Non-religious right-wingers are the most resistant to the notion of eco-friendly consumption.
By Tom Jacobs
(Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)
The issue of whether organized religion plays a positive or negative role in getting people to act in eco-friendly ways has been debated for years. While some believe God created nature to serve man’s needs, religious leaders from St. Francis of Assisi to Pope Francis have argued that preserving the planet is a moral imperative.
A research team led by Jared Peifer of Baruch College and Elaine Howard Ecklund of Rice University analyzed the answers of 10,245 Americans — a nationally representative sample — who participated in the Religious Understandings of Science study in late 2013 and early 2014.
Besides reporting their political ideology and general views on the environment, all participants estimated how often they “think about the effect on the environment when making shopping decisions.” That measure was used since buying such products is a personal choice, separate from conservatives’ dislike for governmental programs.
“Religion, measured in various ways, mutes the otherwise strong negative political conservatism effect on environmental consumption.”
Approximately 14 percent answered “never,” while 24 percent said “rarely,” 44 percent said “occasionally,” and 17 percent said “frequently.”
All were also asked a series of questions about their religious beliefs and practices, including their belief in God (from non-belief to no-doubt); whether they believe the Bible is the literal word of God; how frequently they attend religious services; and whether they believe God is “directly involved in the affairs of the world, and directly involved in my affairs.”
Writing in the journal Environmental Politics, the researchers report that two specific religious convictions — Biblical literalism, and the belief that God is directly involved in man’s affairs — decreased the likelihood that one would think of the environment while buying consumer products.
But, perhaps surprisingly, attendance at religious services, and strongly identifying oneself as a religious person, increased the odds that one would report making Earth-friendly shopping choices.
The most important pattern they found is that “increased levels of religiosity mute the otherwise strong conservatism effect on environmental consumption.” In other words, conservatives were less likely than liberals to think of the environment when choosing what to buy, but this tendency was significantly less pronounced among those who were strongly religious.
“We suspect religious identification encourages people (even political conservatives) to seek out visible behaviors (such as environmental consumption) that confirm their religious identity,” the researchers write. “Put more colorfully, Americans who are watching Fox News instead of attending church on Sunday morning appear to be particularly uninterested in environmental consumption.”
The results suggest that, when it comes to convincing people to act in more eco-friendly ways, not all conservatives are a lost cause. Faith-based appeals could be motivating for folks who (a) don’t read the Bible literally, and (b) take their religion seriously.
“Despite common impressions that religion and political conservatism mix to form a toxic cocktail for environmental concerns in America,” the researchers conclude, “we find convincing evidence that religion, measured in various ways, mutes the otherwise strong negative political conservatism effect on environmental consumption.”
Amen to that.