Environmentalists have long debated whether American religion is helpful or harmful to their cause. Depending on your interpretation, scripture either insists that humans have a sacred duty to preserve the natural world—or else that God gave us the authority to plunder it for our own ends.
Encouraging new research finds that the first of those messages resonates more strongly today. The results suggest that environmentally enlightened religious leaders could coax congregants into viewing the fight against climate change as a vital moral issue.
"With an increasingly polarized political climate in the U.S., there is a growing need for other channels of communication to promote environmental concerns," write psychologists Faith Shin of the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign and Jesse Preston of the University of Warwick.
"Appealing to religious beliefs, and framing climate change in religious moral terms, can play a powerful role in increasing people's engagement and belief in environmental concerns," they write.
The research, published in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, describes three studies, including one that directly tests the respective power of the dueling messages, "man has dominion over the earth" and "humans have an obligation to be stewards of the planet." It featured 588 participants recruited online via Amazon's Mechanical Turk website. All participants identified as Christians.
Participants read one of three articles. The first discussed the idea that "God wants people to benefit from Earth's resources, and use it for their needs." The second "discussed how St. Thomas Aquinas and other Christians believe humans should protect the earth." (Both incorporated Bible passages in their arguments.) The third article, which served as a neutral control, discussed the popularity of various birth names.
After finishing the piece, participants responded to one set of statements designed to measure belief in human-caused climate change, another assessing the extent to which they view the problem as a moral issue, and a third in which they indicated their willingness to change their behavior to protect the planet. The moralization questionnaire included statements such as, "It is morally wrong to consume a lot of fossil fuels." Participants noted their level of agreement on a one-to seven scale.
The results: Compared with reading the neutral statement, reading the Biblical stewardship message "increased participants' moralization of climate change, belief in climate change, and intentions to engage in environmentally friendly behavior," the researchers report. "However, we did not see a parallel effect where dominion messages diminished climate change attitudes. This suggests there is greater malleability in enhancing people's concern for climate change, rather than dismissing it."
These findings, they say, suggest that "framing climate change in terms of a moral issue that resonates with religious individuals—caring for God's creation—can increase both moral concerns for climate change and intentions to reduce consumption."
Now, the Mechanical Turk community may not constitute a nationally representative sample; for one thing, it tends to be better-educated than the population as a whole. Also, as the researchers concede, the attitude shifts they documented were relatively small.
But given the urgency of the problem, anything that moves the needle on climate concern and behavior is welcome. Moralizing a political issue can sometimes inspire action, and this latest research shows that religious leaders are in a position to do just that.