Lynn White wrote a paper in 1966, entitled “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis.”(1) In “The Historical Roots” White launched a scathing critique of certain religious underpinnings of Western attitude toward nature. His critique was met with immediate enthusiasm by those already suspicious of doctrinal tenets that seemed to ground Western thought firmly in anthropocentrism (the idea that man is in someway the central focus of the universe). White’s paper quickly became a standard point of entry for discussing matters of ecology and religion, and as J. Baird Callicott says, “implicitly set the theoretical agenda for a future environmental philosophy.”(2) White’s assessment pronounced that Christianity in particular bears the central burden of guilt in Western ecological irresponsibility. Wendell Berry observes that
“the culpability of Christianity in the destruction of the natural world and the uselessness of Christianity in any effort to correct that destruction are now established clichés of the conservation movement.” (3)
Guth, Green, Kellstedt, and Smidt suspect that Biblical literalism, and more precisely dispensationalism is the primary culprit. Consider the following statements published in the American Journal of Political Science:
…conservative Protestants’ proclivity for Biblical literalism is a part of theological strains far more powerful and central than the dominion ideas stressed by White and his empirical disciples. The most potent of these is dispensationalism…Evangelical social activist and sociologist Anthony Campolo has lamented that dispensationalism “promotes a kind of passive quietism…that disengages Christians…from participating in those social programs designed to save the environment” (Campolo 1992,92). Not only do such ideas divert believers’ attention to otherworldly concerns and inhibit political action, but for some dispensationalists the problems themselves become harbingers of the Second Coming, evidencing the inevitable deterioration of society and the imminence of the End…Janel M. Curry-Roper (1990, 162) concludes that dispensationalism’s tendencies are so powerful that the system “has to be purposely set aside in order to justify ecologically responsible action.”(4)
So…are they right? Is Christianity the problem? Is a literal interpretation of the Bible bad for the environment?
1. The paper was first read in December, 1966 at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and was subsequently published several months later as Lynn Townsend White, Jr, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”, Science, Vol 155 (Number 3767), March 1967, 1203-1207.
2. J. Baird Callicott, “Genesis Revisited: Murian Musings on the Lynn White, Jr. Debate” in Environmental History Review, Vol. 14, No. 1/2, 1989 Conference Papers, Part Two (Spring-Summer, 1990), 65.
3. Wendell Berry, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation” in Seeing God Everywhere, Barry McDonald, ed. (World Wisdom, 2004), 53.
4. James L. Guth, John C. Green, Lyman A. Kellstedt, Corwin E. Smidt, “Faith and the Environment: Religious Beliefs and Attitudes on Environmental Policy” in American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 39, No. 2 (May, 1995), 368.