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Can religion and environmentalism find common ground in the 21st century?

Day 1: Tuesday, Sept 5th

  From Richard Cizik

Dear Drs. Wilson and Pimm:

Hello, and warmest greetings. Your book, Dr. Wilson, comes at a propitious time.  You may recall from our delightful summer lunch conversation with Eric Chivian at the Cosmos Club that evangelicals are experiencing a rebirth of concern for the fate of the earth (pardon the pun). 

You're right, Edward, that environmentalists cannot succeed without evangelicals. Thank you for acknowledging this reality, which not all environmentalists are ready to accept.  But it must be said that we [referring now to the National Association of Evangelicals] bring more to the table than our thirty million members. We bring our own "voice" that appeals to the general public and a strategy that helps allay the deep suspicions that exist about environmentalists and scientists. (All too many evangelicals attribute to environmentalism a tendency to rely on big government solutions, alliances with population control movements, new-age religions, and prophecies of doom. Another tragic stereotype is that "science" is a synonym for atheist.)

A rapprochement between religion and science, particularly evangelicals and scientists who are committed to protecting the earth, will send lobbyists for the status quo into overtime, if not apoplexy, to stop it from happening. They've already sought to marginalize and neutralize those who speak out on creation care. Critics know, as we do, that this kind of an alliance "united on the common ground of biological conservation" [your description] could be life-changing not just for creation but for politics too.   

Be assured, this alliance is not only not farfetched but actually achievable, if the right steps are taken. To your credit, you've initiated what could and should become a national conversation.

Can evangelicals and secularists truly "forget the differences" they have over evolution and the like and meet on the "common ground of our mutual love of the Creation"? Yes, over the last several decades a growing number of evangelicals have awakened to this challenge and more are doing so daily. The late theologian Francis Schaeffer coined such collaboration "co-belligerency." In the last decade evangelicals have become co-belligerents with Tibetan Buddhists, feminists, and liberal human rights activists on issues such as religious freedom, human trafficking, HIV/AIDS, and global hunger. If we're the "new internationalists" [New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof's term], then we're uniquely positioned for the next major step, a threshold change, to accept your invitation and join with you and other scientists to save the Creation.

Confession is good for the soul. Sadly, our movement has not had the "eyes to see" or "ears to hear" because of who the main environmental messengers have been and how they are perceived: enviros, scientists, Democratic politicians. This may help explain a July 6-19 national survey among 2,003 adults that found of the 24% of the population that considered itself to be "white Evangelical Christians" some 70% believed that global warming was happening, but that only 37% think it is due to human activity [Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life]. There are real-life consequences to the divide over religion and science. It explains why this dialogue is so critical.  We need to break down some barriers. 

There has been a moral failure on our part in not seeing scientists (such as you) for who they may in fact be people telling us the truth. But there is also the moral failure of actually not doing creation-care once we do have eyes to see and ears to hear. That, I believe, will only be overcome by the power of God's grace.

This brings me to some points of possible contention. As a self-described "secularist" you act because the fate of the earth hangs in the balance; as a Christian I act because “I am my brother’s keeper!” Rarely do you cite environmental degradation as a moral cause or issue. I've been saying lately that caring for the earth is not a red state (Republican), blue state (Democratic), green (environmental) or even scientific issue. It's a moral and spiritual issue! People resonate to this argument. 

In other words, the crisis we face is not caused by a lack of intelligence or knowledge (though you make compelling arguments about the degrading of the earth that evangelicals need to hear). To my evangelical friends, I shouldn't need to mention that all truth is compatible with the truth of Christ (“I am the way, the truth, and the life.”) and thus we evangelicals needs to hear the truth of scientists on environmental degradation.

But the reason people sit on their hands and do nothing is not for lack of knowledge or information; it's for lack of a will to respond. Man is fallen and seeks his own selfish way. We’ve failed as a nation and a religious people to care enough to alter our materialistic lifestyles or voting habits. This is a moral failure not a technical failure. More knowledge will not solve this problem (though more intelligence might help us solve problems that we already are willing to tackle).

We can discuss this further, but suffice it to say in this opening comment that your eloquent and compelling book does not answer this problem, and neither can science. Or am I wrong? Do you see what I'm saying? The crisis we're in is part of a larger spiritual problem at its heart, and something those of us of faith can and must speak to.  Maybe as we do so, scientists in general will have more respect for evangelicals and our Christian faith. And the new alliance you propose can indeed be born. Let me know your thoughts. 

(Rev.) Richard Cizik
National Association of Evangelicals     


Response From E.O. Wilson

Dear Richard:

Your letter, confirming the spirit of our first meeting with Eric Chivian in Washington, comes to me as a great breath of fresh air. In recent weeks, thanks to the advance notice concerning The Creation (and most recently, prominently placed articles in U.S. News & World Report and The New Republic), I have heard from a growing number of other evangelists. Their response to the basic idea of an alliance of scientists, environmentalists, and evangelists in “creation care” (I like that expression!) has been entirely favorable, even enthusiastic.

I am sure it was a lot easier for me than most other scientists to offer the hand of friendship, and ask for help the way I did. Having grown up in the evangelical culture of the South, in a middle-class setting, I could not help but think of those around me, almost all genuinely devoted to Christian redemption, as any other than relatives, friends, and mentors. They were far from the rigid bible thumpers so often depicted. In many ways, including generosity and tolerance toward others, and in moral temper and innate decency, they were typical of what I still think of as the bedrock of this country. There has furthermore always been among evangelicals generally, as you pointed out in our earlier conversation, a strong tradition of spiritual seeking. Of course I am obliged to add quickly that we existed in an all-white, racist cocoon in those days (the 1930s and 1940s), but it felt wrong then, it was disturbed; and in fact, it was profoundly anti-Christian.

In any case, I am very pleased to read your symmetrical challenge to the stereotypical view so commonly held of scientists and environmentalists. And I hope that I, along with Eric Chivian and our correspondent Stuart Pimm, will be seen as closer to the center of that very generously heterogeneous population than the white-coated soulless nerds of popular imagination.

I believe I understand how the gap between conservative Christians and environmentalists opened up in the first place (and invite your comment on this explanation, if you have an opinion). The perception of environmental activism as radical left in origin began in the 1960s, when the left laid claim to leadership in the movement and used the shortcomings of the conservative right in environmental policy as a club to beat them. In the Reagan era the conservatives wrested the club back and beat the liberals, claiming that environmentalism is just part of a left-wing conspiracy to promote government regulation and a New Class federal bureaucracy. Now, having recognized common ground, our kind of alliance will help us make the environment politically non-partisan, as it should be.

Some have puzzled over the fact that while religious leaders, including evangelists, are gaining momentum within the environment movement, it has been largely in issues such as climate change and toxic pollution. They have still paid relatively little attention to the steep decline of biological diversity, in other words the destruction of the living part of the environment. Perhaps this is because the subject is harder to grasp, both in content and in its relation to human welfare. No one yet, it is correct to say, has grown ill or died from the extinction of a bird species in the Amazon. But scientists know that the accumulation of such losses is of basic importance to the environment, and it is potentially catastrophic to humanity. Scientists have a duty to share this information, not just to each other and practicing environmentalists, but to the public at large. For anything truly meaningful to happen requires a change of opinion by a large part of the citizenry. Only a combination of the kind of numbers and moral purpose that characterizes America’s evangelicals will make that change possible.

Warmest regards,


Dear Ed and Richard:

In The Creation, Ed writes “I am puzzled that so many religious leaders, who spiritually represent a large majority of people … have hesitated to make protection of the Creation an important part of their magisterium.”  Ed:  I don’t think they are the majority! 

Patriarch Bartholomew I, declares:
“For humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God's creation … to degrade the integrity of the Earth by causing changes in its climate, stripping the earth of its natural forests, or destroying its wetlands—these are sins.”

Episcopalians pray: 
“Give us a reverence for the Earth as your own creation”.
Pope Benedict said in his blessing last week, “the deterioration of the environment … makes the lives of poor people on Earth especially unbearable.” 

The environment is on the agenda for many Christians. Ed’s point is obviously “not all of them” — some are indifferent.  And isn’t the key issue that some Christians consider it’s a sin to express concern about the environment! This from the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC):  “Species aren’t disappearing at a precipitous rate … Cooking the books so that Chicken Little always wins is … sinful.” The Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) labels climate change
science as “silly,” “offensive,” and “one more left-wing cause du jour.”

As a scientist, I take no notice of these ignorant speculations. My expertise is in estimating how rapidly human actions destroy species — presently a hundred times faster that they would disappear from natural causes, with the rate predicted to increase to a thousand times in the next decade. But why are Christians so divided? 

The Interfaith Stewardship Council writes: “It does not seem likely… that God would set up the world … such … that human beings would eventually destroy the earth by doing such … morally good and necessary things as … burning fuel to travel, or using energy for a refrigerator.” I wonder if they ponder why God would set up the world to admit sin, genocide, war, and the rest of it, but it’s the examples that distress me. 

As a scientist, I know my planet. Half of humanity lives on less than a few dollars a day. That’s without electricity and antibiotics, let alone a refrigerator. Most have no access to clean water and a secure food supply. The services nature provides are their only sources of the former, and contribute some or all of the latter. 

Does our burning fuel affect people? Ask those on the low-lying deltas of Bangladesh. Or those thousands who will likely die in the next six months, as some unusually intensive hurricane will wash away mountainsides stripped of their forests by people who have no other land. Or indigenous groups living above oil reserves that we covet along the western Amazon. Many will fall sick as waste oil continues to seep into the river from which they drink. Parts of our world are in very bad shape indeed. Nature’s services — what Creation does for us — affect us directly. We suffer from our abuse of them.

Above all, my science teaches me that humanity and environment are not separate, not even connected, but inextricably part of the same whole. Scripture provides the same advice. Genesis 2.15 admonishes me to “tend” and “care for” “the garden.” Or fill in the blank in John 3:16, “God so loved the — that …  The missing word is “cosmos,” sometimes translated as “world,” but not as “man apart from his world” in any bible I own.  

As a Christian, I cannot turn my back on the world’s poor.  Both science and scripture tell me that to care for people we must be good stewards of the environments on which their lives depend. There is much common ground scientists and Christians must explore. As Richard writes, we scientists bear uncomfortable truths. We Christians are divided on them. At least, we have a common scripture for guidance over those divisions.

My best wishes,




Day 1, Tuesday September 5th

Day 2, Wednesday September 6th

Day 3, Thursday September 7th

Day 4, Friday September 8th

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