The Religious Backgrounds of Environmentalists

I just listened to Jan Oosthoek's latest podcast, in which he interviews Mark Stoll about Stoll's new book, Inherit the Holy Mountain. I haven't read this book yet, and as an atheist it's not the first book I might naturally be inclined to pick up. But as a historian, I have to be curious about the way religious beliefs, organizations, and thought structures influenced people. And, listening to the podcast, I thought Stoll made some interesting points I'd like to read more about.

Oosthoek begins the interview by citing Lynn White's 1967 essay which Stoll says is overly critical of religion as an anti-environmental force. Oosthoek says religion seems too anthropocentric to be really environmentally focused. Stoll reminds us that Reagan's Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, was an anti-environmentalist and a devout Christian. But that's not the only religious approach toward nature, Stoll says. John Muir was from what we'd now call a fundamentalist tradition.


Stoll wonders how people like Muir "got from A to B." But I wonder, did Muir really leave his background behind? Or just his religious beliefs? Although it was new information to me, I wasn't particularly surprised Muir was from a fundamentalist background. So I wondered whether the real point is that people's early religious exposure teaches them ways of thinking and acting that stick with them when they become environmentalists. Even if they leave the religion behind.

Stoll notes that religion can be cited as a source for both environmentalism and capitalism. Protestantism produces exploitation and also conservation. "You could sort-of tell what sort of environmentalist a person would become by knowing their denomination," he says. But is this a function of their particular affiliation, or of their historical moment? The first group of 19th-century environmentalists were Western New England Congregationalists, and then they vanish at the end of the 19th century. Then the Presbyterians create the National Park System, and dominate environmentalism until the 1960s. But is this causal or just coincidental? Doesn't this development parallel the relative dominance of these denominations, at least among a certain type of intellectual likely to become an environmentalist?

Lynn White blames Calvinists for the worst abuses, Stoll says. Calvinism has a reputation for hostility to nature. But Calvin himself was "more effusive about nature" than he ever was about humans. Passages in Calvin remind Stoll of Emerson. The Calvinist Puritans, Stoll says, were the only people interested in sustainability and social justice. He connects the New England village described by Brian Donahue with religion. The New England village then becomes the prototype for the Conservation movement, Stoll says.

Oosthoek found it interesting that early environmentalists embraced both religion and science. But isn't the question, in a completely religious society, how religious you are
relative to your peers? Is it really relevant that science first existed "within" religion? Everything existed within religion, including the farming styles described by Donahue. But does that mean all these traditions spring from religion? Or just that they coexist with religion during their infancy?

Stoll locates the beginning of religious rejection of science in the 1960s. Oosthoek asks about  global warming denial; Stoll says Creationism paves the way for all this type of fundamentalist rejection of science. Stoll says many environmentalists are hostile to conservative Christianity -- or at least have no idea how to engage with it. But is this the chicken or the egg? In 1972 Southern Baptists released a statement supporting the environment, but Stoll says they were put off by environmentalists' rejection of them and acceptance of neo-paganism and "earth worship." By 1980 there's a split between environmentalists and fundamentalists. And the religious are more connected to libertarianism and suspicious of government, Stoll says. This seems to locate the "fault" for this rift with the hippies and to ignore the big changes in conservative religion that began in the 80s. It almost sounds a bit like the statements you sometimes hear from Christians that they are the persecuted minority in our culture.

The part I thought was most interesting was Stoll's statement that Calvinist tradition relies on a "super-literal interpretation of the Bible." This is a problem, he says, especially in religions that
also value an educated ministry. Seems to me this is because these educated religious folks are more exposed to the conflicts between religion and science than others. But again, the interesting thing for me is how these religious social structures and habits of mind remain relevant in the story. Black Baptist churches become organizing centers for environmentalism. But is this about organizing movements, or about the religion? The church could be an "organizing center" for these issues simply because that's how black communities organize.

Finally, there's the question of upbringing vs. adulthood Stoll mentions near the close of the interview. Most of the environmentalists he cites had lapsed from their religions by the time they become environmentalists. This suggests that there's something they learned while part of the religions that influenced both the causes they later embraced, and the methods they used in their activism. But doesn't it also raise the question of why people who
stayed in the religion didn't become significant environmentalists? There's something complicated and fascinating going on with these folks, and with "bridge" groups like the French Huguenots Stoll mentions. This may be an interesting area for someone coming from my perspective to study -- how people leave religion and use some of the skills and structures they learned there in their later pursuits.