COMMENTARY: Can fighting global warming save your soul?

by James Wanliss, |
A labourer stands next to an idol of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman in New Delhi April 14, 2014. If a Satanist group gets its way and erects a monument to Satan on the grounds of the Arkansas capitol, a Hindu group is claiming it will seek permission to build its own statue to the monkey god there. | REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

INDIA (Christian Examiner) — What does it take to be a good person? Different cultures have different answers.

The floors of Karni Mata Temple in Rajasthan, India, heave as masses of fat rats clamber to get to food offered by devout Hindu worshippers. Feed the rats, sight a white rat, or eat food discarded by rats, and you will be blessed. You are doing good just by being there. But if you accidentally step on a rat it is a grievous sin. Only the purchase and offering of an expensive golden rat statue offers hope of forgiveness.

Westerners may scoff at such superstition, but are they so different?

James Wanliss, Ph.D., is Professor of Physics at Presbyterian College, Clinton, South Carolina.

Ask yourself, are you a good person if you plant trees once in a while and stop kids from teasing animals? It is not enough.

From President to movie actor to kindergarten teacher the storyline is that we have a moral duty to save the planet from runaway global warming. Various tangible sacrifices—good deeds—are demanded as evidence of true devotion to the cause.

It is certainly a paradigm shift when it becomes culturally normal to ask, as one website does, "Can you save the earth by simply wiping?" Do such acts as using only two squares to clean up after a toilet visit, or driving a hybrid car, or not driving at all make a person good?

You know you are part of a cultural phenomenon when the notorious South Park television show pokes fun at the new religion of green. In one episode a deadly attack of Smug afflicts the little mountain town whose residents all drive a hybrid vehicle called the Pious.

James Hansen, the Dr. Strangelove of global warming, and a space physicist like myself, piously told Supreme Master Ching Hai: "Be veg, go green, save the planet." Groovy.

Surely men like Hansen are much too sophisticated and cosmopolitan to be seduced by ancient pagan superstition and nature worship. It is not as if he is calling for rat worship. To be sure the environmentalist movement is far too broad and nuanced to be allured by pagan religion alone. Nevertheless, in a palpable way environmentalism provides the foundation of an alternative religion for those who reject the uniquely Christian view of humans as the image of God.

Politicians command devotion to Mother Earth, movie stars scold, and the media wrings its hands in despair. In Los Angeles, James Cameron said of his blockbuster Avatar, "Look, at this point I'm less interested in making money for the movie and more interested in saving the world." Cameron sees his work as a charitable donation, like Christians see their tithes as a way to support the propagation of the gospel. "Some percentage of the presumably-massive 'Avatar' sequel gross will go to charity," Cameron said in an interview. "Fox has partnered with me to donate a chunk of the profits to environmental causes that are at the heart of the 'Avatar' world."

Radical environmentalism has become, as Al Gore dreamed in his Nobel Prize speech, "the central organizing principle of the world community." It is a religion with a vision of sin and repentance, heaven and hell. It even has a special vocabulary, with words like "sustainability" and "carbon neutral." Its communion is organic food. Its sacraments are sex, abortion, and when all else fails, sterilization. Its saints are Al Gore and Leo DiCaprio.

Guilt ridden? Well, now people with money to burn can buy indulgences just as in the medieval Roman Church. Forgiveness for sins is only a carbon offset away.

It is possible to calculate the extent of one's sins online. According to TerraPass, over the past three years my weekly driving has resulted in about 5,224 pounds of CO2 a year, and for a mere $29.95 I can buy an indulgence that will offset the environmental impact of my reckless, indeed sacrilegious, lifestyle.

These carbon offsets will do as little for the salvation of the world as indulgences would for my soul. But for people with a desperate spiritual hunger, they are both panacea and penance—a promise of guilt-free living and a purpose-driven life. Rat's chance to that.

Perhaps we should remember what the Apostle Paul said in Colossians 2:20–23 about asceticism and apply it to this issue:

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—"Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch" (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

James Wanliss, Ph.D., is Professor of Physics at Presbyterian College, Clinton, S.C. He is a Senior Fellow and Contributing Writer for The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, and author of Resisting the Green Dragon: Dominion, Not Death. He has published over 50 peer-reviewed physics articles, has held the NSF CAREER award, and does research in space science and nonlinear dynamical systems under grants from NASA and NSF.