Could the Climate Crisis Make Religion Even Crazier?
Written by TM of JC on July 28, 2022
This piece was adapted from Russell Moore’s newsletter. Subscribe here.
After several weeks of heat waves all over the world, I’m finding that the first thing I end up talking with anyone about, no matter where the person is from, is the weather. And then, almost every time, the conversation turns to how “crazy” and angry everything seems right now—whether in the world, the nation, or the church.
What if those two conversations turn out to be strangely related? That’s the argument of a new book, Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith: How Changes in Climate Drive Religious Upheaval, which has prompted me to ask some different questions about what’s next for the church.
The book caught my attention because it was written by Baylor University historian Philip Jenkins, whose insights have proven themselves repeatedly. When the consensus seemed to be that the world was headed toward an inevitable secularization, Jenkins pointed to the data to show us what was happening with the surge of Christianity in the Global South.
When others downplayed secularization in an American context, Jenkins warned—and was proved right—about the emergence of the religiously unaffiliated, often called the “nones.” And now Jenkins asks us to pay attention to something else most of us have not noticed: that a changing climate just might change religion.
In making his case, Jenkins points to world history regarding climate-driven crises. Some, of course, have referenced previous epochs of warming and cooling to suggest that our current climate situation is merely cyclical, not caused substantially by human activity. Jenkins does not hold this view but instead accepts the reality of human-driven climate disruption.
We can, he says, predict some of what is to come based on what we’ve seen before. There are implications for housing, food supply, migration, population density, geopolitical tensions, and so on—but Jenkins points out that the implications also reach to religion.
For Jenkins, understanding religion in a historical sense means understanding crisis, because crises often prompt religious change. Yet even a crisis rarely happens all at once, he writes. Sometimes changes under the surface go unnoticed for long periods of time and then accelerate quickly.
Think of the decline of the Roman Empire, for instance, followed by its seemingly sudden collapse—and think of the way that event prompted Augustine’s City of God.
Often, Jenkins argues, religious transformations happen in times of stress and anxiety. Sometimes such crises have benefited religion—prompting people to reconsider their priorities and their dependence on God and one another in light of their felt mortality. At other times, though, crises have prompted waves of apocalyptic enthusiasm, messianic cults, and societal conflict.
This is where Jenkins draws from historical precedent and offers some warnings that might make us wince.
He contends that catastrophes and upheavals, including those prompted by climate, often result in an uptick in conspiracy theories and scapegoating. When food or land or jobs become scarce, someone will almost always arise to suggest who is to blame. Jenkins further demonstrates that riots, civil wars, militia movements, persecutions, and pogroms have arisen out of these sorts of conspiracy theories.
And, he writes, these groups typically “define themselves in religious terms and justify themselves by attacking not just rival faith communities but also other members of the same faith who are seen as deviant or less committed. Attitudes and actions that would once have been unthinkable gain mass support at a time of hunger, social stress, and political breakdown.”
As I read this, I immediately wondered how much more conspiracy theorizing and scapegoating we could take. And by “we,” I’m referring specifically to the United States and Bible Belt evangelical Christianity, not to the world and human society at large. Almost every church, family, friend group, and even some marriages seem to be under stress by the sorts of conspiracy theories and culture wars generated by social media conflict.
Foreign policy analyst Andrew Bacevich argues in his recent book, After the Apocalypse: America’s role in a World Transformed, that the pervasive sense that things are falling apart or coming undone is not just a feeling.
The events of 2020 in particular, Bacevich maintains, were indeed apocalyptic: from the plague of a viral pandemic to economic volatility to extreme weather to political institutions that seemed to be breaking down. In his view, these events pointed to the four horsemen described in Revelation 6 and what they are said to convey.
“Rancor, pestilence, want, and fury: These are the Four Horsemen comprising our homemade Apocalypse,” he writes. “Each exposed weakness and rot in institutions whose integrity Americans had long taken for granted. Each caught members of the nation’s reigning power elite by surprise.”
Could extreme weather make this far worse? Jenkins argues it could—and not just in those regions most directly affected. What happens, he wonders, when a migration crisis means waves of refugees and exiles who will “bring their memories of parched ground, failing cities, and dying landscapes”? Jenkins suggests history shows us that apocalyptic realities tend to prompt people to look for messiahs.
“A society constantly rent by extreme forest fires or dustbowl conditions, where famous cities are sinking under the waves, offers ample opportunities for preachers and prophets of all shades,” he writes.
Jesus, of course, warned of this precise dynamic.
He spoke of wars and rumors of wars, of political breakdown as nation rises against nation, of “famines and earthquakes in various places.” Contrary to some prophecy-mongers of the past, Jesus explicitly said he was warning us not of the actual endpoint of history but of “the beginning of birth pains” that will happen throughout the time between his first and second comings (Matt. 24:6–8).
These natural and political upheavals, Jesus predicted, would be accompanied by religious communities split apart as “many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate one another” (24:10). The love of many, he foretold, would “grow cold” (24:12). And against this backdrop, Jesus said, there would always be people falsely claiming to be messiahs who could fix it all (24:5, 11).
Jenkins writes that a warming world might just prove secularization experts definitively wrong—those who forecast “the end of religion within a century or two, a near-literal death of God.” Such forecasts are rooted, after all, in the assumption that the world is becoming like Sweden—an affluent, upwardly mobile society of stable institutions, relative economic prosperity, and technological progress.
Right now, though, Jenkins argues, the “most vulnerable parts of the planet are already suffused in faith, and those religious beliefs and values can only grow in the face of worldly disaster.”
Yet to Jenkins, this is not necessarily good news for those of us who long for a revival of gospel Christianity. These upheavals have often led people, as Jesus warned, to find cults and leaders with easy answers who assign blame and promise a way out with various types of prosperity gospels.
However, as Jenkins and several other observers of contemporary religion note, religious cults are on a distinct downturn, even with all the uncertainty all around us. Instead, what we see now is a secularization, even of apocalyptic sects.
In a Patheos column this week, historian Daniel K. Williams examines the widespread Bible Belt phenomenon of white Southern Protestants who no longer attend church—and there are a lot of them. Williams writes: “If ‘lapsed evangelical Protestant’ were a denomination, it would be by far the largest religious body in the South.”
But again, contrary to the myths of progressive secularization, Williams mines the data to show that these “de-churched” evangelicals are not becoming like the Swedes or even like de-churched cradle Catholics from the northeastern US.
Their politics haven’t changed (except for becoming more extreme), and neither has their sense of religious identity. The data show that they are liberalizing, to be sure, but only on the specific sins they want to commit—especially when it comes to premarital sex.
“When people leave church, they retain the moralism—at least insofar as it pertains to other people—but lose the sense of self-sacrifice and trust in others,” Williams writes. “They keep their Bible, their gun, their pro-life pin, and their MAGA hat, but also pick up a condom and a marijuana joint and lose whatever willingness they had to care for other people in community.”
Studies show that these de-churched Protestants are far more hyperindividualistic, cynical, and distrustful of others, Williams continues, and are more likely to believe that most people take advantage of others. They are also much mo