Climate change is a theory. It is a fact. It is a scientific claim. It is a policy issue. It is a thing that people disagree about. It isn’t really one thing at all, but a collection of things bundled together as a social construct. It is difficult.
Such epistemological musings won’t make global warming go away, nor are they especially helpful in understanding how the realities of climate change are refracted through social institutions. How groups of people understand and respond to climate change is a question of fundamental importance for the environmental humanities and social sciences—a question that demands, in particular, care and attention from scholars of religion. Scholars of religion are uniquely positioned to interrogate how social groups situate climate change with respect to divergent sources of moral and epistemological authority. When, how, and why is climate change rendered as a technoscientific policy challenge? When, how, and why is climate change understood as an existential crisis demanding spiritual answers? When, how, and why is climate change framed as a mirage, as an irreligious departure from revealed truth about the planet’s future?
Against this background, Robin Globus Veldman’s The Gospel of Climate Skepticism is a timely intervention into longstanding debates about the relationship between religious identity and environmental concern in the United States. The book explores the messy middle ground between narratives that uncritically celebrate theological ethics as the bases for ecological transformation and those narratives that imagine some immutable antagonism between religion and sustainability. In concert with other recent publications, Veldman examines the limits of theological tradition, the subtle interplay between religious and secular vernaculars, and the nuances and complexities of American environmental sensibilities. Taken as a singular case, her research illuminates how communities ascribe normative meaning to climate change and how they repudiate incompatible normative claims.
Veldman begins with a seemingly simple question: What accounts for the widespread tendency among white evangelical Christians in the United States to be skeptical about climate change? What makes this religious group so much more likely to doubt the veracity of climate science than other groups of Americans, especially given the supposed centrality of their eschatological anxieties? The Gospel of Climate Skepticism wrestles with this question, in part because Veldman’s interlocutors articulated a view of environmental issues that did not neatly conform to the narratives available in popular media. Certain modalities of environmentalism—appreciation of the out-of-doors, land conservation, et cetera—are prevalent among the Christian Right, while other features of environmentalism—including and especially concern about climate change—are not widely held. In order to map this uneven terrain and to understand how Christian conservatives think and feel about climate change, Veldman disentangles the assumptions about religious anti-environmentalism that proliferate in “secular” culture from the ways religious communities articulate their own sentiments.
Central to this untangling is her repudiation of the “end times hypothesis”—the idea that Christian climate denialism follows naturally for those who believe we are living in the “end times”—an explanation of evangelical climate opinions that has not stood up to empirical scrutiny. For such an explanation to work, evangelicals would need to acknowledge climate change as real and see it as part of God’s eschatological plan. But Veldman does not find this to be a common view; instead, conservative Christians are more likely to dismiss climate science as hubris or hoax and to raise concerns about the Marxist, atheistic thrust of green politics. She argues convincingly that the “end times hypothesis” was generated by antagonisms between “secular environmentalists” and political conservatives that trace back to the Reagan administration. The idea that conservative Christians do not care about the planet because they were always already eager to watch it burn is a narrative that has served political purposes for nearly four decades. The unviability of the “end times hypothesis” is fascinating and provocative in that it reveals two key assumptions that have for a long time constrained how scholars of religion frame their questions about environmental issues.
First, the endurance of the “end times hypothesis” as a popular means of explaining religiously inflected climate denial despite weak evidence shows the degree to which conversations about religion and the environment proceed as if theological ethics were always and everywhere the driving force behind the environmental attitudes of American Christians. Theology itself does not explain the socially and politically contingent positions that religious groups take with respect to nature, or as Veldman puts it, we should question “the tendency to view Christians’ environmental attitudes as the product of ahistorical religious doctrines.” “Nature” and “the environment” are complex concepts that have long been central to American culture. And although scriptural and theological sources figure prominently in this array, contemporary attitudes do not follow neatly from theological prescriptions. Confessional similarities between African American Protestants and white evangelicals (so far as those are intelligible religious demographic groups) fail to explain starkly divergent opinions about climate change. The same gap holds true among white and Latinx Catholics, leading many to see race and the racialized experiences of social and ecological vulnerability as more salient factors in environmental attitudes. Theologies of nature are highly mediated and follow from the social location of the communities in which they emerge.
Veldman’s work offers an appropriate corrective. It eschews theological explanations in favor of ethnographic ones, examining not how religious elites articulate the intersection between creedal commitments and environmental ethics, but rather mapping the ways religious communities naturalize their engagements in environmental politics. Situating evangelical climate skepticism in its social and historical context brings into focus a set of important questions clustered around the impact that ostensibly secular forces have on religious identities. For example, how have partisanship and economic ideology reconfigured Christianity in the United States? What role do corporate interests, especially those related to fossil fuel corporations, play in the elaboration of Christian conservatism? How do nativism, xenophobia, and racism shape the range of religious responses to climate change, a policy issue in which multilateralism and migration are omnipresent? Likewise, does mission activity complicate the climate opinions of American Christians who have ties to transnational evangelical networks? The Gospel of Climate Skepticism bends the research frontiers of religion and environment in these more constructive directions.
Second, the appeal that the “end times hypothesis” has held among political progressives and environmental advocates tells us as much or more about the mythology of the secular as it does about religious communities it purports to describe. Veldman’s reconstruction of this idea shows that even if it originated as a genuine hypothesis, the real success of the “end times hypothesis” came because it confirmed the biases about Christianity’s lack of concern for environmental sustainability that prevailed on the liberal side of the culture wars. Perhaps indebted to Lynn White’s groundbreaking but vexing 1967 article, many ecologically minded Americans subscribe to the view that “Religion”—vaguely imagined as an inchoate assemblage of anti-science perspectives, like young earth creationism or recalcitrant geocentrism—has been an obstacle to political progress on environmental issues. Although this is clearly a caricature on the part of secular environmentalists, it speaks to the way our received narratives about religion and the environment have been crafted by ostensibly secular voices and also indicates how these narratives flow through our political cultures in powerful ways.
In The Gospel of Climate Skepticism, Veldman is squarely focused on the Christian Right. But some of her most provocative analyses concern environmentalists and secular liberals, who figure prominently in the evangelical imagination. Her untangling of narratives of self and other should be read as opportunities for scholars of religion and the environment to ask different questions about different social actors: What work does “religion” do in the discourses about climate change that orient the moral politics of “secular environmentalists”? What kinds of truth claims are authenticated by criticizing evangelical denialism? How has the totalizing grip of culture wars rhetoric in American political life obscured other ways of knowing and understanding climate change that exist outside this Manichean dichotomy? In the attempt to rearticulate how environmental politics rely upon and at the same time obscure the categories “religious” and “secular,” how might the scholarly literatures on environmentalism as “religion-resembling” be placed in robust conversation with secular studies?
American exceptionalism (or more accurately, American provincialism), has stunted scholarship on religion and climate change. Whether a person believes in climate change has become but another ideological litmus test, and our ability to name and describe climate change as a fundamentally social phenomenon has been compromised by the crypto-Protestant nomenclature of “belief” and “doubt.” Climate change is a tremendously complex assemblage that is, all at once, constituted of corporate power, economic policies, cultural identities, the moral standing of other-than-human beings, direct action, air conditioning, human migration, colonialism, atmospheric modeling, technological adaptation, hydrocarbon energy, and historical knowledges. And more.
How groups of people navigate this emergent constellation is not a matter of belief, but an existential condition. For those seeking to understand how religion matters to climate change, it is worthwhile to follow Veldman’s lead: religion is not best understood as the basis of normative claims about climate change, but rather as one of the key spaces where such claims are forged and contested.