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mine. Though many of the organizers and volunteers self-identified as Christian, the project also involved people with diverse or no religious commitments. The findings, which the scientific partners published in peer-reviewed health journals, showed higher rates of cancer, lung and pulmonary diseases, and hypertension among people who lived near MTR sites compared to similar demographics further away. Activists, residents, bloggers, scientists, journalists, and politicians inserted the findings into public, legal, and policy deliberations to try to curtail this destructive form of coal mining by highlighting its largely invisible human costs. In contrast to the way industry framed MTR issues as a conflict between jobs and the environment, the opponents of MTR used the research as evidence for a different narrative centered around human health: How many human lives is MTR worth?
Around the same time, the coal industry and its allies launched a campaign to discredit the research, prevent it from informing policy, harass the lead scientist, and supply industry-funded research. The latter produced largely inconclusive results and called for delaying action against MTR mining until more research could be conducted. Meanwhile, coal industry spokesmen allied their pro-coal agenda with religious convictions and Bible verses. The federal government intervened by commissioning a panel of scientists to study the issue further and assess these competing scientific findings. After it became apparent the panel would vindicate MTR’s opponents, but before they could issue their report, the Trump Administration disbanded it.
By the time this conflict over epistemic authority and the relation between science, activism, money, and policy was underway, Restoring Eden was moving southward along the Appalachians. They took their citizen science model to a handful of neighborhoods in Birmingham, Alabama, where black, urban residents were also facing a powerful alliance between the coal industry and government officials. As in Central Appalachia, Restoring Eden partnered with churches and both faith-based and non-religious organizations in the effort. Like the suffering of white, rural residents in Central Appalachia’s coalfields, black suffering in Birmingham was also intentionally and systematically rendered invisible. The industry and government personnel were different in each case, but the strategies were alike. A federal judge found a coal executive, a lawyer, and a state representative guilty of participating in a bribery scheme that sought, in part, to keep scientists out of the Birmingham neighborhoods. For them, an absence of scientific data was strategic: it inhibited a coalition of residents and environmentalists from getting their Superfund site on the National Priorities List. Had the coalition succeeded, the coal company would have been liable to pay part of the cleanup costs. It was much cheaper to buy a politician instead.
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How should we understand these interracial and multireligious (including irreligious) connections that the citizen science projects coalesced? And can this case help us understand religion in relation to science and politics more broadly today? Though some classical theorists, such as Max Weber, characterized modernization by its spatial and temporal separations—between religion and politics, science and religion, politics and science—theorizing how people integrate and configure their interconnections opens up analytic possibilities for a common life otherwise foreclosed. This attention to separation, integration, and connection further resonates with Bruno Latour’s concern to understand modernity: If “we have never been modern,” then what have we been? If it is the case that modernity is often understood as constituted by what it separates—his object of focus being an ontological separation between nature and people as it is reflected in an administrative separation between science and politics—Latour theorizes modernity by attending instead to how moderns integrate these in practice. We might read Saba Mahmood’s work as an argument that we have never been secular. Mahmood suggests that secularism’s normative separations between religion and politics and between public and private are out of step with how they intermingle in practice: secularist institutions remake religion as a private matter of belief while seemingly non-political, pietist virtues have significant political implications. Similarly, I name the constructive possibilities opened by paying attention to the connections that formed through a series of citizen science projects in a number of coal’s sacrifice zones. I find the necessary analytic concepts among theorists who attend to political connections made across worlds, species, and religious traditions. With these concepts I theorize that, in the case described above, “citizen science” emerged as a shared norm that different groups constructed to address shared concerns. Understanding “citizen science” in this way—as a shared norm enacted through difference—may also shed light on the broader ways that social and environmental movements are integrating citizen science into their organizing efforts.
Anthropologist Marisol de la Cadena offers a range of pluralistic political concepts for understanding the connections that form in extractive landscapes. In the case she studies, environmentalists and indigenous groups jointly opposed MTR-like forms of mining in the Peruvian highlands, even though they gave very different reasons for their actions. Environmentalists were concerned about issues of pollution and culture, while indigenous groups were concerned that the “earth-being” named Ausangate—the mountain to be mined—might react negatively and kill people. Such earth-beings—and the politically significant relationships people have with them—are anathema to modern politics, which, as Latour argues, is premised on a fundamental split between nature and society: scientists represent nature, while politicians (or social scientists) represent people. Instead of making the case fit theory, however, Cadena reconceptualizes politics. When Andean indigenous groups and environmentalists developed shared norms and practices to protect Ausangate mountain from extractive industries, they engaged in “cosmopolitics.” Without sharing an ontology—a cosmos or world—these groups nevertheless constructed an “equivocation” called “the environment,” which, though it meant different things to different groups, coalesced into a common project. Such “partial connections” that form across worlds are politically powerful and can be harnessed by groups to defend goods in common from the state and market forces that threaten them.
Cadena’s pluralistic concepts illuminate the partial connections the citizen science projects generated. Though all the participants engaged in citizen science, some were caring for God’s creation, some were pursuing social justice, others were protecting their homeland, and still others were preserving the integrity of science. For example, one of the scientists involved, who described herself as an atheist, partnered with an evangelical organization in part because she thought Christian data gatherers, who identified themselves as such in their opening script at the doorway, would effectively increase study participation among Appalachia’s highly religious inhabitants. In other words, some acted on a set of ontological relations between God, mountains, and people, while others rejected the very existence of those relations. Nevertheless, the participants needed no neutral, universal foundation to work together. Instead, citizen science became an equivocal concept through which these different worlds came together in an American version of cosmopolitics.
Political ecologist Anna Tsing does for connections across species what Cadena does for connections across worlds: she provides a vocabulary for understanding the relationships that emerge from extractive landscapes. Her research on the matsutake mushroom examines the role this mushroom played in gathering together a diversity of human groups, from Vietnam vets and Vietnamese refugees foraging in forests extracted for timber to capitalists in the Pacific Northwest and gift-givers in Japan. Because the matsutake grows in disturbed forestscapes, and nobody has yet learned how to cultivate it, it must be foraged. Therefore, because capitalists could not control such an elusive but valuable mushroom, they relied on foragers and their craft knowledges to find and sell them. When a diverse group of foragers began organizing to reclaim some degree of power from the capitalists dominating the matsutake trade, Tsing saw a multispecies set of connections becoming a political force. This kind of organizing required what she calls an “art of noticing” the human and nonhuman entanglements lying latent in extracted landscapes. This is the “latent commons.” Harnessing it is political work: it involves mobilizing some of these interspecies entanglements in ways that provoke conflict with alternative, extractivist ways of harnessing multi-species relations.
The citizen science projects I described at the start of this essay similarly harnessed a latent commons, especially as Restoring Eden moved southward from Central Appalachia to Birmingham—Appalachia’s southern gateway. Restoring Eden harnessed at least three latent commonalities between these demographics that are obscured, for instance, by recent electoral maps. Such maps reflect slowly achieved divisions—Republican vs. Democrat, white vs. black, rural vs. urban. However, Restoring Eden practiced the art of noticing what these populations share in common: Christianity, coal, and organizing. Rather than see the Appalachians through the lens of secularism’s ecological analogue—that is, as a disenchanted storehouse of inert natural resources for human projects—they saw carbon-rich mountains wrapped up in a divine economy of creation and new creation. The Appalachians and their carbonaceous matter thus became a site of tension between two economies: one divine and the other extractivist. And though Restoring Eden encountered Christians in both places opposed to “environmentalism,” they also harnessed churches and Christian organizations committed to human health and to setting moral limits on the coal industry’s social license. Restoring Eden was certainly not the first to traverse the Appalachians in this way. Groups in both places collaborated as recently as the mid-twentieth century for labor and racial justice (see: Highlander Center). Though interracial action was not Restoring Eden’s goal, their work of making visible shared forms of suffering and concealment at the hands of the coal industry made such forms of concerted action possible. It unearthed connections that are often obscured by cartographies of separation.
Cadena’s and Tsing’s concepts can be brought into secular studies by way of Luke Bretherton’s work on religion and politics. Drawing on Mahmood, Bretherton distinguishes between secularism, which is a normative project to separate religion from a neutral public sphere, and what he calls secularity. Secularity names the dynamic by which people from a plurality of religious, moral, and epistemic traditions mutually engage one another and develop shared norms, and thus a basis for common life, as they seek goods in common. Whereas secularism, in this account, posits that commonality is prior to difference, secularity names commonality as something that is constructed or discovered through working together across different traditions to address shared concerns. Bretherton argues that the concept of secularity is more attentive to the ways people from very different moral and religious traditions work together and develop common norms in practice. It requires no neutral public sphere or universal rationality as a precondition for democratic life together. In the case at hand, citizen science developed as a shared norm and practice among people from various religious and irreligious traditions, moral communities, and epistemological frameworks in relation to the ways the coal industry has harnessed Appalachia’s carbonaceous matter. (One scandalous implication of this is that evangelicals, for instance, need not accept theories of evolution or even climate change in order to work with others toward meaningful environmental action.) In short, “they” don’t have to become “us” before “we” can work with “them.”
What I am calling “citizen science” is a concept that draws on critical theorists of science and social difference to better explain the connections generated by local projects than frameworks that normalize separations between and among politics, religion, and science. In fact, attempts to normatively separate them, as the coal industry’s allies did, might become the locus of critique. My analysis here does not imply that integrating religion, science, and politics is better than separating them. Rather, it suggests that if we are to understand and even valorize phenomena like Restoring Eden’s citizen science projects, then we ought to pay attention to the ways people integrate them in practice and the connections they generate. Restoring Eden is not entirely unique. Citizen science, for instance, is becoming a defining feature of emerging social movements across the country (e.g., environmental justice in Flint, MI and Lowndes County, AL). At the same time, scholarship on evangelicals and climate science is showing that issue to be more complex than religion-versus-science framings (i.e., denialism) would suggest. The coal industry’s attempt to control the scientific case for coal is merely one example of how scientific production and research institutions are often aligned with anti-democratic forms of governance and social order through corporate or technocratic agents. But I have shown that the sciences can also contribute to a democratic common life. My analysis of citizen science here suggests that for such a project to flourish it might require a plurality of religious, epistemic, and moral communities committed to working together to address shared concerns. A renewed citizen science, in other words, might need religious pluralism.