September 7, 2009
By Stephen Bates
The call by Lord May in his presidential address to the British Science Association festival today for religious groups to play a leading part in warning the world about climate change and encouraging their followers to help tackle global warming is encouraging as it strikes a more positive note from a scientist than is usually heard when religion is mentioned these days.
But it also suggests that the government's former chief scientist has not paid much attention to what has been going on in British churches in recent years. You won't find many clergy of any denomination over here querying the need to be more environmentally conscious.
The Bishop of London – admittedly ambushed on camera by the television producer and former Catholic ordinand Mark Dowd – foreswore air travel for a year. And the Archbishop of Canterbury, in keeping with his other-worldly, monkish, image, doesn't even drive a car, though this may be as much due to Rowan Williams's perception of his potential danger to other road users if he ever got behind the wheel as to any environmental considerations. Conveniently, Rowan does also have a chauffeur for official business, though his car uses hybrid fuel.
If Lord May spreads his horizons as far as the US however, he will find a political debate among evangelicals likely to warm the cockles of Richard Dawkins' heart. There, leaders of the religious right have spurned all arguments about climate change and turned on younger church leaders who have grown increasingly concerned over the issue. On a purely religious level the debate has been between the so-called pre-millenialists who believe that because the end of the world is nigh there is no need to conserve its resources for future generations. These are the folk, especially among the Pentecostal community, who believe that the battle of Armageddon will soon be upon us, almost certainly sparked in the Middle East and fostered by such agents of the Antichrist as the United Nations, or even the poor old European Union.
Of course, such a belief is additionally useful in bolstering a more secular political worldview. You will find amongst them such ageing luminaries as Pat Robertson, James Dobson and Tim LaHaye. Presumably another of their number, the Rev Jerry Falwell, having gone to meet his Maker, now knows whether such things will come to pass, or not. The influence of such men is on the wane, however their arguments still find echoes in politicians such as Sarah Palin.
Theirs is the loudest, but not the only voice amongst politically-active US religious folk. An alternative view has arisen that actually the Bible enjoins believers to be stewards of the earth and hence conserve it. The leading voice for this is the Rev Rich Cizik, who saw the light after attending a conference. When I interviewed him in Washington a couple of years ago, he told me:
I had a conversion in 2002 in Oxford. I saw the data. I said this takes my breath away. I don't believe I can be a fence sitter, but my evangelical friends still say I should not talk about it. This issue challenges our lifestyle in ways other issues don't. We've sold our recreational vehicle. We've redone our heating system. We're recycling and reusing.
Read Matthew 6:19: store not up your treaures. Don't we say the prayer: 'thy will on earth as in heaven'? It's all coming and maybe it's coming a lot sooner than we ever thought it would. Hey, I'm sounding like a preacher now,aren't I?
Naturally, for such heretical views, the greybeards forced Cizik from his post as chief executive of the National Association of Evangelicals. As is the way with the American right in political argument these days, they smeared him with accusations that his stance meant he was in favour of abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. His message is, however, getting through to younger churchgoers, many of whom even voted for Obama last November.
So far such debate as there has been in British churches has been much more muted. There will be few religious leaders unsympathetic to Lord May's call. They will happily turn down the heating and there must be few that do not serve Freetrade coffee and ethically-produced biscuits after services. There at least the message is already getting through. It might even demonstrate a more attractive side of Belief than obsessing about gay sex.